I was amazed when Dan DePew emailed me in early August to say he was out of prison—I guess I’d never really expected him to get out alive. We’d fallen out of touch, about which I felt guilty; packages I’d sent had been returned and I hadn’t followed up. My last update had been around six years earlier when one of his friends wrote to say that Dan’s copy of the book in which I’d written about his case had been confiscated and gotten him sent to solitary. I wrote to the warden explaining that the book had received prior approval; she wrote back explaining that it “posed a threat to the safety and orderly running of the institution.”
Over the next ten days, DePew sent further chatty emails describing the stringent conditions of his release, which included “voluntarily” paying to have his phone and limited computer use monitored, along with weekly psychotherapy sessions and regular polygraph exams. I asked how he was supposed to pay for all this with no job or money. He didn’t know but was excited about an upcoming trip to a Walmart Supercenter, arranged by the Baltimore halfway house charged with introducing him to twenty-first-century life. I hadn’t wanted to tell him that T.S. Ellis III, the federal judge who’d imposed his draconian thirty-three-year sentence, had been in the headlines that very week presiding, controversially, over the Paul Manafort case—in the same Eastern Virginia District Court where DePew had been tried and convicted for conspiring to make a snuff film.
DePew had been free for twenty-eight days when he collapsed and died at a Baltimore light rail station. He was fifty-seven, but looked like an old man, he’d written. He’d served twenty-nine years, with four shaved off for good behavior. We’d been emailing back and forth just the night before. I’d asked him a few days earlier if I should write something about his release—I didn’t want to make his re-entry more difficult, but it also made me angry to think that what had happened to him would just get buried. He said he’d give it some thought. His emails were speckled with the word “smile” in square brackets (he was apparently without access to emoticons, perhaps another condition of his release), and his sunniness about the future made his sudden death all the more devastating.
In the mid-1990s, when the feminist anti-pornography movement was at its shrillest and I was writing a book that attempted to complicate the issue (what about class? what about fantasy?), I got interested in the question of whether snuff films—movies in which someone is supposedly murdered on camera—actually existed or were an urban legend. (The book was published in 1996 as Bound and Gagged: Pornography and the Politics of Fantasy in America.) One of the rallying points of early anti-porn campaigns, a splatter film called Snuff, was clearly faked. Poking around in newspaper databases in those pre-Google days, I came across the headline “Two Men Charged in Kidnapping Plot” from 1989, a cryptic story buried in the back pages of The New York Times about two undercover cops who had offered to provide two other men with a child to star in a homemade snuff film. One of those other two men was Daniel DePew.
I’m as appalled by violence against children as anyone, and pornography involving actual children should obviously be outlawed. But from what I could discern from the article, there hadn’t been a child, there hadn’t been a film, and I hadn’t known you could get arrested for a fantasy, even a repellent one. The issue of fantasy seemed, and still seems, politically crucial to me. For one thing, pornography has historically functioned as an idiom of political protest against officialdom, and trying to sanitize culture of unruly elements struck me as the beginning of a rightward, law-and-order turn in mainstream American feminism. Indeed, the anti-porn crowd had aligned themselves “strategically” with the anti-gay Christian right and its conservative social agenda. How apt that the press conference announcing DePew’s arrest was held by Henry Hudson, the US attorney for Eastern Virginia, who’d previously chaired the 1986 Attorney General’s Commission on Pornography, which released the widely criticized 1,960-page “Meese Report” linking pornography to sexual violence. The anti-porn feminist Andrea Dworkin had testified at the hearings, with Hudson presiding.
Sexual panic permeated the 1980s, dictating who was criminalized and who got locked up, and for what behaviors. On the West Coast, the notorious McMartin Preschool case dragged on for six years, the longest and most costly criminal trial in American history, with prosecutors mounting bizarre allegations of Satanic ritual sexual abuse of children against seven innocent people. All the charges were eventually dropped; the primary suspect spent five years in jail anyway. To be sure, the era’s sex criminals weren’t all suspected Satanists. With the AIDS epidemic raging, at mid-decade opinion polling found that half of all Americans thought that those who were infected should be quarantined—lock-ups with a fancier name.
