When Diane Cusick’s last class for the evening ended on February 15, 1968, the 23-year-old children’s dance teacher 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 shopping center 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 .
This breakthrough expanded the known footprint of a serial killer who claimed to have killed more than 100 women across the United States. And it prompted Nassau County authorities to investigate at least five other unsolved murders of women between 1967 and 1980.
Mr Cottingham, 75, nicknamed the “Torso Killer” because he cut off the heads and hands of some victims, was arrested by video from his hospital bed in New Jersey, where he is already serving life sentences. His defense attorney, Jeffrey Groder, did not immediately return phone calls seeking comment.
Mr Cottingham has been convicted or admitted under oath to 11 murders in New York and New Jersey, although 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, Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly said during of a press conference. She attributed the breakthrough to advances in technology that allow forensic investigators to conduct more thorough DNA testing.
She said she believed the murder was the oldest case to be prosecuted based on DNA evidence.
In the years before and after Mrs Cusick’s death, Mr Cottingham, it will be revealed later, scoured the suburbs of New York in search of teenagers to kill. He married and raised three children in Lodi, NJ, and worked as a computer operator in Manhattan. Telling his wife he was working nights, he rented an apartment in Midtown. In fact, Mr. Cottingham was preying on prostitutes who worked the streets around a then seedy Times Square.
Although Mr Cottingham was first convicted in 1982, Ms Donnelly said, no law at the time required him to submit a DNA sample to law enforcement. His DNA was entered into the federal database in 2005, his office said.
In 2003, investigators tested DNA from Ms Cusick’s case as part of an effort to clear a backlog of cases. But the results did not meet the minimum requirements to be uploaded to the federal database, prosecutors said. More sophisticated tests emerged over the years that eventually helped investigators crack the case.
The connection to Mr. Cottingham prompted Ms. Donnelly’s office to investigate all unsolved homicides of women between 1967 and 1980, when Mr. Cottingham was active, she said. DNA from at least five other cases has been submitted to the database for matching, and authorities are awaiting results, 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.
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 would see this day,” she said. “I had given up. But all these people got justice for me and my mother.
Investigators reignited 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, police generated a DNA profile from evidence collected in Ms Cusick’s case. They submitted him to a federal DNA database, where he in January matched Mr Cottingham, whose profile was already in the database.
Ms Donnelly said Mr Cottingham made statements to investigators implicating himself in the crime, although 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 due to logistical issues complicated by Mr. Cottingham being incarcerated in New Jersey with medical issues, a spokesperson for the district attorney’s office said.
Detective Captain Stephen Fitzpatrick, commander of the Nassau County Police Homicide Squad, said the case fit a pattern in which Mr. Cottingham approached some of his victims by posing as a police officer. security and accusing them of shoplifting.
“Once he got their attention, and they acquiesced to his supposed authority, he would commit this violent act,” Capt. Fitzpatrick said.