Richard Cottingham: The Torso Killer
Family Man Turned Serial Killer
Richard Cottingham committed his first known murder at 20 years old, though he claims to have started in his teens. He is known as a serial rapist, abductor, and ephebophilic serial killer ("a person who is primarily attracted to mid-to-late or post-adolescents"). Cottingham is considered one of the worst in the United States and became known as the “Torso Killer” and the “Times Square Ripper.”
From 1967 to 1980, Cottingham is known to have killed nine females and attempted to kill another four, though he claims to have killed close to 100.
An average father of three, living in a home in suburban New Jersey, he commuted to Manhattan to a great job. By all appearances, Cottingham was an upstanding citizen.
Born November 25, 1946, in Mott Haven, New York City, Cottingham was the first of four children. In 1948, his family moved to Dumont, New Jersey, and in 1956 to Riverdale, where he began to show an interest in bondage pornography. In 1964, Cottingham graduated from Pascack Valley High School in Hillsdale, New Jersey.
After his graduation, Cottingham began working for Metropolitan Life at the firm’s headquarters in Manhattan, where his father was vice president. He began in the mailroom and worked his way up to mainframe computer operator after taking programming courses. He then became a computer operator for Blue Cross Blue Shield Association in New York, where he worked until he was arrested in 1980.
While working at Blue Cross, he was a colleague of Richard Alcala, the “Dating Game” serial killer who lived in New York under the alias “John Berger.” Neither one has claimed to know the other.
On May 3, 1970, Cottingham married Janet Cunningham at Our Lady of Lourdes Church in Queens Village, New York. They had three children, a girl and two boys. In April 1978 his wife filed for divorce on grounds of “mental cruelty” and “abandonment.”
She claimed he refused to have sex with her after their third child, leaving her with insufficient income to pay bills, and staying out until morning. Janet withdrew the petition after his arrest in 1980, then completed the divorce in 1981.
Cottingham had a long list of criminal and legal problems:
On October 3, 1969, he was convicted of driving while intoxicated in New York City.
In 1972, he was convicted of shoplifting at Stern’s Department Store and sentenced to pay a $50 fine.
In 1973, Cottingham was arrested for robbery, sodomy, and sexual abuse of a prostitute. The case was dismissed.
In March 1974, Cottingham was arrested in New York City for robbery and unlawful imprisonment of a prostitute, but the victim did not appear so the case was again dismissed.
It was the 1970s, and New York City’s Times Square was a mecca of go-go bars, peep shows, sex shops, and adult theaters. The streets were dark, gritty, and dangerous. Little did anyone know it had also become the hunting ground for one of America’s prolific serial killers.
For about six months between 1979 and 1980, Cottingham brutally murdered night workers in Times Square.
According to All That’s Interesting, on December 2, 1979, first responders were called to the Travel Inn near Times Square. As they entered room 417, they saw two badly burned bodies in the twin beds. One firefighter grabbed one to administer a life-saving procedure but noticed the body did not have a head.
“I was preparing to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation when I suddenly noticed there was no head,” the firefighter said.
When the smoke had cleared the room, the firefighters realized they had discovered something out of a grotesque nightmare. The two women in the room had been strangled, their heads and hands cut off before the monster had drenched their bodies in lighter fluid, lit them on fire, and ran.
One victim was identified as Deedeh Goodarzi, 22, who was a sex worker. Deedeh had traveled from Iran to the United States at age 14. At age 18, she ran away from her home in Long Island and began working the streets of New York. She had a daughter who was given up for adoption at age four due to her mother’s prostitution and frequent arrests.
The other female victim was identified as a 16-year-old young girl who remains a Jane Doe to this day.
Police had little to go on. The man had checked into the hotel with an alias—Carl Wilson of Merlin, New Jersey—but the hotel staff had barely interacted with him. They only had a vague description of a man in his 30s, about 5’ 10” and 175 pounds, with brown hair.
