How a detective delved into the mind of N.J.’s Torso Killer to close brutal cold case murders

Detective Robert Anzilotti’s careful poking and prodding into the mind of the now 74-year-old serial killer resulted in a confession to the murder of two teen girls


By Rodrigo Torrejon
nj.com

BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. — It was a summer day just like so many others on Aug. 9, 1974 as Mary-Ann Pryor was getting ready to meet up with her friend Lorraine Kelly. The two North Bergen teens had planned to go to the Garden State Plaza mall, miles away in Paramus.

They would usually get a ride from Nancy Pryor, Mary-Ann’s older sister who’d already started driving. If not her, then a friend. And if all else failed, they’d catch a bus to take them where they wanted to go.

Retired detective Robert Anzilotti at his home in Park Ridge on Thursday, May 13, 2021.
Retired detective Robert Anzilotti at his home in Park Ridge on Thursday, May 13, 2021. (John Jones/For NJ Advance Media)

“My sister came in and said ‘Going to the mall with Lorraine and I’ll see you later,’” Pryor told NJ Advance Media. It was the last time she saw her 17-year-old sister alive.

Five days later, the bodies of Mary-Ann and Lorraine, 16, were found dumped in a wooded area in Montvale. They were last seen hitchhiking on Broad Avenue in Ridgefield and getting into the car of an unknown man, but investigators would soon determine the girls had been kidnapped, raped and drowned in a motel bath tub.

The cold case haunted the Bergen County communities for decades and crushed the Pryor and Kelly families. The mystery of who could commit such brutality lingered for 47 years.

Until April.

The notorious “Torso Killer” Richard Cottingham admitted to the murders in a crowded conference room at the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office. At Cottingham’s side was the investigator responsible for finally closing the horrific cold case - Bergen County Chief of Detectives Robert Anzilotti.

The confession resulted from Anzilotti’s careful poking and prodding into the mind of the now 74-year-old serial killer, who is already serving life in prison with no hope of parole.

While Cottingham has nothing but time to ponder his crimes at New Jersey State Prison, he also has little reason to divulge the details of any other killings he committed before he was finally arrested in May 1980 when a maid at a Hasbrouck Heights motel heard an 18-year-old woman screaming as Cottingham attempted to rape and murder her.

Through some 100 interviews over the past 17 years, Anzilotti engaged Cottingham in a cat-and-mouse game, building a rapport that culminated in two major confessions in the last 18 months that closed five cold case murders, including his admission April 27 to the killing of Mary-Ann and Lorraine.

It would also be the detective’s last concession from the Torso Killer, a parting nod of respect to Anzilotti’s relentless pursuit of the truth through countless hours chatting with Cottingham in the prison interview room.

“In the end, it was my retirement that forced him to do it,” said Anzilotti, who concluded his career with the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office three days later.

[READ: 5 ways to solve a cold case]

The nighttime predator

Nightfall would see Cottingham transform into a killer.

By day, he was a family man living in Lodi, a husband and father of three kids, working as a computer console operator at Blue Cross- Blue Shield, in Manhattan. He’d often be seen walking his kids around his Bergen County neighborhood, a polite man.

But Cottingham’s savagery would stir with the setting of the sun.

“He was a lycanthropic killer,” said Peter Vronsky, an author writing a book about Cottingham who has interviewed him several times.

Working the nightshift in Manhattan, Cottingham would stalk the streets of the city and northern New Jersey searching for victims. Often, the victims would come through chance encounters like the hitch-hiking teen girls Mary-Ann and Lorraine. Invariably, the victims would be women.

His reputation as the “Torso Killer” evolved from the night Deedeh Goodarzi was found dead in a Times Square motel room on Dec. 2, 1979. After cutting off her head and hands, Cottingham set Goodarzi’s corpse on fire, along with another still-unidentified woman.

His interstate killing spree spanned from 1967 to when he was caught at the Hasbrouck Heights motel in 1980. Cottingham’s guilty pleas last month bring his murder toll to 11 victims, although he has at times boasted he’s killed anywhere between 85 to 100 people.

Two more life sentences will be added to Cottingham’s impossibly long prison term when he’s sentenced for Mary-Ann and Lorraine’s killings. That hearing is scheduled for July.

The cold case cop meets the monster

Two days after the 2004 Super Bowl, Anzilotti met Cottingham for the first time.

After being assigned to review cold cases from the 60s and 70s, Anzilotti turned his eye toward Cottingham, who had already been in prison for more than 20 years.

