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A notorious New Jersey serial killer known as “The Torso Killer” has admitted to killing two teenage girls in 1974, kidnapping and raping them for days before drowning them in a bathtub at a motel.
Bergen County Prosecutor Mark Musella announced that Richard Cottingham pleaded guilty Tuesday to the premeditated murder of Mary Ann Pryor, 17, and her friend Lorraine Kelly, 16, while behind bars serving time for other charges, according to a statement from his office.
The teens disappeared on Aug. 9, 1974 after telling family they planned to go the Paramus mall to buy bathing suits for an upcoming trip to the Jersey Shore, the Associated Press reports.
Witnesses would later report seeing the two teenagers hitchhiking and getting into a vehicle being driven by an unknown male.
Their families reported them missing later that night after they failed to return home. The teens bodies were discovered five days later in the wooded area of Montvale, prosecutors said.
The case has continued to haunt the community for decades and although investigators suspected that Cottingham, once a married father of three, could be involved in the slayings after his arrest in 1980 for the sexual assault and murder of multiple young women, he would never admit to the crimes until now, according to NorthJersey.com.
Cottingham’s defense attorney John Bruno told the news outlet that Cottingham wanted to confess to the crimes now to give closure to the victims’ families.
“Cottingham told me this weighs heavily on him because he doesn’t know why he did the things he did,” Bruno said. “He has deep regrets. He still doesn’t understand why he did these things. But he feels relief knowing he has come clean for the families and for himself.”
Oxygen.com reached out to Bruno but did not receive an immediate response.
During his guilty plea, Bruno read the disturbing details divulged by his client, saying that Cottingham kidnapped the two teens and took them to a hotel room, before tying them up and raping them for days.
He drowned both teens in the motel’s bathtub on Aug. 11, 1974 before disposing of the bodies in the woods.
As part of the plea deal, Cottingham is expected to be sentenced in July to two life sentences, to be served concurrently. He’s currently serving a life sentence for other murders.
Mary Ann’s sister, Nancy Pryor, watched the hearing virtually. She told the Associated Press in 2016 that the decades without knowing what happened in her sister’s final moments had been “just brutal.”
“It’s all up to me, and all I want is some answers,” she said at the time. “I can’t bring her back.”
The 74-year-old was given the moniker “The Torso Killer” because of his propensity to dismember his victims, cutting off their limbs and heads. The killer claimed he had committed up to 100 homicides, but authorities in New York and New Jersey have only officially linked him to 11 so far, including the two latest murder convictions.
His reign of terror finally came to an end in 1980 when a motel maid heard a woman screaming from his room. Law enforcement officers arrived to find a female handcuffed in his room, suffering from bite marks and knife wounds, according to the Associated Press.
Before his arrest, Cottingham had worked as a computer programmer for a health insurance company in New York and had a wife and three children.
Peter Vronsky, a true-crime author, who met with Cottingham for years said the convicted killer never met the typical profile of a serial killer, according to the NorthJersey.com.
“He had none of the juvenile history that most serial killers have,” Vronsky said in 2020. “He wasn’t driven by fantasy, like many serial killers. These were impulse-driven crimes, which makes it harder to find the links between them.”
He admitted to killing three other teenage girls, Irene Blase, Denise Falasca and Jackie Harp, between 1968 and 1969 last year.
Prosecutors said they hope the latest conviction brings the families of the victims some sense of justice.
“This is a somber day as we revisit the horrific acts and terror this man brought upon Bergen County nearly 50 years ago,” Musella said. “It is my fervent hope that his arrest and conviction bring some semblance of closure to the friends and family of Mary Ann and Lorraine and a measure of justice to members of our communities, who have long feared this unknown actor.”
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