AIDS bigotry may have receded over time, but every cultural era is susceptible to staging some new version of sexual panic. Has the figure of “the predator” lost any of its imaginative force in the intervening years? The identity of the imagined perpetrators may shift, but efforts at recruiting the rest of us into the ranks of anxious moral majoritarians remain ever-present.
After I learned about DePew’s case—by which time he’d already served several years in federal prison—it stayed on my mind. Eventually, I got in touch with his defense lawyer, James Lowe, who had a small practice in Alexandria, Virginia, and was best known for having successfully defended Lorena Bobbitt. Lowe agreed to meet, and then, to my surprise, let me go through his files and ferry away what materials I wanted. So I packed up heavy boxes of police reports, computer chat-room logs, FBI wiretap transcripts, trial transcripts, even psychological profiles compiled by prison shrinks—at that point, there weren’t going to be any appeals in DePew’s case, and Lowe had no further use for the stuff.
United States v. Daniel Thomas DePew was the nation’s first prosecution involving sex-related computer bulletin boards. Like their chat-room successors on the Internet, these were venues where people with specialized sexual preferences congregated and shared fantasies. They were also places where users could be entrapped, then as now, by any cop with an Internet connection and the urge to fulfill his own fantasy of cleansing the world of perverts. The DePew case would never have happened without a couple of ambitious cops from the other side of the country prodding a couple of tragically susceptible men to scratch open their psychic scars and plumb their darkest fantasies while tape recorders rolled, with every free association captured as evidence for a future trial.
It might be said that entrapment cases are a Rorschach test of a society’s obsessions and fears at any given time. Who and what are we most afraid of? How can we lock them up for life and convince ourselves they deserve it? Let the DePew case offer some answers.
When someone calling himself “Bobby” telephoned Dan DePew out of the blue in the summer of 1989 to suggest that they had “mutual interests” and invited him to his hotel for dinner, DePew, a twenty-eight-year-old systems control engineer at a high-tech electronics company, was glad to oblige. Thinking he’d been beckoned to a promising blind date, he happily showered, put on a pair of tight jeans, and drove himself to the Dulles Airport Marriott. As a habitué of the D.C. area gay S&M world, DePew assumed he knew what “mutual interests” was code for. It wasn’t unusual to meet guys over the phone and then get together to explore fantasies, maybe get into some kind of scene, which often meant talking about elaborately violent fictional scenarios.
What DePew had no way of knowing was that six months earlier, an enterprising San Jose police officer named James Rodrigues had posted a message on a computer bulletin board called CHAOS that was frequented by gay men. Calling himself “Bobby R.,” he wrote, “Subject: Youngsters. Looking for others interested. Hot and need someone. I’ll travel if we can set something up. Pics of the real thing better. I like taking pictures and being the star. Hope someone is interested.” A thirty-four-year-old Richmond real estate agent named Dean Ashley Lambey responded, using the name “Dave Ashley”: “Your message caught my interest. Think we may have something in common but need to explore more. Want to talk?” Messaging ensued; both confided an interest in young boys. Each assured the other that he wasn’t a postal agent or cop.
Over the course of the next three and a half months, Rodrigues, as “Bobby,” painstakingly cultivated Lambey’s trust, encouraging his guilty interest in children by “confessing” his own: “I used to think that I was the only person in the world with these feelings and that NO ONE could ever understand how I felt or why different things made me feel the way they did (and still do).” He related a convoluted story about working for a mafioso-type pornographer named Roberto (“Not a real nice guy when he gets nasty”), who paid him to travel around California taking photos of “clients and their fantasies,” some of which included young boys, and which he offered to share with Lambey.
By his own account, Lambey was a nervous and ineffectual pedophile, frustrated at not being able to get anywhere with various prospects, and anxious about not knowing the right moves. (He was a volunteer Big Brother, mentoring at-risk children, though an FBI investigation after his arrest found no evidence that “anything inappropriate happened” with any of his charges.) “I gotta be doing something wrong,” he kept moaning to Bobby, who dangled accounts of his own supposed successes in the kiddie-sex arena, styling himself as Lambey’s pedophilic mentor. Pathetically grateful to have someone he could be open with, Lambey must have felt as though he’d found a soulmate.