Back then, there was no official cold case unit. After work, Anzilotti would bring case files home, laying them out on his dining room table, poring over photos of grisly crime scenes and reading transcripts of witness accounts.

Anzilotti had begun to suspect Cottingham was tied to some of the long-stagnant cases, but it was his conversation with another serial killer that provided the opening he needed.

Richard “The Iceman” Kuklinski, a mob contract killer, told Anzilotti that the Torso Killer had been violating prison rules. That provided some leverage.

Anzilotti’s first meeting with Cottingham was tense. He made it clear Cottingham’s life in prison could be more difficult if he didn’t cooperate. Cottingham made it clear he’d stop talking if Anzilotti jammed him up again.

The conversations sprawled into a years-long mental chess match that was grueling at times, said Anzilotti. Most of the time, Cottingham would talk about anything other than his crimes. He just wanted to pass the time, Anzilotti said.

“He’s very intelligent,” Anzilotti said. “He can be affable. He’s very talkative about nonsense. He’s happy to talk to you just to occupy his time.”

Each conversation changed, in approach and topic, said Anzilotti. Some days he would be relegated to speaking about whatever Cottingham had on his mind. In others, Anzilotti pressed him into talking about the murders he’d already admitted to and prodding for a connection to others that remained unsolved.

“He’s very sensitive to really opening up about the brutality of his crimes,” Anzilotti said. “ I don’t think he ever internalized and reflected on the monster he was when he was out on the streets.”

With little to lose - or gain - Cottingham kept talking.

“He doesn’t want to get these things off his chest,” said Anzilotti. “It’s like pulling teeth. The only conclusion I’ve ever reached about that is that for 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year, he has no decision-making ability. He has no control over the way his life is. The only control he has is of what’s in his mind and who he decides to give it to.”

The first confession was nearly the last

Anzilotti said he would never promise Cottingham anything he couldn’t deliver. In return, Cottingham gradually started speaking about some of the dozens of victims he claimed to have killed during his 13-year killing spree, said Anzilotti.

“My end of the bargain, I promised him that I would never make things public,” he said. “We would always tell the victims’ families. But we would never do press conferences or press releases. We had a larger goal, which is to get every homicide out of him.”

The first confession came in 2010, six years after that first conversation. Cottingham admitted to the 1967 murder of Nancy Schiava Vogel, a 29-year-old married mother of two. She was strangled, and her body was found nude and bound in her car in Ridgefield Park. She had last been seen three days earlier, when she left home to play bingo with friends at a local church.

The case had gone unsolved for 43 years, before Cottingham’s admission under the condition that it be done without the kind of notoriety that would normally accompany such a plea.

For the sake of resolving the cold case, Anzilotti agreed. The prosecutor’s office booked a later court hearing to avoid reporters and only those involved in the hearing were notified.

But somehow, the news leaked, said Anzilotti. Cottingham was enraged.

“I was escorting him out of Judge Venezia’s courtroom, he was shackled and he leaned over to me and said ‘You’ll never f------ get me to do this again,’” recalled Anzilotti.

Admission without conviction

Never didn’t last forever. Cottingham and Anzilotti’s conversations continued and thawed to the point where the Torso Killer took responsibility for three more murders.

In January 2020, the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office confirmed to NJ Advance Media that the cold case killings of Irene Blase, Denise Falasca and Jackie Harp in 1968 and 1969 had been attributed to Cottingham, though he was not required to plead guilty in court. The determination essentially closed the cold cases, though it’s unclear when exactly Cottingham divulged the killings to Anzilotti.

The three killings were strikingly similar.

Cottingham strangled Jackie, 13, of Midland Park, as she was walking home from band practice in July 1968, Bergen County Prosecutor Mark Musella said.

Blase, 18, of Bogota, vanished from Hackensack on April 7, 1969, and was found strangled to death in Saddle River the next day.

Denise, 15, of Closter, was abducted from Emerson on July 14, 1969, and found strangled to death the next day in nearby Saddle Brook.

“The prosecutor’s office investigations revealed that Richard Cottingham committed these homicides,” Musella said at the time.

Mary-Ann and Lorraine

Mary-Ann was feisty and independent, her sister Nancy Pryor told NJ Advance Media.

In the 1970s, getting to and from Bergen County’s many malls meant taking the bus or getting a ride. Most times, if Nancy couldn’t give her a lift, Mary-Ann would catch a bus, Pryor said.

