ROCKLAND COUNTY (PIX11) — Sonia Ruiz-McGraw traveled 35 miles from Queens to South Nyack to show us the spot where her grandmother was left dead in the woods on March 1, 1970.
On that day, hikers found Lorraine Montalvo McGraw, a mother of two in her mid-20s.
“I wanted the truth to be told about my grandmother because I wanted to bring honor to her memory,” Ruiz-McGraw told PIX11 News. “I’m not happy with the fact that she was just known as a sex worker or a drug addict or an alcoholic. She was a struggling woman who grew up in a poverty-stricken environment.”
In the last couple of years, Ruiz-McGraw learned that convicted serial killer Richard Cottingham was a suspect in her grandmother’s murder. So she decided to write to him.
“He didn’t say the words, ‘I killed your grandmother.'” Ruiz-McGraw told PIX11 News. “He did say to me that he knew what happened to her.”
Lorraine Montalvo McGraw’s daughter–Sonia’s mother–was just 9 years old when her mom was killed and has never been the same.
“She absolutely just doesn’t know how to deal with it until this day,” Ruiz-McGraw said. “I know the toll that it took on my mother’s mental and emotional stability.”
Ruiz-McGraw said she was researching her grandmother’s death a couple of years ago when she heard from police in Rockland County about the cold case. She actually went with them to the crime scene.
“Her body was found here,” Ruiz-McGraw said to PIX11 News, pointing out a location near a skinny tree Wednesday. “She had no clothes.”
Ruiz-McGraw visited the site off Tweed Boulevard in South Nyack with Dr. Peter Vronsky, a forensic historian from Canada who has written four books about serial killers. Vronsky has helped Ruiz-McGraw with her grandmother’s case. He has also worked extensively with Jennifer Weiss, whose biological mother–Deedeh Goodarzi–was mutilated and burned to death by Cottingham in 1979 at the Travel Inn on West 42nd Street in Manhattan.
While Weiss’ mother was beheaded, many Cottingham victims were found intact in public locations outside.
“He always left the bodies out in the open,” Vronsky told PIX11 News. “Some of his victims were still warm.”
Jennifer Weiss was the first family member of a victim to deal extensively with Cottingham and to meet him personally inside prison.
She said the adoption agency that told her the truth about her biological mother stunned her with the details.
“We’re really sorry, but your mother was killed by a serial killer, and she was a sex worker,” Weiss recalled an agency rep telling her.
Weiss said she sat on the information for ten years before acting on it.
“I survived cancer in 2016,” Weiss told PIX11 News, “and I wanted to kill the fear in me that I had of Richard Cottingham.”
Weiss wrote handwritten notes to the convicted killer, who was in a New Jersey state prison for three murders in the Garden State, also serving time for the murder of Weiss’ mother and another woman.
“I make him feel comfortable so he can confess to me and tell me things he’s told nobody else,” Weiss said.
Weiss worked with Vronsky and Bergen County investigators to convince Cottingham to plead guilty to a double homicide from 1974, the drowning murders of teen friends Mary Ann Pryor and Lorraine Kelly. Weiss wants Cottingham to keep talking, because he’s in very bad physical health.
“I’ve been trying to convince him to do it,” Weiss said.
Vronsky believes Cottingham may have killed up to one hundred women during a 13-year period from the late 1960s to 1980, when he was caught.
“You talk 100 victims? That’s one victim every six weeks,” Vronsky observed.
Sonia Ruiz-McGraw was recently upset to learn that Cottingham confessed to some Rockland County investigators that he’d killed her grandmother, without her being present.
“I was hurt,” Ruiz-McGraw said, struggling to contain her emotions, “because I had also developed a relationship with the police.”
The Rockland County District Attorney’s Office had posted a Facebook notice about the 1970 cold case weeks ago, without naming the victim. The Montalvo McGraw case was essentially closed in an “exceptional clearance,” meaning Cottingham won’t have to plead guilty in court.