‘Darkness Enveloped My Soul’: The Final Confessions of the Torso Killer

‘Darkness Enveloped My Soul’: The Final Confessions of the Torso Killer

Richard Cottingham claims he murdered dozens of women. Now, with the help of a cop, a serial killer expert, and even the daughter of one of his victims, his crimes are coming to light

Jennifer Weiss says her life came full-circle in a massive, dreary building in Trenton, New Jersey. In May of 1978, her mother, Deedeh Goodarzi, put her up for adoption at an agency in the shadow of the New Jersey State Prison and its barbed-wire crowned fences. Decades later, she found herself at that same prison, confronting the man who had left her mother dismembered in a flaming hotel room in Times Square: Richard Cottingham, a.k.a. the Torso Killer, a man whose brutality towards his victims shocked even the most seasoned of cops.

“I wanted to find her. I didn’t want to ever have to try to find her skull,” Weiss says of her mother, whose identity she says she uncovered in 2003 when she was in her early twenties. “I was expecting to get the other half of the locket like Annie… and it was not the case.”

Weiss first met Cottingham through a sheet of glass for a window visit and was shocked to discover that she wasn’t scared of the man before her, who resembled Santa gone to seed. “I was trying to figure out pieces of my mother’s life and where her remains were,” she says. And he had the answers.

Cottingham, now 75, has spent the last four decades in relative obscurity, watching hours of police procedurals and detective shows behind bars as he slid into his seventies and his health hit a steady decline. Over the last decade or so, however, the killer — who has been convicted of eight murders  — has been slowly confessing to a series of cold cases. How these confessions came about is highly contested, though: Former Chief of Detectives for the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office Robert Anzilotti would say he’s responsible for wearing Cottingham down over the years, while Weiss and her friend, serial killer expert Dr. Peter Vronsky, claim it’s her unlikely, uncomfortable relationship with Cottingham that has helped grease the gears. Cottingham, who wrote to Rolling Stone from South Woods State Prison for his first published interview in more than 10 years, credits both, seeming to play his confidantes against each other even behind bars.

Credit aside, it’s not been an easy path when it comes to getting confessions out of Cottingham. Whether it’s his failing memory, the police’s interdepartmental politics, or Cottingham’s lust for manipulation, it’s become a proverbial race against time to get his alleged crimes put to paper — according to Cottingham himself, he has roughly 70 to 90 murders to go.

“Remorse Wasn’t a Part of My Thought Process”

It was December of 1979, and a young Peter Vronsky found himself stranded in New York City for a few days. Low on cash, he decided to bunk at a sleazy hotel on 42nd Street, where he had a strange encounter with a man on the elevator who had been holding up the car on another floor — a sandy-haired, pale man holding a bulky duffle bag. When Vronsky exited the elevator, leaving the man behind, he walked into a hotel peppered with ash and a smell he describes as burning chicken feathers. He found out later that one of the rooms contained a grisly scene: Two women’s torsos on flaming twin beds. One was Goodarzi, the other has never been identified; their heads and hands were never found. And the man, of course, was Richard Cottingham.

Vronsky — now, in his Sixties, part of Ryerson University’s History Department — has been fascinated with Cottingham ever since. According to Vronsky’s upcoming book, American Werewolf: The Life and Crimes of Richard F. Cottingham, the Last Serial Killer on the Left, Cottingham was in his early thirties at the time of his arrest, a recent divorcee living in suburban New Jersey in the basement of a nondescript row of almost identical, tan houses. He had three kids and worked as a computer operator at the Empire State Blue Cross–Blue Shield insurance company on Third Avenue in midtown Manhattan — the 3 p.m. to 11 p.m. shift. Like many murderers, he was the picture of boring normalcy on the surface, but in between work and family life, he was a frequent patron of Times Squares sex clubs and bars, where he would hunt his victims. Although he preyed on sex workers, like Goodarzi, it wasn’t a pattern; he also killed mothers, career women, and, horrifyingly, a 13-year-old girl. His earliest recorded confession was in the late Sixties, but Vronsky says Cottingham claims to have been murdering women since he was in his teens in New Jersey, when he was a high school athlete with slicked-back blond hair and a hard smile.

