The trial for Gilberto Valle, a police officer with the NYPD, is wrapping up this week. It has ignited a lot of controversy as it addresses the gray area between thought and act. Some people think that Valle’s sexual desires are so perverse he’s an obvious danger, while others insist that sadistic fantasies
are largely a mental outlet, with low probability of triggering action. How do we decide where the truth lies?
The prosecution strove hard to make a case for conspiracy to kidnap and assault specific women, along with unauthorized use of a government database, but the defense team appears to be aware of the research on genuine red flags of dangerousness.
Valle had an active interest in dismembering, cooking, and consuming women. He was a member of several fetish groups and corresponded with others who shared his perverse interests. He even had a list of specific women he had in mind, and was allegedly using a restricted-access database to look them up. He was arrested after his wife discovered images and communications about her and other women on his computer, in which he’d discussed plans to kidnap, rape, torture, kill, cook and eat parts of women.
Threat assessment professionals examine an array of factors before deciding on just how dangerous an individual might become. Even then, it's probability assessment, with plenty of room for error.
The basic approaches have been clinical, actuarial, and anamnestic. Clinical relies on personal judgment and experience, which is unsystematic and often unreliable. Some people have been wrongly locked up, and some wrongly released.
Actuarial prediction identifies specific criteria – age, gender, race, IQ, past behavior – and assigns statistical weights in terms of which might be most significant. It’s better, in general, than clinical opinion.
The third approach, a case analysis, assesses factors that appear to have influenced a particular individual's show of aggression and future risk.
Different levels of risk (low, medium, high) are associated with different types of threats. In general, when threats are vague, implausible, inconsistent, or indirect, with no specific targets, they’re considered low-risk. It’s probably just venting.
The risk rises with specific details and evidence of planning and acting. A medium-level threat is one that could be carried out, but indicators of the place, date, and target remain vague. When preparatory steps and/or targets are clear and the threatener has access to the means to carry it out, such as the weapons required, the threat moves into higher-risk territory.
For medium to high threat levels, among the traits or behaviors that we watch for – not in isolation but several together – include:
- A time-consuming preoccupation with themes of violence
- Low frustration tolerance and few behaviors that show resilience
- Significant recent stressors, such as broken relationships, loss, humiliation
- Clear loss of personal power
- Sudden social withdrawal
- An absent or inconsistent support system
- Incidents that reveal persistent unabated anger
- Excessive need for attention
- Suspiciousness and paranoia
- Increased substance abuse
- Mental instability that involves repeated aggression
- Collecting weapons or materials to pursue an assault
- A past record of violent behavior
For example, Canadian killer Luka Magnotta wanted desperately to be noticed. He described and acted out ugly fetishes online, including videotaping the murder and dismemberment of his roommate. He sent body parts to the headquarters of a political party before going on the run. He’d already tried to become a famous gay model, the supposed boyfriend of a notorious female killer, and an animal killer who videotaped the acts. Angry that nothing had gained him renown, he committed a murder on video. There were many red flags in his case.
Valle’s defense attorney has demonstrated a lack of evidence that Valle ever met with supposed co-conspirators or possessed the means to carry out the kidnapping and cooking (such as bindings, chloroform, dismemberment tools, or a large oven). He doesn’t own the property where he bragged that he could carry out his fantasies and there is no evidence that he has committed any of the atrocities he likes to view online.
This case could become a cautionary tale. We don’t want to start locking people up for their thoughts. Shades of Minority Report!
In fact, the Valle trial reminds me of a misguided case from 1987. In Fort Collins, Colorado, the body of Peggy Hettrick was found in a field. She’d been stabbed in the back and her vaginal area was mutilated. Tim Masters, 15, lived nearby. He’d seen the body, but thinking it was a mannequin, had failed to report it.
He became a suspect. Several knives were found in his room, along with 15 notebooks full of his writing and drawing. Many sketches depicted decapitation, death, and dismemberment.
Although Masters wasn’t arrested, a detective stayed on the case. He learned about a psychologist who claimed to be able to predict from a suspect’s drawings the likelihood of his becoming violent. In his eighteen years of evaluation, this professional said, he’d never seen such a voluminous production by a suspect.
This was enough to finally arrest Masters. Despite zero physical evidence, the psychologist used the sketches to persuade a jury that Masters, a kid with sadistic fantasies, was the likely killer. He said the sketches were rehearsal fantasies.
In 1999, the jury found Masters guilty of first-degree murder. He went to prison.
The problem is, they were wrong. DNA analysis performed years later exonerated Masters and proved that the psychologist’s notions were erroneous. (Masters writes about his ordeal in Drawn to Injustice.)
Still, I’d put Valle at medium risk, not because of his fantasies, disturbing as they are, but because he has acquired a peer group of guys who challenge and dare him. That’s the kind of thing that could provoke someone to act out, even if he ordinarily wouldn’t. Valle apparently likes to boast. Thus, he might like to show off more boldly, especially if his devotion is questioned.
Nevertheless, he hasn’t taken this step, so of what from his fantasy life can a jury possibly convict him?