At Bobby’s instigation these chats began evolving into a plan to produce a child porn video that Roberto would finance, in which a young boy would somehow be obtained and made the unwilling star. Eventually, this began to include the gruesome possibility that the boy would have to be disposed of once the film wrapped, for the filmmakers’ protection. This prospect made Lambey squeamish, however—he imagined himself growing fond of the imaginary boy. He went back and forth, voicing moral qualms yet willing to discuss possible disposal methods (which he preferred to be painless); he didn’t want to be present at the end, yet worried he could get addicted to killing as a sexual activity.
By this time, the chats had moved from the bulletin board to rambling phone conversations in which Lambey’s timorousness vied with braggadocio. “I have no morals,” he boasted. “How kinky would you like to get?” As long as Bobby kept reassuring him, Lambey was a willing player—or at least willing to endlessly spin out fantasies over the phone with his new pal.
Were the two men plotting a crime or writing a piece of collaborative fiction? In fact, Rodrigues was having regular phone conferences with the Behavioral Sciences Unit at the FBI headquarters in Washington, who were advising him on how to win Lambey’s trust and play him most effectively, though even they didn’t understand why he was being so incautious with a stranger. (I suspect it was because he never thought any of this was real.)
After two months of build-up, Bobby was instructed to get Lambey to commit, so he informed him that Roberto was getting impatient and sending him east. “But I don’t wanna come out there for nothing, I wanna make sure we’re gonna do it,” he wheedled, dangling the possibility of future business ventures. Lambey, who continually complained about being broke, eventually agreed to meet. Whereupon Bobby introduced a new wrinkle: Lambey had to find someone else to join the plan. Lambey argued, Bobby insisted. As DePew’s attorney James Lowe later explained to me, you can’t form a conspiracy with a cop. Rodrigues needed another guy on board or there was no crime.
One Wednesday night around this time, Dan DePew logged on to a gay S&M bulletin board called “Drummer.” Wednesday was the night DePew usually reserved for himself, spending it apart from his live-in boyfriend, Patrick. DePew’s work situation had been frantic lately and the bulletin boards were the way he relaxed. Dean Lambey (calling himself Dave Ashley again) saw that DePew was online and beeped him. They exchanged numbers and Lambey phoned to arrange a date a few days later. DePew preferred to meet someone he didn’t know at a bar for drinks, but Lambey insisted on meeting at a hotel. Hoping the assignation would lead to sex, DePew agreed.
The problem was that, once there, DePew found Lambey repellent: a troll with an oily complexion and dirty hair, completely unappealing. Lambey immediately brought up his interest in children. DePew said he wasn’t into kiddie sex, but “I can be open-minded.”
Dan DePew was not a pedophile: all his sex partners were adults. Still, in his creed the first thing you did with someone you didn’t know was share fantasies as a way to build trust. Lambey described the kidnapping-snuff film scenario, mentioning his pornographer friend from California. DePew, a crime buff, critiqued the plan, and getting into it, gave Lambey tips on how to dispose of the body. He didn’t know if Lambey was serious or a flake who got off on talk, but kidnapping, arrest, prisoner-of-war, and even execution fantasies were standard fare in his world, often described in cinematic detail.
They spent an hour and a half talking, didn’t have sex, and parted ways. DePew told me that he hadn’t wanted, or expected, to see “Dave Ashley” again.
I first met Dan DePew at Ray Brook Federal Correctional Institution in upstate New York, a medium-security prison and the sixth facility he’d been assigned to (there would be many others), largely because every time there was publicity about his case he got beat up, then transferred. Naturally, he was reluctant to talk to me, but once having agreed, he was confiding, even garrulous, about which I had some ambivalence, since it was obviously the same garrulous trust that had landed him where he was.
We’d been assigned a ground-floor room with picture windows overlooking a courtyard populated with prisoners strolling between buildings. Once in a while, someone stopped to gawk through the glass. “They’re not used to seeing women,” he said, a little anxiously. Tall, well-built, with a neatly trimmed brownish-red beard and pleasant features, he had an open, eager-to-please air. He seemed remarkably lacking in self-pity about how his life had turned out.
