BERGEN COUNTY, N.J. — In a candid interview, the Bergen County chief who spent 20 years trying to wrangle new confessions out of serial killer Richard Cottingham revealed the 74-year-old prisoner has “regrets” about the teenage friends from North Bergen he kidnapped, tortured and murdered in August of 1974: Mary Ann Pryor and Lorraine Marie Kelly.
“In his own words, this case kind of haunts him,” said Robert Anzilotti, chief of detectives at the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, who is retiring this week. “He’s a little embarrassed by this case, because of things that he did.”
Cottingham admitted publicly on Tuesday that he tied up the teens and held them captive for three days in a hotel that wasn’t far from the Lincoln Tunnel, sexually assaulting and beating them, before drowning them.
“What drove him to torture them was his sexual gratification of raping these girls and the power that he had over them,” Anzilotti said. “In terms of what made him, on day three, kill them: It’s because, I believe, they had spent so much time with him that they could identify him.”
“In his mind, he drowned them,” Chief Anzilotti said, even though the medical examiner’s report said the teens died by asphyxiation. “In essence, he filled a bathtub up with water. He had them kind of hogtied behind their backs. One at a time. Then he put them face down into the tub. He was suffocating them against the bottom of the bathtub.”
Anzilotti told PIX11 News he finally secured a confession from Cottingham about the Pryor/Kelly murders on April 14, and he convinced the killer–who’s been in prison since 1981–to formally plead guilty before a judge.
“Over the years, he would throw out little tidbits that made me think he was responsible for it,” Anzilotti said, noting that “we vetted out a lot of different suspects.”
Cottingham gave specific details about how he picked up the girls in Ridgefield, where they were hitchhiking a ride to the Garden State Mall in Paramus on Aug. 9, 1974. The teens wanted to buy bathing suits for a trip to the Jersey Shore.
“He spotted them hitchhiking,” Anzilotti said. “He was actually going the opposite direction, spun around, and offered them a ride.”
“He actually proceeded with them to the mall,” Anzilotti added. “And it was really at the mall that he decided that he wasn’t going to let them out of the car, he was going to kidnap them, take them to a local motel and rape them.”
The chief said Cottingham used physical force on Kelly to coerce Pryor to also go into the hotel, which was near a New Jersey Turnpike extension that came out of the Lincoln Tunnel.
“It was a hotel he had used to commit other crimes,” Anzilotti said, noting that Cottingham, a married father of three from Lodi, raped many women that he didn’t end up killing.
“What really drove his decision on which victims lived or died was just his fear of getting caught,” the chief observed. “If he felt a victim he was raping would in any way go to the police or knew any identifying information about him, he’d make the decision to kill that victim.”
Chief Anzilotti said Cottingham drove to Montvale three nights after kidnapping Pryor and Kelly, depositing their nude bodies in the woods behind a garden apartment complex. Their bodies were discovered on Aug. 14, 1974.
The chief said Cottingham told him “a number of things that only the killer would know and pointed out.”
On Tuesday, after Cottingham pleaded guilty in Bergen County Superior Court, Mary Ann Pryor’s sister, Nancy, told PIX11 News, “From everything I was told, I do believe they have the right person.”
She added she was stunned when she learned the serial killer was behind her sister’s brutal murder.
“I’m trying to process it,” she said.
Chief Anzilotti has extracted six murder confessions from Cottingham since 2004, including three that were made public in early 2020. The three victims he spoke about then were killed between 1968 and 1969. They were all teens, including a 13-year-old girl from Midland Park who was kidnapped on her way home from band practice.
Anzilotti said Cottingham developed an affinity for him and knew how much the chief wanted to solve the Kelly/Pryor murders. He said Cottingham made the decision to talk in the last month, when he learned the chief was retiring.
“He literally said to me, he wanted to confess, ‘I want to do this for you,'” Anzilotti recalled.
But Anzilotti noted that getting admissions from Cottingham were never easy.
“Let’s just say he made me work for every confession,” the chief said.
Chief Anzilotti has been in contact with true crime historian, Dr. Peter Vronsky, and Jennifer Weiss, the daughter of a Cottingham victim who was beheaded in 1979 inside a Times Square motel. Vronsky and Weiss have encouraged the killer to come clean about his crimes.
“He is developing what we might call cognitive remorse,” Vronsky said. “I’m not sure that he feels anything.”
“He’s made a statement he’s killed between 80 and 100 victims,” Vronsky said.
Vronsky, author of “American Serial Killers: The Epidemic Years 1950 to 2000,” has also developed a theory about what drove Cottingham to kill.
“I did discover he had a severe head injury when he was 4 years old, to his frontal lobe,” Vronsky said, “like NFL players or boxers’ head injuries that affect their behavior.”
“He has all the symptoms of a psychopath,” Vronsky added, “but they’re not organic.”
Vronsky said Cottingham had a stable childhood and “there’s no record of abuse.”
Chief Anzilotti, meantime, told PIX11 News “My heart has always had a real soft spot for the victims, the surviving victims.”
And while the chief is pleased he can retire after solving a cold case that meant a lot to him, he said there are other events in his life he needs to acknowledge.
“The bigger news for the Anzilotti household is my son was just accepted to West Point,” Anzilotti reported with pride about his youngest child, Robert III.