Mineola, New York. More than five decades after Diane Cusick’s lifeless body was found in the parking lot of New York’s Long Island mall, authorities link her death to the so-called “torso killer,” a serial killer already convicted of 11 other murders.
The suspect, Richard Cottingham, considered one of America’s most prolific serial killers, was arraigned Wednesday on charges of second-degree murder in connection with the 1968 murder of Cusick. In a hospital bed in New Jersey, where he is already serving a life sentence for other murders, Cottingham pleaded not guilty.
Although he claimed to be responsible for 100 murders, New York and New Jersey authorities officially link him to only a dozen, including Cusick’s death. He has been incarcerated since 1980, when he was arrested after a motel maid heard a woman scream in his room. The authorities found her alive, but handcuffed, with bite marks and stab wounds.
Judge Caryn Fink said on Wednesday Cottingham asked to be arraigned over a video feed from a New Jersey hospital because he was in poor health, bedridden and unable to move. He needs his lawyer, Jeff Groder, to repeat the judge’s questions several times because he has a hearing problem, Groder said.
“He’s a vicious predator, and no matter what he looks like in a hospital bed today, he wasn’t always a frail older man,” Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly told The Associated Press. “He was 22 years old when he committed the murder of Miss Cusick. He was strong, stronger than these women, and he was cruel.”
Authorities believe Cusick, 23, quit 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 pretended to be a security guard or police officer, framed her for the theft, and then overpowered a 98-pound (44-kilogram) Cusick, Nassau County Police Detective Captain Stephen Fitzpatrick said.
She was “severely beaten, killed and raped in that car,” Fitzpatrick said. The medical examiner concluded that Cusick had been beaten in the face and head and strangled until she died. She had defensive wounds on her arms and police were able to gather DNA evidence at the scene. But at that time there was no DNA examination.
The police interviewed dozens of people, traced her steps and continued to hunt for her killer. But the trail has gone cold.
“The police did a great job looking for any leads 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 trail went cold and the case died out.”
Cottingham was working as a programmer for an insurance company in New York at the time of Cusick’s death. He was convicted of murder in both New York and New Jersey in the 1980s, although the law at the time did not require convicts to provide DNA samples as they do now. His DNA was taken and entered into the national database in 2016 when he pleaded guilty to another murder in New Jersey.
In 2021, Nassau County police received a report that a suspect who may be responsible for murders in a county east of New York is incarcerated in New Jersey. They started running DNA tests on cold cases again and found a match with Cottingham.
Cottingham also led the police to believe that he was responsible for the death by providing some information about the case, including telling detectives that he was near a drive-in theater, which at the time was adjacent to a shopping mall. But he did not directly admit to Cusick’s death, Donnelly said.
“He didn’t put out a full confession. What he laid out were small steps along the way that we were able to put together with the help of the police department to fill this story,” she said.
Prosecutors are now reviewing all open cases around the same time and doing DNA testing to see if Cottingham could have been responsible for other murders.
“Based on the evidence we have in this case, we are reviewing all the murders of young women from 1967 to 1980 to see if we can collect any more cases against Mr Cottingham,” Donnelly said.
Cusick’s daughter, Darlene Altman, said she was stunned when she saw Cottingham on a courtroom video screen. Altman was only 4 years old when her mother was killed.
“He had such a dead look. I felt like he was looking right at me,” Altman said. “It was creepy.”