Convicted serial killer Richard Cottingham was arraigned Wednesday from his hospital bed, accused of killing 23-year-old Diane Cusick in Valley Stream in 1968. Newsday TV’s Cecilia Dowd reports. Credit: Anthony Florio; Photo Credit: Nassau County District Attorney's Office; Cusick Family; New Jersey Depar

Diane Cusick’s alleged killer couldn’t have known as he left the young mother and dance instructor for dead outside Green Acres Mall in 1968 that he’d also left a clue that would make his arrest in the 23-year-old’s strangulation more likely as time marched on.

But as authorities unsealed an indictment Wednesday against a longtime New Jersey prison inmate known as the “Torso Killer,” they said DNA evidence that they believe marks a historic precedent provided the crucial break in the case 54 years later.

Richard Cottingham, 75, who already is serving life in prison, pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder in a virtual appearance in Nassau County Court that he made from a hospital bed with a lawyer by his side.

Richard Cottingham appears via video link at his arraignment from...

Richard Cottingham appears via video link at his arraignment from New Jersery on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer, Pool) Credit: AP/Mary Altaffer

“Unknown to him and the police in 1968, he left behind his DNA, a science that was not used in criminal cases back then,” prosecutor Jared Rosenblatt said in court of Cottingham, whom he dubbed “beyond a reasonable doubt guilty.”

Nassau District Attorney Anne Donnelly announced at a news conference later with Cusick’s daughter, Darlene Altman, by her side that law enforcement officials “believe this may be the oldest DNA hit to lead to a prosecution in the United States."

Altman, who was 4 at the time of her mother’s brutal rape and slaying, said seeing an image of Cusick’s alleged killer beamed into court on a big screen overwhelmed her.

"I never thought I'd see this day. I had given up," said the daughter, who wore a necklace with a ballerina slipper charm that had been Cusick’s. “But all these people got justice for me and for my mother."

Donnelly vowed that Nassau law enforcement officials would see the case through to the end.

“Justice never runs out of breath, no matter how many years have gone by,” she told Altman.

Diane Cusick's daughter Darlene Altman hugs Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly...

Diane Cusick's daughter Darlene Altman hugs Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly after the DA announced that New Jersey man Richard Cottingham was arraigned Wednesday on a murder charge at the Nassau County Courthouse in Mineola. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Nassau police said Wednesday that they’ve recently submitted for testing DNA evidence related to five other unsolved homicides from the same era and are awaiting results.

“Whether that’s related to Richard Cottingham or not has yet to be determined,” said Det. Capt. Stephen Fitzpatrick, commander of the police department’s homicide squad.

Investigators now believe that Cottingham posed as a mall security officer or police officer as a way to approach Cusick before attacking her, he said.

Nassau homicide detectives have met with Cottingham and taken statements from him, according to authorities.

Fitzpatrick also said the daughter of one of the Cottingham's murder victims and a serial killer expert who have an ongoing relationship with Cottingham gave police “very, very useful information.”

Cottingham, a former Manhattan computer programmer and husband and father of three from Lodi, New Jersey, earned his moniker after dismembering some of his victims.

He did so during his 1979 attack on two women at the Travel Inn Motor Hotel on West 42nd Street in Manhattan.

A New York City jury convicted him of those killings and the 1980 slaying of a woman at Hotel Seville on East 29th Street in Manhattan, whom he strangled and mutilated before setting her on fire. Authorities believe all three victims were sex workers.

Prosecutors said a break in the Valley Stream cold case happened after authorities recently retested DNA evidence in the case and uploaded a profile from evidence in the case into a national index. They said they got a perfect match: Cottingham.

“Obviously this case hinges on DNA,” Cottingham’s lawyer, Jeffrey Groder, told Newsday on Wednesday. “I am conducting my own investigation of that evidence.”

On Feb. 16, 1968, Cusick’s father found her battered 5-foot-2, 98-pound remains in the back seat of her family’s 1961 Plymouth Valiant in the mall parking lot and called police.

Cusick, who was estranged from her husband and living with her parents, had stopped at the Valley Stream shopping center on her way home from her job teaching children’s dance classes in Oceanside to buy new shoes.

Copy photo of 1968 rape/murder victim Diane Cusick, 23, who...

Copy photo of 1968 rape/murder victim Diane Cusick, 23, who was found in her car in the Green Acres shopping mall in Valley Stream.  Credit: Cusick Family

Her parents, Bernard and Rita Martin, had gone looking for her when she didn’t return to their home on Eighth Avenue in New Hyde Park after mall closing time.

Two-inch-wide adhesive tape had been wound around Cusick’s mouth and neck, causing her suffocation, Nassau’s medical examiner said at the time of the crime.

