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Wednesday, August 04, 2021

The sergeant and the serial killer

The double murder of Mary Ann Pryor, 17, and Lorraine Kelly, 16, shook the region. No one could find any clues in the girls’ backgrounds: no drugs, no trouble with the law. Boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, family members — all were questioned and cleared of suspicion.

By: New York Times |
June 13, 2021 12:30:58 pm
A clip from the New York Times archives shows a 1974 article about two missing girls, Mary Ann Pryor and Lorraine Kelly. (The New York Times)

Written by Michael Wilson

A woman walking to her car found them: two teenage girls, naked and dead in a sliver of woods behind an apartment parking lot. They were facedown, side by side, as if placed there with care. “A horrible scene,” the police commissioner said that day. “Like two little dolls at Christmastime.”

It was Aug. 14, 1974, in Montvale, New Jersey, a suburb just over the New York state line. The girls, Mary Ann Pryor, 17, and Lorraine Kelly, 16, had last been seen days earlier at a nearby bus stop. The police believed they had given up on the bus and were trying to hitchhike to a mall.

Their murders shook the region. No one could find any clues in the girls’ backgrounds: no drugs, no trouble with the law. Boyfriends, ex-boyfriends, family members — all were questioned and cleared of suspicion. The police “pursued a welter of tips, rumors and false alarms,” The New York Times reported at the time.

Years ticked past, 1974 into 1975, into the 1980s, the 1990s. When the 40th year since the killings arrived in 2014, the local police asked the public for any new information. No leads were forthcoming. The 45th year passed in the same way.

Over time, though, one investigator was slowly developing a theory. In 2000, as a young detective in the Bergen County prosecutor’s office, Robert Anzilotti was tasked with looking into the murders, along with a few other similar cold cases from the 1960s and 1970s. There were at least six unsolved killings of girls and young women, each an open wound for families seeking resolution.

With an uncomplicated enthusiasm for his work, Anzilotti rose through the ranks, eventually becoming the chief of detectives with a busy office to lead. But he carried those cold cases with him — literally, his thick files in cardboard boxes that he moved from office to office — chipping away at the false leads, seeking similarities in the victims and in the crime scenes.

His search for a killer led him to a man already locked away, in New Jersey State Prison, 75 miles from his office. That man, Richard Cottingham, had been convicted of crimes that seemed to bear little resemblance to the murders of the girls. In the 1970s, he had preyed on prostitutes in Times Square — 30 miles but a world away from Montvale — not just killing them, but torturing and dismembering them.

A provided image shows Richard Cottingham, center, pleading guilty to killiing Mary Ann Pryor and Lorraine Kelly at the Bergen County Superior Court in New Jersey, April 27, 2021. (Bryan Anselm/The New York Times)

But something — a hunch, past investigative speculation, the proximity of the crimes — drew Anzilotti to the prisoner. Again and again, for 15 years, Anzilotti met with the inmate, seeking the truth. Did the old man kill those girls?

In March, looking back on 25 years with the office, Anzilotti decided it was time to move on from the job. But first, he wanted to return to those two murders from 47 years ago. He called his detectives and gave the word: Bring in Cottingham.

Horror in Times Square

Richard Cottingham was born in 1946 and grew up largely in New Jersey. His yearbook photo shows a cross-country runner with blond hair slicked back.

He married in 1970 and became a father of three. The family lived in Lodi, New Jersey, and Cottingham commuted to a job as a computer operator at Blue Cross Blue Shield in Manhattan. He rented an apartment in Midtown and told his wife he worked nights.

In fact, Cottingham lurked around the fringes of a seedy Times Square and the prostitutes who worked its streets.

On Dec. 2, 1979, fire alarms rang out at the Travel Inn Motor Hotel on West 42nd Street. A hotel worker arrived at Room 417 to find smoke and a horrible scene: the scorched remains of two women on a bed. Their heads and hands had been cut off.

The police hunted for leads, questioning prostitutes about suspicious men, examining the handwriting of the guest who had checked into Room 417: Carl Wilson of Merlin, New Jersey, a fake name from a fake place. Cottingham left behind no clues.

Months later, in May 1980, another prostitute from Times Square was found dead, this time in a New Jersey motel; that murder was linked to yet another at the same location. And later that same month, a fifth woman was found mutilated in the former Hotel Seville near Fifth Avenue in Manhattan.

The newspapers called the murderer “The Torso Killer.” Then on May 22, 1980, a worker at a Quality Inn in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey, heard a woman screaming. Her attacker was caught as he ran away.

Cottingham seemed like a character from a pulp novel: the crazed killer and the family man. He stood trial in New York and New Jersey in a coat and tie and denied everything, but he was convicted in all five killings. He was locked away to serve several life sentences, aging into a portly man with a thick white beard.

When Cottingham entered prison in 1981, Anzilotti was not yet a teenager. Twenty years later, he was reinvestigating several cold cases involving girls and young women who had been abducted, sexually abused and killed.

