‘Torso Killer’ pleads guilty in 1974 cold-case murders

Stefanie Dazio and David Porter
Associated Press
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Newark, N.J. – A New Jersey serial killer known as the “Torso Killer” admitted he kidnapped and raped two teenage girls and murdered them in a hotel room a few days later, closing the mystery of the cold-case deaths from 1974.

Richard Cottingham’s pleaded guilty Tuesday to killing 17-year-old Mary Ann Pryor and 16-year-old Lorraine Marie Kelly in August 1974.

The two had left their North Bergen homes on Aug. 9, 1974, for a trip 13 miles (20.92 kilometers) north to a Paramus mall. They had planned to take a bus there to buy bathing suits for a trip to the Jersey Shore but witnesses at the time told police the girls were hitchhiking and had gotten into a man’s car.

In this image taken from a New Jersey Courts virtual hearing, 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.

The 74-year-old appeared in prison garb at a court appearance Tuesday. He sat in a wheelchair at a table with his attorneys, a Bergen County prosecutor and a detective in their office.

On Tuesday, Cottingham admitted he kidnapped them, brought them to a motel room and tied them up and raped them. He said he killed them by drowning them in the motel room’s bathtub.

“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 hoped to give the families some closure.

Cottingham is currently in state prison on a life sentence for other murders. He has claimed he was responsible for up to 100 murders, but authorities in New York and New Jersey have linked him to 11 so far – including the two 1974 murders – though they believe the death toll is higher.

Cottingham has been in prison since 1981 but confessed to three of the murders, dating back to the late 1960s, last year.

He had a wife and children and held a job as a computer programmer for a health insurance company in New York in the 1970s, 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. “But we had nothing, other than what he would tell us. And he knew we wanted this one so bad, which is why he took so long. I think he figured, ‘I’m going to just toy with them, and as long as I can drag it out, I will.’”

He became known as the “Torso Killer” for brutally dismembering his victims by cutting off their limbs and heads. Mary Ann and Lorraine were found five days after they went missing – their nude, battered bodies discovered facedown in the woods of North Jersey.

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.

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.

Cottingham confessed to Robert Anzilotti, the Bergen prosecutor’s chief of detectives, on April 14 after 15 years of interviews.

Bruno, the lawyer, credited their relationship for the confession, as well as Cottingham’s “serious regret” for the crimes.

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Dazio reported from Los Angeles.

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