In contrast to the monster of aggression painted by prosecutors, I came to see DePew as someone who’d always felt like a failure at masculinity, which loomed, grail-like and unattainable, in his psyche. He’d known he was gay from an early age and never tried to hide it, which in rural 1970s Maryland required some courage. All he wanted in life was to be one of the guys, but he was exiled from sports and other masculine enclaves. Craving acceptance and camaraderie, his solution was giving the neighborhood boys blowjobs, which they accepted, then pretended hadn’t happened. His family was no more accepting—his father had long berated him for not being enough of a man, and stopped speaking to him for several years after DePew came out (though his father wasn’t particularly great at masculinity either, in DePew’s view).
DePew’s entrée into S&M began when he started frequenting leather bars in an attempt to rid himself of the feminine mannerisms he’d picked up in gay bars. Sex became a form of private theater, often theatrically violent, often involving role-playing. Searching for behaviors and attitudes to adopt, he’d settled on the ones the culture had already stamped with the imprimatur of maleness—and what was more stereotypically masculine than violence? He loved cowboy movies, especially anything starring John Wayne, and was devoted to cars and tools. Describing how he taught his boyfriend, another product of an indifferent father, the art of rebuilding an auto engine, he recollected, with what could only be called paternal affection: “I’d ask him to give me that nine-millimeter wrench over there and he walks out with a pair of vice grips.” I asked where Dan had learned to use tools. “From a book called Motor Manual,” he said, a lifelong autodidact of masculinity.
To federal prosecutors, the father-son role-playing confirmed that DePew was a potential pedophile, but I think it’s more accurate to say that he was someone devoted to repair: mending, then reliving, in a confused, eroticized way, the father’s love he’d craved and felt cheated of. The specter of that paternal absence seemed to hover throughout his adult life, reconfigured as a consuming preoccupation with pain and pleasure.
Complying with Bobby’s command to come up with another accomplice for the snuff scheme, Dean Lambey left a message on DePew’s answering machine three weeks later to say that his California friends were in town and they should all get together. Arriving East, Rodrigues and his undercover cop partner, R.J., had booked rooms at a Sheraton around the corner from Lambey’s place in Richmond. The problem was that Lambey kept dropping out of contact, leaving Bobby posting frantic messages on various bulletin boards: “Hey dude, are you still on the planet earth or what?”
When Lambey finally got in touch, Bobby broke the news that he couldn’t leave his hotel room because he was on call for Roberto, so they’d have to meet there. (In other words, the room would be bugged.) Lambey wasn’t happy about the locale, nor about Bobby’s trying to persuade him to talk DePew into joining them. To Lambey was left the task of explaining D.C. rush-hour traffic: it would take three or four hours for DePew to get down to Richmond from Washington on a Friday night. He wouldn’t be attending.
The initial meeting between Lambey and the cops started out like an awkward blind date—lengthy discussions of the weather—until R.J., cast in the tough guy role, pulled out a bound book of S&M porn and switched the conversation to the snuff film. Lambey produced a stream of objections, but the detectives kept leading him back to the plan. Lambey broached the possibility of obtaining a boy from a contact in Florida (a connection Rodrigues had told the FBI he thought was fictitious), but it would take maybe a month, and R.J. protested, “Man, I thought that’s why we came out here. I don’t want to wait no fucking month.” Back to the kidnapping option.
When Lambey said of the boy, “Ideally I’d just like to, you know, kick it out,” R.J. responded, “Let it walk?” Lambey: “Yeah.” This, too, R.J. vetoed: “Then let it talk.” Lambey agreed, but asked again if they couldn’t make the film without the violent ending, saying ruefully, “Fantasies don’t always turn out the way you think they will.” Bobby reassured him: “Sometimes they do though.” Lambey still had qualms: “I’m just not sure I want to actually do the deed, cause I have some morals, you know.” Then he added, “I may really enjoy doing the deed, I don’t know.”
Over the course of two hours, the agents repeated seventeen times that they had to meet Dan DePew. (“Have you talked to Dan about this?” “I’d sure like to meet this guy.” “I definitely want to talk to him on a face-to-face.”) When Lambey reminded them DePew had only a vague notion of the plan, R.J. barked, “Don’t be fucking stroking me along here. Does he know what we’re doing? Yes or no?” Lambey repeated that they didn’t need another guy; R.J. was adamant that they did.
