|“||Obviously, I must be sick somehow. Normal people don't do what I did.||”|
Cottingham was born in Bronx, New York in 1946, but his family moved to New Jersey when he was 12. He had two younger siblings. His father worked for an insurance company and his mother was a homemaker. His childhood was fairly normal. When his family moved to New Jersey, he entered seventh grade at St. Andrews, where he had trouble making friends since he was new to the area. Because he had poor eyesight, he wasn't good at sports. In high school, where he fit in better, he joined the track team because it allowed him time alone. After graduating, he found work as a computer operator at the insurance company where his father worked and also took computer classes. When he was 20, Cottingham got a job at the Blue Cross Blue Shield Association as a computer operator. In 1967, aged 21, Cottingham committed his first murder, fatally strangling a 29-year-old woman, Nancy Vogel, a crime he didn't confess to until 2010. In 1969, he was convicted of drunken driving and was sentenced to a $50 fine and 10 days in jail. At the age of 23, he married. In 1972, he was charged with robbery and sexual assult, but the case was dismissed. During his serial killing years, Cottingham had at least two affairs. In 1979, his wife filed for divorce. For some reason, she withdrew it after his arrest and moved to Poughkeepsie with their children.
Killings and Incarceration
From 1967 to 1980, Cottingham is known to have killed nine females and attempted to kill an additional four, though he has claimed to have killed as many as 100. On the night of December 15, he abducted a 26-year-old nurse named Maryann Carr from the parking lot near her apartment, took her to a motel, tortured and killed her. In March the following year, Cottingham, using the alias "John Schaefer", approached a woman named Karen Schilt in a bar, drugged her, took her to an unknown location, raped her and left her for dead in a sewer near an apartment complex. Because she was found by a hotel employee, she survived, but couldn't remember much useful information about the assault, so the case went cold until Cottingham's arrest. In October, he drugged, sexually assaulted and tried to kill a prostitute named Susan Geiger, who also survived. In the beginning of December of 1979, Cottingham solicited a pair of prostitutes, took them to the Travel Lodge Motor Inn in New York, spent the night torturing, killing and mutilating both of them, removing their heads and hands and taking them with him, and then set the room and the bodies on fire. They were found when the staff saw smoke coming from under the door. Only one of the victims, Deedah Godzari, was identified. The identity of the other remains unknown, though she is estimated to have been in her late teens.
In 1980, Cottingham attacked four women within less than three weeks. The first, Valerie Ann Street, was killed in a motel room and burned like the previous two victims. The next, Pamela Weisenfield, survived her attack. On May 15, the burned body of Ann Reyner was found in a hotel room in Manhattan South. She was also burned, but Cottingham didn't remove her head or hands; instead, he cut off both her breasts. On May 22, he solicited a prostitute named Leslie Ann O'Dell and took her to the Quality Inn Motel in Hasbrouck Heights, the same motel to which he had taken Valerie Ann Street and killed her. While he was torturing O'Dell, security staff heard her screams and called the police. When Cottingham tried to run, he was caught by them and arrested. Among his possessions, they found handcuffs, an open roll of duct tape, leather S&M gear, a toy gun, a knife and the drug he had used to incapacitate his victims. During interrogation, Cottingham claimed to have paid O'Dell $180 for sex and that everything he did to her had been consentual. Further investigation connected him to more crimes; his fingerprint was found on a pair of handcuffs found on Valerie Ann Street's crime scene. When the police searched his home, they found mountains of evidence linking him to other murders, such as the key to Mary Ann Carr's apartment, a toy koala bear and a pair of earrings that had belonged to Valerie Ann Street, and jewelry belonging to Deedah Godzari and Ann Reyner. His handwriting also linked him to the motel rooms he had rented and committed the killings inside. The following year, Cottingham was found guilty of 15 of the 20 counts for which he was charged. Over the next three years, he was put on trial for his additional murders and attempted murders. During the proceedings, he attempted suicide twice. In total, he was convicted of five murders (he confessed to Nancy Vogel's murder many years later) and sentenced to hundreds of years in prison, a sentence he is still serving. In 2020, he confessed to three more murders.
Cottingham targeted petite blondes in their late teens-mid-20s and most often prostitutes. He would solicit them somehow, drug them by spiking their drinks with Tuinal (a date rape drug used before Rohypnol became available) in bars and take them somewhere secluded, usually to a motel, where he would bind them, gag them with duct tape, brutally rape, torture and stab them before killing them by strangling them with a ligature. Presumably to make identification harder, he would sometimes cut off their heads and hands and take the parts with him. Among his known methods of torture were severely biting and scratching their nipples, cutting around the breasts and threatening them with a toy gun and leaving it within their reach so they could try to grab it only to discover that it was fake. He would also make his victims call him "master". He took trophies such as jewelry and other personal belongings. After the crimes, he went to great lengths to cover them up, sometimes hiding the bodies in secluded locations or even setting them and the room they were in on fire.
- October 28, 1967: Nancy Schiava Vogel, 29 (strangled)
- July 17, 1968: Jacalyn Harp, 13
- April 7: Irene Blase, 18
- July 14: Denise Falasca, 15
- December 15-16, 1977, Bergen County, New Jersey: Maryann Carr, 26 (raped, tortured, beaten, and fatally strangled)
- March 22-23, New York City, New York: Karen Schilt, 22 (attempted; raped and left for dead in a sewer; was rescued)
- October 10, Hackensack, New Jersey: Susan Geiger, 19 (raped and attempted to kill; was pregnant at the time)
- December 1-2, 1979, New York City, New York: The Travel Lodge Motor Inn killings (both were raped, tortured, and fatally strangled; burned and had their heads and hands cut off post-mortem):
- Deedah Godzari, 22
- An unidentified victim
- May 5, Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey: Valerie Ann Street, 19 (bit and cut her breasts, beaten, and fatally strangled)
- May 12, Teaneck, New Jersey: Pamela Weisenfield (attempted; bit repeatedly and beaten)
- May 15, New York City, New York: Jean Reyner, 25 (raped, repeatedly stabbed, tortured, and fatally strangled; burned and removed both of her breasts post-mortem)
- May 22, Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey: Leslie Ann O'Dell, 18 (attempted; beaten, raped, sodomized, non-fatally slashed with a knife, bit her breasts, and tortured)
On Criminal Minds
- Season Two
- "The Last Word" - Cottingham was possibly referenced by Reid when the team talks about instances when two independent serial killers have been active in the same area at the same time and he mentions that there was another serial killer active in New York at the same time as Son of Sam. Since Cottingham's killings spanned 1967-1980 and those of Berkowitz spanned 1976-1977, Reid may have been referring to him, but Cottingham's killing in 1967 wasn't linked to him until 2010, after the episode aired, and his first killing in 1977 was after Berkowitz's capture. Another possibility is that Reid was referring to Paul Bateson, whose (suspected) killings spanned 1975-1976.
- Season Ten
- "X" - While not directly mentioned or referenced in this episode, Cottingham appears to have been an inspiration for the episode's unsub, Steven Parkett - Both were serial killers and abductors who usually targeted women (although Parkett's first victim was male), would restrain, torture, and dismember their victims (though Cottingham did it post-mortem), and were given similar aliases for their crimes that had the words "torso" and "killer" in them.
- Wikipedia's article about Cottingham
- Radford University's summary of Cottingham
- Signature Killers: Interpreting the Calling Cards of the Serial Murderer (1998)
- YouTube clip of documentary with quote (GRAPHIC IMAGES)
- Tripod's article about Cottingham
- About.com's article about Cottingham