On December 2, 1979, New York City firemen responded to an alarm at a seedy hotel on West 42nd Street, not far from Times Square. They fought their way through smoky corridors to quench a blaze inside one room, discovering two women’s bodies there. Stretched out on separate beds, the headless corpses also had their hands removed, legs doused with lighter fluid and set on fire.
The missing parts were never found, but X-rays identified one victim as 22-year-old Deedeh Goodarzi, a Kuwaiti immigrant who earned her living as a prostitute. Goodarzi’s young companion in death was never identified. The crime reminded homicide detectives of another unsolved case.
Teenage hooker Helen Sikes had disappeared from Times Square in January, turning up in Queens, her throat slashed so deeply that she was nearly decapitated. Her severed legs were found a block away, laid side-by-side in ritual fashion, as if still attached to the body.
There were no leads in either case, and police were no closer to a suspect on May 5, 1980, when teenaged prostitute Valerie Street was found beaten and strangled, stuffed beneath a bed at a motel in Hasbrouck Heights, New Jersey. In addition to the savage beating, her breasts had been gnawed so violently that one nipple was nearly severed.
Detectives recalled that a young nurse, Maryann Carr, had been brutally slain at the same motel on December 16, 1977, but the connections seemed tenuous, at best.
The similarities were obvious on May 15, when prostitute Jean Reyner was found stabbed to death in a 29th Street hotel near Times Square, her breasts severed, the body set afire.
A week later, on May 22, officers were called back to the motel in Hasbrouck Heights, responding to reports of a woman screaming. They bagged a man emerging from the room, and went inside to find his teenage victim naked, handcuffed to the bed, hysterical from pain and fear. She had been beaten, raped and sodomized, forced to perform oral sex at knifepoint, after which her assailant slashed her with his blade, biting her breasts until they bled.
The prisoner, 33-year-old Richard Cottingham, made an unlikely suspect at first glance. A respected family man from Lodi, New Jersey, he ran computers for a major health insurance firm. On the other hand, arresting officers had relieved him of handcuffs, a leather gag and two “slave” collars, a switchblade and replica pistol, plus several bottles of pills.
A search of Cottingham’s home turned up a bizarre “trophy room,” containing personal effects from several of the murdered prostitutes. Investigation of the suspect’s background revealed two arrests for consorting with hookers in the early 1970s, with both cases dismissed.
In April 1980, Cottingham’s wife had filed for divorce, charging him with “extreme cruelty” and refusal to engage in marital sex since late 1976. The divorce affidavits further alleged that Cottingham was an habitual, patron of gay bars and homosexual “spas” in Manhattan. Despondent in custody, Cottingham smashed a lens of his spectacles and attempted suicide by slashing his wrists with the glass.
Surviving that attempt and two others, he was held under $250,000 bond while detectives built their overwhelming case against him. In addition to multiple murder counts, Cottingham was linked with the brutal abduction and rape of three surviving victims — including two prostitutes and a young housewife — during 1978.
In May 1981, Cottingham was convicted on fifteen felony counts related to the murder of Valerie Street, drawing a sentence of 173 to 197 years in prison. A year later, conviction on second-degree murder charges in the death of Maryann Carr added another sentence of 20 years to life.
In 1984, convicted on three counts of second-degree murder, involving Times Square prostitutes, Cottingham earned a final sentence of 75 years to life.