One day last September, the wife of a New York City police officer opened her laptop computer and discovered that her husband had used it to visit a fetish website on the Internet. She said she went to the site and saw a photograph of a dead girl.
And that, she testified on Monday, was only the beginning.
The wife, Kathleen Mangan-Valle, said that when she delved into her husband's electronic chat history, she found he had been communicating with others about plans to torture and kill women, including herself.
"I was going to be tied up by my feet and my throat slit, and they would have fun watching the blood gush out of me," she said, sobbing repeatedly through her afternoon on the witness stand.
The officer, Gilberto Valle, has been charged with plotting on the Internet to kidnap, rape, kill and cannibalize female victims. His wife was the first witness in the trial, which began on Monday in U.S. District Court in Manhattan.
She testified that she uncovered evidence of her husband's desires to rape, maim, torture and kill women, including some of her friends.
When someone participating in the chat suggested to her husband that if she cried, "don't listen to her, don't give her mercy," she testified, "Gil just said, 'It's OK, we will just gag her."'
Valle, 28, also wept visibly during his wife's testimony in a day of high emotion at the trial, which attracted a full gallery of observers, some no doubt drawn by the bizarre and lurid allegations against the officer.
But at its core, the case rests on a tantalizing, yet basic, question: When does a fantasized crime become an actual crime?
There is no evidence that any of the women that Valle was accused of plotting to kill were kidnapped or harmed.
The trial's opening arguments underscored that theme. A federal prosecutor, Randall W. Jackson, told jurors that the officer had been plotting real crimes to kill actual victims, while Valle's lawyer, Julia L. Gatto, contended that he had merely been living out deviant fantasies in Internet chat rooms, with no intention of carrying them out.
One outside expert, Joseph V. DeMarco, an Internet lawyer and former head of the cybercrime unit in the U.S. attorney's office in Manhattan, said in an interview that beyond its sensationalism, the case highlighted the fact that there were "dark corners" of the Internet "where a whole range of illegal and immoral conduct takes place, and the general public has only a vague and fleeting knowledge that these places exist."
He noted that the Internet, as a medium of expression and communication, also made it possible for people with interests as benign as stamp collecting or as grisly as cannibalism to find and validate one another in community forums.
"If you were someone mildly interested in cannibalism 30 years ago, it was really hard to find someone in real space to find common cause with," DeMarco noted. "Whereas online, it's much easier to find those people, and I think when you have these communities forming, validating each other, encouraging each other, it's not far-fetched to think that some people in that community who otherwise might not be pushed beyond certain lines, might be."
It was clear that the prosecutors, in their opening statement and through Mangan-Valle's testimony, were seeking to bring as much realism to the courtroom as possible.
Mangan-Valle, who had taught with Teach for America and went on to become a teacher in East Harlem and in the Bronx, indicated that she had been so afraid for herself and their infant daughter that she flew to stay with her parents, who live in Nevada. She said she contacted the FBI, gave a statement and granted the bureau access to her laptop and another computer in their home.
Jackson, the assistant U.S. attorney, repeatedly used the word "real" as he described the evidence in the case, like the online communications between Valle and his co-conspirators.
"You are going to see in these conversations that Mr. Valle is engaging in detailed strategic discussions about real women that he has identified," Jackson said. He cited "one conversation where Mr. Valle discusses a specific real woman, a specific real woman that he knew and discussing the logistics of fitting her into an oven."
He said Valle had also been charged with illegally accessing a law enforcement database to gain information about some of the women he was "explicitly targeting."
Gatto, Valle's lawyer, said in her opening statement that if the jurors had been scared by what the prosecution had described, "Who could blame you?" The allegations were shocking and gruesome, she said, the stuff that horror movies are made of.
"They share something else in common with horror movies," she added. "It's pure fiction. It's pretend. It's scary make-believe."
Gatto suggested that the stakes for Valle, who has been charged with conspiracy to commit kidnapping, a charge that carries a maximum sentence of life in prison, went far beyond his case. Cases like his, she said, "test bedrock principles, the freedom to think, the freedom to say, the freedom to write even the darkest thoughts from our human imagination."
Early on Monday, prosecutors told the judge, Paul G. Gardephe, that they would not seek to introduce data related to Valle's cellphone calls to show that he was in the vicinity of certain potential victims - evidence the defense had sharply disputed.
In addition to her testimony about discovering her husband's communications about killing her, Mangan-Valle, 27, also described his chats with others about harming women they knew.
Two were supposed to be "raped in front of each other to heighten" their fears, she said. Another was to be burned alive, she said. There was also talk about putting women on a spit, and cooking them for 30-minute shifts, so they could be tortured longer. She also testified that at one point she used software to track her husband's Web activities.
Gatto, in cross-examining Mangan-Valle, asked why she had not been willing to talk with the defense before trial.
"You represent the man who wants to kill me," Mangan-Valle replied. "No, I didn't want to talk to you," she added, breaking into tears.
© 2013, The New York Times News Service