‘Torso Killer’ Charged in Strangulation of Long Island Woman in 1968

When Diane Cusick’s last class for the evening ended on Feb. 15, 1968, the 23-year-old children’s dance instructor went to a Long Island mall to buy a pair of shoes.

Hours later, her parents found her dead in the back seat of her car parked near the Green Acres Mall in Valley Stream. She had been beaten, raped and strangled.

The case was cold for most of the next 54 years — until Wednesday, when a convicted serial killer and rapist named Richard Cottingham was charged with her murder after DNA evidence linked him to the crime.

The breakthrough expanded the known footprint of a serial killer who has claimed he killed more than 100 women across the United States. And it has prompted the authorities in Nassau County to review at least five more unsolved murders of women between 1967 and 1980.

Credit…via Nassau County District Attorney’s Office

Mr. Cottingham, 75, who is known as the “Torso Killer” because he cut off the heads and hands of some victims, was arraigned by video from his hospital bed in New Jersey, where he is already serving life sentences. His defense attorney, Jeffrey Groder, did not immediately respond to phone calls seeking comment.

Mr. Cottingham has been convicted of or admitted under oath to 11 killings in New York and New Jersey, though investigators have long believed there were more victims.

Ms. Cusick’s name was added to that list in January after DNA collected from the crime scene matched Mr. Cottingham’s profile in a federal database, Anne Donnelly, the Nassau County district attorney, said at a news conference. She credited the breakthrough to technological advances that allow forensic investigators to conduct more thorough tests of DNA.

She said she believes the murder is the oldest case to be prosecuted based on DNA evidence.

In the years preceding and following Ms. Cusick’s death, Mr. Cottingham, it would later be revealed, ranged across New York’s suburbs seeking teenagers to kill. He married and raised three children in Lodi, N.J., and held a job as a computer operator in Manhattan. Telling his wife that he worked at night, he rented an apartment in Midtown. In fact, Mr. Cottingham preyed on prostitutes who worked the streets around a then-seedy Times Square.

Although Mr. Cottingham was first convicted in 1982, Ms. Donnelly said, there was no law at the time that required him to submit a DNA sample to law enforcement. His DNA was entered into the federal database in 2005, her office said.

In 2003, investigators tested the DNA from Ms. Cusick’s case as part of an effort to clear a case backlog. But the results did not meet the minimum requirements to be uploaded to the federal database, prosecutors said. More sophisticated testing emerged over the years and ultimately helped investigators to crack the case.

The connection to Mr. Cottingham has prompted Ms. Donnelly’s office to investigate all unsolved homicides of women between 1967 and 1980, the period Mr. Cottingham was active, she said. DNA from at least five other cases has been submitted to the database for matching, and officials await results, the Nassau County police said.

“Although Cottingham was primarily a Bergen County person and worked in Manhattan, we now have evidence that he was also here in Nassau County, and we are diligently reviewing unsolved murder cases,” Ms. Donnelly said.

Ms. Cusick’s daughter, Darlene Altman, 58, appeared alongside Ms. Donnelly. She was 3 years old when her mother was killed.

“I never thought I’d see this day,” she said. “I had given up. But all these people got justice for me and my mother.”

Credit…via Nassau County District Attorney’s Office

Investigators revived the Cusick case last year, when police in neighboring Suffolk County shared information raising the possibility that Mr. Cottingham was responsible for additional murders. Ms. Donnelly did not reveal what the information was, but she said Nassau County police then compiled a list of their unsolved homicides.

Earlier this year, the police generated a DNA profile from evidence collected in Ms. Cusick’s case. They submitted it to a federal DNA database, where it matched in January to Mr. Cottingham, whose profile was already in the database.

Ms. Donnelly said Mr. Cottingham made statements to investigators implicating himself in the crime, though he did not confess. They presented the case to a grand jury, where a retired police officer who had responded to the scene in 1968 recalled what he had seen. The jury returned an indictment in March.

The arraignment was delayed because of logistical issues that were complicated by the fact that Mr. Cottingham was incarcerated in New Jersey with medical problems, a spokesman for the district attorney’s office said.

Detective Captain Stephen Fitzpatrick, the commanding officer of the Nassau County police homicide squad, said the case fit a pattern in which Mr. Cottingham accosted some of his victims by pretending to be a security guard and accusing them of shoplifting.

“Once he got their attention, and they acquiesced to his supposed authority, he’d commit this violent act,” Captain Fitzpatrick said.