Anzilotti had begun to believe, he said in a recent interview, that Cottingham, “between his history and the suspicions of detectives that came before me,” could be responsible for one or more of those deaths. The murders committed by the Torso Killer bore little resemblance to the ones Anzilotti was investigating, but their timing matched up with Cottingham’s settling in New Jersey. “I thought he could be responsible for some,” Anzilotti said. “His name had floated around in the lore of Bergen County cold cases.”

He needed a way to approach Cottingham and found an opening in 2003, when he got a tip: Cottingham was taking bets on sporting events from his cell. Inmates were wagering everything from cash to cigarettes.

Anzilotti, by then a sergeant, arranged a surprise search of the inmate’s cell the day after the Super Bowl. Correctional officers found contraband and evidence of bookmaking and transferred Cottingham to solitary confinement. A few days later, Anzilotti visited Cottingham in his new surroundings and told him, “I put you here.”

The inmate made it clear that pressure would not work. “‘Don’t think you’re going to mess with me and I’m going to help you,’” Anzilotti recalled Cottingham saying.

The sergeant was undeterred. He tried a different approach. Over the months that followed, Anzilotti cultivated an unusual relationship with Cottingham, sometimes testy, sometimes closer to a sort of warmth. Anzilotti would arrange to have the inmate transported to his office more than an hour’s drive from the prison. He’d order pizza and play cards with the older man and other detectives. Then he’d clear the room until only he and Cottingham faced each other, and begin with his questions. He had his list of names, each one a dead girl and a crime long unsolved.

The little perks for the older man — the pizza, the poker, the distraction from prison life — were always in the service of the younger man’s long game. Eventually, Cottingham began to loosen up, and he spoke about killing the prostitutes. “Which, of course, I wasn’t overly interested in,” Anzilotti said. Those cases were already closed. “But it was a way to get him comfortable to talk to me about murders.”

These meetings went on for months, and then years, on top of Anzilotti’s regular caseload. Cottingham had a vulnerability, Anzilotti realized: After divulging nothing during hours of questioning, he’d sometimes loosen up on the drive back to prison, sitting in the back seat and believing the day was done.

“He would let his guard down,” Anzilotti said. The killer would suddenly recall picking a girl up from a store somewhere, and the chief, in the front passenger seat as a detective drove, surreptitiously took notes.

After six years of visits, there was a break.

“He said, ‘I’m going to give you one,’” Anzilotti recalled.

Sitting in a conference room, Cottingham calmly reached back more than 40 years and described how he’d murdered a woman whose name he couldn’t remember, a 29-year-old mother found strangled in her car in Ridgefield Park, New Jersey, in 1967. He described things only the killer would know, like where he’d thrown her car keys afterward.

Her name was Nancy Schiava Vogel. He pleaded guilty to the killing in 2010, but when the news got out, Cottingham, who evidently thought the hearing would be ignored, was furious. He did not want his family hassled by reporters or the police, and he vowed to Anzilotti that he would never again allow himself to be thrust into the spotlight.

For a year, he refused to speak to Anzilotti. But eventually, their old give-and-take resumed. He said he would talk about other murders only on the condition that the revelations would be kept out of the papers. Anzilotti agreed.

Detective Robert Anzilotti in Paramus, N.J., Jan. 22, 2020. For decades, a series of killings of teenage girls haunted suburban New Jersey. (Bryan Anselm/The New York Times)

Questioning Cottingham was complicated. He had no relationship to his victims. His murders were not the outcome of stalking or planning but of fleeting encounters. He did not know the names of those he killed. “He remembers certain aspects of a person,” Anzilotti said. “One would remind him of a TV actress. ‘Look her up, she looks like her.’ Others he remembered from a haircut.”

One day in 2014, the chief and a partner were driving the inmate back to prison when, from the back seat, Cottingham, who by then had spent almost half of his 68 years in prison, began describing a girl he once spotted near a store in Hackensack, New Jersey. Anzilotti, doing his best not to betray any emotion, slowly pulled out his BlackBerry and took notes.

“I knew,” he recalled, “that was Irene Blase.”

Answers for Grieving Families

Irene Blase was 18 when she was found strangled in Saddle River, New Jersey, in 1969. Cottingham mentioned details of the killing that matched what Anzilotti knew from the case file. While some serial killers claim murders they have not committed, Anzilotti didn’t believe Cottingham was that type, but still he meticulously lined up details of the admissions with facts that only the killer would know.

The chief contacted the Blase family and told them what they had ached to know for decades: He knew who had killed Irene. Then he followed with an unusual request. He asked to quietly close their daughter’s murder case without formally charging the killer. To bring Cottingham back to court, where the case would certainly draw attention, would stop him from talking about other open cases, the chief explained. And any new prison sentence would, practically speaking, be meaningless; Cottingham had no chance of ever being released.

