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The chilling crimes of the Torso Killer

Richard Cottingham in a hospital bed - 2022
Image: Richard Cottingham appears via video link at his arraignment | Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo - Background:

From 1967 to 1980, Richard Cottingham was responsible for the deaths of at least 11 young women and girls in New York and New Jersey. However, it’s speculated he may have up to 100 victims. He gained notoriety under several monikers including the New York Ripper, the Torso Killer, and the Times Square Killer, before eventually being captured on 22nd May 1980.

For more than a decade, Cottingham had been working for the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Greater New York. He resided in Lodi, New Jersey, with his wife, Janet, and their three children, enjoying a comfortable family life. His daily routine involved commuting to New York for the 4pm-11pm shift. However, after the birth of their third child in 1976, Janet observed a change in her husband's behaviour, as he began to refuse sex.

Their relationship slowly deteriorated, leading them to live separate lives. Cottingham's late returns from work often carried the scent of alcohol and there were instances where he would vanish for days at a time. Cottingham had kept a locked room in their basement. One afternoon, when it was left unlocked, Janet stumbled upon women's underwear and cheap jewellery. Unbeknownst to her then, her husband had already taken his first steps to becoming a serial killer.

On the morning of 16th December 1977, the lifeless body of 26-year-old nurse Maryann Carr was found strangled in the parking lot of the Quality Inn motel on Route 17 in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey. Despite being discovered in her nurse's uniform, her shoes were noticeably absent. Visible marks on her wrists and ankles suggested that her legs had been handcuffed together, while her arms were bound with rope.

Two years later, on 2nd December 1979, firefighters in New York responded to a fire at the Travel Inn Motor Lodge in Manhattan. Upon extinguishing the blaze, they discovered the nude bodies of two women on separate beds in a fourth-floor room. The victims had been decapitated and their hands were also severed. Despite the mutilation, it was discernible that both women were young, likely in their late teens or early twenties. An investigation revealed the presence of a flammable liquid splashed on the beds and between the women's legs, serving as an accelerant for the fire.

After the grim discovery, detectives learned that a man using the name Carl Wilson, from Merlin, New Jersey, had checked into the room. However, it soon became clear that both the name and the town were fictitious. Unbeknownst to the detectives, the man was actually Richard Cottingham.

In the subsequent month, one of the victims was identified as Deedeh Goodarzi, a 22-year-old sex worker who also went by the names Jacquelyn Thomas and Sabrina. Due to the absence of her head and hands, her identification was made using X-rays of her bones. The other woman's identity remained unknown, although detectives presumed she was also involved in sex work.

On 5th May 1980, the nude body of 19-year-old sex worker Valerie Street was discovered underneath the bed in Room 132 of the Quality Inn. She had been handcuffed, bitten, raped, and then strangled to death. She had checked into the motel between 3am and 4am the previous day, signing the register with the fictitious name Shelly Dudley. 10 days later, 25-year-old Mary Ann Jean Reyner was discovered dead in the Seville Hotel in New York City. Mary was a sex worker and she had been stabbed to death.

On 22nd May, 18-year-old sex worker Leslie Ann O'Dell was soliciting clients approximately four blocks from the Seville Hotel. A man, who introduced himself as Tommy and displayed a roll of bills, approached her. This man was Richard Cottingham. After negotiating a price, Cottingham drove Leslie to the Quality Inn motel, the same location where Valerie Street had been killed. Despite appearing amiable initially, Cottingham's demeanour swiftly changed as soon as they were in bed. He brandished a gun and handcuffed her wrists. She recollected, ‘He told me to shut up, that I was a whore and I had to be punished. He said the other girls took it and I had to take it, too.’

Over the next three hours, Valerie endured a terrifying ordeal of sexual abuse and torture at the hands of Cottingham. At one point, she managed to seize the gun Cottingham had hidden under the bed. In an attempt to defend herself, she tried to shoot him, only to realise that the weapon was a fake. Failing to fire, Cottingham lunged at her with a knife, prompting Valerie to scream. Her screams alerted a nearby maid doing her rounds. The maid promptly contacted the front desk, who in turn alerted the police. When officers arrived at the scene, Cottingham made an effort to flee.

Richard Cottingham was arrested at gunpoint in the hallway of the motel. A case in his possession was subsequently searched, revealing an assortment of items including three sets of handcuffs, a switchblade knife, a fake gun, leather slave collars, a leather mouth gag and various pills. He was charged with kidnapping, attempted murder, aggravated assault, and aggravated sexual assault. Recognising the striking similarities between Valerie's attack and the pattern of the other unsolved murders, detectives began to connect the dots. Upon searching Cottingham's home, they found his locked room in the basement. Inside, they discovered a collection of jewellery and clothing that linked him to the unresolved murders.

Richard Cottingham faced charges for the five murders and was subjected to trials in both New Jersey and New York. In one of the trials, he took the stand to testify in his own defence. Addressing the jury, he stated, ‘The whole idea of bondage has aroused and fascinated me since I was very young.’ Cottingham asserted his innocence, contending that the incident with Leslie was a case of a woman agreeing to participate in various sexual acts for a fee of $180.

Ultimately, Cottingham was convicted of the five murders and was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. He persistently maintained his innocence until 2009, when he confessed to the five murders. Subsequently, his confessions continued, and according to his own account, he was responsible for the deaths of up to 100 women, starting with the murder of Nancy Vogel in 1967.

As of 2023, Cottingham has been found guilty of 11 murders, and law enforcement agencies in various jurisdictions in New York and New Jersey are still investigating old cases that may be connected to him.