Serial killers know they’re invisible.
—ROBERT D. KEPPEL, criminal investigator
I have a problem with women.
—RICHARD COTTINGHAM, The Times Square Torso Ripper
I am not a highly educated expert on serial killers. I was never an FBI profiler, a police officer, a criminologist, or a forensic psychologist. I did not write a college thesis about them and I never interviewed incarcerated serial killers or exchanged letters with any. I never bought their art or collected their memorabilia. In other words, I am probably a lot like you: a curious amateur. Other than reading about them and seeing them on TV, my only experience with serial killers is my two brief personal encounters with them before they were identified and captured. You might think that is what makes me different from you—but don’t be too hasty in your conclusion.
In my travels I randomly bumped into two notorious “rippers”: Richard Cottingham, the Times Square Torso Ripper, who was eventually linked to five torture dismemberment murders in New York and New Jersey, and Andrei Chikatilo, the Red Ripper, whom I briefly met in Russia just days before he committed the last three of his more than fifty cannibalistic murders of women, youths, and children. In both cases I did not know until much later whom it was I had encountered. My run-in with Cottingham was as dramatic as my meeting with Chikatilo was banal and forgettable.
I bumped into Richard Cottingham for about ten seconds one early Sunday morning in New York City in December 1979. I was working as a production assistant on a movie being shot in Toronto. My job was to fly out to New York every few days and personally deliver our exposed film for a special type of processing at a laboratory located near the Times Square area. It was a great gig: I would fly into New York in the morning and quickly drop off the film, and then I was on my own until it was ready for pick up the next day.
Usually I would be handed an airline ticket and an envelope of cash, and I was expected to arrange my own hotel and meals. Film crews routinely stayed at good business-class hotels—Sheraton, Hilton, and so on—and I’d be given enough cash to stay and eat in those kinds of places. Young, punkish, having backpacked to New York previously and slept on the floor of CBGB’s on the Bowery and fed myself on cheese and wine by attending gallery openings, I couldn’t care less about upscale accommodations. I was content to routinely book cheap tourist-class hotel rooms on my film deliveries. I would spend the cash I saved on clubbing, record albums, books, and electronics. But on one such trip I went too far.
An unforeseen technical delay at the lab forced me to stay an entire weekend in New York. In order to stretch out my expense cash for the extra unexpected nights, I decided to check into a really marginal hotel on the last day. Early on a Sunday morning, I walked over to a nondescript medium-sized hotel on West 42nd Street, about two blocks from the Hudson River near the collapsed husks of the West Side Highway. Offering bargain rates, the hotel was located near nothing—no convenient subway station, no tourist sites, no office buildings—in what was at that time a derelict neighborhood around Tenth Avenue deserving of its historical name, Hell’s Kitchen. The hotel was even inconvenient for the junkies and hookers who hung out in Taxi Driver country a few blocks west on what was then called the forty-deuce—a sleazy stretch of West 42nd Street lined with porn shops, live sex shows, and knife stores that ran from Broadway and past the bus terminal toward Eighth and Ninth Avenues. The hotel had bargain rates but for the price it appeared to be clean and secure enough, and within quick walking distance of the film lab I would have to go to early the next morning.
I showed up without a reservation and was told that a room would be ready for me shortly if I would wait about half an hour, as people were checking out. I decided that in the meantime I would go up and wander around a few floors just to see how bad the place might really be. As I waited at the elevator, I was mildly annoyed to see that it had stopped for what seemed an eternity on the top floor. Finally the stalled elevator began to come down, and when the doors opened, presumably the jerk who had held the elevator on the upper floor got off. He almost walked over me like some kind of glassy-eyed zombie, looking right through me and brushing me aside as if I were not there. As he passed me by heading into the lobby he lightly bumped my leg with a bag or a suitcase or something. I never noticed what exactly he carried, nor could I today describe the feel of it against my leg. The only other thing I would later remember was that he seemed to glow with a thin sheen of perspiration and he had this really bad moplike haircut. He appeared to be in his midthirties with sandy-colored hair and looked like a junior pasty-faced office worker—which was precisely what he turned out to be later (although he was described by other witnesses as having an “olive” complexion). By the time the elevator doors closed behind me, I had forgotten all about him.
I took the elevator up and got off on one of the floors at random. I immediately noticed a faint but distinct odor of something burning, but I did not see any smoke and thought it was the natural smell of the hotel. As I walked around the halls I did not detect anything particularly nasty about the place, but I did notice the smell getting stronger, and now with an unmistakable underlying back-odor of burnt chicken feathers or hair. I did not know it at the time, but that was the smell of roasting human flesh.
