US 'cannibal cop' starts trial defense

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 his forum to Facebook.

Sergey Merenkov, the first witness called by suspended policeman Gilberto Valle's defense team, told the court his site, a favorite of the accused, was "a social network."

"It's very similar to Facebook," said the Russian in videotaped evidence.

Valle, 28, visited for Internet chats on horrific -- but he claims entirely fictional -- scenarios about torturing, murdering and cannibalizing women.

Prosecutors wrapped up their case on Monday, saying Valle should be found guilty of conspiracy to kidnap women that he discussed abducting and eating.

They showed the Manhattan federal jury 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.

Lawyers for Valle, who faces up to life in prison if found guilty on the kidnapping conspiracy charge, hope to persuade the jury that he is guilty of nothing more than unusual sexual fantasies.

Court spokeswoman Stephanie Cirkovich said Valle himself would not testify, as lawyers had said he might late Monday. The trial was expected to end Wednesday or Thursday.

In his testimony from Moscow, Merenkov said the first thing any visitor to his website sees is the warning, in bold, that "this place is about fantasies only, so please play safe."

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 entering on a nearly daily basis.

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 that 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.