Cusick’s face was bloodied from a beating, some of her clothing was torn and she had been sexually assaulted, Nassau police said then.

But they said some of the jewelry that the Sewanhaka High School graduate had been wearing was untouched and her purse was still in the car.

A day later, police set up a trailer in the mall lot and used loudspeakers to broadcast appeals to shoppers and employees who might help them generate clues about Cusick’s killer.

A team of 100 Nassau police personnel showed Cusick’s photo and interviewed more than 2,000 people in the area, asking anyone who could “shed light on the last hours” of her life to call a special phone number with tips.

Days later, police released a description of a suspect in the slaying, saying he was a white male in his late teens or early 20s, about 5 foot 8 inches to 5 foot 10 inches tall, with a medium build and eyeglasses.

Police said the suspect had been wearing a dark, fingertip-length cloth coat. They also said the suspect had been seen by the Green Acres movie theatre about 11:30 p.m. on Feb. 15, 1968 — less than an hour before the discovery of Cusick’s body — and may have been loitering around the mall earlier in the evening.

Police questioned Cusick’s estranged husband, a production technician at Grumman Aircraft Engineering Corporation in Bethpage, but found he’d been working his side job as a taxi driver during the hours in question.

Then as months and years passed, police never made any arrests and the case went cold.

In 2006, Cusick’s mother spoke to Newsday for a story about how local families mourning relatives from unsolved killings hoped DNA analysis could produce new leads.

Rita Cusick, then living in Florida, recalled how Diane had called her at 7 p.m. on Feb. 15, 1968, and asked if she’d accompany her to Green Acres.

The young dance instructor had a performance scheduled and wanted a new pair of shoes, according to her mother’s account.

But Rita Cusick said she had been suffering from strep throat, and that young Darlene also was ill.

“Could we go tomorrow?” the mother recalled asking her daughter by phone.

But she said Diane had been intent on her shopping mission.

“No, I’ll go,” the mother recalled her daughter had told her.

Diane Cusick’s car outside Steak Pub in Valley Stream in...

Diane Cusick’s car outside Steak Pub in Valley Stream in 1968. Credit: Nassau County District Attorney

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

In the early 2000s, Altman had called Nassau police to see if they could try to use modern technology to solve the case.

The semen, then nearly four decades old, was still in good condition and could be analyzed. But there was never a match made then, although police said the sample continued to be stored in the county's forensic evidence bureau.

Rosenblatt, chief of the district attorney's homicide bureau, said Wednesday that although the sample was analyzed in 2003, the DNA profile that was generated then wasn’t suitable to be uploaded into a national DNA index to seek a match against known offenders.

The sample was uploaded to local databases, but no match was found in them, he said.

But Rosenblatt said two things changed as time passed.

One factor was that Cottingham's DNA profile was added to a national index in 2005. Prosecutors said that happened after Cottingham, who began his incarceration in the 1980s when DNA wasn’t collected from offenders, was convicted in another case.

Rosenblatt said the other factor that led to the DNA-related break in the case was the advancement of related technology as years passed.

Technology had improved to the point where authorities were able to generate a good enough DNA profile from the Valley Stream evidence sample to submit it and seek a match in a national index.

"When it was uploaded … it hit on a known profile, that being Richard Cottingham," Rosenblatt said of the positive match earlier this year.

Last April, Cottingham, who has confessed to other killings since becoming a New Jersey state prison inmate in July 1981, pleaded guilty to the 1974 murders of two teenage girls, the Associated Press reported at the time.

By mid-2021, investigators in New York and New Jersey had officially linked Cottingham to 11 homicides, but he has claimed responsibility for up to 100 homicides, according to AP.

The wire service reported that authorities nabbed Cottingham in 1980 after screaming from a New Jersey motel room alerted a maid.

New Jersey police charged Cottingham, who had worked at Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Greater New York on Manhattan’s East side, with trying to kill an 18-year-old woman in that room. They also charged him with murdering a 19-year-old Florida woman in the same Hasbrouck Heights motel earlier that month.

Law enforcement officials then linked items they found in Cottingham’s home and car to one of the victims of the Times Square killing and the Hotel Seville victim.

Cottingham already had been convicted of murdering three women in New Jersey when he went on trial in New York in 1984 for all three Manhattan slayings, Newsday reported at the time.

Darlene Altman, daughter of Diane Cusick, who was found strangled...

Darlene Altman, daughter of Diane Cusick, who was found strangled in mall parking lot in 1968, wears a charm of her mother's on her necklace on Wednesday. Credit: Howard Schnapp

Latest videos


Unlimited Digital AccessOnly 25¢for 5 months