NEWARK, N.J. – A New Jersey serial killer dubbed the “Torso Killer” because of the violence inflicted on some of his victims has confessed to additional killings, solving the murder case of two teens who were abducted in 1974 on the way to a mall.
Richard Cottingham, 74, pleaded guilty Tuesday to murdering Mary Ann Pryor, 17, and Lorraine Marie Kelly, 16, both of North Bergen. According to The Associated Press, Cottingham confessed to abducting the girls and taking them to a motel room, where he raped them repeatedly over several days before drowning them in the motel bathtub.
He told authorities he forced Kelly into the motel room by force and threatened to hurt her if Pryor didn’t follow. When he needed sleep, Cottingham said he tied the girls up so they could not escape, the AP reported.
After drowning them, he disposed of their bodies in a wooded area in Montvale, about 25 miles from their North Bergen homes.
“He gave details about the murders that only the killer would know,” said Robert Anzilotti, chief of detectives for the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office.
Cottingham, who grew up in River Vale, has been in prison since the 1980s, when he was convicted of the first five murders to which he was linked. A married father of three, he lived in the borough of Lodi at the time of his arrest.
Detectives have now definitively tied him to 11 murders, the AP. He is currently serving sentences that total more than 200 years in prison.
Cottingham is expected to be handed two additional life sentences in July.
Editor’s note: The following story contains extremely graphic details.
Dressed in khaki prison scrubs and seated in a wheelchair, Cottingham appeared virtually Tuesday in Bergen County Superior Court, where he pleaded guilty to two counts of first-degree murder. With his white hair and bushy white beard, he resembled a department store Santa Claus.
Bergen County Prosecutor Mark Musella said in a statement that Cottingham “admitted to kidnapping and raping Pryor and Kelly, and to their willful, deliberate, and premeditated murders between Aug. 9 and Aug. 14, 1974.”
The girls were last seen alive Aug. 9 as they hitchhiked to Garden State Plaza Mall in Paramus. According to the Bergen Record, they were going shopping for new swimsuits for an upcoming trip to the Jersey Shore.
Witnesses last saw them getting into a vehicle driven by a white male.
“After failing to return home that night, the girls were reported missing to the North Bergen Police Department,” Musella said in a news release. “Five days later, on Aug. 14, the bodies of the two missing girls were located in a wooded area of Montvale.”
The AP reported that both teens were found nude, except for jewelry they were wearing. The jewelry helped authorities identify their bodies.
Detectives in North Bergen and Montvale, as well as investigators with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, conducted an extensive investigation into the double murder, but as years passed, all leads were exhausted.
New hope was brought to the investigation six years later, in 1980, when Cottingham was arrested and charged with the rapes, beatings and murders of multiple young women in Bergen County, as well as in New York City.
Investigators on the Pryor-Kelly case were unable to tie him to that crime.
Anzilotti interviewed Cottingham on several occasions over a 15-year span, determined to solve any killings he committed in the 1960s and 1970s, Musella said.
On April 14, Cottingham gave Anzilotti a detailed, sworn statement confessing to killing the two teens.
Anzilotti, who was days away from retirement Tuesday, told the Hackensack Daily Voice that he was glad to finally close the case, which he’s been investigating for about 15 years.
“Mary Ann and Lorraine deserve it, God rest their souls,” Anzilotti told the newspaper.
The seasoned investigator said Cottingham enjoyed playing games with cold case detectives by making them work for each confession he gave them. Cottingham was upset when he learned that Anzilotti was retiring.
“It took some effort to convince him to go to court and let me make it public,” Anzilotti said Tuesday, according to the Daily Voice. “He said he wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t retiring.”
Cottingham’s defense attorney, John Bruno, told the Record after Tuesday’s hearing that Cottingham confessed to the murders to bring the teens’ families closure and to fulfill the promise he’d made to Anzilotti.
The crime “weighs heavily” on Cottingham, the lawyer said.
“He has deep regrets,” Bruno said. “He still doesn’t understand why he did these things. But he feels relief knowing he has come clean for the families and for himself.”
Pryor’s sister, Nancy Pryor, watched the virtual hearing of her sister’s killer. She told PIX11 in New York afterward that she’s been waiting nearly 50 years for answers she’d feared would never come.
“I’m trying to process it,” Pryor told the news station. “I wasn’t expecting it.”
‘I’ll see you later’
In 2016, Pryor recalled at length the day her sister left home for the last time.
“She said, ‘We’ll go to the mall. We’ll take the bus.’ And to me, it was perfectly normal. We took buses everywhere,” Pryor told the Record. “So, that was probably early afternoon, and I said, ‘All right. I guess I’ll see you later.’”
