NEW YORK (AP) — A Russian man who operates a fetish website where prosecutors say a New York police officer met others interested in killing and cooking women said sexual asphyxiation, sex with dead bodies and cannibalism are popular subjects among its users, but they generally know how to draw the line between fantasy and reality.
The testimony by 34-year-old Sergey Merenkov on Tuesday opened the defense portion presentation at the two-week trial of 28-year-old Officer Gilberto Valle. It came after defense lawyers notified the judge that Valle will not take the witness stand to rebut government claims that he conspired to kidnap, rape, kill and eat women he knew, including his wife.
In testimony recorded on Feb. 19 after Merenkov refused to travel to New York to testify, the Moscow resident explained how he and partners started a website in 2010 to create a Facebook-like environment for people with kinky fantasies.
"We saw a niche in the market. So we decided to jump in and create the website for these people that have similar interests," he said. Merenkov called sexual asphyxiation the "main fetish" but said cannibalism and sex with dead people also were popular on the website, which is "oriented to people with fetishes that are not considered to be standard."
Merenkov spoke Russian as he answered questions from a defense lawyer and, later, a prosecutor. Sitting in a leather desk chair and wearing a black T-shirt, he leaned back at one point and put his hands behind his head. He said his primary job is to distribute Spanish ice cream in Moscow.
He testified that the majority of the website's 4,500 active users among 38,000 members — 25 percent of which he estimates to be women — are in the United States or Europe.
The Moscow resident said people commonly engage in role-play on the site, such as when a woman poses as a witch and a mob of 10 or more angry villagers prepare to hang her.
"The girl could write, 'I'm shivering from fright. They're pulling me to the noose. I can feel the rope already on my neck,'" he testified.
On cross examination by Assistant U.S. Attorney Randall Jackson, Merenkov said he did not know anything about Valle when the FBI contacted him last fall. He said he tried to find communications involving Valle but they apparently were lost when Valle quit the website in September.
"Who was it that actually deleted Mr. Valle's account? Was it you or was it Mr. Valle?" Jackson asked.
"It was not me for sure," Merenkov answered. "I think it was him."
He said the website now warns its members not to post pictures from other social media sites, a rule instituted on Sept. 14 after complaints.
A prosecutor asked him if some subjects discussed on the website would be illegal if they were carried out, such as sex with dead bodies.
"Yes, but reality is one thing and fantasy is completely a different thing," he responded.
Merenkov's testimony was aimed at supporting defense arguments that Valle was role-playing when he spoke in dramatic details with others on the Internet about killing and cooking at least six women he knew, including his wife.
The government has conceded that Valle never met the purported Internet co-conspirators and that no women were harmed.
Valle was arrested in October after his wife discovered the chats on his computer and fled their home, turning a computer over to the FBI in Reno, Nev. He was charged with conspiring to kidnap, kill and eat women, which carries the potential for a life sentence. He also faces a lesser charge that he illegally accessed a national crime database to research kidnap targets.