A convicted serial murderer known as the “Torso Killer” pleaded guilty Monday to fatally strangling a young dance teacher outside Green Acres Mall in 1968 and admitted to murdering four other women whose Nassau County homicide cases also went unsolved for about five decades.
A judge then sentenced Richard Cottingham, who appeared virtually in Nassau County Court from a New Jersey prison, to 25 years to life behind bars for the murder of 23-year-old mall victim Diane Cusick.
As part of his plea deal, Cottingham took responsibility for the 1972 murders of Mary Beth Heinz, 21, of Mineola, and Laverne Moye, 23, of St. Albans, Queens.
He also admitted, under the deal, to carrying out the 1973 murders of Sheila Heiman, 33, of North Woodmere, and Maria Emerita Rosado Nieves, 18, of Manhattan.
WHAT TO KNOW
- A judge sentenced Richard Cottingham, who appeared virtually in Nassau County Court from a New Jersey prison, to 25 years to life behind bars for the murder of 23-year-old mall victim Diane Cusick.
- As part of his plea deal, Cottingham took responsibility for the 1972 murders of Mary Beth Heinz, 21, of Mineola, and Laverne Moye, 23, of St. Albans, Queens.
- He also admitted, under the deal, to carrying out the 1973 murders of Sheila Heiman, 33, of North Woodmere, and Maria Emerita Rosado Nieves, 18, of Manhattan.
- Members of the Cusick, Heinz, Moye and Heiman families were in a Mineola courtroom as Cottingham admitted to killing their loved ones during what investigators said was his habit of preying on women along the Sunrise Highway corridor.
Members of the Cusick, Heinz, Moye and Heiman families were in a Mineola courtroom as Cottingham admitted to killing their loved ones during what investigators said was his habit of preying on women along the Sunrise Highway corridor — not far from some of his own relatives’ homes.
“There’s been some dark days behind us but today the sun shines brightly because justice has been served,” John Moye, who was 5 at the time of his mother Laverne's murder, said at a press conference later Monday.
Jared Rosenblatt, Homicide Bureau chief of the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office, spoke in court about the anguish of the victims' families as his voice quaked with emotion.
“For more than 50 years, these five families waited, hoped and wondered if they would ever find out who killed their loved ones...I hope there is some justice for all of you knowing that, the rest of the defendant’s life, he will live and will take every breath in a prison cell,” he told the victims’ relatives.
Cottingham, now 76, declined to speak Monday — prompting murmurs of “coward” and other insults inside the packed courtroom.
“The cruelty of your actions shocks the court and all members of society,” Acting State Supreme Court Justice Caryn Fink said while sentencing Cottingham.
The serial killer wore a hospital gown and appeared alongside his defense attorney, Jeffrey Groder, for the virtual court appearance from South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, New Jersey.
“You stand before the court now, over 50 years after you have committed your crimes, sick and infirm. But make no mistake, Mr. Cottingham, no one has any sympathy for you,” Fink added.
Cusick, a New Hyde Park resident, never returned home from the Valley Stream mall after stopping in February 1968 to buy dance shoes before Cottingham raped and strangled her.
Police believe Cottingham posed as mall security or a police officer to approach Cusick, whose 98-pound body he left in the back seat of her family’s Plymouth Valiant in the mall parking lot.
Cusick’s parents went looking for her when she didn’t come home from the shopping center hours later and called for help after her father saw her in the car in the early morning of Feb. 16, 1968.
Cusick’s brother, Jim Martin, said in court Monday that his father, the now-late Bernard Martin, scooped up Diane’s battered body and carried her to Sunrise Highway, unsure if she was dead or alive, to try to wave down cars for help.
“You did this!” Martin told Cottingham.
The victim’s brother also recalled how his mother, the now-late Rita Martin, had later begged ‘Don’t take my Diane away,’ after falling to her knees when Diane’s coffin was closed.
“You did this!” Martin again told Cottingham.
Cottingham received immunity from prosecution for the murders of Heinz, Moye, Heiman and Nieves as part of his plea bargain. His sentence will run consecutive to punishments that include life prison terms for additional murders he has committed.
“This defendant has caused irreparable harm to so many people and so many families, there’s almost nothing I can say to give comfort to anyone,” Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly said at the news conference Monday where members of some of the victims’ families also spoke.
The top prosecutor called Monday “one of the most emotional days we’ve ever had in the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office.”
The five killings between 1968 and 1973 had lingered as cold cases in Nassau County for about half a century.
Cottingham, who earned his “Torso Killer” moniker after dismembering some of his other victims, has been incarcerated in New Jersey state prison since 1981.
The break that helped investigators begin to unravel Cottingham’s homicidal trail locally came after what Donnelly previously said was a historic DNA hit — possibly the oldest such hit to lead to a prosecution in the United States.
It happened after the district attorney’s office in 2021 arranged for the retesting of a semen sample left on Cusick’s clothing that had been preserved for decades.
In the early 2000s, Cusick’s daughter, Darlene Altman, called Nassau police to see if they could try to use modern technology to solve the case.
Rosenblatt, who also heads the district attorney’s Cold Case Unit, said after Cottingham’s June arraignment that the DNA profile generated from the sample wasn’t suitable then to be uploaded into a national DNA index to seek a match against known offenders.
But thanks to science, two things changed as time passed that made it more, rather than less likely, that Cusick’s killer would be identified.
In 2005, law enforcement officials added the DNA profile of Cottingham, whose prison time began in an era when offenders didn’t have to provide DNA samples, to a national index.