Cottingham himself doesn’t attempt to justify his actions, writing to Rolling Stone: “For a long time now I have been trying to understand the darkness that enveloped my soul during my youth. Remorse back then wasn’t part of my thought process. When the sun went down, and the moon came up, the animal form that is in all of us came out and controlled my actions.” A particularly sadistic killer, Cottingham raped and tortured his victims before murdering them. 

After decades of evading the suspicion, Cottingham was arrested on May 22, 1980, after picking up 18-year-old Leslie Ann O’Dell in Manhattan. Cottingham took O’Dell to the Hasbrouck Heights Quality Inn in New Jersey, where he had left the remains of his last victim, 19-year-old Valerie Ann Street, just weeks before. Police foiled his plans for O’Dell when her cries reached hotel staff, who managed to save the woman’s life. 

In a series of trials between 1981 and 1984, Cottingham was convicted of five murders and sentenced to hundreds of years in prison; he pleaded innocent to all with the hope that his family might believe him. Until recently, his only known victims were Street; radiologist MaryAnn Carr of Little Ferry, who he left behind in the parking lot of that same hotel in 1977; Deedeh Goodarzi and her unidentified friend; and 25-year-old Jean Mary Ann Reyner. 

And he’s remained pretty quiet over the last four decades, declining interviews and shunning press of any kind, still hoping against hope that his family might not give up on him. Currently, Rolling Stone is only the second outlet to whom he has granted an interview, the first being author Nadia Fezzani in 2009 — and he only spoke with her because he was unaware of the reach of the internet at that point. And, of course, he’s spoken to Vronsky for his upcoming book.

“He is an unusual serial killer,” Vronsky says. “He comes from the golden age of serial murderers. Very few people have heard of Richard Cottingham [yet] he was killing while Ted Bundy was still running around in shorts.”

“I Was Upset for a Decade”

While Cottingham rotted in prison and Vronsky plumbed the depths of killers’ psyches, Jennifer Weiss wondered who, exactly, she was. Growing up 20 miles from Trenton in suburban Spotswood, New Jersey, Weiss had a Brady Bunch-esque upbringing. In an old photo, dark-haired Jennifer grins between her fairer parents, bangs teased high, teal dress puffy. Three older brothers fill out the frame and everyone has the same slightly crooked smile — except for Jennifer. 

Weiss found out she was adopted at age four when she overheard one of her siblings told a pal. When she was 12, she started wondering in earnest who her real parents were — often when she was angry with her mother and looking to pick a fight. What if her real mom was an upgrade? At first, her mother told her that her biological mom died in a motorcycle accident. A few years later, she said it was a fire. When she was 16, her mom finally told her: Her birth mom was a sex worker. 

At 23, Weiss reached out to that adoption agency in Trenton to get access to her files and her original birth certificate. “One of the women at the adoption agency called me back and said, ‘We want you to come in. We have a file here full of things we’d like to discuss with you,’” Weiss recalls. “I was excited. But when I got there, they gave me all those horrific newspaper articles.” The articles, she claims, were compiled by a caseworker who recognized Goodarzi, and all detailed with Deedeh’s murder. (The adoption agency did not return Rolling Stone’s request for comment.) 

Weiss and Cottingham in 2021.
Dr. Peter Vronsky

Goodarzi’s name isn’t listed in the files or on Weiss’ birth certificate, but they do bear her mother’s street name: Crystal Jeanne Roberts. And the birth certificate reads “Ghaniya Jaqualine Roberts,” Jaqualine being another of Goodarzi’s aliases.

Given the aliases and the lack of available DNA — Goodarzi’s body is buried in a mass grave on New York’s Hart Island — Weiss understands why people might question her when she tells them who her mother is. Still, she counters with a wry smile: “Who would want to be the daughter of a beheaded prostitute?” And there’s no denying the physical similarities between Goodarzi and Weiss: flowing dark hair, striking brows, a distinctive, strong nose.

