A Detective’s Work Ends: Lodi Serial Killer Admits Raping, Drowning North Bergen Teens In 1974

A Detective’s Work Ends: Lodi Serial Killer Admits Raping, Drowning North Bergen Teens In 1974

Those old enough to remember can recall the fear that many felt after the bodies of two girls from North Bergen who’d gone missing after a shopping trip to Paramus were found raped, beaten and drowned in Bergen County.

It also left enormous holes in the souls of family and friends of Mary Ann Pryor, 17, and Lorraine Kelly, 16.

It’s taken more than 46 years, but a Bergen County police veteran who is only days from retirement got one of the country’s most notorious serial killers to confess.

“Mary Anne and Lorraine deserve it, God rest their souls,” Bergen County Prosecutor’s Chief of Detective Robert Anzilotti said Tuesday after Richard Cottingham of Lodi admitted killing both in 1974.

Cottingham, who is already serving a lifetime state prison sentence for killing several other women and girls, was brought to the office of Bergen County Prosecutor Mark Musella in Paramus to enter his pleas before Superior Court Judge Keith Bachmann in Hackensack. 

Defense attorney John Bruno recited the details, which the white-bearded, 74-year-old killer acknowledged.

Getting to that point wasn’t easy, Anzilotti said.

Prosecutors had long believed that Cottingham abducted Mary Ann and Lorraine – both North Bergen High School students who’d been known to hitch-hike – during a shopping trip to the Garden State Plaza on August 9, 1974.

After nearly 15 years of interviews by Anzilotti and Detective Capt. James McMorrow, Cottingham confessed last year to three other cold-case slayings of teenage school girls in Bergen County:

• Jacalyn (Jackie) Harp, 13, of Midland Park, who was walking home from school band practice on July 17, 1968 when she was strangled with the leather strap of her flag sling;

• Irene Blase, 18, of Bogota, who went missing from Hackensack on April 7, 1969 and was found strangled in Saddle River;

• Denise Falasca, 15, of Closter, who went missing from Westwood on July 14, 1969. Her body was found the next morning by the side of a road next to a cemetery in Saddle Brook. She, too, had been strangled.

That made 11 murders Cottingham that admitted since his arrest more than 30 years ago.

Anzilotti has spent all but 4 ½ years of his law enforcement career with the prosecutor’s office after coming over from the Woodcliff Lake Police Department. He’s been chief of detectives nearly five years.

The highly-respected law enforcement veteran knew the notorious killer was responsible for the deaths of the North Bergen teens, but Cottingham made him work for it.

It was “like a game to him,” Anzilotti recently said.

Then he shared his intentions to retire. Cottingham didn’t like the idea, apparently wanting to continue their dialogue.

But he eventually realized the years-long association, which involved countless state prison visits, was coming to an end.

“It took some effort to convince him to go to court and let me make it public,” Anzilotti said Tuesday. “He said he wouldn’t have done it if I wasn’t retiring.”

Cottingham admitted during the plea hearing that he brought Mary Ann and Lorraine to a hotel, where he raped both and bound the girls to keep them from getting away.

He then drowned them in a bathtub, he said, and dumped their bodies in the woods in a wooded area behind Rolling Ridge Road in Montvale.

The plea leaves the question: Will they be Cottingham’s final admissions?

A number of killings of young women and girls in New Jersey and New York had gone unsolved for years before a night in May 1980 when a maid at a Hasbrouck Heights hotel called police saying she’d heard a woman screaming.

Responding officers found an 18-year-old victim who’d been bitten, stabbed and bound with handcuffs. They captured Cottingham soon after.

Cottingham was serving time for five murders, following convictions in New Jersey and New York, when Bergen prosecutor’s detectives in 2010 tied him to the killing of 29-year-old Ridgefield Park mom Nancy Schiava Vogel, bringing the total then to six.

The schoolgirl murder confessions increased that to to nine. Then came Tuesday’s pleas.

Prosecutors will seek dual life sentences to run alongside his current lifetime term when Cottingham is sentenced on July 9 for what Musella said were the “willful, deliberate, and premediated murders” of Mary Ann Prior and Lorraine Kelly.

“This is a somber day as we revisit the horrific acts and terror this man brought upon Bergen County nearly 50 years ago,” the prosecutor said Tuesday. “It is my fervent hope that this arrest and conviction bring some semblance of closure to the friends and family of Mary Ann and Lorraine and a measure of justice to members of our communities, who have long feared this unknown actor.”