Then by 2021, technology had advanced to the point where authorities were able to generate a good enough DNA profile from the Cusick crime scene sample to submit it and seek a match in a national index.
Prosecutors said when they did so, it came back earlier this year as a perfect match to Cottingham.
The former Manhattan computer programmer and father-of-three from Lodi, New Jersey, has admitted to multiple murders since his incarceration began four decades ago.
Peter Vronsky, a historian who is writing a book about Cottingham and speaks to him regularly, said at Monday’s news conference at the district attorney's office that 17 murders now have been attributed to the serial killer.
Law enforcement officials nabbed Cottingham in 1980 after a woman’s screams in a New Jersey motel room alerted a maid, the Associated Press reported back then.
New Jersey police charged him with trying to kill that 18-year-old victim and with murdering a Florida woman in the same motel earlier that month.
Cottingham's New Jersey prison record lists convictions in four murder cases in that state.
The serial killer previously confessed crimes to both a Bergen County law enforcement official and Jennifer Weiss, the biological daughter of one of the two women he beheaded, also cutting off their hands, in a Times Square hotel room in 1979 that he set ablaze.
In 1984, a New York City jury convicted Cottingham, who had worked for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Greater New York on Manhattan’s East Side, of those murders.
They also found him guilty in the 1980 slaying of another woman whom he strangled, mutilated and set on fire in an East 29th Street hotel.
Weiss has teamed up with Vronsky in the last several years to help extract admissions from him, Newsday reported earlier this year.
Nassau police said after Cottingham’s arraignment in Cusick’s murder that Weiss and Vronsky provided “very, very useful information” in the case.
Weiss told Newsday in a June interview that she first contacted Cottingham about five years ago after surviving cancer and realizing she wanted more answers about her birth mother’s death.
The day after Cottingham’s arraignment in Cusick’s slaying, a New Jersey judge sentenced him to life in prison again for the August 1974 murders of two teenage girls he drowned in a motel bathtub and dumped in the woods.
That murder was less than a year after a Jones Beach Parks Commission worker found Nieves’ body in a heavily weeded area near the Zach’s Bay bus stop on Ocean Parkway north of the East Bathhouse on Dec. 27, 1973.
Nieves had lived in Manhattan, listing an Upper West Side hotel as her address. She emigrated from Puerto Rico — where she sent her mother some money shortly before she died, authorities said Monday while issuing an appeal for help finding her relatives.
The worker who found Nieves saw a blanket with its ends tied together and opened it to find the victim, who had been bound and strangled, stuffed into a plastic bag, Newsday reported at the time.
The petite victim was wearing a bra and jeans and had small cuts on her hands from possibly trying to ward off a knife attack, the medical examiner said then.
Police sent out a 13-state bulletin for the names of missing persons who fit her description and identified Nieves the next month after making a match to fingerprints from an arrest, Newsday reported then.
Police believed at the time that the killer ended Nieves’ life somewhere else and dumped her at the beach.
That was about five months after Heiman’s husband Lee found her body in an upstairs bathroom of their 10-room split level home on Mulberry Place in North Woodmere on July 20, 1973.
Lee Heiman, who was part owner of a Brooklyn book distributor, made the discovery after returning from a shopping trip to buy toys for their three children while they were at summer camp.
Newsday reported at that time that a medical examiner’s report showed the wife and mother died of massive bleeding after 15 blows to the head and neck with a blunt instrument. Prosecutors said Monday that she suffered multiple skull lacerations, a fractured jaw and a lacerated jugular vein.
There was no sign the house had been broken into and the victim’s husband was “very cooperative” during 12 hours of questioning, police said then.
But Donnelly said Monday that Heiman’s husband lived the remainder of his life “with a cloud above him,” with law enforcement considering him a “person of interest” in his wife’s slaying.
“Today we can loudly and clearly state ... that he did not murder his wife. I hope that statement gives you a little feeling of relief,” Donnelly told Heiman’s children.
“Yes, ma’am,” one replied.
Randi Childs, Heiman's daughter, later applauded law enforcement officials for sticking with the case.
"We've been living for decades without the hope of ever discovering who had murdered our mother. We cannot thank you all enough," she said.
Exactly a year before Heiman’s murder, investigators recovered the partly nude body of Moye, who had been strangled, in a shallow brook on Maine Avenue just west of Peninsula Boulevard in Rockville Centre on July 20, 1972.
Police were able to identify Moye after an officer who was doing a dog census in Elmont days later showed her photo to a woman who turned out to be her mother, Newsday reported at the time.
That led law enforcement officials to learn of Moye’s prior hospital employment before they were able to use fingerprints taken for that purpose to identify her body. The mother-of-two had worked as a Mineola hospital ward clerk and was separated from her husband.
Investigators recovered Moye’s remains in the same area where fishermen found the body of Heinz about two months earlier on May 10, 1972.
Both had marks on their throats, facial bruises and were found with their heads in the water.
Heinz, who also had been strangled, had gone missing about five days before that. She worked in Bellmore as a live-in mother’s helper.
She was found barefoot and dressed in a blue and white outfit with a ring with a red rose and blue daisy on her left hand and a ring with the word “Love” on her right, Newsday reported then.
“Today we celebrate justice for Mary Beth. And my heart is full,” Heinz’s sister, Jeanne Heinz, said while expressing gratitude for decades-long law enforcement efforts to crack the cold case.
“Honestly, I never imagined her case would be resolved,” she added.