Richard Francis Cottingham is a serial killer
from New Jersey operating in New York between 1967 and 1980. He was
nicknamed 'the torso killer', due to his habit of dismembering his
victims, usually leaving nothing but a torso behind.
In one case, he dismembered two prostitutes in a
motel room, taking the hands and heads with him before setting the room
on fire. He was eventually convicted of murder in 1981 after being
caught fleeing an attempted murder.
Several books have been written about him including
The Torso Killer and "The Prostitute Murders" (ISBN
1-55817-518-0) both written by Rod Leith, a newspaper writer and local
historian who had covered Cottingham's case from the beginning.
Officially Cottingham killed six people but he claims between 85 and 100
Richard Francis Cottingham
On December 2, 1979, Fireman in New York responded to
an alarm at a shitty little hotel near Times Square. When they forced
their way inside and put the fire out they found something more than
burnt furniture. Stretched out on the beds were two headless corpses.
They bodies also had their hands removed. They had been doused with
lighter fluid and set alight. The missing body part were never found,
but once x-rayed one victim was identified as Deedeh Goodarzi, 22, an
immigrant from Kuwait who was working as a prostitute. The other
headless corpse was never identified.
Homicide detectives linked the murder with that of the
murder of teenage hooker Helen Sikes. She had gone missing from Times
Square in January 1979. When found her head was hanging by a thread. Her
legs had also been hacked off, and were eventually found a block away
from the rest of the body. The legs were laying side by side as if still
attached to a body.
On May 5, 1980, police found another prostitute,
Valerie Streets, dead in a motel room. She had been beaten and strangled
then stuffed under the bed of the room. She had been given one hell of a
beating and her killer had eaten away at her nipples, almost severing
one. This murder was linked to an earlier murder in the same motel.
Maryann Carr was also brutally beaten, but police could not positively
link the crimes.
On May 15 another prostitute was found murdered in a
motel room. Jean Reyner was stabbed to death in a motel near Time Square.
Her breasts had been hacked off and her body was set on fire. This time
it seems the police were able to link this crime.
One week later police were called to the same motel,
but this time it was for a disturbance. Someone had called about a girl
screaming, as if she was being tortured. When police arrived they caught
a man trying to flee the room. When they entered the room they found a
young girl handcuffed to the bed. She was in hysterics, crapping on
about what this guy had put her through. She had been beaten, raped,
sodomized and forced at knife point to give the man a blow job. he had
also stabbed her and bit almost right through her nipples.
Richard Francis Cottingham was arrested for the attack.
At a glance it would seem he was a very unlikely suspect. He was a
respected family man and had a good job in computers for a major health
insurance firm. But once police searched him and his house it would
reveal a different story.
When arrested he had handcuffs, a leather gag,
two slave collars, a switchblade, a replica pistols and a shitload of
pills. At his house he had a trophy room where he kept some personal
stuff from some of the victims also. His wife had recently filed for
divorce and he was a known regular at certain gay bars.
While in prison police were building a very strong
case against Cottingham and had found three surviving victims. The
attacks on these three had taken place in 1978, one year before his
first known murder.
He was eventually found guilty of Valerie Streets,
drawing a sentence of 173 to 197 years in prison. In two following
trials he was found guilty of four second degree murders. One would
doubt that Richard Cottingham will be freed in the near future.
One month before his arrest Cottingham's wife filed
for divorce citing 'extreme cruelty'. She also claimed that he had
refused sex with her since 1976.
While in prison Cottingham smashed his glasses and
attempted to take his own life. But he fucked up and just ended up with
out his glasses for a while.
The Wacky World of Murder
Bergen man convicted of decades-old killings,
admits to fatal strangling of N.J. woman
September 19, 2010
Bergen County authorities say a man who brutally
murdered five women in the late 1970s and early 1980s has admitted to
another long-ago slaying.
County Prosecutor John Molinelli told The Record that
Richard Cottingham pleaded guilty last month in the 1967 slaying of
Nancy Schiava Vogel.
The 29-year-old married mother of two was strangled,
and her nude, bound body was found in her car in nearby Ridgefield Park.
She had been last seen three days earlier, when she left home to play
bingo with friends at a local church.
Molinelli said Cottingham and Vogel — both Little
Ferry residents — knew each other, and it's believed that he killed her
inside her vehicle.