At this point, Rodrigues had been courting Lambey for close to four months. Without DePew, that was a lot of wasted time and law enforcement dollars to account for.
Summoned (courtesy of “Dave Ashley”) to Bobby’s hotel room a few days later to discuss their “mutual interests,” DePew was surprised to find R.J. in attendance. Bobby fixed DePew a drink and R.J. told him they were concerned about not having heard from Dave. DePew explained that he didn’t know any more about Ashley than his name. They ordered dinner from room service; DePew, noting they didn’t want to leave the room to eat, took it as a hopeful sign that some kind of sex was in the works. He started chatting aimlessly about his job, until R.J. interjected, “When was the last time that you tried to call Dave?”
Not wanting to talk about Ashley, DePew explained that he lived with his lover Patrick, an artist, and that he usually spent Wednesday nights alone—R.J. turned the conversation back to Ashley, asking what he’d told DePew about him and Bobby. Alluding to the snuff film scheme, he said “We were just, you know, uh… What is the word I’m searching for? Sensitive?” DePew joked, “Highly illegal?” They all laugh. Bobby: “The thing R.J. is trying to say is that we wanna see where you’re coming from.”
As DePew related it to me, he assumed they were talking about some kind of role-playing. Not only that, but walking into the room he’d found himself immediately attracted to R.J.—he always knew within the first five minutes of meeting someone whether to treat him as an equal or take the bottom role, and he’d made the subconscious calculation that R.J. was “the man” in this scene. In his world, a good top was hard to find: everyone wants to be dominated, apparently. He’d made the switch to top himself a few years before, partly because the tops he met were so terrible at it: abusive rather than caring, sometimes dangerous. (The first time he’d had rough sex, he left with a cracked rib.) Also, he was getting older, had a hairy chest, and didn’t want to shave his beard, so he sort of grew into the role. But he still considered himself mostly a bottom, psychologically anyway, and yearned for someone else to take control, for a man he could look up to.
Reading the hierarchy of the room, DePew pegged himself as second-top, that is bottom to R.J., but top to Bobby. Interestingly, after meeting DePew, I spoke to Officer Rodrigues by phone and learned that he was making similar calculations, though his version had DePew as top, and R.J. as second. When Ashley eventually joined them, he was third (he could be pretty aggressive, said Rodrigues), and he, “Bobby,” was on the bottom. When I asked Rodrigues why he ranked DePew as tougher than R.J. (it sounded to me more like R.J. was running the show), he said that DePew had admitted to killing before—a story about a hitchhiker that DePew told me he’d made up to impress R.J. But Bobby and R.J. claimed to have made snuff films before, I pointed out. It all sounded Pirandello-esque—everyone playing a role, yet each, for different reasons, desperately eager to believe in the reality of each other’s facades.
In DePew’s psychological universe, R.J.’s masculine allure meant that he had to impress R.J. with his own manly prowess. Though DePew insisted he was terrified of real-life violence, if R.J. wanted to talk about making a snuff film, DePew was all over it. Having cast R.J. as the “man,” his personal code dictated that “when your man tells you to do something you do it.” And what he thought he was supposed to do was act the part of henchman in an imaginary snuff film.
Over the next three hours, plied with scotch and getting progressively less coherent (even the agents commented on how much he was drinking), whenever cued by R.J., DePew obediently trotted out ever more detailed stratagems for the snuff film. He knew the right tool for every occasion: what kind of acid to use to make a body unidentifiable, where to buy the sheet plastic to wrap it in, even how much it retailed for. A devotee of True Detective-type magazines, he was a reservoir of obscure details about crime and detection—something that certainly contributed to his downfall at trial, where it was recast as criminal intent, rather than overcompensation for a tenuous purchase on masculinity.
What struck me most, reading the wiretap transcripts, was the way DePew’s drunken recollections of his boyhood somehow kept merging with the snuff film plan and the prospective victim. When he proposed dumping the body in a swamp in southern Maryland near where he grew up, it occasioned a description of his teenage initiation into sex; by the end of the evening, he’d covered most of his adolescence, switching between the imaginary victim and himself as a youth, as if they were somehow indistinguishable.