“I was upset for a decade,” Weiss says. “I couldn’t even go toward Trenton. I was scared of him. I was scared he was going to come and kill me.” After Weiss survived breast cancer in 2017 — and her mother died in 2010 and her father in 2015 — she decided to face her fears. “I felt indestructible,” she says. “And I was telling the women in my [cancer survivor] community, ‘You have to kill the killer before it kills you.’ And I kept saying that those words and finally, I was like, ‘I need to go and face Richard.’”

That year, Weiss wrote a letter to Cottingham, intending to answer one question: What had happened to her mother’s head? He answered that query — more on that later — but their relationship didn’t stop there. Weiss kept writing to Cottingham, talking to him on the phone, and, eventually, even visiting him in prison. That same year, she reached out to Vronsky, having read about his encounter with Cottingham, and the two decided to work together on a new venture: Getting this infamous killer to confess to all of his crimes once and for all. Together, they built a site called NewJerseyGirlMurders.com, where they map out cold cases across the state, which they then bring to Cottingham in hopes of jogging his memory.

Vronsky thinks of he and Weiss as the good cop and the bad cop, respectively. “Part of the rapport I have with Cottingham is often just, you know, reminiscing about old New York — where was the best pastrami in 1977,” Vronsky says. “And once you get him talking, he would sometimes blurt out where he left bodies on his way to get a sandwich at his favorite restaurant. That’s how it works. If you ask him a question directly often he can’t frame his memory around an answer. His memories get triggered by mundane discussions.” Weiss, not one for lengthy remembrances, meanwhile, puts the screws to Cottingham.

When it comes to having discussions like this with the man who dismembered her mother and claims to have brutalized dozens more, Weiss sometimes plays it cool. “I was raised on Stephen King novels and Lifetime movies,” she says. “I mean, I’m not squeamish, you know, I’m just trying to get to the bottom of stuff. And I don’t know if he’s telling the truth or not. So I take everything with a grain of salt and I just listen.”

Still, Weiss’ pain is evident when she discusses her mother — especially in a picture Vronsky shared with Rolling Stone in which she listens as Cottingham describes how he removed Goodarzi’s head. The anguish is palpable. And so are the tears when Weiss talks about reaching out to Goodarzi’s family. Weiss has managed to piece together a truncated history of Goodzari’s life — from growing up in Kuwait to relocating to New York at age 14 with her father to entering the sex trade. Still, she was the one to break the news to Deedeh’s extended family about her death, according to Deedeh’s cousin, Mehrdad Goudarzi. “I personally don’t get it,” he tells Rolling Stone of Weiss’ efforts with Cottingham. “It all depends on your own personality. If it was up to me, I would rather close the chapter. I don’t think there is anything good coming out of it.”

For his part, Cottingham describes Weiss in terms that sound almost like love — or some form of infatuation. In his initial letter to Weiss in 2017 — in between apologizing for what he did to Goodarzi and exclaiming over the wonders of prison-communication service JPay — he tells her: “I can’t get you out of my head, girl.” To Rolling Stone, he writes: “Jen is generous, wild, brave, beautiful and very vulnerable, like a bird with an injured wing. She follows her heart and her instinct, is very determined and sometimes drives me out of my mind. [It’s a] love/hate relationship.” 

Weiss is aware how weird it is that she regularly talks to a serial killer — one who killed her mother, no less. And she’s also aware that her cavalier attitude about it (she named an early website about her efforts “Serial Killers Need Hugs, Too”) might be somewhat off-putting. “He’s an old man in a wheelchair with dentures who killed up to a hundred women,” she says, stressing that they are not friends. “I’m not going to pretend I’m scared.” 

“He Has a Weird Pride in Me”

Former Bergen County Chief of Police Robert Anzilotti — a fast-talking silver-haired archetype of the word “cop” who has been on Cottingham’s case for about 17 years — first met Weiss and Vronsky in 2017. Weiss contacted the Fort Lee Police Department in 2017 to report that Cottingham had told her where Goodarzi’s head was located: under a prominent New York landmark. (Weiss told Rolling Stone the location, but asked us not to print it lest amateur sleuths tamper with the scene.)

