Serial Killer indicted for 1968 Murder

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24 Jun 2022, 4:13 am

"Torso Killer" Richard Cottingham charged in 1968 murder of Long Island mother Diane Cusick

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More than five decades after Diane Cusick's lifeless body was discovered in the parking lot of a mall on New York's Long Island, authorities have linked her death to the so-called "Torso Killer," a serial killer already convicted in 11 other killings.

The suspect, Richard Cottingham — believed to be one of America's most prolific serial killers — was arraigned Wednesday on a second-degree murder charge in connection with Cusick's 1968 killing. From a hospital bed in New Jersey, where he's already serving a life sentence for other killings, Cottingham pleaded not guilty.

While he has claimed he was responsible for up to 100 homicides, authorities in New York and New Jersey have officially linked him to only a dozen so far, including Cusick's death. He has been imprisoned since 1980, when he was arrested after a motel maid heard a woman screaming inside his room. Authorities found her alive but bound with handcuffs and suffering from bite marks and knife wounds.

Cottingham asked to be arraigned Wednesday by video feed from the New Jersey hospital because he was in poor health, bedridden and not ambulatory, Judge Caryn Fink said. He needed his lawyer, Jeff Groder, to repeat the judge's questions several times because he has difficulty hearing, Groder said.

Authorities believe Cusick, 23, left 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 out. Detectives believe he pretended to be a security guard or police officer, accused her of stealing and then overpowered the 98-pound (44-kilogram) Cusick, Nassau County Police Detective Capt. Stephen Fitzpatrick said.

She was "brutally beaten, murdered and raped in that car," Fitzpatrick said. The medical examiner concluded that Cusick had been beaten in the face and head and was 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 testing.

Police interviewed dozens of people, retraced her steps and never stopped hunting for her killer. But the trail went cold.

Cottingham was working as a computer programmer for a health 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, though the law at the time didn't require people convicted to submit DNA samples, as it does now. His DNA was taken and entered into a national database in 2016 when he pleaded guilty to another murder in New Jersey.

In 2021, police in Nassau County received a tip that a suspect who might be responsible for killings in the county, just east of New York City, was locked up in New Jersey. They began running DNA tests again on cold cases and came up with a match to 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 next to the mall at the time. But he stopped short of confessing directly to Cusick's death, Donnelly said.

"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," she said.

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

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 killed.

"He just had this like dead stare. I felt like he was looking right at me," Altman said. "It was creepy."

This is believed to be the oldest case solved by DNA in the U.S.


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28 Jun 2022, 6:52 pm

Behind a Paywall
Daughter of victim in 'Torso Killer' case talks about the grief that shaped her life

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Darlene Altman waited a lifetime for that phone call.

When she recently got it, the Long Island native's heart leapt at the news that her mother's alleged killer would have to answer for the slaying more than half a century later.

“It’s odd to describe, it’s just happiness. I don’t know, joy. It’s like relief, relief that something now is finally actually happening,” the 58-year-old Florida resident told Newsday in an exclusive, in-depth interview in which she described how the slaying affected her life.

Last week Altman was in Nassau County Court as convicted serial killer and longtime New Jersey prison inmate Richard Cottingham appeared virtually for an arraignment and pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in the 1968 slaying of her mother, Diane Cusick.

Cusick was a 23-year-old dance instructor whom prosecutors say Cottingham raped and strangled in her family’s Plymouth Valiant outside Green Acres Mall after likely approaching by pretending to be mall security or a police officer.

Altman was 4 when her mother died and has no memory of her. But she said the way her mother's life ended and how her family members coped with their grief has shaped her life.

Altman said certain “precautions” were instilled in her from a young age.

Altman’s grandparents, Bernard and Rita Martin, forbade her from going to Green Acres Mall after taking over raising her following her mother’s homicide.

The couple had gone to the Valley Stream shopping center after Diane Cusick didn’t come home after mall closing time on Feb. 15, 1968.

Cusick had told them she was going there to buy dance shoes on her way home from the Oceanside dance studio where she worked, but then never arrived back at the family’s New Hyde Park home.

