'Cannibal Cop' Doc Questions Line Between Fantasy and Murder

'Thought Crimes' director Erin Carr talks about the divided reaction to gruesome, fascinating HBO film

Gilberto Valle, the convict dubbed the 'Cannibal Cop' and the subject of the HBO documentary 'Thought Crimes.' Credit: Courtesy of HBO

In 2012, the FBI arrested Gilberto Valle and accused the 28-year-old NYPD officer of plotting to abduct, rape, murder and eat more than 100 women. Valle, who the media dubbed the "Cannibal Cop," was convicted the following year of kidnapping conspiracy, based mainly on chat room discussions on a torture fetish website. He never denied that his thoughts were gruesome and horrendous ("She goes into the oven whole. Live cooking for my entertainment," the former policeman wrote in one of his tamer chats), but always maintained that they were only thoughts to be fantasized about and not acted on.

A federal judge agreed, noting that no one was actually kidnapped and no "non-Internet-based steps" were taken to commit a crime, and overturned the conviction. Valle never testified at the trials, but he does appear in Erin Lee Carr's gripping, thought-provoking HBO documentary Thought Crimes: The Case of the Cannibal Cop. The film examines the line between criminal thought and action, dissecting both the case itself and the wider implications of convicting a person based on their future acts. 

Despite the judge's order, Valle is not free yet. An appeal to restore the original conviction — which may earn him a life sentence — is set to begin on May 12th, one day after Thought Crimes' premiere on the premium cable channel. Carr spoke to Rolling Stone about unspeakable thoughts, revealing juror confessions and how to inject humor in the darkest of subjects.   

How did you first get involved in the case?
Like many other people, I came to the case through the tabloids and it seemed like my worst fear realized: A police officer was having these thoughts about women. I started looking at what it all meant: Was there physical evidence? Was there stalking? I realized that it was a lot more gray than the story was made out to be. I started talking on the phone with Gil and first visited him with his parents in January 2014 in prison. 

What was the tone of the first in-person conversation?
It was incredibly nerve-racking on both sides. The media attention had died down about the case and Gil did not testify during the trial, so he wanted to get his side of the story out. He felt like he had a lot of things to say.

You never state your own opinion in the film. Why did you think it was important to maintain objectivity?
I've been educated in the documentary format, and films like [Andrew Jarecki's] Capturing the Friedmans really stood out to me because you were unsure how Jarecki felt about the family. I wanted to have a discussion about free speech and First Amendment rights, about tabloid journalism, about cannibalism — but I didn't necessarily want everybody to know how I felt. Ultimately, it's one person's opinion and I care [more] about what the audience feels versus telling them what and how they should feel.

"You would think after a certain amount of time reading those chats, your feelings of anxiety and fear go away, but it never did."

Now that you've screened it a few times, have audiences formed a consensus about Valle's guilt or innocence?
It’s so fascinating. It changes with every person and everybody has something different to say. I thought at first, women would think he was guiltier because they were the "intended victims" and men would just be like, "Ah, he could never have done it." But it really runs the gamut.

Have your feelings towards Valle changed from when you first met him to now?
Of course, yeah. I think when he was in prison, he was there and shouldn't have been. And there was a high level of empathy as I sat sitting with this person in prison. When he got out, certain things and dynamics changed and you see that in the film. It's not just the story of an injustice that happened to someone, but it's complicated and nuanced.

Do you think the fact that he was a police officer exacerbated the attention on the case?
[Valle's attorney] Julia Gatto said if it was Gil Valle, the plumber, it wouldn't have been the same thing. I do believe that. Valle's wife turned him in and the FBI started setting up for a sting operation. They followed him for a month and nothing ever happened. The reason why he was arrested without one of the provocateurs was because he was a cop and had access to weapons. They felt like he could potentially be dangerous because he had a gun. Without knowing if he would have done it, it made it much weaker of a case for the prosecution. But they went ahead because he was a big fish.

What surprised you the most when you went into the details of the case?
It was surprising how much of the material made me uncomfortable. You would think after a certain amount of time reading those chats, your feelings of anxiety and fear go away, but it never did. It was in my dreams. I had Post-it notes and index cards about the crime and the cases in my apartment, and my roommates were like, "Hey, that's disturbing. Please take it down." HBO gave me an office, which was great because I could keep my creepy notecards there.

At the Tribeca Film Festival screening, the audience laughed at shots of Valle cooking or eating and his admission that he set up an online dating profile. Were you surprised by that reaction?
It was intentional. It's such dark subject matter that we had to have the lighter moments. That’s why the dark humor of the cooking is in there. It's a tight film; we can't just be lecturing to you for 82 minutes. We have to have these breaks. We hoped that people wouldn't laugh at him, but with him. Some of the Match.com laughter made me a bit uneasy, though, because I think everyone deserves to date.

Did he try to have any involvement in how the movie was shaped during filming or editing?
He knew that I was not going to show him the film until it was done. Right before we showed it to him, he said, "I know that you're the director and you did this, but is there anything that's going to make me really uncomfortable or be bad in terms of the appeal?" I replied, "I stand up for this film. It's straightforward and honest." That was the extent of him trying to figure out whose opinion really mattered in creating the piece.

"It's dangerous. You have to be careful what you Google."

What did he think of the movie the first time he saw it?
It was a very nerve-racking day for everyone involved; it was my birthday. Gil and his legal team came in to HBO and watched the movie and the initial reaction was that Gil felt really uncomfortable. It was a really hard movie for him to watch, which I understand. The silver lining is that his legal team did like the film. He asked me why wasn't the [alleged] prosecutorial misconduct in the film and questions like that, but I just said that I stood up for the movie.

Opinion aside, it was pretty gutsy for him to appear in the film.
It took incredible bravery to take part in the project. There were a lot of myths about this case when it came out that he was stalking people and things like that, so from the very [beginning], he really wanted the myth to be displaced. I think we were successful in presenting him as a human being and I think ultimately that's helpful for him and for the case. 

In the movie, one of the jurors admits that Valle was convicted, in part, based on what the jury thought he was going to do and not what he did. What do you think that says about our criminal justice system?
We knew that was a big moment when she said that. She said the things that jurors are never supposed to say: that they convicted him based on what he might do and it was not beyond a reasonable doubt. We found that to be really dangerous and definitely solidified that Gil Valle should not be in prison and we were hoping to make that point clear that from a legal perspective, he should not have been convicted.

It fascinates me. It's very hard in these cases [because] the lines are blurry and how are jurors without the technical infrastructure or mindset supposed to figure out how to [decide guilt]. It's dangerous. You have to be careful what you Google.