Vronsky and Cottingham, 2019
Courtesy of Dr. Peter Bronsky

The cops conducted a search, complete with ground-penetrating radar and cadaver dogs — Cottingham in tow. After two days, though, the authorities were left empty-handed and Weiss and Vronsky were frustrated. Weiss wanted the cops to let Cottingham have more agency in the search (she claims he wasn’t allowed to freely wander the scene, which Anzilotti denies); Vronsky wanted special dogs used in archeological digs. Anzilotti says they gave it their best try — it’s been decades and they were dealing with a faded memory.

Although Anzilotti, Weiss, and Vronsky have been in near-constant communication about Cottingham’s case since 2017, the crew don’t entirely agree on who is responsible for him coming clean. “I don’t think they have a clue on how the [confessions] came about,” Anzilotti says of Weiss and Vronsky. “There’s a big difference between the [what] I’ve gotten out of him and them talking to him. If they can get more confessions out of him, I’ve always supported Peter and Jennifer in that regard. … It became clear to me that Jennifer and Peter were both important to Richard. So that made them important to me.”

If you ask Cottingham about his relationship with Anzilotti, he’ll give it to you straight: He respects the former cop, but he’s in charge of what he chooses to reveal. “He understood that we had a cat and mouse relationship and that the mouse would prevail most of the time, but he relentlessly kept the pressure on,” he wrote to Rolling Stone. “I think at some level we became friends yet always aware of the line between us.”

Like Weiss, Anzilotti wouldn’t exactly call Cottingham a friend — “I loathe him. I find him to be without a soul. Depravity comes to mind as a word” — but he would say they have a mutual respect. Anzilotti started getting into cold cases in the early 2000s, before there was an official department, thumbing through unsolved murders over a glass of wine after the kids were asleep. It was his interactions with New Jersey’s infamous murderer Richard Leonard Kuklinski (a.k.a. the Iceman) that led him to Cottingham in 2004. Despite having done all manner of terrible things — he got his nickname by freezing a victim to conceal cause of death — Kuklinski was disgusted by Cottingham’s crimes against women, some of which closely resembled some of Anzilotti’s cold cases. Since the two criminals were at the same facility, Kuklinski fed Anzilotti intel about Cottingham’s illegal gambling ring, and the cop staged a bust. 

Anzilotti let Cottingham sweat it out in the hole for a few days and then introduced himself. “I went down to the prison in Trenton, stepped to him, and said, ‘The reason you’re in here is because of me. I’m gonna continue to fuck with you unless you start talking.’” Cottingham agreed to talk — with the understanding that Anzilotti would never mess with him again.

What followed were six grueling years of conversations that led nowhere, mostly. When it came time to get actual confessions, Cottingham would clam up. He asked for impossible things. He wanted any and all confessions kept out of the press. Finally, in 2010, Cottingham cracked, confessing to the 1967 murder of Nancy Schiava Vogel, a 29-year-old married mother of two who was found, strangled and nude, in her car in Ridgefield Park. 

“I always planned on confessing at some point after I was found guilty of the earlier crimes,” Cottingham wrote to Rolling Stone. “No one came to talk to me until Rob showed up years later. l found him sincere (for a cop) so I agreed to see him again. Eventually, I gave him a case to see how he would handle it and keep his word to me.”

When Cottingham talks about Anzilotti keeping his word, he means keeping the case out of the media. And the cop did his best. He arranged for the confession to happen after-hours at the courthouse so the press wouldn’t be there. He asked the judge to play it cool, so as not to spook Cottingham out of future confessions. When Cottingham started sweating the second the tape recorder switched on, Anzilotti knew there was trouble — it didn’t help that Vogel’s children were in the courtroom.