The resolution of the Vogel case, Molinelli told the
newspaper, was "the culmination of years of traveling to the prison" to
talk with Cottingham, and part of the office's ongoing effort to close
unsolved murder cases.
Cottingham first drew the attention of authorities in
May 1980, when he was arrested for the attempted murder and rape of an
18-year-old prostitute at a Hasbrouck Heights motel. A maid heard
screams coming from a room, where police found a woman with handcuffs on
her ankles, bite marks on one breast and a knife wound below it.
The subsequent investigation linked him to other
attacks in north Jersey and New York City that had occurred during the
previous three years. Cottingham eventually was convicted of two murders
and the kidnappings and assaults of three other women in Bergen County
and the murders of three prostitutes in New York — two of whom he
dismembered, cutting off their heads, hands and feet.
Now 63 and an inmate at New Jersey State Prison in
Trenton, Cottingham received a life term for the Vogel slaying. He
received sentences totaling more than 200 years for the other killings,
and this term will run concurrent to those sentences.
Molinelli would not comment on whether Cottingham is
a suspect in any other cold case slayings in the county.
"We always look at many past defendants for possible
connections with all cases, but we have nothing active at this time," he
Cottingham, Richard Francis
On December 2, 1979, New York City firemen responded to an alarm at a seedy hotel on West 42nd Street, not far from Times Square. They fought their way through smoky corridors to quench a blaze inside one room, discovering two women's bodies there. Stretched out on separate beds, the headless corpses also had their hands removed, legs doused with lighter fluid and set on fire.
The missing parts were never found, but X-rays identified one victim as 22-year-old Deedeh Goodarzi, a Kuwaiti immigrant who earned her living as a prostitute. Goodarzi's young companion in death was never identified. The crime reminded homicide detectives of another unsolved case.
Teenage hooker Helen Sikes had disappeared from Times Square in January, turning up in Queens, her throat slashed so deeply that she was nearly decapitated. Her severed legs were found a block away, laid side-by-side in ritual fashion, as if still attached to the body.
There were no leads in either case, and police were no closer to a suspect on May 5, 1980, when teenaged prostitute Valerie Street was found beaten and strangled, stuffed beneath a bed at a motel in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey. In addition to the savage beating, her breasts had been gnawed so violently that one nipple was nearly severed.
Detectives recalled that a young nurse, Maryann Carr, had been brutally slain at the same motel on December 16, 1977, but the connections seemed tenuous, at best.
The similarities were obvious on May 15, when prostitute Jean Reyner was found stabbed to death in a 29th Street hotel near Times Square, her breasts severed, the body set afire.
A week later, on May 22, officers were called back to the motel in Hasbrouck Heights, responding to reports of a woman screaming. They bagged a man emerging from the room, and went inside to find his teenage victim naked, handcuffed to the bed, hysterical from pain and fear. She had been beaten, raped and sodomized, forced to perform oral sex at knifepoint, after which her assailant slashed her with his blade, biting her breasts until they bled.
The prisoner, 33-year-old Richard Cottingham, made an unlikely suspect at first glance. A respected family man from Lodi, New Jersey, he ran computers for a major health insurance firm. On the other hand, arresting officers had relieved him of handcuffs, a leather gag and two "slave" collars, a switchblade and replica pistol, plus several bottles of pills.
A search of Cottingham's home turned up a bizarre "trophy room," containing personal effects from several of the murdered prostitutes. Investigation of the suspect's background revealed two arrests for consorting with hookers in the early 1970s, with both cases dismissed.
In April 1980, Cottingham's wife had filed for divorce, charging him with "extreme cruelty" and refusal to engage in marital sex since late 1976. The divorce affidavits further alleged that Cottingham was an habitual, patron of gay bars and homosexual "spas" in Manhattan. Despondent in custody, Cottingham smashed a lens of his spectacles and attempted suicide by slashing his wrists with the glass.
Surviving that attempt and two others, he was held under $250,000 bond while detectives built their overwhelming case against him. In addition to multiple murder counts, Cottingham was linked with the brutal abduction and rape of three surviving victims -- including two prostitutes and a young housewife -- during 1978.
