A serial killer convicted in the deaths of 11 women across New York and New Jersey has been charged with another murder in a 54-year-old cold case.
On Wednesday, Richard Cottingham was charged with second-degree homicide over the killing of 23-year-old dance school instructor Diane Cusick in February 1968, after investigators found DNA evidence linking him to the crime.
The 75-year-old suspect, who has claimed responsibility for up to 100 homicides, was arraigned from a hospital bed in New Jersey, where he is already serving a life sentence for other killings.
Dubbed the “Torso Killer” for brutally dismembering his victims by cutting off their limbs and heads, he has been imprisoned since 1980, when he was arrested after a motel maid heard a woman screaming inside his room.
While the police found her alive, she was bound with handcuffs and had bite marks and knife wounds.
Cusick went to a Long Island mall to buy a pair of shoes on 15 February 1968, when authorities believe Cottingham followed her out. He pretended to be a security guard or police officer, accused her of stealing her and then overpowered her, said Nassau County Police detective captain Stephen Fitzpatrick.
She was “brutally beaten, murdered and raped in that car”, Mr Fitzpatrick said.
The case went cold for the most part of the next five decades, until Wednesday, when police were able to link the DNA evidence they collected from the crime scene to Cottingham’s profile in the federal database.
Nassau County district attorney Anne Donnelly credited the breakthrough to technological advances that allowed forensic investigators to conduct more thorough tests.
“The police did a great job looking for any leads they could find. They spoke to hundreds of people at the Green Acres Mall to see if anyone had seen Diane,” Ms Donnelly said. “Unfortunately, the trail went cold and the case went cold.”
In 2021, Nassau County police received a tip that the person responsible for the killing was locked up in New Jersey, prompting authorities to run DNA tests on cold cases, leading to a match with Cottingham.
Though first convicted in 1982, Cottingham’s DNA was entered into the federal database only in 2005 as there was no law at the time requiring him to submit a DNA sample to law enforcement, Ms Donnelly’s office told New York Times.
Cottingham, who asked to be arraigned by video feed from the New Jersey hospital because he was in poor health, led police to believe he was responsible for the death by providing some information about the case, said Ms Donnelly.
He allegedly told the detectives he was near a drive-in theater next to the mall at the time but stopped short of confessing to Cusick’s murder, said the district attorney.
“He didn’t lay out a full admission. What he laid out was baby steps along the way that we were able to put together with the help of the police department to fill in that story,” she said.
“He is a violent predator and no matter how he looks today in a hospital bed, he was not always a feeble older man,” Ms Donnelly added. “He was a young 22-year-old when he committed the murder of Ms Cusick. He was strong, stronger than these women were, and he was violent.”
The prosecutors are now reviewing all murders of young females from 1967 to 1980 and running DNA tests to see if Cottingham may be responsible for other killings, said Ms Donnelly.
Cusick’s daughter, Darlene Altman, who appeared alongside Ms Donnelly, said she was overwhelmed to see Cottingham on the video. She was four years old when her mother was killed.
“He just had this like dead stare. I felt like he was looking right at me… It was creepy,” Ms Altman said, referring to Cottingham.
Additional reporting by agencies
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.