In the corridor my eyes were drawn to several elusively small, dark, greasy slivers of sooty substances floating and circulating in the air like tiny black snowflakes. When I caught one, it stained my fingers black. As I moved along the hall it seemed to get lightly misty and the smell was now unquestionably that of a building fire—that kind of woody-paint burning smell. I heard all sorts of commotion and shouting in the stairwells and fire alarms began ringing. I quickly made my way down to the lobby, emerging just as the fire department was pulling up in the street outside. All this gave me a bad vibe about the place (to say the least) and I left almost immediately to seek out another hotel without a glance backward.
The next morning I read in the newspapers that firemen responding to flames in one of the rooms of the hotel had discovered the corpses of two murdered women laid out on twin beds that had been set on fire. A firefighter had dragged one of the women out of the smoky room into the hallway and attempted to give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation only to discover that she had no head or hands. At first he thought it was a mannequin. A fifteen-year veteran of the NYFD, the firefighter said he nearly had to undergo trauma counseling afterwards: “I’ve never come across something like that. I hope I never do again.”1
The victims’ clothing was found folded in the bathtub in two neat stacks with their platform shoes on top of each pile. Except for blood on the mattresses, the hotel room was remarkably free of any bloodstains, fingerprints, or any other evidence. Whatever the killer used to dismember the bodies, he took it with him. In addition to the mutilation, the bodies showed signs of horrific torture—cigarette burns, beatings, and bite marks around the breasts.
At the time I never made the connection with the man I bumped into at the elevator. I did not even remember him. Somehow my wandering around the hotel in the black floating flakes, the fire alarm going off, and finding the fire engines outside all overwhelmed the minor memory of him. He came to me only later when Richard Cottingham was arrested and tried for the mutilation murders of young women, mostly prostitutes in New York and New Jersey, including the two victims at the hotel. Seeing his picture in the paper, I immediately recognized him: the bad haircut and pasty face.
Since then I always assumed that when he stepped by me in the elevator that Sunday morning, he must have been carrying the severed heads and hands with him. I could not imagine him taking the risk of leaving two headless corpses unattended in the hotel room to go out and dump the heads and hands and then return to set fire to the room. Whatever he had transported the heads in, it must have been what he brushed my leg with as he stepped by me in the elevator doors. (On the other hand, did he kill one woman and leave her body in the room, then go out to seek out another, or were they both alive together before he killed them? Cottingham never said.)
Richard Francis Cottingham, age thirty-four, I learned, was the recently separated father of three children and lived in suburban New Jersey. Neighbors typically described him as aloof and private but a doting father who always took his children out trick-or-treating on Halloween. The son of an insurance industry executive, a high school athlete but nonetheless a lonely boy, Richard had been steadily employed for the last sixteen years as a computer operator at Empire State Blue Cross–Blue Shield insurance company on Third Avenue in midtown Manhattan. He was a valued and dependable employee. Choosing the 3:00–11:00 P.M. shift, he would do his killing in the morning, after work at night, or on the weekends.
The heads and hands from the victims in the Times Square hotel were never found despite an extensive search by police of the river area nearby. One victim was identified through hospital X rays as Kuwaiti-born Deedah Godzari, a twenty-three-year-old prostitute from New Jersey and mother of a four-month baby. The other victim, estimated to be in her late teens, remains unidentified to this day.
Six months later, Cottingham killed and mutilated another New York prostitute, twenty-five-year-old Jean Mary Ann Reyner. She was found in the historic but declined Seville Hotel on 29th Street near Madison Avenue. This time he severed the victim’s breasts and set them down side by side on the headboard of the bed before setting fire to the room.
Cottingham actually preferred to do his thing closer to home in New Jersey. He would either pick up his victims on the streets of Manhattan or meet them in bars. Either way, he would buy them drinks or dinner and slip a date rape–type drug into their glass. He then would maneuver or lure the semiconscious victims to his car and drive them across the river to New Jersey to cheap motels that lined the complex of highways there. He carried them in through motel back doors and then molested and tortured them in his room for extended periods of time. The lucky ones would later awake from the effects of the drug finding themselves raped and sodomized and covered with horrific wounds, dumped naked by a roadside or on the floor of a motel room with little memory of what had transpired. They were alive because Cottingham was a particular type of serial killer—an anger-excitation or sadistic-lust offender. Cottingham did not derive his pleasure from killing, but from torturing the victim. He couldn’t care less whether the victim lived or died once he was finished with his torture—and if the victim did die during the attack before Cottingham was satisfied, he would continue abusing the corpse until satisfied. Once done, he would abandon the victim like “trash,” and whether she was dead or alive was inconsequential to him. Some victims were lucky to survive, but others were not.
