Richard Cottingham brutally murdered prostitutes he found on the seedy streets of 1970s New York, earning his horrifying place as the American Jack the Ripper.
Today, New York’s Times Square is a glittering collection of stores, theaters, and restaurants that’s so popular with tourists it’s often called the “Crossroads of the World.” But Times Square wasn’t always the welcoming hotspot it is now.
For decades in the latter half of the 20th century, Times Square was the pinnacle of sleaze. Porn shops and peep shows lined the streets while scores of prostitutes were available for those who wanted to do more than look. And for more than a decade, a vicious predator secretly haunted Times Square’s seedy streets.
In December 1979, firefighters were called to the scene of a blaze consuming a hotel near Times Square. As the firefighters moved from room to room looking for victims, one burst through a door only to find the bodies of two women lying on a bed. Thinking that the women must have simply been knocked out by the smoke, the firefighter began carrying one of the women out of the room through the thick smoke that was obscuring his vision and prepared to give her CPR.
But when he went to check her breathing, he discovered to his horror that she had no head.
The other woman had likewise been dismembered, the firefighters soon found. Their bodies had then been soaked in lighter fluid and ignited, causing the very fire that the firefighters were trying to put out.
Once the police arrived, they were able to identify one of the bodies as 22-year-old Deedeh Goodarzi, who was known to work in the area as a prostitute. Investigators were able to determine that the other young woman was only about 16 years old. But to this day, she has never been conclusively identified.
Detectives were able to link the murders to the disappearance of another teenage prostitute who had gone missing from the same area and been killed in a similar way almost a year before. But otherwise, there was little to go on.
Then in May 1980, police found the body of a 19-year-old woman named Valerie Ann Street inside a hotel in New Jersey. Like the others, she had been working as a prostitute. Unlike the others, her body was still in one piece. Still, the fact that she had suffered terribly before her death was obvious.
Her hands were handcuffed behind her back, and there were signs that she had been beaten before being strangled to death. And her body was covered in visible bite marks.
Just 18 days later, the staff of the same hotel called the police again. Although the staff didn’t know exactly what was going on, they could hear faint screams coming from one of the rooms.
As police and hotel employees rushed to the room, Richard Cottingham was inside assaulting his latest victim.
Earlier that day, Richard Cottingham had picked up 18-year-old Leslie O’Dell on the streets of Manhattan. He’d offered her about $100 for sex and took her back to the hotel in New Jersey after she agreed. Once inside the room, Cottingham quickly handcuffed her.
O’Dell then reached for a gun that Cottingham had in the room — not realizing it was fake — and tried to defend herself with it. When the gun failed to go off, Cottingham threatened her with a knife and began to torture her. He bit her several times, once almost severing her nipple.
According to O’Dell, Cottingham kept insisting that the attack was punishment for being a prostitute and mentioned that he had already punished several girls this way. Luckily for O’Dell, the police showed up to arrest Cottingham before O’Dell ended up like his other victims.
With a suspect now in custody, the police were soon able to link the various murders together and peg Cottingham as the “Times Square Torso Ripper” — because the torso was often all he left behind. Authorities connected him to six murders, though he claimed credit for 85-100.
But the question remained: Who was Richard Cottingham?
Like many serial killers, Richard Cottingham — born in the Bronx in 1946 — didn’t seem like a murderer at first glance. He had worked for decades as a computer operator in New Jersey and had a wife and children. And though he had been arrested for a DUI and a minor shoplifting incident, he had never been in serious trouble with the law.
But there were signs that Richard Cottingham had been living a double life.
In 1978, not long before the fire in Times Square, Cottingham’s wife had filed for divorce. Her husband, she claimed, had been involved in several affairs and even frequented local swingers clubs. This picture of Richard Cottingham grew darker still when he eventually went to trial for his murders and admitted to being a man obsessed with sexual violence.
“The whole idea of bondage had aroused and fascinated me since I was very young,” Cottingham declared on the witness stand.
In addition to motivations like these, Cottingham also presented his crimes to his victims themselves as a kind of perverse, deserved moral justice for prostitutes. However, some of his victims were never involved in the sex trade in the first place.
Cottingham’s first victim, for example, was a married mother who he strangled to death on the way to a bingo game at a local church in northern New Jersey. He is also suspected of savagely beating a woman named Maryann Carr who worked as a radiologist near the same hotel where he killed several of his victims.
So while he may have been a man obsessed with sexual violence bent on delivering his brand of “justice” to prostitutes, perhaps Richard Cottingham was also an opportunistic thrill killer who found the perfect ground in the sordid environs of 1970s Times Square.