Drunk as he was, DePew continued to insist that he’d made no agreement with Dave Ashley: “I told him we were talking in a purely hypothetical sense.” He didn’t trust Ashley, he said, and the three of them bonded over not trusting Ashley. Yet, for obvious reasons, the agents kept turning the conversation back to Ashley, and trying to get DePew to call him. They were pissed off that he wasn’t there, and must have seen their conspiracy wafting away. Finally, Ashley called and Bobby said sternly: “I think there’s some things we gotta sit down and talk about.” Then, “Hold on, Dan wants to talk to you.” To DePew: “Make him make a commitment.”
How could he not have had any idea that he was being set up, I asked DePew. He suggested, with apologies to my feminine sensibilities, that he was thinking with his dick. Not a particularly optimistic person myself, I always wondered whether it was actually DePew’s perpetual optimism that betrayed him. Either way, the tragedy was that his emotional landscape made him the perfect candidate for this entrapment scheme: a tangled relation to authority and manhood left him excessively impressed by these purported tough guys—too deferential and obtusely compliant. I suspect that the more they overplayed their roles, the better it worked on him. He was too eager to please, and maybe titillated by his fear of them; too caught up to back off, then too truly fearful. When Bobby and R.J. said vaguely threatening things about protecting their interests, DePew worried that if he tried to retreat they’d kill him or his boyfriend.
When did it stop being a turn-on, I asked. “When it became apparent these guys were very serious about this. Nobody’s getting undressed, the signs aren’t escalating where they’re supposed to go, this is not turning out to be the prelude to a scene.” So why stay? And why return? He said he didn’t think he had any alternative but to play along; going to the police would have meant his word against theirs. Also, he was terrified that a scandal would endanger his government security clearance; without it, he’d be unemployable in the D.C. area, and being gay already kept him at a low level.
Of course, he later berated himself for not having had the courage to stand up to them: another failure of masculinity. At one point, he described to the cops the sort of men who make the best bottoms: gay men mired in self-hatred, who thus “want you to do everything you can do to them… they’re such dirty filthy people, it’s like they’re paying their penance.” He sounded as though he was describing himself.
Like a good bottom, he agreed to return for a sit-down with the elusive Ashley.
On this occasion, two days later, Ashley showed up first and immediately began sparring with the agents, ragging them about their cavalier treatment of him. He wasn’t in a cooperative mood—he’d been too busy to look for locations and hadn’t been able to get away the other day. He kept saying, “Bitch, bitch, bitch,” whenever anyone said anything to him.
DePew arrived and immediately asked for a drink. He was nervous—Bobby had called him during the day to make sure he was going to show. A discussion of possible filming locations ensued, though a location was never agreed upon. There was also no agreement about whether to kidnap a child, buy a car, or anything else. The more DePew drank, the more he once again compulsively free-associated about his youth, while proffering expertise on any technical or mechanical topic. It must be said that in the planning of a crime, DePew had found his métier, offering counsel on what clothes to wear, the superiority of chloroform over ether, and plastic ties over handcuffs, along with how to configure them most effectively.
On one occasion, he cautioned the agents to turn the TV on so their conversation wouldn’t be overheard in the hall. It was the video camera concealed in the lamp he should have been worried about.
Yet DePew also seemed to be trying to throw wrenches into the plan: extolling unfeasible options then shooting them down; insisting they all participate in the snuff even though Ashley was squeamish about it. He told me his strategy was to appear to play along, while never intending to go through with it. The problem was that every time he opened his mouth, it was another count in the conspiracy indictment.
In retrospect, his lack of paranoia seems pathological, an invitation to bring punishment down on himself. He had a zeal for mastery that was acute yet oblivious: at the same time as he was explaining to the two undercover cops how phone-taps work, he was being recorded himself; as he advised the others on evading exposure, he was the subject of a vast multi-agency police offensive. (At the height of the case, there were over 100 FBI agents on twenty-four-hour-a-day surveillance duty; this went on for nearly a month.)
DePew’s eagerness for technical know-how handed the prosecution what was probably the single most damaging piece of evidence against him. When schemes to subdue the imaginary child were discussed, Dan volunteered to find out how to make chloroform. It wasn’t an entirely new interest as breath control was something he was into (he explained to me in rhapsodic detail the pleasure of passing out through asphyxiation during sex); and following the hotel room conversation, he got interested in the idea of trying chloroform with his boyfriend. So, like a good autodidact (and failing to notice the FBI agents trailing him everywhere he went), DePew strolled to the library and looked it up. For the government to prove conspiracy, there had to be at least one “overt act” in furtherance of the conspiracy. From the prosecutors’ standpoint, the trip to the library was an overt act.