The Blase family agreed. Anything that might close more cases, bring answers to more families. The chief pressed ahead with his list.

“I had long suspected that whoever killed Irene Blase also killed Denise Falasca,” Anzilotti said. Falasca was a 15-year-old who left her family’s house in July 1969 and never returned. She was believed to have accepted a ride from a stranger, and her body was found on the side of a road near a cemetery. There were similarities in the two cases: the girls’ ages, the apparently hasty disposal of their bodies, even their appearance, both with long, dark hair.

The chief questioned Cottingham. Again, he knew details from Falasca’s file. Soon, the chief also closed that case — two down.

A third — the killing of 13-year-old Jackie Harp — seemed to be the work of another killer. She had been abducted while walking home from practice with her school’s fife-and-drum team in 1968. Her youth and difference in appearance, with a boyish haircut, set her apart from the other victims.

But then, four years ago, Cottingham stunned the chief. “He began to speak about a particular case,” he said. The details stopped him cold. “It could only be Jackie Harp.”

For years, the three confessions remained a secret, until January 2020, when a true-crime writer who had been visiting Cottingham in prison, Peter Vronsky, announced that the inmate had revealed his crimes in interviews for a forthcoming book. When reporters ran with the story, Anzilotti considered himself absolved from keeping his silence about the cases.

The Girls in the Woods

After those confessions, the two men barely spoke. The year 2020 arrived, and running his office through the coronavirus outbreak kept Anzilotti too busy for cold cases.

But as he considered retirement, he kept returning to the two girls found dead in the woods. In recent years, he had asked Cottingham about the case, and the inmate had simultaneously denied responsibility and let on that he knew more than he would share. Once, he outright explained his hesitation: “He said, ‘I know once I give you that case, I’ll never see you again,’” Anzilotti recalled last month. “He enjoys our relationship. He enjoys our time together.”

The chief also had another theory. “He’s embarrassed by this case,” he said. “I think sometimes he grapples with his own gruesomeness back then.”

On March 12, a Friday, Anzilotti summoned the inmate. He had not yet put in for retirement, or even told his boss — he planned to do that the following week. But he told Cottingham. “I’m leaving,” he said. “And before I go, I want to close out the Kelly-Pryor case.”

On April 14, in a recorded interview, Cottingham said he remembered Mary Ann Pryor and Lorraine Kelly, and Anzilotti asked why he knew their names, when he hadn’t in past cases.

“Because I was with them for a couple of days,” he replied, according to a transcript, “and got to know them.”

It was raining that day in August 1974, and Cottingham, then 28, was driving to work in Manhattan when he passed the two girls walking in the opposite direction. He did a U-turn in a bank parking lot and approached, he said. “I asked them where they were going.” The mall, they replied. “And I said, ‘Hop in.’”

He drove to the mall. The weather worsened. “I’ve never seen rain like that,” he said. “So we just stayed in the car, and we kept talking to each other, getting to know each other and so forth.”

“If the rain wasn’t there, they would have just went to the mall and that would have been it,” he said. “And I would have went to work.”

He described in detail how, instead, he took the girls to a motel, held them captive and eventually drowned them in the bathtub. He recalled the exact place in the woods where he left the bodies.

He admitted that those two killings weighed on him more than the others. “To this day, I don’t even think they would have ever said anything,” he said. “And that’s what bothers me, because I probably didn’t have to do anything to them.”

Anzilotti left the confession both exhausted and relieved. He had come further in closing cases than his younger self could have imagined. “It’s been half my career,” he said. “This case was always haunting me.”

A Sister’s Devotion

Cottingham was summoned before a judge April 27, remotely, via Zoom, sitting in a wheelchair in a conference room at the prosecutor’s office. He kept his glasses case tucked in a vest pocket of his prison scrubs, beneath his white beard, and folded his hands over his broad belly.

Among the other faces in separate windows on the Zoom screen was a 66-year-old woman, identified simply as Nancy. She was Nancy Pryor, and she was 19 when her sister, Mary Ann, was found dead. “I was an immediate adult when it happened,” she said later in an interview. “I took over handling the calls, the arrangements. My parents couldn’t handle it.”

Anzilotti insisted that this case be resolved in open court. “The public in Bergen County deserved to know the outcome of those girls,” he said. “For over 40 years, it’s been folklore in this county.”

With Pryor and a judge watching on Zoom that day, Cottingham pleaded guilty to the two murders. His upcoming sentencing will add more time to a prison term that already extends beyond his remaining years.

After the hearing, the cameras off, Anzilotti approached Cottingham. Both men were keenly aware that it was their years-old relationship that had brought about this moment. The inmate, with no real incentive to say anything about that crime, had given the chief what amounted to a parting gift.

“How it ended was me literally shaking his hand and saying, ‘Thank you,’” Anzilotti said. “He said, ‘You’re welcome.’”

Three days later, Anzilotti walked out of his office for good.

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