Cusick and her daughter had been living with Cusick’s parents because she had been estranged from her husband, a Grumman employee.

After midnight, the Martins found the Valiant parked in the mall lot by the now-defunct Steak Pub restaurant.

When Cusick’s father approached the car, he discovered his daughter’s battered body in the back seat, peeled back the adhesive band the killer had put over her mouth and called police, Nassau District Attorney Anne Donnelly said last week.

But then decades passed without any arrests in Cusick's killing.

Altman said she was taught once she was old enough to drive that she was never allowed to open her door or window if anyone other than a police officer in a marked car pulled her over.

Such an encounter happened shortly after her Sewanhaka High School graduation, when an officer in an unmarked car initiated a traffic stop because she had her mortarboard tassel hanging from her car’s rearview mirror.

The nervous teenager insisted that a marked car come to the scene before the officer, who was unaware of her family’s history, gave in to her insistence.

Altman said that while she didn’t live in fear because of her mother’s slaying as she was growing up, it still hung like a shadow over her life.

It was a darkness her grandparents never spoke about while raising her as their own daughter while trying to distract themselves from their pain, Altman said.

The Martins prevailed in a custody battle with her father and adopted her after Cusick’s death, even legally changing her surname to Martin by the time she turned 13, according to Altman.

She grew up sleeping in her mother’s childhood bedroom and went to Stewart Manor Elementary School and Alva T. Stanforth Junior High just like her mother — and even had some of the same teachers.

Altman also took free dance classes her entire childhood at the Oceanside dance studio where her mother had worked.

While Altman said her grandparents gave her the best of everything, she said they also did everything they could to protect her from a truth that was too difficult for them to speak.

“Diane wasn’t talked about … Her memory wasn’t kept alive,” Altman added.

As the Martins also kept her away from her father’s side of the family, everyone she did know changed roles in her life: her mother’s twin brothers became her brothers and her grandparents became her parents.

“It got to the point where I felt like I didn’t have my own identity,” Altman told Newsday. “They did what they thought was best … But it did hurt me.”

Altman said she married young — probably too young before a divorce years later — and had two sons of her own before she met her father once in the early 1990s. The two then talked a couple of times a year by phone after that until his death, she said.

Altman said she has blocked out the memory of when she found out about her mother’s slaying.

"I don't remember finding out ... I'm sure pain sometimes causes you to block out things," she said.

But Altman said she tried to never let go of the hope that one day there might be an answer to the painful puzzle that has been central to her life.

She said she developed a fascination for TV shows about true crimes that have been solved and the role of DNA evidence. She would see the families of those victims featured and wish and pray: Maybe one day that will be me.

In the early 2000s, Altman called the Nassau County Police Department to inquire about whether modern technology might provide some leads in her mother’s cold case.

Altman told Newsday then that police had said the case would stay stagnant unless she could provide them with a new lead in the killing.

“I was not even 4 years old at the time. How am I going to provide you with a lead?” Altman said she told police, a recollection that was part of the same 2006 Newsday story.

But against the odds, things changed as time passed.

Altman said she is grateful to Weiss and Vronsky, whom Nassau police last week said provided “very, very useful information” in Cusick’s case.

Altman said she’s also thankful that law enforcement officials not only carefully collected evidence at the scene of her mother’s slaying but preserved it for decades.

Nassau prosecutors said that when authorities retested the evidence sample in Cusick's case in 2021, technology had improved to the point where a suitable profile could be put into a national DNA index for comparison against known offenders.

Altman said she "wanted to jump up and down" when Nassau homicide Det. Daniel Finn called to tell her of Cottingham's impending arraignment, describing the moment as one of “extreme joy” after decades of waiting.

“I never thought I’d hear the words,” she said.


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Professionally Identified and joined WP August 26, 2013
DSM 5: Autism Spectrum Disorder, DSM IV: Aspergers Moderate Severity

“My autism is not a superpower. It also isn’t some kind of god-forsaken, endless fountain of suffering inflicted on my family. It’s just part of who I am as a person”. - Sara Luterman