The body of nineteen-year-old Valerie Ann Street was found in a Hasbrouck Heights Quality Inn in New Jersey by housekeeping staff. A cleaning woman was attempting to vacuum the floor under the bed but something was jammed under it. Lifting up the mattress, she found a hideously disfigured corpse stuffed underneath the bed. The victim’s hands were tightly handcuffed behind her back; she was covered in bite marks and was beaten across the shins. Valerie Street had died of asphyxiation and traces of adhesive tape were found on her mouth. Cottingham had carefully taken it away with him after killing the girl. He must have lost the key to the handcuffs, as he left them behind still restraining the victim—a fatal mistake, as police would lift his fingerprint from the inner ratchet of the cuffs.
One of the victims was not a prostitute. Twenty-six-year-old radiologist Mary Ann Carr had been found dumped by a chain-link fence near the parking lot of the same New Jersey motel two years previously. She had been cut about the chest and legs, beaten with a blunt instrument, and covered in bites and bruises. Her wrists showed marks from handcuffs and her mouth had traces of adhesive tape. She had been strangled and suffocated by the adhesive tape.
Cottingham was arrested on May 22, 1980, about six months after my encounter with him. He had picked up eighteen-year-old Leslie Ann O’Dell, who was soliciting on the corner of Lexington Avenue and 25th Street. She had arrived in New York on a bus from Washington State four days earlier and was quickly turned to street prostitution by bus station pimps. Cottingham bought her drinks and talked to her about his job and house in the suburbs until about 3:00 A.M. He then offered to take her to a bus terminal in New Jersey so that she could escape the pimps in New York. Leslie appreciatively accepted. After crossing the George Washington Bridge into New Jersey, he bought her a steak at an all-night diner. He was charming, generous, sympathetic, and helpful. At some point she agreed to have sex with him for $100. It was around dawn when they checked into the very same Hasbrouck Heights Quality Inn where he had left his last mutilated victim stuffed under the bed eighteen days earlier. Nobody recognized Cottingham.
After getting a room, Cottingham drove to the back of the motel and they went in through a rear entrance. Leaving the girl in the room alone, Cottingham returned to his car, telling her he wanted to move it to the front. He came back carrying a paper bag with whiskey and an attaché case. It was now nearly 5:00 A.M.
Cottingham offered to give the tired girl a massage and she gratefully rolled over onto her stomach. Straddling her back, he drew a knife from the attaché case and put it to her throat as he snapped a pair of handcuffs on her wrists. While Leslie attempted to persuade Cottingham that all that was unnecessary, he began torturing her, nearly biting off one of her nipples. She later testified that he said, “You have to take it. The other girls did, you have to take it too. You’re a whore and you have to be punished.”
The charges that would be listed in Cottingham’s New Jersey indictment give us some idea of how the next four hours passed for O’Dell:
Kidnapping, attempted murder, aggravated assault, aggravated assault with deadly weapon, aggravated sexual assault while armed (rape), aggravated sexual assault while armed (sodomy), aggravated sexual assault while armed (fellatio), possession of a weapon; possession of controlled dangerous substances, Secobarbital and Amobarbital, or Tuinal, and possession of controlled dangerous substance, Diazepam or Valium.
Between bouts of rape, sodomy, forced oral sex, biting, beating, cutting with the knife, and whipping with a leather belt, Cottingham would pause to gently wipe down the face of his victim with a cool, damp washcloth. Then he would begin anew. O’Dell’s muffled cries of pain became so loud that the motel staff, already spooked by the murder eighteen days earlier, called the police and then rushed to the room demanding that Cottingham open the door. Cottingham gathered up his torture implements and dashed out of the room but was apprehended by arriving police officers in the hallway.
That was the end of Cottingham. For his crimes in New Jersey, he received several terms ranging from sixty to ninety-five years, a term of twenty-five years to life, and another term to run consecutively of a minimum of thirty years. And then he was extradited to New York to stand trial for the “torso” homicides there. We won’t be seeing Richard again.
Cottingham denied committing any of the murders to the bitter end, despite the fact that some of the victims’ property was found in his home and his fingerprint was found on the handcuffs restraining one of the victims. The only thing Cottingham admitted was, “I have a problem with women.”
My brief run-in with Cottingham was a hell of a story and I told it for a long time, long after had I met, but did not know it, yet another serial killer—one for the record books, the Ukrainian cannibal Andrei Chikatilo, who killed and mutilated an extraordinary fifty-three victims in the Soviet Union.