In May 1981, Cottingham was convicted on fifteen felony counts related to the murder of Valerie Street, drawing a sentence of 173 to 197 years in prison. A year later, conviction on second-degree murder charges in the death of Maryann Carr added another sentence of 20 years to life.
In 1984, convicted on three counts of second-degree murder, involving Times Square prostitutes, Cottingham earned a final sentence of 75 years to life.
By Peter Vronsky
I bumped into
Richard Cottingham for about ten seconds one early Sunday morning in New
York City in December 1979.
I was working as
a production assistant on a movie being shot in Toronto. My job was to
fly out to New York every few days and personally deliver our exposed
film for a special type of processing at a laboratory located near the
Times Square area. It was a great gig: I would fly into New York in the
morning and quickly drop off the film, and then I was on my own until it
was ready for pick up the next day.
Usually I would
be handed an airline ticket and an envelope of cash, and I was expected
to arrange my own hotel and meals. Film crews routinely stayed at good
business-class hotels—Sheraton, Hilton, and so on— and I’d be given
enough cash to stay and eat in those kinds of places.
having backpacked to New York previously and slept on the floor of
CBGB’s on the Bowery and fed myself on cheese and wine by attending
gallery openings, I couldn’t care less about upscale accommodations. I
was content to routinely book cheap tourist-class hotel rooms on my film
deliveries. I would spend the cash I saved on clubbing, record albums,
books, and electronics. But on one such trip I went too far.
technical delay at the lab forced me to stay an entire weekend in New
York. In order to stretch out my expense cash for the extra unexpected
nights, I decided to check into a really marginal hotel on the last day.
Early on a
Sunday morning, I walked over to a nondescript medium-sized hotel on
West 42nd Street, about two blocks from the Hudson River near the
collapsed husks of the West Side Highway. Offering bargain rates, the
hotel was located near nothing—no convenient subway station, no tourist
sites, no office buildings—in what was at that time a derelict
neighborhood around Tenth Avenue deserving of its historical name,
The hotel was
even inconvenient for the junkies and hookers who hung out in Taxi
Driver country a few blocks west on what was then called the
forty-deuce—a sleazy stretch of West 42nd Street lined with porn shops,
live sex shows, and knife stores that ran from Broadway and past the bus
terminal toward Eighth and Ninth Avenues. The hotel had bargain rates
but for the price it appeared to be clean and secure enough, and within
quick walking distance of the film lab I would have to go to early the
I showed up
without a reservation and was told that a room would be ready for me
shortly if I would wait about half an hour, as people were checking out.
I decided that in the meantime I would go up and wander around a few
floors just to see how bad the place might really be. As I waited at the
elevator, I was mildly annoyed to see that it had stopped for what
seemed an eternity on the top floor.
stalled elevator began to come down, and when the doors opened,
presumably the jerk who had held the elevator on the upper floor got
off. He almost walked over me like some kind of glassy-eyed zombie,
looking right through me and brushing me aside as if I were not there.
As he passed me by heading into the lobby he lightly bumped my leg with
a bag or a suitcase or something.
I never noticed
what exactly he carried, nor could I today describe the feel of it
against my leg. The only other thing I would later remember was that he
seemed to glow with a thin sheen of perspiration and he had this really
bad moplike haircut. He appeared to be in his midthirties with
sandycolored hair and looked like a junior pasty-faced office
worker—which was precisely what he turned out to be later (although he
was described by other witnesses as having an “olive” complexion).
By the time the
elevator doors closed behind me, I had forgotten all about him. I took
the elevator up and got off on one of the floors at random. I
immediately noticed a faint but distinct odor of something burning, but
I did not see any smoke and thought it was the natural smell of the
hotel. As I walked around the halls I did not detect anything
particularly nasty about the place, but I did notice the smell getting
stronger, and now with an unmistakable underlying back-odor of burnt
chicken feathers or hair. I did not know it at the time, but that was
the smell of roasting human flesh.
In the corridor
my eyes were drawn to several elusively small, dark, greasy slivers of
sooty substances floating and circulating in the air like tiny black
snowflakes. When I caught one, it stained my fingers black. As I moved
along the hall it seemed to get lightly misty and the smell was now
unquestionably that of a building fire—that kind of woody-paint burning
smell. I heard all sorts of commotion and shouting in the stairwells and
fire alarms began ringing. I quickly made my way down to the lobby,
emerging just as the fire department was pulling up in the street
All this gave me
a bad vibe about the place (to say the least) and I left almost
immediately to seek out another hotel without a glance backward.
