How a detective helped nail torso killer Richard Cottingham out of his grave

On Thursday, the Nassau County Police Department sent Det. Pat Bellotti’s widow a link to a livestream of a news conference to announce that his latest case culminated in a new murder charge against the so-called torso killer — two decades after her husband started it would have.

“Fortunately everything he did turned out well,” Mary Bellotti told The Daily Beast.

Pat Belotti had always been a physically imposing figure before a protracted battle with terminal cancer in 2003 forced him into administrative duties with the Long Island County Homicide Division. But he was known to have remained warm-hearted – in the words of his wife “a giant cuddly toy bear” – and cases involving children particularly moved him.

This included his most recent investigation, which he conducted in 2003 after reading a letter to homicide detectives from a woman who was 3 years old when her mother had been sexually assaulted and suffocated in her car in a mall parking lot 35 years earlier was.

This ice-cold case might have been forgotten if Bellotti had simply put the letter aside. Instead, he called their now-adult daughter, Darlene Altman, and then went to Homicide Commander Dennis Farrell.

“Pat walks into my office and says, ‘Hey boss, I just got off the phone with a really nice nice woman and she said her mother was a victim of a murder in Valley Stream in 1968,'” Farrell told The Daily Beast. “I think the sum and substance was that the woman had said to him, ‘You know, I know there’s been so much advancement in police technology and investigative tools. Any chance you could look at my mother’s case again?’”

Farrell reminded Bellotti that the team was understaffed and already overwhelmed with actual killings.

“I said, ‘Pat, I’m up to my neck in alligators here investigating these other cases. I’ve got no one to hire,’” Farrell recalled. “And he’s like, ‘Well, you know, I’m a detective. I can do this.”

Farrell would remember the protective impulse that occurs when someone you care about is struggling with a serious illness. But Bellotti remained, in fact, a detective in every important respect.

“I said, ‘Okay, do your research, come back, we’ll talk about it,'” Farrell recalled. “He does.”

Photo illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Darlene Altman

Bellotti went to the morgue to dig up the reports from the more than 100 detectives who had worked the case early. The files revealed that on February 15, 1968, 23-year-old Diane Cusick left her home to shop for shoes at the nearby Green Acres Mall. Their young daughter stayed home with her grandparents, who became concerned when Cusick didn’t return and went to look for her. They spotted Cusick’s car in the mall parking lot in the early morning darkness. The grandfather found Cusick inside with duct tape over his mouth. He pulled it away, but she had already breathed her last.

35 years later, Bellotti invited Altman to come to the squad for an interview.

“He led me into a conference room,” Altman recalled. “He had all the original files from my mother’s case… like six big boxes. He sat and talked to me. He had said he had read my letter and was touched by it. He was so welcoming and so nice. And he really understood what I was going through.”

She spoke to The Daily Beast like she spoke to Bellotti.

“I was very concerned that I have no memory of my mother,” she said. “I only knew what people told me because I was so young at the time. It was two months before my fourth birthday, so I don’t remember her.”

Her grandparents adopted her after the murder.

“They then became mom and dad instead of grandma and grandpa,” she said. “My mother had twin brothers who were my uncles. So now they became my brothers. It really has affected my whole life.

“And unfortunately nobody in my family understood that. My mother’s memory was not kept alive. They weren’t talked about.”

“But I have to be very clear that my grandparents were wonderful, wonderful people. They did a wonderful job and did everything they could on my behalf. I was number one to them and nothing they did was intentional and they didn’t know how, what impact it would have on me. I guess they thought it best not to talk about her. So they chose to do it that way.”

“To be perfectly honest, I felt like a kind of surrogate for my mother. I grew up in her bedroom. I went to the same schools as them. I took dance classes where she taught dance. So it was like I picked up where she left off, sort of, and that’s how I felt anyway. But like I said, that wasn’t intentional. This was such a tragedy for her. I mean my grandparents were the ones they found in their car. So I fully understand their position in this regard.”


Photo illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Darlene Altman

She said she has always been very interested in crime series on television.

“Fiction and nonfiction,” she recalled. “The DNA made progress. Over the years I’ve thought, ‘Maybe there’s hope. Maybe they can find out who did this.’”

She noted that TV shows almost always end with the villain doing justice.

“I was always like, ‘Oh, I wish this could happen to me; Maybe one day,'” she said.

Then she sent the letter to Homicide

“I can’t remember exactly what prompted me to write it,” she told The Daily Beast. “Maybe I just needed to be heard. I just needed to see if maybe there was something that could be done to solve it.”

She found in Bellotti someone who wanted to see it from her point of view, someone who listened.

“I’m finally being heard,” she later said of their first meeting. “Someone who understands how I feel and what I’ve been through all these years. I explained to him how this affected my entire life course. And he promised me he’d work the case. And he did, staying in touch with me every step of the way to let me know where they were and what they were doing.”

Bellotti found Cusick’s clothes and took her panties and pants to the coroner’s office. Word came back of confirmed traces of semen.

“That was the good news,” Farrell recalls. “The bad news was that in 2003, a sizeable sample was still needed to reach a definitive verdict.”

But Bellotti made sure the clothes were preserved.

“If he hadn’t done it, I think it could have been lost,” Farrell said.

In the months that followed, Belotti continued to check in regularly with Altman.

In 2004, realizing that she hadn’t heard from him in a while, she called the police and was told he had left the department.

The crab proved capable of defeating even someone as strong as Bellotti. He died in 2005.


Photo illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Darlene Altman

Last June, Nassau County Det. Daniel Finn took up the case. Current technology made it possible to match the sperm traces to a DNA profile in a federal database belonging to a serial killer incarcerated in New Jersey since 1981.

Richard Cottingham, now 75 and ailing, was a New Jersey father of three who became known as the Times Square Killer for murdering some of his victims there and the Torso Killer for dismembering some of them. He was convicted or confessed to 11 murders, beginning with a New Jersey mother of two in October 1967, and is serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole.

Altman and one of her two sons live in Florida. Local police showed up at her home and said Nassau County Police needed to contact her. She initially feared something had happened to her other son, who lives in New York, so she called him to make sure he was okay and then called the number the police had given her. She spoke to Finn, who seemed just as friendly and caring as Belotti had been.

“He was wonderful,” Altman told The Daily Beast.

Finn explained that the man they believed killed their mother was charged with murder. “After 54 years, the day finally came,” said Altman, who is now 58.

On Thursday, Cottingham was arraigned via video link from a New Jersey hospital bed to the Nassau County Superior Court. Altman was in the courtroom and later said she was glad she was spared seeing Cottingham in person. She told The Daily Beast that the evil in the monster’s eyes was all the more pronounced because a yellow surgical mask hid the rest of his face.

“You just saw those eyes,” she said.

After the procedure, Altman and Farrell spoke for a moment about Bellotti.

“He was such a nice man,” she said.

Altman then joined Nassau District Attorney Anne Donnelly at the press conference. Mary Bellotti watched from afar with her two adult sons, one of whom is now a Port Authority police officer. She later spoke about her husband and what the fall meant to him, recalling his motto printed on the sacred card for his wake: “It’s nice to be important, but more important to be nice.” How a detective helped nail torso killer Richard Cottingham out of his grave


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