A Russian man who operates a fetish Web site where prosecutors say a New York police officer met others interested in killing and cooking women told a jury on Tuesday that users enjoy talking about gruesome topics, including sexual asphyxiation, sex with dead bodies and cannibalism.
Authorities say many of Officer Gilberto Valle’s alleged online kidnapping plots were hatched on DarkFetishNet.
However, Sergey Merenkov said members like Valle also know how to draw the line between fantasy and reality. The chats, he said, are role play and photographs of women being tortured are the work of “models, not real women.”
“It’s a social media network very similar to Facebook,” Merenkov, 34, said in describing how the site works.
“It does everything that Facebook does,” he said.
Merenkov testified his site is “just like [Facebook] but ... oriented to people with fetishes that are not considered to be standard.”
Asked whether he knows all of the 37,000 members of his Web site, Merenkov scoffed at a prosecutor.
“No,” he said, drawing muted smiles from weary jurors. “That’s like asking [Facebook creator Mark] Zuckerberg if he knows each and every member of Facebook.’’
The videotaped testimony came on a day Valle opted not to take the witness stand at his kidnapping conspiracy trial in federal court in Manhattan. Lawyers were due back in court yesterday to discuss jury instructions before closing arguments set for today in a case that has made Valle a tabloid sensation.
The evidence shows “this is all fantasy role play,” defense attorney Robert Baum said outside court.
Valle, 28, was arrested in October last year after his wife discovered the chats on his computer and fled their home, turning a computer over to the FBI in Reno, Nevada.
The government has conceded that Valle never met the purported Internet co-conspirators and that no women were harmed, but they argue he took concrete steps to carry out abductions of his wife and former college and high school classmates, including researching potential victims on a restricted law enforcement database.
The defense rested in the trial’s second week after playing the Merenkov video and calling only two other witnesses, including a paralegal who offered examples of profiles from Merenkov’s Web site. A woman who called herself Vicious-Vixen said she fantasized about “being executed with a gun and eaten as a meat girl,” but added: “I will never meet you in real life.”
The testimony of Merenkov was recorded using Skype from Moscow after he refused to travel to New York for the trial. Sitting in a leather chair, wearing a black T-shirt and speaking in Russian, he sipped from an “I Love Tea” mug as he explained how he and partners started a Web site in 2010 to create a Facebook-like environment for people with kinky fantasies.
Merenkov called sexual asphyxiation the “main fetish,” but said cannibalism and sex with dead people also were popular on the Web site, which is “oriented to people with fetishes that are not considered to be standard.”
He testified of the 38,000 members, about 4,500 are active users who commonly engage in role-play on the site, such as when a woman poses as a witch and a mob of angry villagers prepares to hang her.
“The girl could write: ‘I’m shivering from fright. They’re pulling me to the noose. I can feel the rope already on my neck,’” he testified.
On cross examination by Assistant US Attorney Randall Jackson, Merenkov said he did not know anything about Valle when the FBI contacted him last fall.