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In the heart of gritty, 1970s Times Square, a sadistic serial killer terrorized the neighborhood — but why don’t more people know about the crime? The newly released Netflix documentary Crime Scene: The Times Square Killer takes a deep dive into one of Midtown’s most prolific eras of violence, and the disturbing phenomenon surrounding the lack of public recognition of a man who managed to get away with brutally torturing and murdering dozens of women.
Featuring perspectives from historians, activists, detectives, and real-time witnesses to the dark side of W42nd Street, Crime Scene splits its focus between the whodunit facts of the case and the cultural wave that allowed a killer to flourish. One such witness to this challenging period of Midtown’s history is Romola Hodas — daughter of Marty Hodas, the “Porno King” of Times Square — and author of the memoir The Princess of 42nd Street: Surviving My Childhood as the Daughter of Times Square’s King of Porn. Hodas vividly recalls the fearful energy of the era, compounded by her own experiences of being unwillingly linked to her father’s business.
“Taking the subway from Penn Station to 42nd, and walking by Port Authority, you were taking your life in your hands a bit,” Romola recalls. On one such walk, Hodas was approached by a group of men in a limousine who greeted her by name and offered her a Chatty Cathy doll, telling her, “Your mother said to come and get you.” Hodas narrowly managed to escape, telling the men: “I’m 14 and don’t play with baby dolls.”
Years later, another man would attempt to kidnap her while at summer camp, leaving Hodas acutely aware of the impact of her father’s associations. She never told her parents, however, as they had already experienced the kidnapping of her brother (eventually returned to the family with a note pinned to him, reading: “Hi Marty, just saying hello”).
Romola’s close association with the underbelly of 1970s Times Square echoed the experiences of many others living and working in the neighborhood. But what drew people to an area so notorious for assault that the police (rather shockingly) distributed pamphlets welcoming tourists to “Fear City”? “People also found it very exciting — dangerous and exciting at the same time,” says Hodas.
Many of the documentary’s interviewees would agree. Dr. Melinda Chateauvert, activist and author of the book Sex Workers Unite asserts, “There was the illusion that anything goes — because that would bring people in.” The city, still suffering from the deep economic crisis of high unemployment rates, a citywide blackout, and the flight of wealthy white residents to nearby suburbs, was struggling to bring in revenue. The lack of infrastructure and city services, including sanitation strikes that led to a garbage-laden Times Square, limited fiscal support for struggling New Yorkers, and an ever-widening income gap among residents, led to an every-man-for-himself free market where previously illegal sex trade businesses flourished and the city’s administration — perhaps out of a lack of viable solutions to target them — largely turned away.
Some capitalized on the moment and were able to provide well for themselves and their families. But the rise of their success came at a cost — largely for the women recruited into the industry.
Romola Hodas recognized the appeal for women involved in her father’s live sex shows, noting that many saw the quick profits as a way to dig themselves out of debt or provide for their families. But in addition to those working for Marty Hodas’s shows and clearing $500-$700 a day, there were many more women working outside of his empire on the street — often after being trafficked against their will.
Barbara Amaya, sex-trafficking survivor and author of Nobody’s Girl: A Memoir of Lost Innocence, Modern Day Slavery, & Transformation, recalls being around 12 when a trafficker brought her to New York, tattooing a cross on her and his other captives’ hands as a sign of his ownership. Amaya and countless others lived at the mercy of their traffickers.
It was within this perfect storm of self-seeking profiteering and rampant misogyny that the Times Square Killer flourished. Richard Cottingham, an otherwise unassuming computer operator at Blue Cross Blue Shield who worked in the city and lived in New Jersey with his wife and children, could have been one of any cheating husbands seeking sex on the streets of Times Square. But Cottingham — absorbed by the psychological rush of taking power over women — managed to operate unnoticed as he systematically picked up, tortured, assaulted, and dismembered sex workers.
On December 2, 1979, Cottingham picked up two sex workers and took them to the Travel Inn (a currently closed hotel on W42nd St west of 10th Ave), assaulting and torturing before brutally murdering them and setting the hotel room on fire. Detectives were dismayed to discover that the victims had been decapitated and their hands had been removed, leaving them nearly impossible to identify.
