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The founder of an extreme fetish website used by New York's "cannibal cop" testified Tuesday that online chats about women being eaten were a typical fantasy and compared the forum to Facebook.
Sergey Merenkov, the main witness called by suspended policeman Gilberto Valle's lawyers in a single day of defense arguments, told the court his site darkfetishnet.com, a favorite of the accused, was "a social network."
Valle, 28, visited the site, most of whom's users live in the United States and Europe, for discussions on horrific -- but he claims entirely fictional -- scenarios about torturing, murdering and cannibalizing women.
Prosecutors assert that Valle should be found guilty of conspiracy to kidnap women that he had talked about abducting and eating.
But Valle's defense team hopes to persuade the jury that the policeman, who faces up to life in prison if convicted on the kidnapping conspiracy charge, is guilty of nothing more than unusual sexual fantasies.
Merenkov, a Russian, advanced the case when discussing darkfetishnet.com, playing down the apparently macabre nature of its content.
"It's very similar to Facebook," Merenkov said in videotaped evidence given in Moscow, played in the Manhattan courtroom.
The federal jury has been shown gruesome pictures downloaded onto Valle's computers, including women apparently being burned. It was not always clear when a picture had been staged or not.
Closing arguments were scheduled for Thursday, after which the jury will start deliberating in a case that has gripped New York tabloid media.
Merenkov, wearing a black T-shirt and sipping from a cup inscribed "I (heart) TEA" as he spoke to the camera, said his site had 38,000 registered members and about 4,500 used it on a near daily basis.
In a point heavily underlined by defense lawyers, Merenkov said the first thing any visitor to his website sees is a warning, in bold, that "this place is about fantasies only, so please play safe."
The site caters for all kinds of sexual interests, barring only child pornography and zoophilia, or human sex with animals, he said, naming asphyxia-related fetishes as among the most popular. There are other websites catering to the same audience, he said, including one far larger rival.
Cannibalism was Valle's secret obsession, resulting in him spending hours every night on the computer before his wife and mother of their newborn child discovered what he was doing and fled the house last year, then told the FBI.
However, Merenkov, 34, said his site was nothing more than a place where fetishists can chat and role play "without being misunderstood."
"It doesn't mean a person can go to the meat market and purchase a woman, then devour her," he said.
Although his site is run from Moscow, 70 percent of members come from the United States and the largest other portion from western Europe, said Merenkov, who added that his principal employment is "heading a company selling Spanish ice cream in Moscow."
Under cross-examination by the US prosecutor, Merenkov said that despite what he insisted was the generally safe nature of his site, he had booted members out when "it seemed not to be fantasy anymore, that it could have led to something bad."
Pressed by the prosecutor that the self-proclaimed fantasy website includes photographs of "dead women" he countered that they were "models, not real women."
However Merenkov acknowledged he could never be sure of what the pictures showed and that bloody crime scene photos had been included in the sex chats. "We try to delete them," he said.
No one was harmed by Valle, despite his numerous online chats about cannibalizing specific women he knew, including his now estranged wife, with other men.
One of those men, Dale Bolinger, also known by his Internet handle as Moody Blue, has been arrested by British police on child pornography charges.