Richard Cottingham brutally murdered prostitutes he found on the seedy streets of 1970s New York, earning his horrifying legacy as the Times Square Torso Killer.
Today, Times Square is a glittering tourist attraction. But it had a much seedier reputation in the latter half of the 20th century. Not only was Times Square filled with porn shops, peep shows, and prostitutes, but it also became the hunting ground for serial killer Richard Cottingham, the Torso Killer.
For about six months between 1979 and 1980, Cottingham murdered sex workers in brutal fashion. Leaving some without hands or heads, he soon earned the moniker of “The Times Square Torso Killer” or “The New York Ripper.”
But Cottingham’s depravity was much deeper than police realized at the time of his arrest. In addition to killing sex workers, Richard Cottingham had also killed a number of girls and women in New Jersey. To date, the Torso Killer claims to have killed upwards of 100 victims.
The Torso Killer’s Times Square Murder Spree
The story of the Torso Killer began on Dec. 2, 1979, when firefighters were called to the Travel Inn near Times Square. As they burst into room 417, they saw two badly burned bodies on the twin beds. A firefighter grabbed one in hopes of saving a life.
“I was preparing to give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation,” the firefighter said, “when I suddenly noticed there was no head.”
As the smoke cleared, the firefighters realized they’d stumbled onto a gruesome crime scene. The women left in the room had been strangled, their heads and hands cut off, before the killer doused them both with lighter fluid and fled. One was identified as 22-year-old Deedeh Goodarzi, a sex worker. The other, a 16-year-old, remains a Jane Doe to this day.
The baffled police had few clues to follow. The killer had registered at the hotel under a fake name with a fake address — Carl Wilson of Merlin, N.J. — and hotel employees had hardly interacted with him. They offered a possible description of a man in his 30s, about 5’10” and 175 pounds, with brown hair.
“We don’t know if he’s the one who rented the room,” Deputy Chief Richard Nicastro said at the time. “We’re not ruling out the possibility that two men could have been involved.”
A few months later, on May 5, 1980, a housekeeper at a Quality Inn in New Jersey found the body of 19-year old Valerie Ann Street stuffed under the bed. Street, a sex worker who’d arrived from Florida just a few days earlier, had been beaten, bitten, bound, and strangled to death.
And less than a month after that, firefighters made yet another gruesome discovery near Times Square. On May 15, they found the body of 25-year-old sex worker Jean Reyner in the Seville Motel. Her killer had cut her throat, left bite marks on her body, and severed her breasts.
The Torso Killer seemed to be escalating — fast. But just a week later, police were able to apprehend him back at the Quality Inn when his would-be victim Leslie Ann O’Dell screamed for help. Police arrested 33-year-old Richard Cottingham at the scene.
But the question remained: Who was Richard Cottingham?
The Double Life Of Richard Cottingham
Born in the Bronx on Nov. 25, 1946, Richard Cottingham lived an outwardly normal life. He’d spent his childhood in New Jersey, married his wife Janet in 1970, and had three children. At the time of his arrest, he was living in New Jersey with his family and spending his days working in New York as a computer operator at Blue Cross Blue Shield Association.
But there were signs that Richard Cottingham was living a double life. He had an apartment in New York City that he told Janet he needed for late nights at work. And Richard spent inordinate amounts of time in their basement, where Janet later found womens’ clothing, shoes, and jewelry.
Richard also had a self-described obsession with bondage and had had numerous extramarital affairs. Janet had even filed for divorce in 1979, though she reneged the next year.
Still, the extent of Richard Cottingham’s crimes shocked New York and New Jersey. O’Dell, who’d survived her encounter with the Torso Killer, described how he tortured his victims.
“[Cottingham] told me to shut up, that I was a whore and I had to be punished,” O’Dell testified. “He said the other girls took it and I had to take it, too. He said that uncountable times.”
It also came out at one of Cottingham’s trials that he’d killed a fifth victim — 28-year-old X-ray technician Maryanne Carr, whose body was found at the Quality Inn in 1977.
What drove this married father of three to kill? Cottingham later described his motives as “a game” and “mainly psychological.”
“I was able to get almost any woman to do whatever I wanted them to do, psychologically,” he said decades after being found guilty of five murders. “It’s God-like, almost. You’re in complete control of somebody’s destiny.”
Richard Cottingham was convicted of five murders and sent to prison for a sentence of 300 years. But it soon came out that the Torso Killer had murdered many more than five victims.
The Final Confessions Of The Times Square Killer
Though he’s best known for killing sex workers, Richard Cottingham often killed whenever he had the opportunity. And, thanks to a dogged New Jersey detective, the Times Square Killer has confessed to a number of additional murders.
Haunted by a handful of unsolved New Jersey homicides, Detective Robert Anzilotti began to wonder if Cottingham had killed more people than police knew.
“I thought he could be responsible for some,” Anzilotti said, explaining that while the methods and victims were different, the timing matched. “His name had floated around in the lore of Bergen County cold cases.”
So the detective started spending time with the Times Square Killer. He brought Cottingham to his office and offered him pizza and card games. Though Cottingham resisted at first, he slowly began to reveal details of his past crimes.
Thanks to Anzilotti’s persistence, Richard Cottingham confessed to killing 29-year-old Nancy Vogel in 1967, 13-year-old Jackie Harp in 1968, 18-year-old Irene Blase and 15-year-old Denise Falasca in 1969, and 17-year-old Mary Ann Pryor and 16-year-old Lorraine Kelly in 1974.
In a sign of things to come, Cottingham had kidnapped Pryor and Kelly after they asked him for a ride. He brought them to a hotel room, tortured them, and dumped their nude bodies.
“He’s younger when all this is going on in Bergen County,” Anzilotti explained. “I think it was just an evolution in his killing.”
Though Anzilotti has retired, the detective believes that Richard Cottingham could be responsible for “dozens” of other unsolved cases. To date, the Torso Killer himself claims that he could have as many as 100 victims.