“We don’t know if he’s the one who rented the room,” said Deputy Chief Richard Nicastro. “We’re not ruling out the possibility that two men could have been involved.”
Several months later, on May 5, 1980, a housekeeper at the Quality Inn in New Jersey found the body of 19-year-old Valerie Ann Street.
Valerie had lived a difficult life. She had left Florida on April 30 to travel to New York. A man picked her up on Madison Avenue and East 32nd Street. The john took her to Quality Inn along Route 17 in New Jersey where she checked into room 132 at the hotel under the name Sherry Dudley.
On May 5th, motel worker Maryann Sancanelli began cleaning room 132 when she found a large bundle of blankets. When she removed the blankets, she found a body. Valerie had been handcuffed, gagged with white adhesive tape, and had two ligature marks on her neck. Investigators also found that her nipples had been lacerated and she had been struck several times with a blunt instrument.
Valerie’s murder would lead to Cottingham’s arrest.
On October 28, 1967, Cottingham strangled Nancy Shiava, 29, a married mother of two, in Little Ferry, New Jersey. Her nude body, hands bound in front of her, was found on October 31st. She was placed behind the passenger seat of her car under a blanket.
She was last seen three days earlier when she left home saying she was going to play Bingo with friends at a local church. Her murder remained unsolved until August 2010 when Cottingham confessed and pleaded guilty.
His second known victim was Diana Cusick, 23. On February 15, 1968, Diana had left her home to buy shoes at the Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream, New York. She was found raped, beaten, and strangled to death in the back seat of her car, parked near the mall. Cottingham was not charged with Diane’s murder until June 2022, when he was linked by DNA.
Detective Robert Anzilotti of the New Jersey Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, was a young detective who was given the task of investigating the unsolved murders of young girls dating back to the 1960s.
Beginning in 2014, Cottingham confidentially admitted to Anzilotti that he murdered three teenage girls between 1968 and 1969.
On July 17, 1968, Jacalyn Harp, 13, was ambushed walking home from school band practice in Midland Park, New Jersey, and strangled with the band flag sling.
Irene Blase, 18, vanished on April 7, 1969, from Hackensack, New Jersey, and was later found face down in four feet of water in the Saddle River. She had been strangled with a wire, a cord, or perhaps the chain of a crucifix she was wearing around her neck.
Denise Falasca, 15, was abducted on July 14, 1969, in Emerson, New Jersey, while walking to a friend’s home and found the next morning in Saddle Brook, New Jersey, by the side of the road next to a cemetery. She was strangled with the chain of the crucifix she was wearing, and her body was dumped from a car.
In August 2022, with a non-prosecution agreement, officials corroborated and accepted Cottingham’s confession to the murder of Lorrain McGraw, who was beaten and strangled to death on March 1, 1970. Her nude body was found two days later along a hiking trail near the old Camp Bluefields water tower in New York.
In December 2022, Cottingham was convicted of Diane Cusick’s 1968 murder and, under a non-prosecution agreement, officially admitted to killing an additional four women during 1972-1973 in Long Island, New York: Mary Beth Heinz, Laverne Moye, Sheila Heiman, and Maria Emerita Nieves.
For years, Cottingham trickled out details of his murders to the dogged detective, allowing Detective Anzilotti to close numerous cold cases. But there were two unsolved cases that Cottingham refused to talk about: the 1974 murders of Mary Ann Pryor, 17, and Lorraine Marie Kelley, 16.
Finally, in April 2022, Cottingham pleaded guilty to kidnapping the two young girls and raping them for days before drowning them in a motel bathtub.
The teenagers were last seen on August 9, 1974, in North Bergen. They had left their homes to travel 13 miles away to Paramus Mall, telling their parents they were taking a bus to go buy bathing suits for an upcoming trip to the New Jersey Shore.
Witnesses told authorities that they had been seen hitchhiking and getting into a man’s car.
