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NEWARK, N.J. — A New Jersey serial killer known primarily for dismembering his victims pleaded guilty Tuesday to the 1974 rape and drowning of two teenage friends who had disappeared on their way to a Paramus mall. 

Richard Cottingham, 74, appeared virtually in court Tuesday to admit to the slayings of 17-year-old Mary Ann Pryor and 16-year-old Lorraine Marie Kelly.   Cottingham has claimed in the past he was responsible for up to 100 murders in New York and New Jersey.

“For 47 years, I was waiting for an answer,” Nancy Pryor, Mary Ann’s older sister, told PIX11. “I’m trying to process it. I wasn’t expecting it.”

Cottingham was sent to state prison in 1981 to serve a life sentence on five murders. In early 2020, he made admissions about three New Jersey teens he’d killed in the late 1960s.

In this image taken from a New Jersey Courts virtual hearing, Richard Cottingham, center, known as the “Torso Killer,” pleads guilty Tuesday, April 27, 2021, to two 1974 murders, finally closing the cold case deaths of teenage friends who had left home for a trip to the mall and never returned. (New Jersey Courts via AP)

Cottingham is known as the “Torso Killer” for brutally dismembering his victims by cutting off their limbs and heads. Mary Ann and Lorraine were found five days after they went missing — their nude, battered bodies discovered facedown in the woods of North Jersey.

Mary Ann and Lorraine left their North Bergen homes on Aug. 9, 1974, for a trip 13 miles north to a Paramus mall. They had planned to take a bus there to buy bathing suits for a trip to the Jersey Shore.

Witnesses said they saw the girls hitchhiking on Broad Avenue in Ridgefield.

Lorraine was reportedly found with a beaded bracelet and a necklace that read “Lorraine and Ricky,” a reference to her boyfriend. Mary Ann was discovered with a gold cross, a gift from her godfather.

They had cigarette burns on their thighs.

A medical examiner had told Nancy Pryor that her sister and Lorraine Kelly died by breathing each other’s aspirations, after they had been rolled together in some kind of carpet.  

“From everything I was told, I do believe they have the right person,” Pryor said.  

On Tuesday, Cottingham admitted he kidnapped Mary Ann and Lorraine, brought them to a motel room and tied them up and raped them. He said he killed them by drowning them in the motel room’s bathtub.

“He’s relieved that this cloud that’s been hanging over his head for many, many years is now removed,” said his defense attorney, John Bruno, adding that Cottingham hoped to give the families some closure.

Cottingham was arrested on another case in 1980, after a motel maid in Hasbrouck Heights heard a woman screaming in a room. Police found a petrified victim who had been tied up and took Cottingham into custody. 

The father of three, who lived in Lodi, was a computer technician for a prominent health insurance company.  Detectives said Cottingham’s killing spree likely began in 1967 and continued until 1980, with female victims on both sides of the New Jersey/New York border.

Investigators said he often drugged, raped and mutilated his victims, whom he sometimes met at clubs and bars.

Cottingham was convicted of two New Jersey murders and three in New York. He’s been housed in Trenton’s New Jersey State Prison since 1981, serving a 200-plus year sentence.

The chief of investigations for the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, Robert Anzilotti, has secured confessions from Cottingham between 2004 and 2019.   A source said he is retiring from the office later this week and closing the Pryor/Kelly case after all this time meant a lot to him.

One of the people who helped facilitate Cottingham’s current guilty plea is Jennifer Weiss, who learned as a young adult that her biological mother, Deedeh Goodarzi, was beheaded and burned by Cottingham in 1979, inside a Times Square hotel.  Weiss wrote to Cottingham about a decade ago and began an unlikely friendship with him, last seeing him in December 2020 during an outdoor prison visit.

Jennifer Weiss, daughter of 1979 victim, befriended Richard Cottingham and got him to confess. (Courtesy Jennifer Weiss)

She has said her mission is to secure confessions from Cottingham, so she can help other victims’ families.

Weiss introduced Cottingham to the true crime historian, Dr. Peter Vronsky, who told PIX11 he’s spent between 120 and 150 hours talking with the prisoner.  Vronsky, who is based in Ontario, Canada, has written a number of books, including “American Serial Killers: The Epidemic Years 1950 to 2000.”

Vronsky said he unwittingly bumped into Cottingham, then in his early 30s, as he fled one killing in Times Square.

Jennifer Weiss with true crime historian, Dr. Peter Vronsky (Courtesy Jennifer Weiss)

The burning corpse of Jennifer Weiss’ mother and another woman were found at a Times Square hotel on Dec 2, 1979. The killer had beheaded Weiss’ mom and cut her hands off.  

In other cases, Cottingham had hacked the victims’ breasts off.

In late 2019, shortly before the pandemic locked down the New Jersey/New York area, Cottingham confessed to Chief Anzilotti that he had killed three teenagers between 1968 and 1969.  The information was made public in January 2020.

One of the victims, Jaclyn Harp of Midland Park, who was only 13, was abducted as she walked home from band practice. The cause of death was strangulation.

The other victims he admitted killing were Irene Blase, 18, of Bogota and 15-year-old Denise Falasca.