“Things kind of went south in court,” Anzilotti recalls. “The judge made [Richard] turn around, look at the victim’s family, and apologize. Richard turned white, started sweating. He’s shackled in the courtroom. When we were done, I was walking him out and he literally leaned over to me and said, ‘You’ll never get me to do this again.’”

It took two years to get Cottingham back on track, according to Anzilotti, who endured hours of poker games with the serial killer featuring his favorite pizza from nearby Dumont. Anzilotti is loath to say it, but he had to make Cottingham feel like a human in order to get him to spill. “People mistakenly think like, ‘Well, what does this guy have to lose? Why doesn’t he just tell you everything?’” he says. “And the only answer I have for that is, the man has no control over any aspect of his life. The only thing he has control over is what comes out of his mouth. And he’s a major control freak.”

For proof of that, just look at his crimes. Cottingham’s told both Anzilotti and Vronsky about how he got his kicks — not necessarily by murdering women, but by getting them to do what he wanted, whether it be sex, crossing state lines, or getting sex workers into his car without money changing hands. Anzilotti says that Cottingham is still playing this game in prison — whether it be with the cop himself, Weiss, Vronsky, or any reporter who reaches out to him. It’s evident in the way he signs his emails “Richie” after more than one missive, and in how he pits everyone against each other in his interview answers.

“I don’t care what anybody told you, what any forensic psychologist would say, he has no remorse,” Anzilotti emphasizes. “He has no desire to get this all off his chest. Even with me, it’s literally just a game. It’s just a game of, ‘Let’s see if you can get this out of me.’”

False confessions are a known phenomenon among serial killers, but those who have come into contact with Cottingham think his are credible. He’s able to recall details only police would know, after all. “If you do the math, it’s very possible that he’s killed between 80 and 100. [He confessed to killing Nancy Vogel] in April of 1967,” Anzilotti says. “He was not caught until 1980. So that’s 13 years that he was out there preying on women.”

Things got even more complicated after the next trio of confessions: the strangling deaths of 18-year-old Irene Blase in 1969, 15-year-old Denise Falasca that same year, and 13-year-old Jackie Harp in 1968. Anzilotti says he pieced together the identities of the girls via scraps of information Cottingham let slip over the years: Blase’s similarity to a TV actress the killer liked and his nickname for Harp, Helmet Head (she had a bowl cut). Via an agreement with the families, Anzilotti was able to close those cases without going to court or the press — until 2020. Enter Vronsky and Weiss.

Vronsky says he and Weiss found out about the confessions through a network of victims’ families and friends who were frustrated that they couldn’t talk about the murders. In some communities where the murders occurred, he says, innocent men who the public liked for the crimes were still living with the burden of suspicion. After receiving permission from Anzilotti to write about the confessions in one his books, Vronsky — at the behest of Harp’s family and friends — held a sort of press conference in Midland Park, New Jersey, in December 2019 to announce that Cottingham was behind these infamous murders. Anzilotti had spent years bending to Cottingham’s press-shy will, only to have the dam burst.

Curiously, though, Cottingham didn’t entirely clam up after that — mostly, Vronsky claims, because of Weiss. “Jennifer [is] strangely a sort of ‘vessel’ or ‘vehicle’ for his confessions. The daughter of one of his many victims through whom he atones for the murders of others,” he says. “Confessions through her were now what Cottingham had settled on as ‘his price.’”

As such, there’s some serious contention over who was responsible for the next two confessions, which came in 2021: the 1974 murders of 17-year-old Mary Ann Pryor and her friend, 16-year-old Lorraine Kelly. Cottingham abducted the girls while they were on their way to shop for bathing suits at the Paramus Mall, took them to a hotel, and, after raping them, drowned them in the bathtub. Cottingham had alluded to the crime over his years with Anzilotti but was reluctant to officially confess, as he said it was a particularly noteworthy local incident. He also all-but confessed to Weiss and Vronsky, the latter says, in 2018.

