New Jersey’s Torso Killer Pleads Guilty to Brutal 1968 Rape and Murder

Mall Killing Serial Killer - Credit: Mary Altaffer/Pool/AP
Mall Killing Serial Killer - Credit: Mary Altaffer/Pool/AP

Ailing serial killer Richard Cottingham — a.k.a. the Torso Killer — pleaded guilty to the 1968 murder of Long Island mother Diane Cusick Monday in front of a Nassau County, New York judge, as well as four other Nassau County murders (per Newsday). He was charged with 25 years to life for the crime and received immunity for the four other killings in exchange for the Cusick confession.

Cottingham was charged with the brutal rape and murder of the dance instructor this past summer. According to CBS, authorities believe Cottingham posed as a security guard or police officer and accused Cusick of stealing in the parking lot of a local mall, using that feigned authority to overpower her. Cottingham’s conviction was the result of the oldest DNA hit to lead to a prosecution in the U.S.

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The four other victims were 21-year-old housekeeper Mary Beth Heinz; 23-year-old mother of two Laverne Moye; 33-year-old mother of three Sheila Heima; and Maria Emerita Rosado Nieves of Manhattan.

Cottingham claims to have begun murdering people — mostly women — when he was still a teen growing up in New Jersey. He says he has killed more than 100 people. “For a long time now I have been trying to understand the darkness that enveloped my soul during my youth,” Cottingham previously told Rolling Stone. “Remorse back then wasn’t part of my thought process. When the sun went down, and the moon came up, the animal form that is in all of us came out and controlled my actions.”

A divorced computer operator who frequented sex clubs, Cottingham was arrested on May 22, 1980, after attempting to murder 18-year-old Leslie Ann O’Dell at the Hasbrouck Heights Quality Inn in New Jersey. He previously left the remains of another victim, 19-year-old Valerie Ann Street, at the same hotel. Initially, Cottingham was convicted of five murders and sentenced to life in prison. His known victims at the time were Street; radiologist MaryAnn Carr of Little Ferry, who was also left in the Quality Inn parking lot, in 1977; sex worker Deedeh Goodarzi and an unidentified friend; and 25-year-old Jean Mary Ann Reyner. Goodarzi and her friend were discovered dismembered and aflame in a Times Square hotel room in 1979, their heads were never found, giving Cottingham his grisly nickname.

With the help of law enforcement — and serial killer expert Peter Vronsky and victims’ family members, Goodarzi’s daughter Jennifer Weiss included — Cottingham began confessing to still more murders in 2010. First, there was the 1967 murder of 29-year-old Nancy Schiava Vogel, a New Jersey mother of two who was found, strangled and nude, in her car. In 2020, Cottingham confessed to the strangling deaths of 18-year-old Irene Blase in 1969, 15-year-old Denise Falasca that same year, and 13-year-old Jackie Harp in 1968. And in 2021, he confessed to the 1974 murders of 17-year-old Mary Ann Pryor and her friend, 16-year-old Lorraine Kelly.

In August, Vronsky held a press conference with Weiss and Sonia Ruiz McGraw — granddaughter of murder victim Lorraine McGraw — to announce that Cottingham had confessed to the 1970 strangulation of Lorraine. McGraw was a sex worker who was found dead on what was then known as a lover’s lane in Nyack, New York, near an abandoned water tower. McGraw says that her death had an incalculable effect on her family, especially her mother, who was a child at the time and has never recovered. “I want him to be responsible for his actions,” she said at the presser. “What he did to my grandmother has not only affected her daughter, but also her granddaughter.” Cottingham has not been charged with this crime.

Just who has been responsible for Cottingham’s 10-plus-year streak of confessions is up for debate. Vronsky — who is in almost constant contact with the serial killer — claims Cottingham has been coming clean because of the time he, Weiss, and McGraw have spent with him. Former Bergen County Chief of Police Robert Anzilotti — who worked on Cottingham’s case for 17 years — credits authorities. “I don’t think they have a clue on how the [confessions] came about,” Anzilotti previously told Rolling Stone of Weiss and Vronsky. “There’s a big difference between the [what] I’ve gotten out of him and them talking to him.”

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