Could you forgive someone if they killed your mother? Could you befriend them?
One New Jersey woman has done just that and now even considers her mom's killer to be something of a father figure. As odd as that may sound, her relationship with the man has yielded some practical benefits. She views it as a way to learn about her mother and to help bring a sense of closure and justice to the families of other victims.
Jennifer Weiss’ mom Deedeh Goodarzi was found dead alongside another unidentified woman in a Times Square motel room in 1979. The 22-year-old's death appeared brutal: she had been beheaded and set on fire and her skull has yet to be found.
Her killer, Richard Cottingham, was a computer operator, married with three children of his own, living a seemingly normal life. But beneath the veneer of normalcy was a heinous double-existence as a serial killer.
Known as the “Torso Killer” due to his habit of dismembering his later victims – he also chopped off the hands of his victims in order to mask their identities and skirt criminal charges, according to The Bergen Record – Cottingham arrested for a string of deaths in the early 80s. His 1984 conviction for Goodarzi's slaying was one of six in New York and New Jersey, though he allegedly claimed to have killed up to 100.
Earlier this year he confessed to killing three teen girls by strangulation between 1968 and 1969, Bergen County Prosecutor Mark Musella told NJ.com.
Despite the horrific crimes he committed, Weiss told Oxygen.com that she now visits Cottingham in prison a few times a month. In fact, she's visited him more than 30 times now and thinks of him "like a father." As many daughters do with their boomer relatives, she helps him figure out how to use his iPad.
In a picture of the pair, Weiss mimics strangling him, ironic because that was his modus operandi for killing his victims. It's truly an unlikely pair.
Weiss said she always felt inclined to meet Cottingham, ever since she found out her mother was one of his victims in 2002.
“I always knew I was going to befriend him for information,” she told Oxygen.com. “That’s something I knew even when I didn't know if I was going to approach him.”
But before meeting him, she knew she had to prepare herself first.
“In order to do this, I had to build up actual forgiveness and love,” she said, adding that she "could have gone there with anger” and had many ways to “thrash him” but decided to take a different route.
“What meant more was that this is a human being,” she said. “I had to go there with love and respect and I had to respect this whole man because he was put on the planet to do all these tragic things.”
Before actually meeting Cottingham, she began writing to him.
“I wrote to him and said ‘You’re gonna be blown away by me and I’m gonna make you cry,'" she said. "'Your friends are going to be jealous when they see me come and visit you. I’m so cool and I'm so kind. You should be honored to have someone like me as a friend.’”
During their first meeting, at New Jersey State Prison in 2017, she dove right into the important questions: How did he know her mother? Could he be her biological father?
Cottingham told Weiss that he had known her mother for a few years. And, while she said Cottingham told her it’s “possible but not probable” that he's her father, they have not yet taken any paternity test. Related by blood or not, Weiss told Oxygen.com that she “cares about him like family and I treat him like a daughter would."
As their strange friendship blossomed, Weiss told Oxygen.com that she has seen some positive change in the "Torso Killer," and that she has observed empathy in him. She said she watched him cry when he found out that one of his victims was discovered by her sister, and how badly it affected her.
Weiss said her friendship with Cottingham has also made her feel close to her mother, whom she knew very little about.
“She had a sad life through what I've seen,” she said. “The photo used in the press was something her friend took. All the other photos I took of her are mugshots. In photos of her as a child, she didn’t look happy. I wanted to see happiness somewhere.”
Goodarzi was working as a sex worker when she was killed. Her family had fled Iran when she was a young child and Weiss feels that her traumatic beginnings influenced her decision to get into sex work.
Weiss says her friendship with Cottingham has already helped bring some resolution to some of his many crimes. She told NJ.com her conversations with Cottingham actually led to him getting officially linked to the three unsolved teen murders earlier this year. The Bergen County Prosecutor's office has not returned Oxygen.com's request to confirm that.
"Jennifer's approach to Cottingham with forgiveness and friendship has made it easier for him to confess to other murders,” serial killer expert and author Peter Vronsky told Oxygen.com.
Weiss hopes that continuing to talk to him will also lead to the discovery of her mother’s skull.
“I’d love to sort through the mess he made,” she said. “It’s like, ‘Come on Dad, we gotta pick up these pieces because he’s so old. Sometimes when I talk to him I’ll say, [while snapping her fingers] ‘Hey pops,’ to bring him back to ‘Let's do this for humanity’ because he has no desire to do anything for humanity.”
She said Cottingham doesn’t have any genuine interest in helping bring closure to anyone, but he does want to help her, because of their friendship.
“Jennifer has given him some positive motive to make his confessions assuring him that while she cannot guarantee how other victims' families will respond, on her part she extends her friendship and support in every confession he makes,” Vronsky told Oxygen.com. “At this point, with Cottingham never getting out of prison, the most important thing is resolution and truth in those old unsolved cold cases, not justice or punishment. Cottingham is never getting out but there are still victim family members who don't know what happened to their loved ones. It may not offer closure – there is never ‘closure’ for families – but resolution at least.”
So, their friendship, while non-traditional and perhaps morbid, could be beneficial for many in the long run.
“He doesn’t want to do it but he did promise he’d do it for me,” Weiss told Oxygen.com.
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