In 1990 I was making television documentaries, and in October of that year I found myself in Moscow making a film about the changes taking place there under Gorbachev. One day we came upon an extraordinary sight. A tent city with about five hundred people had been spontaneously erected on the front lawn of a hotel immediately behind the Red Square beneath the domes of St. Basil’s Cathedral. The residents seemed to have come in from all parts of the country and were mostly aged pensioners protesting Stalinist abuses of the past. They had bizarre placards attached to their tents and shelters. Some pasted to their foreheads little slips of paper with protests with strange things written in broken archaic English, such as “Lenin is bonehead.” Others held up placards with elaborately laid-out documents, letters, and photographs documenting their complaints. I waded into the crowd with my crew and started speaking with some of the people, seeking out possible interviews to film. It seemed that almost everybody there was somehow traumatized and mentally ill, and considering what had happened to them during the Stalin era, it was understandable.
At some point I spotted a small stand decorated with the white, blue, and red of the old Imperial Russian tricolor flag. In 1990 it was still a rare thing to see those colors in the USSR. It belonged to a gaunt man with graying hair and big glasses. His other features I cannot recall, other than his being closely shaved and dressed relatively well (for the USSR) in a mid-length jacket, clean shirt, and neatly knotted tie. He looked to be maybe in his late forties or early fifties and stood out with his neat dress and younger age when compared to the many raggedy-scruffy bearded Russian pensioners occupying the tent city around him. There was something refined about him—perhaps delicate or prissy. Next to him was a typical battered leather briefcase like those that almost every Soviet bureaucrat and office worker carried.
He introduced himself, but later I forgot his name and where he said he came from. At first he spoke quietly, calmly, and in a highly educated manner. The few phrases he attempted in English were well pronounced and grammatical. He reminded me of a librarian. He explained that he held several university degrees and was “not like” the rest of the rabble around him. As his story began to pour out, he gradually was overcome with emotion; his eyes welled up with tears and his glasses actually fogged up. But his story was so absurd that I would never forget it: He was here in Moscow, he told me, to see Gorbachev to complain that somebody was building an illegal garage and toilet beneath the windows of his son’s apartment. It was a conspiracy, he wailed.
I had just interviewed an old woman a few rows away who had told me she was dying of cancer and fifty years earlier had been arrested and put in the gulag while her children were sent to a state institution. She had not seen them since and was desperate to find them before she died, but the authorities were not helping. This neatly dressed man’s prissy complaints about some garage seemed to me petty and stupid in comparison—and worse: boring television. Searching for somebody else to interview, I drifted away from him as fast as I politely could, not even listening to the last few things he had to say, and quickly forgot all about him. That is how I missed filming an interview with Andrei Romanovich Chikatilo—the Red Ripper—“Citizen X”—three weeks before his capture—one of the most prolific serial killers in modern history.
While Cottingham I remembered, I forgot everything about Chikatilo other than the neatness of his dress and the banality of his complaint. I do not remember his eyes, other than the tears in them and the fogged veil of the lenses in his glasses; nothing of his face other than it was clean shaven. He remains but a softly spoken shadowy politeness in my memory—but in my nightmares, he stills comes to me as a monstrous geek with eyeless sockets spewing tears.
Within days of my brief conversation with him in Moscow, he would return to his home in Rostov in the Ukraine to kill his fifty-first known victim. Riding on a local train, he convinced a sixteen-year-old mentally handicapped boy to accompany him to his “cottage” with the promise that there were girls there. The two got off the train and Chikatilo walked the boy into a dense wood, where he suddenly forced him to the ground and ripped off his trousers. He tied the boy with a rope that he carried with him in his briefcase just for that kind of occasion and then rolled him over and removed the rest of his clothes. (Was it the same briefcase I saw that day in the tent city?) He molested him and then bit off the tip of the boy’s tongue and stabbed him repeatedly in the head and stomach. Afterward he cut off the boy’s genitals and threw them into the bushes. After dragging the body into some thick undergrowth he recovered the rope and wiped the blood off himself and his knife with the boy’s clothes. He straightened out his own clothing (and was it the same shirt and tie I saw him in?) and then calmly returned to the nearby railway station and took the train home.
Ten days later at a different railway station, Chikatilo killed another sixteen-year-old boy, mutilating him in a similar fashion, his fifty-second victim. A week later, behind the same station where he killed the mentally handicapped youth, he murdered his fifty-third and final victim, a twenty-two-year-old woman. He cut off the tip of her tongue and both her nipples after mutilating her genitals. After he emerged from the bush with blood smeared on his face, he was washing up at a platform water tap when a police officer, on the lookout for a killer, briefly questioned Chikatilo and recorded his identification. He was allowed to continue on his way—the police officer later stated that he had no way of determining that the smear on Chikatilo’s face was actually blood. Gorbachev’s new rules strictly regulated police conduct toward citizens—everything was to be done by the book now. The police officer let Chikatilo go, but for the next few days he was put under surveillance. When the body of the female victim was eventually discovered near the station where he was questioned, Chikatilo was immediately picked up.