After that evening, Dean Lambey would drop completely out of contact—during the nine days preceding Lambey’s arrest Bobby couldn’t reach him at all. Both DePew and Lambey seem to have been independently trying to extricate themselves from the scheme. Failing to turn up Lambey, R.J. called DePew, who abruptly announced, “I’ve decided not to be involved.” Startled, R.J. responded, “You what?” DePew repeated, “I’ve decided not to be involved in this one.” DePew complained about not having heard from Dave Ashley, not trusting Ashley, and everything going too fast. R.J. shifted to damage-control mode: Would DePew go along with it if it were just the three of them? He appealed to DePew to talk to Bobby, to whom DePew repeated, “I was just telling R.J. that I’ve decided not to be involved in this one.”
But even if DePew was attempting to disentangle himself, the only way to legally withdraw from a conspiracy, Judge Ellis would later instruct the jury, is to do something to defeat the purpose of the conspiracy. Heroics were required, and rather than heroically reporting the scheme to the police, DePew pussyfooted around about not having known the others long enough.
Five days later, the FBI arrested him at work. Dean Lambey was arrested the same day.
DePew’s encounter with the criminal justice system was a series of horrible missteps. When taken to FBI headquarters, mistakenly thinking it was Bobby and R.J. who were the real targets, he didn’t initially ask for a lawyer. He was told that the others had all been arrested and whoever talked first got the deal. He spent four hours talking. When the agents interrogating him played good cop/bad cop, he developed an instant crush on the bad cop. He didn’t understand that neither of them was on his side.
DePew said he told the FBI agents that he never intended to make a snuff film, but believed Bobby and R.J. were serious about it. The FBI claimed that DePew confessed. They did not, however, record this confession, though DePew says there was a tape recorder in the room. The judge sided with the FBI on the confession, despite the only evidence of its existence being an agent’s handwritten summary of what DePew supposedly said—there wasn’t even a verbatim record.
In any case, the prosecution had a fairly easy task. All it had to do was paint DePew as a monster and convince the jury that his record of participation in consensual S&M was corroboration of his intent to commit kidnapping and murder. Items seized from DePew’s home—nooses, manacles, leather masks, videotapes of consensual S&M between DePew and adult lovers—were introduced into evidence. Prosecutors maintained that since the S&M sex DePew participated in was “real,” not fantasy, the snuff film plot was real, too.
This was an argument straight out of the Meese Report: pornography use leads to sexual violence. That conclusion, said the commission’s chairman Henry Hudson (shortly before becoming the US attorney who would supervise DePew’s prosecution), was based on “common sense,” not evidence: “If we relied exclusively on scientific data for every one of our findings, I’m afraid all of our work would be inconclusive.” Then again, evidence was hardly the prime consideration, as Hudson had also noted: “As far as I can tell, no snuff films have been recovered in the United States. I don’t know that anyone has actually seen one.”
James Lowe, DePew’s attorney, was outstaffed and out-bankrolled—the government spent millions manufacturing and prosecuting this case. Lowe tried disputing that DePew was ever part of a conspiracy. He explained the role of fantasy in S&M subculture. He insisted that DePew had never inflicted any actual harm on anyone—his sex partners were all alive and well. He reminded the jury there was no evidence that DePew had any interest in actual children.
Rebutting Lowe, US Attorney Mike Smythers argued that DePew wasn’t on trial for homosexuality or sadomasochism, then stated, “S&M in this trial doesn’t mean sadomasochism. What it really means is Satan and Murder.” And DePew himself “would have made a good first assistant for Josef Mengele or Adolf Eichmann.” How on earth could language like this be allowed to stand in a federal courtroom? Possibly because homosexuality was still a crime in the state of Virginia—anti-sodomy laws were only overturned in 2003. Smythers apparently knew his audience.