The next morning
I read in the newspapers that firemen responding to flames in one of the
rooms of the hotel had discovered the corpses of two murdered women laid
out on twin beds that had been set on fire. A firefighter had dragged
one of the women out of the smoky room into the hallway and attempted to
give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation only to discover that she had no
head or hands. At first he thought it was a mannequin.
veteran of the NYFD, the firefighter said he nearly had to undergo
trauma counseling afterwards: “I’ve never come across something like
that. I hope I never do again.”
clothing was found folded in the bathtub in two neat stacks with their
platform shoes on top of each pile. Except for blood on the mattresses,
the hotel room was remarkably free of any bloodstains, fingerprints, or
any other evidence. Whatever the killer used to dismember the bodies, he
took it with him. In addition to the mutilation, the bodies showed signs
of horrific torture—cigarette burns, beatings, and bite marks around the
At the time I
never made the connection with the man I bumped into at the elevator. I
did not even remember him. Somehow my wandering around the hotel in the
black floating flakes, the fire alarm going off, and finding the fire
engines outside all overwhelmed the minor memory of him.
He came to me
only later when Richard Cottingham was arrested and tried for the
mutilation murders of young women, mostly prostitutes in New York and
New Jersey, including the two victims at the hotel. Seeing his picture
in the paper, I immediately recognized him: the bad haircut and pasty
Since then I
always assumed that when he stepped by me in the elevator that Sunday
morning, he must have been carrying the severed heads and hands with
him. I could not imagine him taking the risk of leaving two headless
corpses unattended in the hotel room to go out and dump the heads and
hands and then return to set fire to the room.
Whatever he had
transported the heads in, it must have been what he brushed my leg with
as he stepped by me in the elevator doors. (On the other hand, did he
kill one woman and leave her body in the room, then go out to seek out
another, or were they both alive together before he killed them?
Cottingham never said.)
Cottingham, age thirty-four, I learned, was the recently separated
father of three children and lived in suburban New Jersey. Neighbors
typically described him as aloof and private but a doting father who
always took his children out trick-or-treating on Halloween.
The son of an
insurance industry executive, a high school athlete but nonetheless a
lonely boy, Richard had been steadily employed for the last sixteen
years as a computer operator at Empire State Blue Cross–Blue Shield
insurance company on Third Avenue in midtown Manhattan. He was a valued
and dependable employee. Choosing the 3:00–11:00 P.M. shift, he would do
his killing in the morning, after work at night, or on the weekends.
The heads and
hands from the victims in the Times Square hotel were never found
despite an extensive search by police of the river area nearby.
One victim was
identified through hospital X rays as Kuwaiti-born Deedah Godzari, a
twenty-three-year-old prostitute from New Jersey and mother of a
four-month baby. The other victim, estimated to be in her late teens,
remains unidentified to this day.
later, Cottingham killed and mutilated another New York prostitute,
twenty-five-year-old Jean Mary Ann Reyner. She was found in the historic
but declined Seville Hotel on 29th Street near Madison Avenue.
This time he
severed the victim’s breasts and set them down side by side on the
headboard of the bed before setting fire to the room.
actually preferred to do his thing closer to home in New Jersey. He
would either pick up his victims on the streets of Manhattan or meet
them in bars. Either way, he would buy them drinks or dinner and slip a
date rape–type drug into their glass. He then would maneuver or lure the
semiconscious victims to his car and drive them across the river to New
Jersey to cheap motels that lined the complex of highways there. He
carried them in through motel back doors and then molested and tortured
them in his room for extended periods of time.
The lucky ones
would later awake from the effects of the drug finding themselves raped
and sodomized and covered with horrific wounds, dumped naked by a
roadside or on the floor of a motel room with little memory of what had
They were alive
because Cottingham was a particular type of serial killer—an
angerexcitation or sadistic-lust offender. Cottingham did not derive his
pleasure from killing, but from torturing the victim. He couldn’t care
less whether the victim lived or died once he was finished with his
torture—and if the victim did die during the attack before Cottingham
was satisfied, he would continue abusing the corpse until satisfied.