The following year I watched the Chikatilo trial on Russian television and saw photographs of him. Chikatilo had killed women, girls, boys, and youths indiscriminately, almost always luring them either to a killing shack he kept in a seedy part of town or to isolated fields or woods. He used his refined and educated persona to seduce his victims into trusting him. Often preying on the destitute, the mentally handicapped, the lost, and the young, he offered food, sex, shelter, or directions to entice his victims to accompany him to their deaths. Once he had his victims isolated, he would brutally attack and mutilate them using a “killing kit” of various knives and sharp instruments he carried with him in his briefcase.
By the time the trial began, Chikatilo’s head was shaved and he appeared quite mad, howling at the courtroom spectators from within a specially built cage. But even seeing the earlier photographs of him in the press, I never recognized him from that day I met him in the Moscow tent city. I still occasionally told my Richard Cottingham story, never realizing what punch-line lurked beyond it. It was only years later that I came across a transcript of Chikatilo’s police interrogation in which he complained about the conspiratorial attempt to build a garage and toilet behind his son’s apartment and his intention to meet with Gorbachev in Moscow. I was transfixed in horror—could it possibly be the same guy? It had to be—the story was just too eccentric, and even the Russian investigator remarked on Chikatilo’s emotional peaks when he began to speak of the garage. Indeed, after some further research I uncovered an account of Chikatilo’s visit to Moscow in October 1990 just before he committed his last three murders.2
I came to realize that in my life I had met not one, but two serial killers—unidentified and out there killing—and for the longest time I had not even known it. How many more could there be? And where the hell were they coming from?
I was puzzled by the conventional backgrounds of these two killers—both gainfully employed family men: Cottingham, a New York City computer operator with a house and three kids in the suburbs; and Chikatilo, a university-educated schoolteacher, father of two children, writer of political essays for Soviet publications, and, later, factory materials purchaser. These two were not grizzled glassy-eyed drifters or twitchy recluses—types we frequently associate with serial killers. They were ordinary.
Most of all, I was fascinated with their invisibility—their forgettability. Apparently they stalked and killed like evil transparent ghosts. Even when I had run into Cottingham, presumably carrying two severed heads and having just set fire to a hotel I was checking into, I would forget him within seconds of the encounter. Cottingham was so forgettable that after leaving behind a mutilated corpse under a motel bed, he checked back into the very same motel a mere eighteen days later, and nobody recognized him.
Of Chikatilo himself, I still have no memory—just that of his ridiculous story and fragmentary glimpses of the monster: glasses, the knot of his tie, a clean-shaven cheek, a briefcase lying in the grass by his feet—but of him . . . nothing. This invisibility let him kill fifty-three people and almost walk away untouched, with blood on his face, from a police officer looking for him. What manner of ghoulish monsters were these?
All of this led me to contemplate how Cottingham and Chikatilo came to exist—where had they sprung from and by what means and paths did they move about for me to so randomly stumble across these two homicidal monsters, roaming free in the wild among us?
In my attempt to map the primordial substance from which they rose, I came to write this book, and in a way, map my own substance as well. Was there something about me that led me to cross their paths? I learned that many victims of serial killers “facilitate” their own deaths by their choice of lifestyle or behavior—hitchhikers, runaways, street hookers. While not a victim, I perhaps facilitated my meeting with Cottingham by my choice of hotels near a hookers’ stroll. I strayed into a serial killer’s hunting grounds as a trespasser and got a bump from a monster.
While my Cottingham encounter in New York was one of those experiences that one can easily write off as coincidence, my second encounter with a serial killer made me wonder. I questioned the mathematical odds of running into two killers in that manner. One killer I could easily understand, but two made me ask, how many more might there be out there that I did not know about? I wondered what the odds were of walking by a serial killer without ever finding out about it—on the street, waiting in line for burger, browsing for books in a true-crime section, or sitting next to one on a train or bus? I shuddered when I heard somebody explain that serial killers might be strangers—but only to you. They become very familiar with you if they pick you as their target—you are no stranger to them.
It seemed to me that millions of people move about their daily lives without meeting a serial killer—or at least, without finding out they had met one. Perhaps that is precisely what makes me different from you—that I have uncovered the transparent monsters who had tramped across my path—my serial killers—while you perhaps have not uncovered yours. I pray you never will.