(CN) - Three men accused of plotting to kidnap, rape and kill women cannot cloak themselves with the First Amendment as offshoots from the "cannibal cop" trial get under way, a federal judge ruled.
New Jersey resident Michael Vanhise, Stuyvesant High School librarian Robert Asch and Massachusetts Veterans Affairs police chief Robert Meltz chatted about grisly sex murders over the Internet.
They claim that they were taking part in morbid online fantasy role-play. Prosecutors insist they were serious.
Their cases and defenses mirror that of former New York City Police Officer Gilberto Valle, whom the tabloids dubbed the "cannibal cop" for imagining his victims roasted, cooked, barbecued and rotisseried.
Police arrested Valle in October 2012 after his wife tipped the FBI about her husband's chats. The investigation into that case, which ended with Valle's conviction
in March, snared Vanhise in January 2013.
Vanhise allegedly chatted with Meltz and Asch about kidnapping, raping and killing his wife, his sister-in-law, her children and his stepdaughter.
In an October 2012 message quoted in the indictment, Meltz replied to Vanhise: "we go over there she know you let's [sic] us in we choke her out tie her up throw her in the back of your car take her someplace and [rape and torture her]."
Vanhise was tucked away in jail when undercover FBI agents met with Meltz and Asch starting in March, culminating in meetings that led to their arrest. Meltz allegedly instructed the first undercover agent on April 14 how to dispose of the body of his female colleague at "a desolate location in the woods in upstate New York." Meltz said that wild animals would likely find and destroy her body before law enforcement could find it, prosecutors claim.
The next day, the same agent who spoke to Meltz met with Asch, who brought "two bags of tools intended to be used in the kidnapping, rape, torture, and murder of UC-3, including, but not limited to, a Taser gun, rope, a meat hammer, duct tape, gloves, cleaning supplies, zip ties, a dental retractor, two speculums, 12-inch skewers, pliers, a wireless modem, and a leg spreader," the indictment states.
Vanhise, Meltz and Asch pleaded not guilty in April.
After that arraignment, Vanhise's lawyer Alice Fontier indicated that she planned to try severing her client's case from that of Meltz and Asch. She asserted at the time that Vanhise was just fantasizing, but he thought his co-defendants were serious and informed the police about them - four times.
U.S. District Judge Paul Gardephe refused on Dec. 31 to give Vanhise a separate trial.
Far from having a "irreconcilable" position from his co-defendants, Vanhise raised "essentially the same defense: lack of criminal intent," Gardephe wrote.
"While Vanhise's belief that Asch and Meltz intended to commit a crime is antagonistic to Asch and Meltz's fantasy role-play defense, that asserted belief is not the 'essence' of Vanhise's defense," the opinion states. "The 'essence' of Vanhise's defense is that he never intended to commit a crime, but was merely working to assist law enforcement. Similarly, the 'essence' of Asch and Meltz's defense is that they were engaged in fantasy role-play and never intended to commit a crime."
Vanhise also sought to toss his indictment on First Amendment grounds, claiming he never had the "intent, or even the desire to commit a kidnapping."
Gardephe countered, however, that "such questions are for the jury." He likewise rejected Asch and Meltz's challenge that his court lacked jurisdiction to try their cases.
Peter Brill, an attorney for Meltz, he is preparing for trial. Other attorneys for the defendants have not returned a request for comment.
Trial is slated for Feb. 24.
Valle faces life imprisonment after his jury conviction, but his sentencing has been postponed as his lawyers appeal for a new trial.