By Jonathan Allen
(Reuters) - A federal jury in New York found a mechanic and a former librarian guilty on Friday of conspiring to kidnap women in order to satisfy sexual fetishes for rape and murder that they originally nursed online via Internet message boards.
Michael Van Hise, 23, and Christopher Asch, 61, were convicted in U.S. District Court in Manhattan of planning to abduct Van Hise's wife, sister-in-law and nieces in a case that hinged on defining the point where violent fantasy can slip into criminal intent.
Asch, in a dark suit and tie, watched the jury with an unwavering gaze as the verdict was read. Van Hise fought back tears as he looked toward his trembling grandmother, who raised him from infancy and testified in his defense during the two-week-plus trial.
The jury of eight women and four men deliberated for more than 18 hours over several days before delivering their unanimous guilty verdicts.
Van Hise, a mechanic from Trenton, New Jersey, and Asch, a onetime high school librarian from Manhattan, each faces a maximum penalty of life in prison when sentenced.
Lawyers for both said they would appeal the verdicts.
A third co-conspirator, Richard Meltz, pleaded guilty in January to two kidnapping conspiracy counts in a deal with prosecutors and awaits sentencing.
The arrest of all three men last year stemmed from the Federal Bureau of Investigation's case against Gilberto Valle, the former New York City police officer who was convicted of conspiring to kidnap women as part of a cannibalism fetish.
All the men were registered users of DarkFetishNet, an online forum where tens of thousands of individuals share their musings about bizarre sexual fantasies, including necrophilia. The site has seen a marked increase in membership since Valle captured headlines in New York tabloids that dubbed him "Cannibal Cop."
Asch also was convicted on a second count of conspiracy to kidnap a woman who, unbeknownst to him at the time, was an undercover FBI agent involved in a sting operation.
During the trial, defense lawyers for both men had repeatedly argued that jurors might find the violent sexual fantasies of Asch and Van Hise repugnant, but that the two should not be punished for chatter that would never result in actual harm.
Prosecutors insisted that detailed discussions between the two men about kidnapping and defiling specific women proved they had moved beyond fantasy and into reality.
Testimony revealed that Van Hise frequently sent pictures of his wife and other female relatives by email to Asch and other men as part of their online communications. And Asch purchased a collection of tools that prosecutors said were intended for kidnapping and torturing women, including a stun gun and leg spreaders, after he began talking with another undercover agent who posed as a fellow fetishist.
Shortly before reaching their verdict, jurors asked to review the transcripts of several secretly recorded phone calls in which Asch could be heard speaking at length about how to avoid toll roads once they had abducted a woman so as not to be tracked - the sort of mundane detail that the prosecution said a mere fantasist would not bother to consider.
SHADES OF GREY?
The defense tried to put Asch and Van Hise's fetishes in a broader context of mainstream culture by citing the popular "Saw" films, known for relentless scenes of torture, and the "Fifty Shades of Grey" books, which have become global bestsellers for their depiction of sadomasochistic sex.
But, after the verdict, attorneys for both men said they believed jurors may have been frightened by the relish with which the two defendants discussed torturing and killing women.
"They voted out of fear in response to the evidence," said Alice Fontier, a lawyer for Van Hise. "Juries get things wrong."
Van Hise's grandmother, grandfather and aunt, who attended every day of the trial, left the court with stricken faces, declining comment.
"They love and support him and know that this is online chatter and never would have hurt anyone in his family," Fontier said.
During the trial, Van Hise's wife, Bolice Van Hise, had testified that she had long known of her husband's fetishes and that the couple enjoyed sadomasochistic role playing during sex.
She said she had access to his DarkFetishNet profile and emails and tolerated him sending pictures of her to strange men he met online, though prosecutors accused her of lying about this.
During the trial, Asch's lawyer told the jury that his client had actually been in a romantic relationship with another man for 35 years, and was primarily aroused by the "male-bonding" aspect of his conversations with men he met online.
His partner could not attend the trial because he now has Alzheimer's disease, Asch's lawyer said.
Judge Paul Gardephe has not yet set a sentencing date.
(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Gunna Dickson, Steve Gorman and Ken Wills)