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‘Torso killer’ accused of murdering woman at New York shopping centre in 1968

Nassau County district attorney Anne Donnelly holds a photo of Diane Cusick during an interview with The Associated Press (Mary Altaffer/AP)
Nassau County district attorney Anne Donnelly holds a photo of Diane Cusick during an interview with The Associated Press (Mary Altaffer/AP)

A serial killer has been accused of killing a woman whose body was found in the car park of a shopping centre on New York’s Long Island over 50 years ago.

Richard Cottingham was charged on Wednesday in connection with Diane Cusick’s death in 1968.

From a hospital bed in New Jersey, where he is already serving a life sentence for 11 other killings, he pleaded not guilty.

While he has claimed he was responsible for up to 100 murders, 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 on Wednesday by video feed from the New Jersey hospital because he was in poor health, bedridden and not ambulatory, judge Caryn Fink said.

Darlene Altman, left, looks on as Nassau County district attorney Anne Donnelly, right, holds a photo of her mother Diane Cusick
Darlene Altman, left, looks on as Nassau County district attorney Anne Donnelly, right, holds a photo of her mother Diane Cusick (Mary Altaffer/AP)

He needed his lawyer, Jeff Groder, to repeat the judge’s questions several times because he has difficulty hearing, Mr Groder said.

“He is a violent predator and no matter how he looks today in a hospital bed he was not always a feeble older man,” Nassau County district attorney Anne Donnelly said in an interview with The Associated Press.

“He was a young 22-year-old when he committed the murder of Ms Cusick. He was strong, stronger than these women were, and he was violent.”

Authorities believe Ms 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 seven-stone Ms Cusick, Nassau County Police detective Capt Stephen Fitzpatrick said.

She was “brutally beaten, murdered and raped in that car”, Mr Fitzpatrick said.

The medical examiner concluded that Ms 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.

“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,” Ms Donnelly said.

“Unfortunately, the trail went cold and the case went cold.”

Cottingham was working as a computer programmer for a health insurance company in New York at the time of Ms Cusick’s death.

He was convicted of murder in both New York and New Jersey in the 1980s, though the law at the time did not 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 theatre, which was next to the shopping centre at the time.

But he stopped short of confessing directly to Ms Cusick’s death, Ms 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.

“Based on evidence that we have in this case, we are reviewing all murders of young females from 1967 to 1980 to see if we can put together any more cases against Mr Cottingham,” Ms Donnelly said.

Ms Cusick’s daughter, Darlene Altman, said she was overwhelmed when she saw Cottingham on the video screen in the courtroom.

Ms Altman was just four when her mother was killed.

“He just had this like dead stare. I felt like he was looking right at me,” Ms Altman said.

“It was creepy.”

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