In early December 1979, firefighters were called to the Travel Inn Motor Hotel on 42nd Street as a fire burned in room 417. Although first responders encountered thick smoke in the room, one noticed the shape of bodies on the pair of twin beds and attempted to administer CPR.
But there was an even bigger problem. The bodies of the women had no heads and no hands.
” ‘A real sick bastard did this,’ ” retired NYPD detective Jim Riegel, who was working as a beat cop that day, recalls his sergeant telling him in the new netflix series “Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer,” out Wednesday.
But the killer was a clever bastard, too. Investigators noted the crime scene was “devoid of evidence” and they were unable to identify the victims. He did, however, leave behind their clothing, including a pair of Bonjour jeans, white leotards and a black fur coat, neatly folded in the bath tub.
Stumped, the police used mannequins from nearby department stores and dressed them in the victims’ clothing, hoping to spark an identification from friends or family who recognized the outfits.
A friend of one victim came forward and the slain woman was later positively identified through a cesarean-section scar and chest X-ray as 22-year-old prostitute Deedeh Goodarzi. To this day, the other young female has never been identified.
The predator, dubbed “The Torso Killer,” would strike again in May 1980. This time, at the Seville Hotel, where he strangled Jean Reyner, a 25-year-old mother working in the sex trade to finance a child custody battle.
“In this case, instead, he removed her breasts and placed them on the headboard for shock value,” former Commanding Officer of Bronx Homicide and criminal profiler Vernon Geberth says in the series, noting it convinced him of one thing:
“I’ve got a serial killer. That’s it.”
Still, at the time, no one suspected the scope of this sexual sadist’s homicidal footprint, which stretched into the Garden State and had started more than a decade prior.
It would take about five months after the grisly Travel Inn slayings for investigators to arrest their man, a married father of three from Lodi, New Jersey, who preyed on sex workers in Times Square, then a seedy nucleus of pornography, prostitution and crime.
‘They were marginalized sex workers’
In the new docuseries, the second in Netflix’s “Crime Scene” anthology, director Joe Berlinger dissects the Torso Killer’s murder spree against the backdrop of the sexually charged, crime-ridden culture of 1970s Times Square and how it provided the predator with a fertile hunting ground.
Despite the gruesome nature of his murders, the butcher, named Richard Cottingham, never warranted the breathless news coverage of David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz, who only three years prior paralyzed the Big Apple with fear.
“I have done many shows about serial killers, and I have always marveled at the fact that [Ted] Bundy, [John Wayne] Gacy, [Jeffrey] Dahmer and Berkowitz were all household names, perversely,” Berlinger told The Post.
“But Cottingham flew under the radar precisely because of how he chose his victims and who his victims were. They were marginalized sex workers in a Times Square that was nearly lawless and when the police, at best, looked the other way.”
The series features interviews with former sex workers, including Barbara Amaya, who was raped and robbed at gunpoint by a man she believes was Cottingham, although she was inexplicably spared.
“It was an era when the sex worker was criminalized. If they came forward and said they’d been assaulted, they would be arrested for prostitution, so there was no reason to come forward,” Berlinger said.
“And even worse, the rape laws were particularly onerous, and you had to provide a witness to bring an allegation of rape. All these factors created this crucible in the center of Manhattan for Richard Cottingham to flourish.”
As he moved through Midtown undetected, Cottingham, a successful computer operator at Blue Cross Blue Shield in Manhattan, was also committing sadistic sexual assault and sometimes murder at the Quality Inn, a motel in Hasbrouck Heights, NJ.
A crime-scene slip in New Jersey
Cottingham’s luck began to unravel in early May 1980 when the maid at the Quality Inn found the naked corpse of a handcuffed woman under the bed.
The victim, Valerie Street, had just been busted in Miami for prostitution, and was last seen getting picked up by a man in New York City. The clever killer slipped up, leaving a fingerprint on the cuffs. The case also had parallels to a previously unsolved murder of nurse Maryann Carr, who was found dead in the same motel three years earlier.
About a week later, Big Apple authorities would find Reyner’s body, but still, “no one in New Jersey connected them to the Times Square killer,” says former NYPD detective Malcolm Reiman in the series.
Geberth noted that this was a time before the proliferation of surveillance cameras and the use of computer analysis to establish patterns and share information across jurisdictions.
“When you have a series of crimes today, everything goes through the computers, and we have computer analysis and a way of moving these through jurisdictional boundaries. And at the time, it was beyond our ability to look beyond New York City,” he told The Post.
On May 22, Cottingham then picked up Leslie Ann O’Dell, a 19-year-old runaway desperate to escape her pimp — something he promised to help her do over drinks in Midtown. Instead, he drove her to the Quality Inn, where he tortured, beat and sexually assaulted her for hours, until a maid heard her scream.
When a worker came to check on her, O’Dell cracked open the door and gave a hand signal asking for help. The police were called and Cottingham was apprehended while trying to flee. In his possession, the 33-year-old had a stash of handcuffs, tape and sedatives.
Bergen County investigators realized there were numerous open sexual assault cases with similar hallmarks: Cottingham kidnapped them from Times Square, drugged and assaulted them.
Closing in on the killer
As the New Jersey press reported on Cottingham’s arrest, the NYPD started to take notice. Authorities executed a warrant on his Lodi home, which had a private room containing evidence linking him to the Torso Killer.
“He had pornographic artwork, adhesive tape, books about S&M,” said Geberth. There was also a lockbox filled with trophies from his murders, including Maryann Carr’s apartment key and a necklace belonging to Jean Reyner. These objects, along with his fingerprint on the handcuffs, were presented as evidence by prosecutors at his trial.
Cottingham was convicted of five murders and numerous counts of kidnapping and sexual assault and sentenced from 173 to 197 years, which he is serving in Trenton’s New Jersey State Prison.
But in 2009, he surfaced to again make waves, when he gave a chilling interview to journalist Nadia Fezzani about his motivation and his body count.
“It was a game to me. It was mainly psychological. I was able to get almost any woman to do whatever I wanted them to do. . . It’s Godlike almost. You are in complete control of somebody’s destiny,” he told Fezzani in footage shown in the series. “I never thought I would get caught,” he added.
He also claimed to have committed “80 perfect murders” no one knows about. Cottingham then confessed to more murders including Nancy Vogel, whom he killed in 1967, and five teenaged victims from New Jersey, none of whom were in the sex trade. He has been charged with 11 murders in all.
Berlinger said we’ll never truly know how many women died at Cottingham’s hands, but his story had long fascinated the director, who sees a social justice component aspect to telling his story.
“This guy was particularly ruthless. He tortured women before he killed them and did terrible things to them, and yet we still don’t know who he is because he preyed on sex workers,” Berlinger said, adding that he hopes this series helps destigmatize sex work and potentially solve more cold boxes.
“Everyone deserves justice under the law.”