Five days later, their nude and beaten bodies were found face down in the woods of North Jersey’s Bergen County.
Cottingham was brought from the state prison in Trenton, New Jersey, to the prosecutor’s Paramus office three times during April with Anzilotti pushing him to finally admit to the murders of Lorraine and Mary Ann. Anzilotti had only days to solve the case before he retired and left the force.
“Seeing how the families are destroyed, you can’t help but feel their pain,” Anzilotti told the Daily Mail. “I think he figured, I’m just going to toy with them, and as long as I can drag it out, I will.”
Anzilotti and Cottingham first met almost 18 years ago, developing a unique bond. Sometimes Cottingham was mean and other times nice to Anzilotti. He would transport the inmate to his office—75 miles each way—where the two of them would play cards and eat pizza with the other detectives.
When it was only the two of them, Anzilotti would begin questioning him about the unresolved cases. It seemed the detective had found Cottingham’s vulnerability. Cottingham would talk excessively on the way back to the prison each time, telling Anzilotti more and more details about the murders of girls. Anzilotti would secretly take notes while sitting in the front seat.
After six years, Cottingham finally began telling Anzilotti things only the killer would know.
Anzilotti believes Cottingham delayed so long because he enjoyed his relationship with the detective.
“He said, ‘I know once I give you that case (Pryor and Kelly), I won’t ever see you again,’” Anzilotti told Daily Mail. “He enjoys our relationship. He enjoys our time together.”
Anzilotti sent for Cottingham and told him he was retiring and that he wanted to close the Pryor and Kelly murder. It took three more meetings to gain an official confession on April 14, 2022, and he pleaded guilty on April 20th.
The detective refused to give up; in turn, he was able to ensure justice prevailed and families who had spent decades not knowing finally had answers.
Befriending a Killer
Jennifer Weiss is the daughter of prostitute Deedeh Goodarzi who was brutalized and beheaded in a hotel room in 1979.
As the daughter of a murder victim, it is hard to imagine “forgiving” the killer, but that is just what Jennifer did.
“Everybody deserves to be forgiven for things in life,” Jennifer told New Jersey.com. “The magnitude of what he did is unfathomable, but I became friends with Richard for my mother’s sake and for my quest.”
Jennifer has made friends with Cottingham to find out where her mother’s head is, and to possibly close other unsolved cases. She sought closure. The questions, and her recovery from breast cancer, provided Jennifer with the courage to pursue the truth.
“I desperately wanted to find Deedeh’s skull and that is the driving force behind what I’m doing,” Jennifer said.
Although she has no assurances what he tells her is the truth, she is getting bits and pieces of the truth. She says she is doing it for the mothers who lost their daughters and for her own mother.
“He was sitting there waiting in the window visit with a sheet of glass in between us. Although the image of him was a little frightening, I wasn’t scared because he was behind glass,” Jennifer says as she recounts her first meeting with Cottingham. “But I was more concerned with finding out about my mom and that was the driving force and I usually forget about everything else when it comes to finding out about my mom.”
Becoming the unlikeliest of friends, Jennifer has visited Cottingham in prison over 30 times.
“I just don’t know what to say to you, or how to say it,” Cottingham wrote. “I can only tell you what’s in my heart and pray that you believe me. I am truly and deeply sorry, so very sorry, for all the pain I have brought into your life.”
With Cottingham in ill health, it is Jennifer’s hope that he will once and for all want to tell her where to find the remains of her mother. Until then, Jennifer will continue to muster the courage that brought her this far.
Cottingham, 75, is serving a life sentence in South Woods State Prison in New Jersey.
It’s unthinkable the years his victim’s families have endured not knowing what happened to their loved ones and the ones who passed away waiting for an answer, yet Cottingham has lived a full life. His crimes forever changed a multitude of families’ lives and justice almost seems elusive.
Netflix has produced a three-part docuseries about the case. Here's the trailer for Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer.
Podcast Episode: The Torso Killer