Close Call With a Killer

A crime writer recalls an encounter with serial killer, minutes after a murder.

Posted Feb 11, 2017

 R. Parker
Source: Permission: R. Parker

On a cold day in December 1977, the body of a woman was found in a parking lot of a Quality Inn in Hackensack, New Jersey. She’d been suffocated and bound. This was the first in a string of incidents that would eventually reveal a truly sadistic sexual predator.

The next victim turned up in a rundown motel in New York. Smoke in Room 417 of the Manhattan Travel Inn Motor Hotel drew the fire department. When fire fighters broke through the door, they saw a nude female on the bed. But there was more: She had no head and no hands. In the same room was a second dismembered, beheaded female corpse. Both had been bitten and torched with lighter fluid.

Since the heads and hands were missing, the killer had taken them from the room. It might have been just as crime writer and historian Peter Vronsky crossed the lobby of this seedy hotel and bumped into a sweaty man. He recalls a duffle bag or suitcase. He was just 23, with little idea of what a serial killer was. He would later realize that he’d run into one that day. He’d also remember the bag that he believed had contained the severed heads.

The introduction to this book is mesmerizing. And it gets better, because Vronksy has a talent for detail, not just the gore but also the settings. He gives readers a grungy tour of past conditions in the scummiest sex shops of 42nd Street. You’ll feel like you’re there, and not in a good way. “It was a place and time in previously repressed American sexual history like no other,” he writes. “It was like that short era when automobiles first appeared but stoplights and speed limits had not yet been introduced.”

Vronksy has described his chilling encounter with the Torso Killer before, but now he has turned his extensive knowledge about this case into a vividly illustrated e-book, Times Square Torso Ripper. “Without the term ‘serial killer’ to comfort me,” he writes, “my encounter appeared to me as supernaturally monstrous as the stories in Tales From the Crypt comic books I had read as a kid. My only term of reference was to one of those Alfred Hitchcock movie killers out of Psycho or Frenzy. I might as well have encountered Dracula, the Werewolf, Frankenstein or Jason from the slasher movie Friday The 13th or Michael Meyers from Halloween.”

The Torso Killer was Richard Cottingham, one of the most sadistic serial killers in American history. Mutilated victims showed the horrendous effects of hours of torture. Cottingham liked to bite, poke, slice, stab and bind. He kept a trophy room at his home, which spoke to a sophisticated history of sadistic fantasies.

Vronsky describes the kinds of easily accessible true detective magazines that once provided plenty of fodder for the fantasies of budding serial killers like Ted Bundy and Dennis Rader. Looking at the titles, it’s difficult to believe that Americans were so naïve as to view these publications as harmless. In retrospect, we know that they provided strong erotic imagery of bound, helpless females for adolescent male readers, some of whom developed harmful paraphilias. Cottingham was among them.

Finally, he made a mistake and a terrified young woman screamed loud enough to draw attention. The police arrived and apprehended Cottingham. In his possession were handcuffs, pills, a slave collar, and surgical tape. This father of three, a computer technician and formerly a high school star athlete, was living quite the double life. His wife had filed for divorce, citing extreme cruelty. No surprise.

Cottingham's distinctly brutal signature linked him to several murders. He incapacitated his victims with a chemical restraint, bound and gagged them with physical restraints, battered or burned them in vulnerable areas, and cut or gouged them with sharp implements. He made them suffer as they died. The bodies of each victim revealed methodical, prolonged, ritualistic torture. Amazingly, some women survived their encounters with him, and four testified at his 1981 trial.

While in prison, Cottingham admitted to a 1967 murder, and he is suspected in many more. Vronsky leaves us believing that Cottingham might be one of the most vile and prolific killers in our history. More important, he does a thorough job of showing how Cottingham developed into such a brutal psychopath.

With its detailed historical context and comparisons with other nasty predators, this book should take its place among the classic cases of serial murder. Cottingham is not well known as a distinctive serial killer, but he should be. He is the kind of monstrous offender that fiction writers like to depict – a compartmentalized, intelligent, manipulative man who freely fed his inner depravity. Times Square Torso Ripper is as much a case analysis for criminologists as a chilling true crime narrative.