Vronsky says that come 2020, Cottingham told him that he was willing to confess to a series of around 16 murders across New York and New Jersey as a kind of favor to the writer, who was working on his book, and Weiss, who had dreams of being a public figure and performer. He asked that he be allowed to make the confessions on camera with Weiss in the room. Vronsky says Anzilotti was initially “intrigued” by the idea, but then backtracked. Anzilotti remembers things differently, saying he was never on board. “That’s not how law enforcement takes a confession,” he says.

After much deliberation, a new deal was soon reached, Vronsky claims, that after Cottingham pleaded guilty to the two New Jersey murders, he would then confess to a series of crimes he committed in New York — provided he be hosted outside the prison on the “neutral ground” of the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office and Weiss and Vronsky be in attendance. 

In this image taken from a New Jersey Courts virtual hearing, Richard Cottingham, center, known as the “Torso Killer,” pleads guilty Tuesday, April 27, 2021, to two 1974 murders, finally closing the cold case deaths of teenage friends who had left home for a trip to the mall and never returned. Cottingham, 74, is currently in state prison on a life sentence for other murders.
New Jersey Courts via AP

While Cottingham did confess to the murders in April 2021 — he’s currently awaiting sentencing — Anzilotti claims that the confessions were a retirement present from Cottingham to him after he hung up his badge in May 2021. “I think that [Vronsky and Weiss] have definitely encouraged him to continue to confess to the cases. Do I think that that’s why he confessed to the Lorraine Kelly, Mary Anne Pryor homicides? No,” he says. “In the end, I think that he and I have a very, very different relationship than he has with the two of them,” he adds. “It’s a strange relationship. He has a lot of respect for me. He has a weird pride in me.” 

Cottingham, in the end, splits the difference: “In our negotiations, Rob, and I were always close to an agreement but never able to reach a final understanding that was agreeable to both of us. Along came Jennifer. Jennifer does not understand what the word ‘no’ means. Nor, ‘Let’s’ do it tomorrow’, ‘Maybe’ or we can pick up where we left off the next time. Seeing how important these confessions were to her only made me want to please her more. But I also felt an obligation to Rob for all the years he put into convincing me to do the right thing.”

“What Are You Gonna Do for Me?”

Over the last few months, Cottingham’s health has been on the decline, as he’s been shuttled from the prison infirmary to the hospital to what Weiss calls a “retirement home for criminals,” South Woods Prison in Cumberland County, New Jersey, more than 60 miles from Trenton. Currently, Vronsky and Weiss claim, they’ve gotten at least eight more confessions out of Cottingham to murders he committed in New York — and they’re just waiting to make them official. Although retired, Anzilotti says he also has a few more in the works.

But, Vronsky and Weiss say, they’ve hit a roadblock when it comes to dealing with the police departments in both Bergen and New York City. There’s a lot of finger-pointing going on, but it all boils down to where Cottingham will make the confessions and to whom. Vronsky wants him and Weiss in the room “on neutral ground, outside the confines of the prison,” as are Cottingham’s conditions. Meanwhile, with Cottingham’s declining health, that seems less than likely. 

The New York State Police, for their part, can’t say much at the moment, as these possible confessions are an open and active case. A.J. Hicks, a public information officer for the State Police, does, however, tell Rolling Stone: “The New York State Police have continued to investigate every lead developed in the March of 1980 murder of an unknown female. We will always work tirelessly until we can provide both justice and closure for her and her family.”

What everyone can agree on, however, is that if these confessions are going to happen, they need to happen fast. Vronsky is beyond frustrated, as is Weiss, who just wants to stop thinking about dead women and spend time with her children. “We are all the people versus Richard Cottingham,” she says. “He doesn’t want to deal with the public. He doesn’t want to say sorry to anyone. He is not doing this for humanity, he’s literally only doing it for me. I can’t sit back and let him watch TV every night without dealing with the victims and the family members. How did he think this would all gonna end?”

Anzilotti, for his part, is wry. When he talked to Cottingham the other week, he gave him the old rundown: You could die tomorrow. Close these cases. Do it for the families. Cottingham just looked at him and asked,  “Well, what are you gonna do for me?”