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Decades later, ‘Torso Killer’ is charged with murder in New York mall

MINEOLA, NY — More than five decades after Diane Cusick’s lifeless body was discovered in the parking lot of a Long Island shopping center in New York, authorities have linked her death to the so-called “Torso Killer,” a serial killer who already in 11 other murders.

The suspect, Richard Cottingham – believed to be one of America’s most prolific serial killers – was arraigned Wednesday on second-degree murder charges in connection with Cusick’s 1968 murder. From a hospital bed in New Jersey, where he is already serving a life sentence for other murders, Cottingham pleaded innocent.

Though he claimed he was responsible for as many as 100 murders, New York and New Jersey authorities have officially linked him to only a dozen, including Cusick’s death. He has been imprisoned since 1980 when he was arrested after a motel girl heard a woman screaming in his room. Authorities found her alive but handcuffed and suffering from bite marks and knife wounds.

Cottingham on Wednesday asked to be arraigned via video feed from the New Jersey hospital because he was in poor health, bedridden, and not ambulatory, Judge Caryn Fink said. He needed his attorney, Jeff Groder, to repeat the judge’s questions several times because he is hard of hearing, Groder said.

“He’s a violent predator, and no matter how he looks in a hospital bed these days, he wasn’t always a frail older man,” Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly said in an interview with The Associated Press. “He was a young 22-year-old when he committed the murder of Mrs. Cusick. He was strong, stronger than these women, and violent.”

Authorities believe Cusick, 23, gave up her job at a children’s dance school and then stopped at the Green Acres Mall in Nassau County to buy a pair of shoes when Cottingham followed her. Detectives believe he impersonated a security guard or police officer, charged her with theft, and then overpowered the 98-pound (44 kilograms) Cusick, Nassau County Police Department Superintendent Stephen Fitzpatrick said.

She was “relentlessly beaten, murdered, and raped in that car,” Fitzpatrick said. The coroner concluded that Cusick had been punched in the face and head and suffocated until she died. She had defensive wounds on her hands, and police were able to collect DNA evidence at the scene. But at the time, there was no DNA test.

The police questioned dozens of people, retraced her steps, and never stopped hunting her killer. But the track grew cold.

“Police did an excellent job of searching for clues they could find. “They spoke to hundreds of people at the Green Acres Mall to see if anyone had seen Diane,” Donnelly said. “Unfortunately, the track got cold, and the case got cold.”

Cottingham was a computer programmer for a New York health insurance company at the time of Cusick’s death. He was convicted of murder in New York and New Jersey in the 1980s, although the law did not require convicts to submit DNA samples as it does today. His DNA was taken and entered into a national database in 2016 when he pleaded guilty to another murder in New Jersey.

In 2021, Nassau County police received a tip that a suspect potentially responsible for murders in the county, just east of New York City, was incarcerated in New Jersey. They again started DNA testing on cold cases and found a match with Cottingham.

Cottingham also led police to believe he was responsible for the death by providing some information about the case, including telling detectives he was near a drive-in theater, which was adjacent to the mall at the time. But he stopped confessing to Cusick’s death right away, Donnelly said.

“He has not made a full confession. He mapped out little steps along the way that we could put together with the help of the police to fill that story,” she said.

Prosecutors are reviewing all pending cases around the same time and running DNA to see if Cottingham may have been responsible for other murders.

“Based on the evidence we have in this case, we’re looking at all the murders of young women from 1967 to 1980 to see if we can open any more cases against Mr. Cottingham,” Donnelly said.

Cusick’s daughter, Darlene Altman, said she was overwhelmed when she saw Cottingham on the video screen in the courtroom. Altman was just 4 when her mother was murdered.

“He just had that dead look. I felt like he was looking straight at me,” Altman said. “It was creepy.”

Albert L. Davis

My name is Albert, and I am a full time blogger by passion. I write about things that I am passionate about, and I have been lucky enough to find a career that fits me so well. I love being able to come home from work and spend my day doing what I want to do. I enjoy sharing tips and tricks to help others live a more balanced life, and I am grateful every day for the chance to share my knowledge with people all over the world.

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