The jurors began deliberating at 2:15 in the afternoon. After four hours, they announced they’d reached a verdict and returned to the courtroom. DePew stood, trembling, facing the jury box. As the guilty verdict was read, tears filled his eyes. He sat down and put his head in his hands. The forewoman later told reporters that DePew’s homosexuality and sadomasochism had no bearing on their decision. “We separated out his sexual preference,” she said. “The question was, did he really fantasize the killing of a child or did he really mean it?” Then she added, somewhat contradictorily, that during the three-day trial DePew appeared “benign and didn’t necessarily look like the stereotype who could plan such a horrible crime.”
At sentencing, Judge Ellis, addressing DePew, pronounced his “the most heinous crime I have presided over.” Yet, echoing the forewoman, the judge mused, oddly, “There is no doubt in my mind that you intended to commit the crime. The paradox is that as this chilling picture of evil is presented, there is also, strangely enough, almost a sympathetic… it’s difficult to explain.” Ellis seemed to be responding to what I, too, encountered in DePew: an overwhelming gentleness. He conveyed a certain slightly apologetic dignity about being who he was, as though he knew he wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but forgave you for seeing that.
Despite whatever human quality Ellis recognized in DePew, the judge meted out a thirty-three-year sentence, rejecting any argument for leniency or reduction in the sentencing level. Instead, he added two levels because the fictive intended victim was a child. (Federal prisoners have to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences.)
At Ray Brook, the prison where I met DePew, the average sentence was twelve years, meaning that DePew watched men who’d committed actual murder, rape, and child molestation getting released sooner than himself, who’d, at most, drunkenly fantasized in the wrong hotel room. During our conversation at Ray Brook, I asked DePew if he’d ever thought it was ironic that so much of his fantasy life revolved around punishment scenarios and he’d ended up spending his life in prison. Had he, in some way, wanted to be punished? He answered mildly that his arrest fantasies had turned out to be nothing like the reality.
On August 14, DePew was on his way to a doctor’s appointment at the VA (he’d served in the Air Force in his twenties, so was eligible for veterans’ benefits) when a blood clot in his leg broke loose and traveled to his heart, killing him. The federal prison system had kept him alive with antivirals—he’d been HIV-positive since the 1980s, though symptom-free for years—but failed to treat the blocked artery in his leg, which had been swollen for a year, making walking painful and difficult. DePew was finally going to get surgery, paid for by Obamacare—he’d written me jubilantly: “Medicaid is fixing my leg! Praise Obama!” His characteristic cheeriness had evidently survived twenty-nine years in prison, and he was touchingly optimistic about the next chapter.
I find myself wondering if DePew’s case would have unfolded the same way today. Would such an elaborate entrapment scheme get agency approval? Would a 2019 jury be as willing to conflate fantasy and intent, to see consensual sadomasochism as a prelude to murder? Would today’s queer community have embraced DePew and raised funds for a less shoestring defense? (When I asked Lowe what he’d have done with more money, he immediately said, “Investigate the two detectives.”)
Perhaps the policing of sexual minorities arouses more indignation in our time than it did thirty years ago: movies like The Imitation Game about the hounded gay mathematician Alan Turing—who committed suicide after being subjected to chemical castration to “treat” his homosexuality—play to sympathetic audiences and garner awards. Yet sexual paranoia is in no short supply these days either—in fact, the suspect pool has exponentially widened. One hears the term “grooming” more and more—once confined to suspected pedophiles and their prospective victims, now it’s applied to any relationship marked by disparities in age or power. Themes of sexual endangerment still saturate the culture. What forms of policing—ideological, moral, corporate, penal—follow?
DePew was himself “groomed” by the state to play a role in a social fantasy about grooming. He was tragically malleable, which suited the needs of the moment. No doubt, the two cops who sat around a hotel room trading violent fantasies with DePew and Lambey saw themselves as on the side of social justice. So do all of us rushing to pronounce guilty verdicts on anyone accused of sexual misdeeds now. We, too, have predator quotas to fill. As with the DePew jury or the Meese Commission, for sexual-justice-seeking Twitter mobs, evidence is still optional.
Fantasies about perpetrators permeated all levels of Dan DePew’s case, and we’re never more beset by fantasy than when asserting the purity of our motives. Never more perverse—and punitive—than when trying to prove that it’s other people who are the sadists.