Once done, he would abandon the victim like “trash,” and whether she was
dead or alive was inconsequential to him. Some victims were lucky to
survive, but others were not.
The body of
nineteen-year-old Valerie Ann Street was found in a Hasbrouck Heights
Quality Inn in New Jersey by housekeeping staff. A cleaning woman was
attempting to vacuum the floor under the bed but something was jammed
under it. Lifting up the mattress, she found a hideously disfigured
corpse stuffed underneath the bed.
hands were tightly handcuffed behind her back; she was covered in bite
marks and was beaten across the shins. Valerie Street had died of
asphyxiation and traces of adhesive tape were found on her mouth.
Cottingham had carefully taken it away with him after killing the girl.
He must have lost the key to the handcuffs, as he left them behind still
restraining the victim—a fatal mistake, as police would lift his
fingerprint from the inner ratchet of the cuffs.
One of the
victims was not a prostitute. Twenty-six-year-old radiologist Mary Ann
Carr had been found dumped by a chain-link fence near the parking lot of
the same New Jersey motel two years previously. She had been cut about
the chest and legs, beaten with a blunt instrument, and covered in bites
and bruises. Her wrists showed marks from handcuffs and her mouth had
traces of adhesive tape. She had been strangled and suffocated by the
arrested on May 22, 1980, about six months after my encounter with him.
He had picked up eighteen-year-old Leslie Ann O’Dell, who was soliciting
on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 25th Street. She had arrived in
New York on a bus from Washington State four days earlier and was
quickly turned to street prostitution by bus station pimps.
bought her drinks and talked to her about his job and house in the
suburbs until about 3:00 A.M. He then offered to take her to a bus
terminal in New Jersey so that she could escape the pimps in New York.
appreciatively accepted. After crossing the George Washington Bridge
into New Jersey, he bought her a steak at an all-night diner. He was
charming, generous, sympathetic, and helpful. At some point she agreed
to have sex with him for $100. It was around dawn when they checked into
the very same Hasbrouck Heights Quality Inn where he had left his last
mutilated victim stuffed under the bed eighteen days earlier. Nobody
After getting a
room, Cottingham drove to the back of the motel and they went in through
a rear entrance. Leaving the girl in the room alone, Cottingham returned
to his car, telling her he wanted to move it to the front. He came back
carrying a paper bag with whiskey and an attaché case. It was now nearly
offered to give the tired girl a massage and she gratefully rolled over
onto her stomach. Straddling her back, he drew a knife from the attaché
case and put it to her throat as he snapped a pair of handcuffs on her
wrists. While Leslie attempted to persuade Cottingham that all that was
unnecessary, he began torturing her, nearly biting off one of her
testified that he said, “You have to take it. The other girls did, you
have to take it too. You’re a whore and you have to be punished.”
The charges that
would be listed in Cottingham’s New Jersey indictment give us some idea
of how the next four hours passed for O’Dell:
attempted murder, aggravated assault, aggravated assault with deadly
weapon, aggravated sexual assault while armed (rape), aggravated sexual
assault while armed (sodomy), aggravated sexual assault while armed
(fellatio), possession of a weapon; possession of controlled dangerous
substances, Secobarbital and Amobarbital, or Tuinal, and possession of
controlled dangerous substance, Diazepam or Valium.
Between bouts of
rape, sodomy, forced oral sex, biting, beating, cutting with the knife,
and whipping with a leather belt, Cottingham would pause to gently wipe
down the face of his victim with a cool, damp washcloth.
Then he would
begin anew. O’Dell’s muffled cries of pain became so loud that the motel
staff, already spooked by the murder eighteen days earlier, called the
police and then rushed to the room demanding that Cottingham open the
door. Cottingham gathered up his torture implements and dashed out of
the room but was apprehended by arriving police officers in the hallway.
That was the end
of Cottingham. For his crimes in New Jersey, he received several terms
ranging from sixty to ninety-five years, a term of twenty five years to
life, and another term to run consecutively of a minimum of thirty
years. And then he was extradited to New York to stand trial for the
“torso” homicides there. We won’t be seeing Richard again.
denied committing any of the murders to the bitter end, despite the fact
that some of the victims’ property was found in his home and his
fingerprint was found on the handcuffs restraining one of the victims.
The only thing
Cottingham admitted was, “I have a problem with women.”