Warning: The following contains disturbing descriptions of violence, including sexual violence. Reader discretion is advised.
In a court photo from April 2021, Richard Cottingham, with his bushy white beard and round belly, bears a striking resemblance to Santa Claus—or someone’s favorite grandpa. New York’s Daily News described Cottingham as “too ridiculously normal to be a serial killer.”
But that is exactly what Cottingham was: a brutal murderer.
Between 1967 and 1980, Cottingham is known to have sexually assaulted, tortured and killed at least 11 girls and women, many of whom were sex workers in the New York and New Jersey area. He earned the nicknames the “Torso Killer” and “Times Square Torso Ripper,” after two victims were found savagely dismembered and decapitated, then set on fire, in a Times Square motel in 1979.
[Watch Invisible Monsters: Serial Killers in America in the A&E App.]
Cottingham, now 75, claims to have killed up to 100 women. As he lingers in prison, his health declining, investigators are racing against time, hoping to connect the serial killer to similar unsolved murders. In early 2021, he officially confessed to the 1974 abduction, rape and murder of two teenaged girls, bringing closure to one decades-old cold case.
“He’s not in great shape, and it appears his health is failing,” Steve Janoski, a staff writer with North Jersey Media Group who has covered Cottingham’s hearings, tells A&E True Crime. “I think that played a role in him admitting to additional murders, because he knows he’s getting close to the end.”
Cottingham’s Life Before His Arrest
Many serial killers endured troubled childhoods and came from broken homes. But not Cottingham, who was born in the Bronx borough of New York City in 1946 and grew up mostly in New Jersey in a comfortable Catholic household. While he did struggle making friends in school, as a teenager Cottingham joined the cross country and track teams. He graduated from high school in 1964 and immediately went to work as a computer operator at Metropolitan Life, where his father was a vice president.
In 1966, he accepted a position with Blue Cross Blue Shield, another insurance giant, in New York, where he worked until his arrest in 1980. He married in 1970 and had three children with his wife Janet. Before police suspected him of murder, Cottingham was arrested on several minor offenses, including drunk driving in 1969 and shoplifting in 1972. He spent less than a week in jail for the charges and paid $100 in combined fines. In 1973, things escalated when he was charged with robbery, sexual assault and sodomy in New York—likely with a Times Square sex worker—but the case was dismissed.
“Cottingham knew he could easily become a person of interest to law enforcement, but he also knew how to evade suspicion and arrest and keep a low profile,” New Jersey-based investigator Rod Leith, a former intelligence officer and newspaper reporter who spent years investigating and writing about Cottingham, tells A&E True Crime.
Cottingham’s first known victim was Nancy Schiava Vogel, a 29-year-old mother. Authorities discovered Vogel’s lifeless body inside her car in 1967, three days after she was last seen on her way to play bingo at her church. In 1979, firefighters found the bodies of 23-year-old Deedeh Goodarzi and “Jane Doe,” an unidentified woman, inside a hotel near Times Square. They had been dismembered and set on fire, with their heads and hands missing from the scene and never recovered.
Later, investigators were able to link the 1977 murder of 26-year-old x-ray technician Maryann Carr to the murder of 19-year-old Valerie Ann Street in 1980. Both women were killed at the same Quality Inn motel in New Jersey. On May 15, 1980, at the Seville Hotel in Manhattan, Cottingham mutilated and strangled 25-year-old Jean Reyner before cutting her throat and setting her on fire. A week later, on May 22, 1980, Cottingham solicited another sex worker and began torturing her at the same Quality Inn where he had brought previous victims. When the motel staff heard the woman’s cries for help, they called police and he was arrested.
“An FBI fingerprint specialist, brought in to assist the Bergen County prosecutor, discovered Cottingham’s thumb print on the stainless-steel handcuff found on the wrists of the strangled body of Valerie Ann Street,” says Leith.
At his first trial in 1981, Cottingham received a sentence of 173 to 197 years in prison for the murder and sexual assault of Street. He was convicted of murder, kidnapping and sexual assault in several additional trials and sent to New Jersey State Prison in Trenton, New Jersey.
Cottingham Confesses to Other Murders, Closing Cold Cases
Over a period of 21 years, Robert Anzilotti, a detective with New Jersey’s Bergen County prosecutor’s office, investigated a number of unsolved cold cases, some which he believed to be connected to Cottingham. Anzilotti often met with the convicted serial killer, who came to trust the detective.
“They formed a very odd sort of relationship,” says Janoski. “Anzilotti told me that Cottingham looked at him like he was his surrogate son. Cottingham was proud of him as he climbed the ranks and then he would get mad at him for something, and they wouldn’t speak for a while.”
Anzilotti used Cottingham’s trust to elicit more confessions and solve some of the cold cases he was investigating. In 2014, Cottingham admitted to murdering three teenagers—Jacalyn Harp, 13, Irene Blase, 15 and Denise Falasca, 16—in the late 1960s. As an alleged “retirement present” to Anzilotti in early 2021, Cottingham also confessed to the 1974 double-abduction and killings of Lorraine Kelly, 16, and Mary Ann Pryor, 17, two friends who had been headed to the mall together to buy bathing suits.
“At the hearing [in April 2021], Cottingham was non-expressive, kind of stone faced,” says Janoski, who attended the virtual hearing. “He didn’t say anything to the victims’ families. It was pretty much just a series of ‘yes’ and ‘no’ answers.”
Where is Cottingham Today?
After his arrest and initial conviction, Cottingham attempted suicide several times. Now in a wheelchair, and in deteriorating health, he remains incarcerated at the state prison in New Jersey.
Cottingham’s record of multiple murders never gained the notoriety of the sensationalized serial killings perpetrated by Jeffrey Dahmer and John Wayne Gacy. According to Leith, news outlets’ attention to Cottingham’s murders was short-lived in New Jersey and his New York-based crimes—against mostly sex workers—got lost in the city’s tabloid crime coverage of the time, which had plenty of high-profile murder and mayhem to chronicle.
“Until the explosion of awareness about sexual violence, brought on by the Me Too movement,” says Leith, “crimes against sex workers were largely ignored by the general media.”
Although Cottingham admitted to additional murders and even told his lawyer he wanted to come clean and give some closure to the families, neither Janoski nor Leith believes he has remorse for his crimes.
“These admissions could be interpreted as self-serving,” says Leith. “For Cottingham, a very psychologically ill sadist, the ‘confessions’ brought him long-denied attention.”