A serial killer convicted of the deaths of 11 women in New York and New Jersey has been charged with another murder in a 54-year-old case.
On Wednesday, Richard Cottingham was charged with second-degree murder in the killing of 23-year-old dance school teacher 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 murders, was charged from a hospital bed in New Jersey, where he is already serving a life sentence for other murders.
He’s been dubbed the “Torso Killer” for brutally dismembering his victims by severing their limbs and heads. He has been jailed since 1980, when he was arrested after a maid heard a woman scream in his room.
When police found her alive, she was handcuffed and had bite marks and stab marks.
Cusick went to a Long Island mall to buy a pair of shoes on February 15, 1968, when authorities believe Cottingham was following her. He pretended to be a security guard or police officer, accused her of theft and then subdued her, Nassau County Police detective captain Stephen Fitzpatrick said.
She was “brutally beaten, murdered and raped in that car,” Mr Fitzpatrick said.
The case stayed cold for most of the next five decades, until police on Wednesday were able to link DNA evidence collected at the scene to Cottingham’s profile in the federal database.
Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly attributed the breakthrough to technological advances that allowed forensic investigators to conduct more thorough tests.
“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 murder was incarcerated in New Jersey, prompting authorities to conduct DNA testing on cases of the common cold, leading to a match with Cottingham.
Although Cottingham was first convicted in 1982, Cottingham’s DNA was not added to the federal database until 2005 because at the time there was no law requiring him to provide a DNA sample to law enforcement, Ms Donnelly’s office said The New York Times.
Cottingham, who asked to be charged via 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 Mrs. Donnelly.
He allegedly told detectives he was near a drive-in movie theater next to the mall at the time, but did not confess to Cusick’s murder, the prosecutor said.
“He has not presented a full admission. What he laid out were little steps along the way that we, with the help of the police department, were able to piece together to complete this story,” she said.
“He’s a violent predator and no matter what he looks like in a hospital bed today, he wasn’t always a weak 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, and he was violent.”
Prosecutors are now reviewing all the murders of young women from 1967 to 1980 and are conducting DNA tests to determine if Cottingham could be responsible for other murders, Ms Donnelly said.
Cusick’s daughter Darlene Altman, who appeared alongside wife 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 dead look. I felt like he was looking straight at me… It was creepy,” Ms Altman said, referring to Cottingham.
Additional reporting by agencies