Darlene Altman weeps as Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly announces...

Darlene Altman weeps as Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly announces Richard Cottingham was indicted in her mother's 1968 death. Credit: Howard Schnapp

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.

Victim Diane Cusick was dead in her car in the Green Acres...

Victim Diane Cusick was dead in her car in the Green Acres shopping mall in Valley Stream in 1968. Credit: Cusick Family/Handout

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.

Authorities said DNA evidence linked Cottingham, a 75-year-old former computer programmer who became known as the “Torso Killer,” to the crime 54 years later in what is believed to be the oldest DNA hit to lead to a prosecution in the United States.

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.

Richard Cottingham was arraigned for the 1968 slaying of Diane Cusick on...

Richard Cottingham was arraigned for the 1968 slaying of Diane Cusick on Wednesday. Credit: Nassau County District Attorney

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.

Among the evidence Nassau police had in Cusick’s case was a sample of semen recovered from the crime scene, Newsday reported in a 2006 story.

But despite efforts in 2003 to generate a suitable DNA profile, law enforcement officials weren't able to make any matches to known offenders at the time.

 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.

Cottingham, who has been in New Jersey state prison since 1981 and is serving a life sentence after other murder convictions, began confessing to more crimes.

He did so with both a Bergen County law enforcement official and with Jennifer Weiss, the daughter of one of his victims. Weiss has teamed up with Peter Vronsky, a historian and serial killer expert who is writing an upcoming book about Cottingham, to extract admissions from him.

Weiss, whose mother Cottingham dismembered in 1979 at a Times Square motel, said in a Newsday interview that she first contacted him about five years ago after surviving cancer and realizing she wanted more answers about her birth mother’s death.

A Manhattan jury in 1984 convicted Cottingham of murdering Weiss’ birth mother, Deedah Goodarzi, and an unidentified female victim at Travel Inn Motor Hotel on West 42nd Street.

Those jurors also found him guilty of the strangulation murder of another woman whom he also mutilated in a 1980 slaying at Hotel Seville on East 29th Street in Manhattan.

At the time of the verdict, Cottingham already was serving a 200-year prison sentence in New Jersey for other murders.

By April 2021, investigators in New York and New Jersey had linked him to 11 homicides, The Associated Press reported as Cottingham pleaded guilty at that time to the 1974 murders of two New Jersey teens.

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.

Darlene Altman hugs Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly after...

Darlene Altman hugs Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly after she announced that New Jersey man Richard Cottingham was indicted on murder charges in connection with her mother's killing. Credit: Howard Schnapp

By then, the profile of Cottingham — whose 1980s-era convictions didn’t mandate DNA collection — also had been put in the index after another conviction and matched the Cusick case evidence sample, authorities said.

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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