She never saw Mary Ann alive again.
Nancy Pryor began to worry when she came home from her own night out and her sister, who had an earlier curfew, wasn’t home. Their parents had also gone out that evening and had already returned to an empty house.
“Mary Ann had to be home by 10 o’clock, and she was anxious to get back home because she was going to pack to go down the shore,” Pryor said. “When I came home close to probably midnight, the door opened before I could put my key in, and my mother was standing at the door and she’s like, ‘Where is your sister?’ Of course, she started panicking.”
The family grabbed the phone book and began calling Mary Ann’s friends. Their concern was magnified when they called Kelly’s family and learned she had also failed to return home.
Kelly, who lived with her siblings, had lost her mother to cancer two months before the murders, the Record said. Their father had died of emphysema in 1969.
When the Pryors called North Bergen police officials that night, they were told to wait 24 hours to file a missing persons report. Authorities believed Mary Ann might have been a runaway, but her family knew better.
For five days, Wanda and James Pryor awaited news of their daughter. Each time a supposed sighting of the girls was reported, their hopes were raised.
“It was never them,” Nancy Pryor told the Record. “A lot of the girls back then looked exactly the same. Their hair was parted in the middle, long and straight. So, that was a big, huge letdown.
“Everybody thought maybe they were helping. But it just made it harder for us because we had hope.”
The family was listening to the radio on Aug. 14 when a news flash reported two female bodies had been found in the woods in Montvale, up near the New Jersey-New York state line.
Moments later, detectives knocked on the door, the Record reported. The Pryors were needed to identify a body.
Wanda Pryor fainted, her daughter said. Detectives accompanying the family to the morgue stopped at a doctor’s office for Valium to help her through the ordeal.
The family was first asked to identify some jewelry found with the body.
“As soon as I saw the cross, I knew it was her,” Pryor said. “But I still didn’t believe it.”
She and her mother were then taken to the viewing room, where they looked at Mary Ann’s broken body through a window.
“I still have that image in my head and that was 42 years ago,” Pryor told the newspaper. “That’s something you can’t erase.”
Kelly was found wearing a beaded bracelet and a necklace with the inscription “Lorraine and Ricky.” Her boyfriend, Ricky Molinaro, had dropped the girls off at a bus stop for their trip to the mall.
The two friends were laid to rest following a joint funeral, the paper said.
A grisly reign of terror
Investigators in the Pryor-Kelly homicides long suspected Cottingham, a Bronx native whose family had moved to New Jersey when he was a child. His assaults, rapes and murders spanned at least 12 years, according to records.
Cottingham once claimed he has killed between 85 and 100 women, but authorities are skeptical of that number. Many on the long list of his victims survived, including a woman left for dead, but later rescued, in a New York City sewer in 1978.
His youngest known victim was just 13 years old.
The reign of terror came to an end May 22, 1980, when police found Cottingham, then 33, trying to run from a Hasbrouck Heights motel room in which Leslie O’Dell, an 18-year-old sex worker, lay battered, slashed and bitten, her feet bound with handcuffs.
Cottingham had tortured, raped and tried to kill O’Dell by the time a maid heard her screams and summoned officers to the Quality Inn.
O’Dell was one of the few victims who survived. The body of a second sex worker, Valerie Ann Street, had been found stuffed under a bed at the same motel earlier that same month.
Cottingham, who worked as a computer operator for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Greater New York, would soon become known as the “Torso Killer.” A timeline of Cottingham’s life compiled by NJ.com shows that he killed his first known victim when he was just shy of his 21st birthday.
Nancy Schiava Vogel, 29, of Little Ferry, vanished on Oct. 28, 1967, after telling friends she planned to play bingo at a nearby church. According to NJ.com and the Record, she ended up at a shopping mall in Montvale, where she encountered Cottingham.
Vogel and Cottingham, who also lived in Little Ferry at the time, reportedly knew one another.
Vogel’s naked, bound body was found in her car three days later in nearby Ridgefield Park. Her murder remained unsolved until 2010, when Cottingham confessed to the crime.
Jacalyn Harp, 13, of Midland Park, was walking home from band practice July 17, 1968, when Cottingham tried to talk her into getting into his car, NJ.com reported. She resisted and continued walking, but Cottingham drove up ahead of her, parked and chased her down as she ran.
The teen was found strangled the next day.
Nearly a year later, on April 7, 1969, Irene Blase, 18, of Bogota, was shopping in Hackensack when Cottingham asked her to go have a drink with him, according to the news site. She agreed, and they took a bus to another area.
Blase’s body was pulled out of the Saddle River in Saddle Brook the following day. Like Harp, she had been strangled.