The two were typical sisters, bickering over nonsense like clothes they’d borrow, said Pryor. But no matter what, they would look out for each other, she said.

Whenever Mary-Ann would be late getting home, she’d find a way to call, said Pryor. So when it got late on Aug. 9, 1974, and her sister had yet to phone home, the family grew worried.

They called the police almost immediately, only to be told they’d have to wait 24 hours to file a missing person report, said Pryor.

“I waited a little while and then I couldn’t stand it anymore worrying,” said Pryor. “I went out searching the streets, looking up and down. I went by Lorraine’s house. Any place I could think of that she might have been. I was out searching probably the whole night.”

Five days later, the news came in cruel and crushing detail. Mary-Ann and Lorraine had been found dead in a wooded area in Montvale. Nancy’s mother fainted. Life as the Pryor family knew it was destroyed.

“Just total shock,” said Pryor. “Total numbness. Not believing it.”

Nancy became the family spokesperson, recognizing that her parents would not be able to handle the barrage of questions and attention.

“I became an adult at 19,” she said.

A final confession

Earlier this year, Anzilotti told Cottingham he planned to retire at the end of April and their conversations, at least in an official capacity, would be coming to an end.

He had one final request of the Torso Killer. He wanted to close one of New Jersey’s most infamous cold cases - the killings of Mary-Ann and Lorraine.

For years, Cottingham had alluded to killing the two teenagers.

“As he’s gotten older, in particular, the Kelly-Pryor case seems to have bothered him,” said Anzilotti. “He just feels embarrassed by it. He feels the girls were young. They were one of the few he kept and tortured for days.”

He disclosed details of holding two girls more than 30 hours, raping them and abusing them before killing them in a motel. But he never confessed on the record.

“He has a very strong memory of it and he doesn’t have a good memory of a lot of his cases,” Anzilotti said. “This really stuck with him I think because of the fact he feels bad about it.”

But Cottingham resisted. He didn’t want the attention it would inevitably bring.

With his retirement as the only leverage point left, Anzilotti approached Cottingham one last time.

“‘The window is closing,’” Anzilotti told Cottingham. “‘If you’re going to do this for me, now’s the time. It’s now or never.’”

“He looked at me and said ‘I’m going to do this for you,’” said Anzilotti. “He said afterward, ‘If you weren’t retiring, there’s no way you would have gotten that out of me.’”

Answers without solace

Cottingham’s confession resolved answers to questions that had plagued Nancy Pryor and her family, but little more said Pryor.

Both her parents died years ago, never knowing who had killed their daughter, she said. For 47 years, she has carried the pain of what happened to her sister, the wound never healing, no matter how much time passed.

In her mind, Cottingham’s confession was little more than an odd favor to a relentless detective, she said.

“It’s true, I didn’t get the closure I wanted when I heard it was him,” said Pryor. “There’s somebody who’s been living in prison anyway and is never going anywhere and all of a sudden decided to say ‘I think I’ll quit playing this game and let this one out.’”

“I’m glad to have answers,” she added. “But here’s somebody who it didn’t matter to him. It didn’t mean anything. He’s there anyway.”

Adding two life sentences changes little for Cottingham, Pryor said. He deserves far worse, she said.

“I don’t even wish the death penalty. That’s too easy,” she said. “I want him cut up and fed to sharks.”

Anzilotti acknowledged that many families still face the same unanswered questions and raw emotion of long-unsolved cases. Putting to rest cases like the killings of Mary-Ann and Lorraine do provide some sense of resolution.

“It’s extremely rewarding for me because this is a passion of mine,” Anzilotti told NJ Advance Media in a nearly empty office in his final days before retirement. “I take a lot of pride in what I do. But it’s bittersweet in that there’s still a lot of unsolved cases that I wasn’t able to bring to a conclusion. And my heart bleeds for those victims and the family members left behind.”

With his time at the prosecutor’s office over, Anzilotti said he is hopeful that Cottingham will confess to more murders.

The office now has a dedicated cold case unit with detectives he believes will solve more cases. And Anzilotti remains always a phone call away, he said.

After Cottingham’s confession on April 27, the Torso Killer and detective had just a brief moment to speak once more in an official capacity.

“I just shook his hand and I said ‘Thank you.’ He looked at me and said ‘You’re welcome,’” said Anzilotti. “And I said, ‘I’m sure I’ll see you soon.’”

NEXT: Leveraging forensic genetic genealogy to solve cold cases

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC. 

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

Recommended for you

Copyright © 2021 Police1. All rights reserved.