NEW YORK, N.Y. – A retired New York high school librarian and a New Jersey auto mechanic were convicted Friday of scheming to carry out gruesome fantasies of kidnapping, raping, torturing and killing women and girls.
The verdicts in Christopher Asch and Michael Van Hise’s conspiracy trial came a year after a conviction in a headline-grabbing case of a police officer accused of plotting abductions and cannibalism. A fourth man, a former hospital police chief, pleaded guilty in January.
Together, the cases plumbed an online underground where people share macabre fetishes, and the prosecutions hinged on the boundaries between imagining and actually intending to bring fantasies to life.
Lawyers for both said they would appeal. No sentencing date was set.
“Today, a unanimous jury found that the twisted conspiracies of Michael Van Hise and Robert Christopher Asch were not mere fantasy, but steps within very real plans to kidnap real victims,” Manhattan U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara said in a statement, using Asch’s full name; he goes by Christopher.
But defence lawyers said the men’s alleged plans were no more real than the plots of horror movies or violent pornography.
“We knew, from the outset, that it was going to be difficult to overcome the graphic nature of this case, even though we thought it was pure fantasy,” said Asch’s attorney, Brian Waller.
Asch and Van Hise showed little reaction as jurors delivered a verdict that could put them in prison for life. But Waller called Asch “crushed,” and one of Van Hise’s attorneys, Alice Fontier, said he seemed shocked.
Asch, a former librarian at Manhattan’s prestigious Stuyvesant High School, and Van Hise, a mechanic, were accused of planning to victimize members of Van Hise’s family, including girls under 10. Asch also was convicted of targeting another woman, who turned out to be an undercover FBI agent.
Prosecutors said Van Hise and Asch took concrete steps across the line between pretending and plotting. They met once in Trenton and drove around talking about places to dispose of bodies, Asch searched online for tips on knockout drugs to overpower potential victims, and Van Hise emailed Asch pictures of his possible-target relatives — who included his wife, step-daughter, sister-in-law and nieces, prosecutors noted.
In the other alleged plot, Asch covertly watched the undercover agent and amassed a stock of torture tools, including a 20-million-volt stun gun, a whip, clamps, skewers and gynecological implements, according to evidence at the trial.
“None of this was fake,” Assistant U.S. Attorney Hadassa Waxman said in a closing argument. “They were absolutely serious.”
Defence lawyers said Asch, 24, and Van Hise, 61, were only role-playing and would never have actually hurt anyone. Van Hise’s supposed schemes were riddled with impossibilities, like kidnapping his sister-in-law from work when she didn’t have a job, and he was so far from acting on his desires that he told his wife about them, Fontier said.
She suggested jurors “voted out of fear” of what might have been if the men were serious.
Asch’s lawyer said his client’s discussions and preparations didn’t amount to truly planning to do anything violent.
“That’s the thrill of role-playing — collecting items, stuff like that — but it’s all safe,” Waller said Tuesday.
Asch and Van Hise were charged last year along with Richard Meltz, a former police chief at the Bedford Veterans Administration Medical Center in Massachusetts. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy and is facing up to 10 years in prison at his sentencing, set for May.
The police officer who was accused of plotting cannibalism, Gilberto Valle, is awaiting sentencing. Van Hise was initially accused of scheming with Valle, but references to Valle and cannibalism were ultimately excluded from the indictment in the case against Asch and Van Hise.