Another of the killer’s younger victims, Denise Falasca, was walking along a road in Emerson that July when Cottingham stopped and offered her a ride. The 15-year-old Closter resident accepted the offer and was subsequently strangled and, like Blase before her, dumped in Saddle Brook, authorities said.
The murders of Harp, Blase and Falasca remained unsolved until last year, when authorities announced that Cottingham had confessed to killing each of them.
Cottingham’s killing spree, which up to that point had produced a victim about once a year, saw an apparent lull until the double murder of Pryor and Kelly in the summer of 1974. Another three years passed after their slayings.
Into the fires
Maryann Carr, a married 26-year-old X-ray technician from Little Ferry, was abducted Dec. 15, 1977, from the Ledgewood Terrace apartments, where Cottingham had once lived. Her body was found discarded along a chain-link fence behind the same Quality Inn in Hasbrouck Heights where the killer would later be arrested in 1980.
There was a two-year break after Carr’s murder but when the killings resumed, their grotesque nature led to Cottingham’s “Torso Killer” nickname. The location of the killings also earned him the moniker “Times Square Ripper.”
New York City firefighters were called the morning of Dec. 2, 1979, to a room on the fourth floor of the Travel Inn on West 42nd Street, blocks from Times Square in one direction and the Hudson River in the other. According to the New York Daily News, a firefighter who worked his way through the smoke in room 417 spotted two bodies on the room’s twin beds.
Firefighter James Rogers later told the newspaper that he grabbed the closest body and pulled her out of the room.
“I carried her out the door and put her down on the hall floor,” Rogers said. “I was preparing to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation, which is standard procedure, when I suddenly noticed there was no head.”
Both women found in the room had been beheaded and their hands were missing. Their bodies had then been doused with lighter fluid and set on fire.
“I’m used to seeing charred bodies, but this was the worst experience I’ve ever had in 12 years of firefighting,” Rogers told the Daily News in 2012.
It took two months, and photos of the victims’ clothing broadcast on the television news, before authorities were able to identify one of the women as Deedah Godzari, a 22-year-old Kuwait immigrant who had been working in the city as a sex worker. Godzari also had a Caesarean scar from giving birth to a baby girl 18 months before the murder.
She’d given the baby up for adoption. Her daughter, Jennifer Weiss, later visited Cottingham in prison and the pair became unlikely friends, NJ.com reported.
The second victim from the hotel room, believed to be about 16 years old, has never been identified.
Hotel workers described the man who’d rented the room four days before the fire as a sandy-haired man in his 30s who registered as “Carl Wilson” of New Jersey, the Daily News reported. The guest, who had put up a “Do Not Disturb” sign on the door, was not heard from by employees again.
It was unclear if he had picked up both women at the same time or one at a time over the four-day span in which he stayed in the room.
Cottingham took the victims’ heads and hands with him when he left. The body parts have never been found.
Following the double murder of Godzari and Jane Doe, Cottingham’s remaining crimes came one after another in a flurry of unspeakable violence. Five months after the pair were slain in New York, their killer was back at the Quality Inn in Hasbrouck Heights where he’d dumped Carr’s body more than two years earlier.
A housekeeping employee vacuuming a room May 5, 1980, discovered the body of Valerie Street, 19, stuffed under the bed. Street, who was a sex worker, had been bound with handcuffs, and traces of adhesive tape were found on her mouth. Cottingham’s thumbprint would later be found on one of the stainless steel cuffs binding Street’s wrists.
She’d been beaten, her breasts mutilated and she had bite marks on her body. Her cause of death was asphyxiation, authorities said.
Just 10 days after Street was found, New York City firefighters were once again called to a crime scene, this one at the historic Seville Hotel on East 29th Street, off Madison Avenue.
There, they found the body of another sex worker, 25-year-old Jean Reyner, who had been strangled and had her throat cut.
Though Reyner’s head and hands were left intact, Cottingham removed her breasts and left them on the headboard of the bed as a grisly calling card for police. He then set the room ablaze.
A week later, O’Dell’s screams alerted that maid at the Quality Inn in Hasbrouck Heights and Cottingham was arrested.
At trial, some of Cottingham’s surviving victims testified about having drinks with him and getting very sleepy, the Daily News reported. Cottingham, who had a stockpile of sedatives, is believed to have drugged his victims, who would then wake up in a motel room, where they would be tortured and raped.
Most survived, but some did not make it out of the motel rooms alive.
Cottingham was convicted at multiple trials of the murders of Godzari, Jane Doe and Reyner in New York, as well as the murders of Street and Carr in New Jersey.
He is housed at the New Jersey State Prison in Trenton.
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