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NJ ‘Torso Killer’ pleads guilty to 2 cold case murders from 1974

For more than 15 years, over countless interviews, a detective would chip away at the serial killer, working to get him to admit to the decades-old killings

Richard Cottingham Torso Killer

Richard Cottingham, center, known as the “Torso Killer,” pleads guilty Tuesday, April 27, 2021, to two 1974 murders, finally closing the cold case deaths of teenage friends who had left home for a trip to the mall and never returned.

New Jersey Courts via AP

By Rodrigo Torrejon

BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. — Richard Cottingham, the notorious serial killer dubbed the “Torso Killer” for his gruesome modus operandi, pleaded guilty on Tuesday to two murders from nearly a half century ago, authorities announced.

Cottingham, 74, who is currently serving a life sentence in New Jersey State Prison after admitting to six killings in New York and New Jersey, pleaded guilty to killing Mary Ann Pryor, 17, and Lorraine Kelly, 16, back in August 1974, Bergen County Prosecutor Mark Musella said in a statement.

Early January 2020, it was discovered that Cottingham had previously confessed to the murders of three Bergen County teenagers in the late 1960s - each a cold case for over 50 years. Although he was not charged with the teens’ murders, the prosecutor’s office said the cases were “exceptionally cleared.”

After confessing to the murders of Mary Ann and Lorraine on April 14 to Chief of Detectives Robert Anzilotti, Cottingham pleaded guilty in Bergen County Superior Court and admitted to kidnapping, raping and murdering them between August 9 and August 14, 1974, according to the statement.

Cottingham is scheduled to be sentenced July 9, said John Bruno, Cottingham’s attorney.

“This is a somber day as we revisit the horrific acts and terror this man brought upon Bergen County nearly 50 years ago. It is my fervent hope that this arrest and conviction bring some semblance of closure to the friends and family of Mary Ann and Lorraine and a measure of justice to members of our communities, who have long feared this unknown actor.”

Cottingham’s guilty pleas bring to a close more cases in what what was a years-long killing spree in New Jersey and New York.

The last time Mary Ann and Lorraine’s families saw them was August 9, 1974, when they were walking together on Broad Avenue, in Ridgefield, after having left their homes in North Bergen, according to the statement.

Before leaving, they had told people they were trying to get to a Paramus shopping mall, with witnesses later telling police that the two had been hitchhiking, eventually getting into a car driven by a then-unknown man, the statement said.

Cottingham spotted Mary Ann and Lorraine walking, as he was driving to Bergen County, said John Bruno, Cottingham’s attorney. It was raining, so Cottingham offered the two girls a ride to the Bergen Mall, where they had planned to go, he said.

At first, Cottingham was going to drop the two off at the mall, but the rain started to fall harder, said Bruno. Cottingham instead decided to kidnap them, he said.

After raping the two teenagers, Cottingham drowned them in a bathtub in a motel, said Bruno. He dumped their bodies in a wooded area in Montvale on August 11, two days after he had kidnapped them, he said.

When Mary Ann and Lorraine didn’t come home the night of August 9, they were reported missing to the North Bergen Police Department, the statement said.

Five days later, their bodies were found in the Montvale woods, the statement said. Lorraine was reportedly found with a beaded bracelet and a necklace that read “Lorraine and Ricky,” a reference to her boyfriend. Mary Ann was discovered with a gold cross, a gift from her godfather.

Much like many of the murders that Cottingham has confessed to, police at the time tirelessly looked for answers, chasing dead-end lead after dead-end lead.

But for more than 15 years, over countless interviews, Anzilotti would chip away at Cottingham, working to get the serial killer to admit to the decades-old killings. On April 14, Cottingham provided a sworn, detailed and recorded confession to the two murders, the statement said.

When asked why Cottingham confessed to murdering Mary Ann and Lorraine, Bruno said it was a combination of factors that compelled the serial killer to “come clean.”

“He wanted to come clean,” Bruno said. “Give some closure to the families so that they knew who their family members’ murderer was. He wanted to come clean for himself. And he developed an incredible rapport with Chief Anzilotti, who I believe was a major factor in his decision to come clean.”

The murders of Mary Ann and Lorraine add to a list of grisly slayings by Cottingham, who would often brutalize his victims’ bodies after he killed them, cutting off their limbs, breasts and heads. The gruesome manner in which Cottingham dismembered his victims earned him his nickname.

Between 1967 and 1980, Cottingham, of Lodi, killed six women in New Jersey and New York. His interstate killing spree was discovered in May 1980, when a maid at a Hasbrouck Heights motel heard a woman screaming from inside his room. Cottingham had attempted to rape and murder the 18-year-old woman.

When police arrived, they found the woman bound with handcuffs on her ankles, bite marks on one breast and a knife wound below it.

Cottingham’s guilty pleas Tuesday bring his murder toll to 11 victims, although he has at times boasted he’s killed anywhere between 85 to 100 people.

[READ: 6 tips for investigating a homicide]

Sometime during his time in prison, Cottingham admitted to strangling Irene Blase, Denise Falasca and Jackie Harp in 1968 and 1969, Bergen County Prosecutor Mark Musella previously confirmed in an email to NJ Advance Media. Cottingham has been in the state prison system since the early 1980s for other murders.

In July 1968, Cottingham strangled Harp, 13, of Midland Park, as she was walking home from band practice, Musella said.

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

Much like Blase, Falasca, 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 said.

As part of the plea deal, Cottingham will receive two life sentences that will run concurrently with the six life sentences he’s already serving, said Bruno.

This post contains material from the Associated Press.

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