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More than half a century after a New York dance teacher failed to return home from a trip to the mall to buy shoes, the so-called “Torso Killer” was charged with her murder after DNA evidence allegedly linked him to the crime.
Richard Cottingham – one of the nation’s most notorious serial killers – is already serving a life sentence in a New Jersey prison. He was arraigned on video Wednesday for second-degree murder from a hospital bed, wearing a patient’s gown and a face mask. His attorney, Jeff Groder, had to repeat the judge’s questions several times because he is hard of hearing, according to the Associated Press.
He pleaded not guilty and is facing 25 years to life in prison, if convicted. Cottingham is due back in court on Aug. 22, prosecutors said in a press release.
Cottingham was dubbed the “Torso Killer,” because of a penchant for dismembering some of his victims. His youngest victim was just 13 years old. He was also known as the “Times Square Killer,” because he targeted sex workers in that area.
Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly said at a news conference that this may be the oldest case ever prosecuted based on DNA evidence.
Diane Cusick’s daughter, Darlene Altman, was at the news conference with law enforcement officials.
“I never thought I’d see this day. I had given up,” Altman said, according to Newsday. “But all these people got justice for me and for my mother.”
Altman wore a necklace with a ballerina slipper charm that belonged to her mother. She was just 3 years old when her mother was murdered.
She also attended the arraignment with Cusick’s brother Jim and her grandson Mike.
“It was overwhelming. He just had this dead stare,” Altman said, according to multiple media outlets. “I thought he was looking at me. It was creepy.”
“Obviously this case hinges on DNA," Groder told Newsday. “I am conducting my own investigation of that evidence.”
Donnelly cautioned against being deceived by Cottingham’s frail and sickly appearance.
“He is a violent predator and no matter how he looks today in a hospital bed he was not always a feeble man,” she told AP. “He was a young 22-year-old when he committed the murder of Ms. Cusick. He was strong, stronger than these women were, and he was violent.”
On Feb. 16, 1968, Cusick’s father found her body in the backseat of the family’s 1961 Plymouth Valiant in the parking lot of Valley Stream’s Green Acres Mall, Newsday reported.
Nassau County Police Detective Capt. Stephen Fitzpatrick said she was “brutally beaten, murdered and raped in that car,” according to CBS News.
The medical examiner said Cusick was beaten in the face and head and suffocated to death, CBS News reported. She had defense wounds on her hands.
“Diane Cusick, a 23-year-old mother, called her parents on the night of February 15, 1968, to tell them she was going to the mall to purchase shoes. She never returned home. Cusick was allegedly bound and murdered by Richard Cottingham,” Donnelly said in a press release. “It was only through advances in DNA technology that the NCDA and our partners at the Nassau County Police Department, could solve this 54-year-old cold case and identify a suspect in Ms. Cusick’s tragic death. We make a promise to her surviving daughter today: we will bring her mother’s killer to justice.”
She was separated from her husband and lived with her parents, according to Newsday.
At least 100 Nassau police officers searched the area and showed her photo to more than 2,000 people asking them to “shed light on the last hours,” of her life. Authorities urged anyone with information to call a special tip line, according to Newsday.
They later released a description of the suspect: a white male in his late teens or early 20s with an average build, eyeglasses and standing at least five foot 8 inches tall.
They said the suspect had been spotted at a movie theater in the mall shortly before Cusick’s body was discovered. Police also said he may have been loitering in the area.
Authorities said Cottingham likely posed as a mall security guard or police officer before approaching Cusick and attacking her, Newsday reported.
Newsday reported that Cusick’s estranged husband was questioned but ruled out as a suspect because he was working his part-time job as a taxi driver when the murder took place.
Years passed, the trail grew cold, and the leads dried up.
Police had recovered a semen sample from the crime scene, but they never found a match, according to Newsday.
The sample was in good condition and stored in the county’s forensic evidence bureau for decades.
Jared Rosenblatt chief of the district attorney’s homicide bureau told Newsday that Cottingham’s DNA profile was added to a national index in 2005. Later, an advancement in DNA technology led to a break in the case. The DNA sample from the crime scene was submitted to the national index.
“When it was uploaded … it hit on a known profile, that being Richard Cottingham,” Rosenblatt said of the match discovered earlier this year, according to Newsday.
Law enforcement officials also noted that Cottingham led them to him.
“He didn’t lay out a full admission. What he laid out was baby steps along the way that we were able to put together with the help of the police department to fill in that story,” Donnelly said according to CBS News.
Cottingham has been convicted and admitted under oath to 11 murders in New York and New Jersey, but investigators in the Tri-State area have long suspected there were many more victims.
Donnelly’s office is now investigating unsolved homicides of women between 1967 and 1980, when Cottingham was active. He has boasted about killing more than 100 women across the United States, according to multiple media outlets.
Nassau County Police said that DNA samples from five other cases have been submitted to a database.
“Although Cottingham was primarily a Bergen County person and worked in Manhattan, we now have evidence that he was also here in Nassau County, and we are diligently reviewing unsolved murder cases, Donnelly said according to the New York Times.
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