NEWARK, N.J. (AP) — For years, a savage murderer called the “Torso Killer” dribbled out confessions to a New Jersey detective, closing cold cases into the brutal deaths of four young women that dated back to the late 1960s.
But there was one unsolved case the notorious serial killer would never admit to: The slayings of 17-year-old Mary Ann Pryor and 16-year-old Lorraine Marie Kelly in 1974.
On Tuesday, Richard Cottingham, 74, sat in a wheelchair in beige prison scrubs as he pleaded guilty to kidnapping the teenage girls and raping them for days before he drowned them in a motel room bathtub.
The teenagers were last seen on Aug. 9, 1974, in North Bergen. They’d left home for a trip 13 miles (21 kilometers) north to a Paramus mall, telling family they planned to take a bus there to buy bathing suits for a trip to the Jersey Shore.
Witnesses at the timetold police the girls were hitchhiking and had gotten into a man’s car. They were found five days after they went missing, identified by their jewelry when their nude, battered bodies were discovered facedown in the woods of North Jersey’s Bergen County.
“He’s relieved that this cloud that’s been hanging over his head for many, many years is now removed,” said his defense attorney, John Bruno, adding that Cottingham has “serious regret” for the crimes and hoped to give the families some closure.
Mary Ann’s sister, Nancy Pryor, watched the virtual hearing after years of working with detectives.
“I keep saying, before my time comes, I’d love some answers, and I never give up hope that we will get them,” she told The Record newspaper in 2016.
Pryor did not respond Tuesday to messages left by The Associated Press seeking comment.
As part of a plea agreement, prosecutors said Cottingham is expected to get two life sentences in July, to be served concurrently with the time he’s already serving. Cottingham didn’t make a statement during Tuesday’s hearing, but offered one- and two-word answers to questions posed by state Superior Court Judge Keith Bachmann and attorneys.
In his April 14 confession to Robert Anzilotti, the Bergen County prosecutor’s chief of detectives, Cottingham admitted to physically forcing Lorraine into a motel room and threatening to harm her if Mary Ann didn’t comply. He confessed to raping them and tying them up as he slept so they wouldn’t escape and drowning them in the motel room’s bathtub before dumping their bodies.
“He gave details about the murders that only the killer would know,” Anzilotti told AP after the court hearing.
The Pryor-Kelly case is among North Jersey’s most infamous unsolved crimes and Cottingham is one of the region’s most heinous criminals. Known as the “Torso Killer” for brutally dismembering some of his victims by cutting off their limbs and heads, he’s currently in a New Jersey prison on a life sentence for other murders.
While he has claimed he was responsible for up to 100 homicides, authorities in New York and New Jersey have only officially linked him to 11 so far, including the two 1974 killings. He was arrested in 1980 when a motel maid heard a woman screaming inside his room. Authorities found her alive, but bound with handcuffs and suffering from bite marks and knife wounds.
In the 1970s, Cottingham had a wife and children and held a job as a computer programmer for a health insurance company in New York, recalled Alan Grieco, a retired chief of detectives in Bergen County who helped convict Cottingham for the 1977 murder of a woman found outside a motel in northern New Jersey.
Investigators in both states were able to tie Cottingham to other murders and sexual assaults, but Grieco remembered Cottingham “played games” with investigators for years regarding the Pryor-Kelly murders as he sought to trade information for better treatment in prison.
“Seeing how the families are destroyed, you can’t help but feel their pain,” he said. “I think he figured, ‘I’m going to just toy with them, and as long as I can drag it out, I will.’ ”
Anzilotti first met Cottingham 17 years ago as the detective sought to close some of the county’s cold cases. He believes there are still “dozens” of outstanding cases in the tri-state area that might eventually be traced back to him.
The killer would ultimately tell Anzilotti about the slayings of four women and teenage girls between the ages of 13 and 29 in Bergen County. Yet he was always reluctant to discuss Mary Ann and Lorraine, Anzilotti said, because their murders “bothered him more than any other, probably because of the brutality of it” coupled with their ages and the days he spent torturing them.
Anzilotti tried to elicit a confession for years as Mary Ann’s sister, Nancy, repeatedly checked in with detectives for updates. In March, Anzilotti announced that he was ending his 29-year career in law enforcement. But he had one last case to solve.
“I didn’t want to retire until this was complete,” he said.
He brought Cottingham from state prison in Trenton up to the prosecutor’s Paramus offices three times in the last month — a 75-mile (120.70-kilometers) trip each way — pushing him to finally admit to the murders of Mary Ann and Lorraine.
Anzilotti got the confession on April 14. Cottingham pleaded guilty on Tuesday.
The detective’s last day as a cop is Saturday.
Dazio reported from Los Angeles.