How a Detective Helped Nail the Torso Killer—From the Grave

·8 min read
Photo Illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Darlene Altman
Photo Illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Darlene Altman

On Thursday, the Nassau County Police Department sent the widow of Det. Pat Bellotti a link to a livestream of a press conference to announce that his very last case had culminated with a new murder charge against the so-called Torso Killer—two decades after her husband started working it.

“Luckily, everything he did came to a good ending,” Mary Bellotti told The Daily Beast.

Pat Bellotti had always been a physically imposing presence before a prolonged battle with terminal cancer consigned him to administrative duties with the homicide squad at the Long Island county in 2003. But he had remained famously warm-hearted— in his wife’s words “a giant cuddly bear”—and he was particularly moved by cases involving children.

That included his final investigation, which he undertook in 2003 after reading a letter to the homicide squad from a woman who was 3 years old when her mother was sexually assaulted and asphyxiated in her car at a shopping mall parking lot 35 years earlier.

This colder-than-cold case might have been forgotten if Bellotti had just set the letter aside. He instead called the now-grown daughter, Darlene Altman, and then went to see the commander of the homicide squad, Dennis Farrell.

“Pat comes into my office, he goes, ‘Hey boss, I was just on the phone with a really nice nice woman and she said her mother was the victim of a homicide in 1968 in Valley Stream,’” Farrell told The Daily Beast. “I think the sum and substance was that the woman had told him, ‘You know, I know there’s been so many advances in police technology, investigative tools. Is there any chance you could take another look at my mother’s case?’”

Farrell reminded Bellotti that the squad was short-staffed and already overwhelmed with current homicides.

“I said, ‘Pat, I’m almost up to my neck in alligators here investigating these other cases. I have nobody to assign to that,’” Farrell remembered. “And he goes, ‘Well, you know, I’m a detective. I can do this.”

Farrell would recall the protective impulse that comes when somebody you care about is in a tough battle with a serious illness. But Bellotti did indeed remain a detective in every important sense.

“I said, ‘OK, go do some research, come back, we’ll talk about it,’” Farrell remembered. “So he does.”

<div class="inline-image__credit">Photo Illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Darlene Altman</div>
Photo Illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Darlene Altman

Bellotti went to the case-file morgue to dig out the reports by the 100-plus detectives who had worked the case early on. The files revealed that 23-year-old Diane Cusick left home on Feb. 15, 1968, to buy shoes at the nearby Green Acres Mall. Her toddler daughter stayed home with her grandparents, who became worried when Cusick did not return and went in search of 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 her mouth. He pulled it away, but she had already taken her last breath.

Thirty-five years later, Bellotti invited Altman to come into the squad for an interview.

“He took me into a conference room,” Altman recalled. “He had all the original case files from my mother’s case… like six big cardboard boxes. He sat and spoke with me. He had said he read my letter and he was touched by it. He was so warm and so kind. And he really was understanding of what I had gone through.”

She spoke to The Daily Beast as she had to Bellotti.

“I was very bothered by the fact 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 killing.

“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 affected my whole life.

“And unfortunately, nobody in my family understood that. My mother’s memory was not kept alive. She wasn’t spoken about.”

“But I have to make it very clear, though, that my grandparents were wonderful, wonderful people. They did a wonderful job and everything they could in my interest. I was number one to them and nothing that they did was intentional and they didn’t realize how, what an impact it would have on me. I guess they felt it was better not to talk about her. So they chose to do it that way.”

“To be quite honest, I felt like I was kind of like a fill-in for my mother. I grew up in her bedroom. I went to the same schools as she did. I took dance lessons where she taught dance. So it was kind of like I picked up where she left off, so speak, and that’s how I felt anyway. But like I said, it wasn’t intentional. This was such a tragedy for them. I mean, my grandparents were the ones to find her in her car. So I completely understand their position in this.”

<div class="inline-image__credit">Photo Illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Darlene Altman</div>
Photo Illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Darlene Altman

She said that she had always been very interested in crime shows on television.

”The fictional and nonfiction,” she recalled. “DNA was progressing. Through the years I was like, ‘Maybe there’s hope. Maybe they can find who did this.’”

She noted that TV shows almost always ended with the bad guy getting justice.

“I always was like, ‘Oh, I wish this could happen for me; Maybe someday,’” she said.

Then she sent the letter to the homicide squad

“I don’t recall exactly what prompted me to write it,” she told The Daily Beast. “I guess 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 seeking to see it from her point of view, somebody who listened.

“Finally, I’m being heard,’” she later said of their first meeting. “Someone who understands how I’ve been feeling and what I’ve been living through all those years. I was explaining to him how this affected the whole course of my life. And he promised me he would work on the case. And he did and he kept in touch with me every step of the way to let me know where they were at, what they were doing.”

Bellotti located Cusick’s clothing and took her panties and slacks to the medical examiner’s office. Word came back of confirmed traces of semen.

“That was the good news,” Farrell recalled. “The bad news was that in 2003 you still needed a sizable sample to make any kind of definitive judgment.”

But Bellotti made sure the clothing was preserved.

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

In the following months, Bellotti continued to periodically check in with Altman.

In 2004, realizing that she had not heard from him in some time, she called the squad and was told that he had left the department.

The cancer proved able to beat even someone as strong as Bellotti. He died in 2005.

<div class="inline-image__credit">Photo Illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Darlene Altman</div>
Photo Illustrations by Luis G. Rendon/The Daily Beast/Courtesy of Darlene Altman

In June of last year, Nassau County Det. Daniel Finn took up the case. Current technology made it possible to match the traces of semen with a DNA profile in a federal database that belonged 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 variously known as the Times Square Killer because he murdered some of his victims there and and as the Torso Killer for dismembering some of them. He was convicted of or confessed to 11 killings, 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 are living in Florida. Local police showed up at her apartment and said the Nassau County cops needed to contact her. She at first feared something had happened to her other son, who lives in New York, so she called him to make sure he was OK and then called the number the police gave her. She spoke to Finn, who seemed just as kind and caring as Belotti had been.

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

Finn explained that the man they felt certain had killed her mother was being charged with the murder. “The day finally came after 54 years,” said Altman, who is now 58.

On Thursday, Cottingham was arraigned via video link from a New Jersey hospital bed to Nassau County Supreme Court. Altman was in the courtroom and later said she was glad she was spared from seeing Cottingham in person. She told The Daily Beast that the evil in the monster’s gaze 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 proceedings, Altman and Farrell spoke for a moment about Bellotti.

“He was such a nice man,” she said.

Altman then joined Nassau County District Attorney Anne Donnelly at the press conference. Mary Bellotti watched remotely with her two grown sons, one of whom is now a Port Authority Police Officer. She later spoke of her husband and what the case meant to him, recalling his motto, which was printed on the holy card for his wake: “It’s nice to be important, but more important to be nice.”

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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