'Torso Killer' Richard Cottingham claims two more Rockland murders
Serial killer Richard Cottingham is talking.
The 75-year-old, who claims he is responsible for close to 100 killings and became known as the "Torso Killer" and the "Times Square Killer" for mainly targeting prostitutes, is talking to victims' families and an author who specializes in serial killers about how he murdered additional women, including at least two in Rockland.
Rockland law enforcement officials say facts do not support one of his claims.
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Rockland prosecutors have accepted his statements that he killed Lorraine McGraw, a 26-year-old mother, on March 1, 1970, and dumped her beaten body in South Nyack.
People found McGraw strangled and beaten on Tweed Boulevard, near the water tower by the former Nyack College. McGraw, a drug addict, worked in clubs, bars and adult establishments, including those on Route 9W in Rockland Lake and Congers.
The Rockland County District Attorney’s Office agreed not to prosecute the 75-year-old Cottingham since he is serving multiple sentences of life without parole, in exchange for his admittance.
McGraw's granddaughter, Sonia Ruiz McGraw, 38, of Queens, said Friday she signed the stipulation, as Cottingham had promised to detail her grandmother's death and how he knew her.
While Ruiz McGraw said Cottingham never definitively told her he killed her grandmother, she believes he did and he had promised to tell all when they talk face to face. As of Friday, that meeting had not happened, she said, and she's angry because the District Attorney's Office and one detective jumped the gun by publicizing the agreement, breaking a promise to her and Cottingham, and didn't tell Cottingham why he was being questioned.
"He told me he would tell me in person," she said, adding she feels she developed a trusting relationship with Cottingham over 18 months through emails and phone calls.
Serial killer author and investigator Peter Vronsky said Cottingham also claims he murdered a young girl who he believes is Lisa Thomas, on Oct. 7, 1974.
In one of Rockland's most notorious unsolved murders, the Nanuet High School teen's body - her head bludgeoned - was found by her father in an open field, about 300 yards from the 4‐year‐old Nanuet Mall and not far from her North Fairview Avenue home. Thomas, who lived with her parents and siblings, had been found blindfolded with a red cloth that she carried on her pocketbook.
Thomas confession sparks argument
Cottingham’s confession to killing McGraw was supported by investigators, including Conor Fitzgerald, who reopened the case in January 2021 as a South Nyack detective and continued with the Rockland District Attorney’s Office. He conducted prison interviews with Cottingham during an 18-month investigation with other agencies and Vronsky. Fitzgerald, who became a DA detective after South Nyack disbanded its police department in January 2022 as part of a dissolution of the village government, received a law enforcement award for his work.
Several people have tried to confess over the years to killing Thomas, but investigators later ruled them out. One other police suspect died after being release from prison.
Clarkstown police don’t believe the facts support Cottingham's claims about Thomas and said last week her murder remains an open case. Many of his victims were sexually abused and dismembered; Thomas was not.
“I really don't see Cottingham as a suspect in the Thomas case,” Det. Chris Maloney wrote Vronsky in an email dated July 21. “Different m.o. Very, very little to even begin to connect him at this point, besides the fact that he is a maniac serial killer. I also have a very good suspect in that case. With that said, I do believe Cottingham is the killer of the woman found in South Nyack … “
Cottingham has been imprisoned since 1981 in New Jersey on multiple life sentences for murder, plus additional terms for crimes like sexual abuse and kidnapping. He’s being held in South Woods State Prison in Bridgeton, New Jersey.
Vronsky, who has a doctorate in history and considers himself a forensic historian, has written books on serial killers and is working on a documentary.
The author released email exchanges with police investigators and talks with Cottingham, who claims to have killed nearly 100 women across New York and New Jersey. He was arrested in 1980. Vronsky said he suspects the kills top 100.
“Since COVID it has been difficult to visit inmates in prison face to face,” Vronsky said. “Almost every day since then, I talk with serial killer Richard Cottingham − the Torso Killer − and record our conversations, on audio and on video visits, whether I am at home or on the road, in the hope of closing a precious few of the 85-100 murders he claims he committed in the 1960s and 1970s.
"He's in very fragile health after 40 years," Vronsky said, adding Cottingham has diabetes and kidney issues. "He could die any day. That's why it's important for the police to talk to him."
Vronsky said he leans toward believing Cottingham, though he's been “50/50 on him as the perp" in the Thomas case, adding, "But he hasn't made any false confessions yet.”
Vronsky said in an email to Maloney the detective should interview Cottingham and Cottingham claimed he hit a girl in the “head near a shopping mall in Rockland County and she fought him so hard he did not even get a chance to have sex with her.”
“More things match his usual m.o. than do not,” Vronsky said, adding she reminded him of another victim with her long brown hair.
Maloney has been reinvestigating the Thomas murder since 2009.
“I don't trust anything Cottingham says,” Maloney wrote back to Vronsky. “And much of the information is easily available online. He had no contact with her. He couldn't have even known her name. She was found 100 yards from her house. She never drove his car. I think it is all (bull).”
The girl’s mother, Barbara, never believed a stranger murdered her daughter, but rather people who hung out on the field behind the mall following personal problems with the teen. Barbara Thomas died in July 2020 at age 81 but friends and supporters have vowed to continue her fight..
Supporters of “Justice for Lisa Thomas” on Facebook believe accepting Cottingham's statements would close down hopes of arresting Thomas’s killer.
“Just to give everyone a heads-up on this − any information that this guy is claiming in his email has been in the public domain − newspaper articles, news coverage, posts on this very page,” a Facebook page administrator wrote. “All he had to do is look it up.”
'I want him to be responsible for his actions'
Cottingham told Rolling Stone magazine and Vronsky that he started killing people as a teenager in New Jersey.
“For a long time now I have been trying to understand the darkness that enveloped my soul during my youth,” Cottingham told Rolling Stone. “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.”
In June, a Bergen County, New Jersey, judge sentenced Cottingham to two more life sentences for killing two teenage girls from Hudson County in August 1974. He has admitted to killing at least 11 girls and women in the 1960s and 1970s in New Jersey and New York.
New Jersey juries convicted Cottingham of five murders from 1981 to 1984. Cottingham, a father of three kids who once worked as a computer operator, was arrested on May 22, 1980, according to his prison criminal record. He attempted to kill an 18-year-old woman at a Quality Inn in New Jersey. The staff saved the woman.
Sonia Ruiz McGraw said her grandmother’s death had a catastrophic effect on her family, especially her mother, who was a child at the time and has never recovered from the loss. Ruiz McGraw said her mother's traumatic raising affected how she was raised.
“I want him to be responsible for his actions,” she said of Cottingham. “My grandmother didn't deserve to die (based on her lifestyle back then). What he did to my grandmother has not only affected her daughter, but also her granddaughter."
Steve Lieberman covers government, breaking news, courts, police, and investigations. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @lohudlegal.
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This article originally appeared on Rockland/Westchester Journal News: 'Torso Killer' Richard Cottingham claims two Rockland murders