After authorities displayed the victims’ clothing on mannequins in an attempt to spark public recognition, one of Cottingham’s victims was finally identified by a friend who recognized her outfit. Deedeh Goodarzi — a 22-year-old born in Iran who immigrated to the US with her family as a young child — had been working in the area as a sex worker for several years to make ends meet. The other victim, a teenager, remains unidentified to this day.
Jennifer Weiss, Goodarzi’s biological daughter, only came to know of her mother’s fate after contacting the orphanage from which she was adopted. Weiss reflects — “I think Richard Cottingham was going to kill anywhere, but Times Square in the 70s did not help. For someone like Richard who was a sexual sadist to walk through and see peep shows…the opportunity was there.” The opportunity would indeed remain open for Cottingham — who would shortly go on to torture and murder another young sex worker, Jean Ann Reyner, at Midtown’s Seville Hotel.
While police struggled to link the murders to a suspect, many people interviewed in the documentary were unsurprised at the lack of movement in solving the cases. In addition to the prolific nature of serial killers during Cottingham’s reign of terror (investigative historian Dr Peter Vronsky estimates that 82% of American serial killers in the 20th century were active between 1970-2000), there was a distinct lack of concern for marginalized victims — specifically, sex workers.
“There were predators, people who came specifically to prey on sex workers,” said former Times Square sex worker Veronica Vera. And little was done to prevent assault or care for those being preyed upon. Former sex worker Michael Lawrence, who frequently performed live shows with his wife Brandi, recalled how frequently she alone would bear the brunt of any violence or harassment. “The girls faced a lot of violence because the cops weren’t stopping anything [….] Either you were a victim, or you were a predator.”
Sex workers knew that contacting the police was of significant personal risk — more often than not, police arrested the women who came forward after being assaulted. In addition to a lack of accountability for assault victims, the stamp of having been arrested for sex work created a barrier to leaving the industry — applying for credit, apartments, jobs, and social services was infinitely harder after being arrested on sex work charges. There were even fewer protections and more stigma for queer, trans, and sex workers of color.
This stigma had a direct impact on the investigation of the Times Square Killer case itself. Unbeknownst to investigators in New York, Cottingham had been regularly kidnapping, assaulting, torturing, and murdering women in the state of New Jersey for years. Of the few who survived, some of his victims were sex workers and others weren’t, but all shared the commonality of a reticence to speak to the police.
As Dr. Chateauvert notes, “New York law was particularly onerous — even if the woman could identify the rapist, if you couldn’t get someone to testify having witnessed the rape,” as cases fell flat and women were subjected to intense personal scrutiny. In the case of sex workers who were assaulted, “The policing could be cruel, harsh, and out of step. You wouldn’t tell the police if you’d been assaulted by a john — It’s easier to arrest women than to hunt a serial killer, than to stop muggings, than to do all these other kinds of things — and so people in the sex industry become the victims of police-public relations, to make it look like the cops were being tough on crime.”
Barbara Amaya, trafficked for over 13 years, attests to this. “The johns, the clients, the tricks — were never rounded up.” Even when Amaya had a chilling encounter with Cottingham himself — he took her at gunpoint to the edge of the East River by the Brooklyn Bridge, robbed and assaulted her, and (much to her surprise) let her go — she was reluctant to report it, fearing the repercussions of interaction with authorities. When police eventually approached her with questions about Cottingham, she was afraid to speak up. “If I died, nobody would have ever known who I was.”
Romola Hodas wasn’t aware of the Times Square Killer during his active years, learning of his crimes by way of the documentary. When asked if she thought the marginalized status of Cottingham’s victims had an impact on the lack of coverage, she assented, noting that “A lot of the policemen were getting paid off. They were arresting the prostitutes instead of the pimps and the johns, and they should have looked in a different direction.”
Cottingham continued his spree of terror. On May 22, 1980, he picked up 19-year-old sex worker Leslie Ann O’Dell, a trafficking victim longing to escape her captor. Cottingham promised O’Dell a ride to the nearest bus station but instead drove her to the Quality Inn in Hasbrouck Heights, NJ (where he had committed several previous murders). He went on to torture and assault her at knifepoint.
O’Dell’s screams alerted the hotel staff (on high alert after the unsolved murders of the past several years) who rushed to check on the room. Cottingham instructed O’Dell to tell the staff she was fine, but O’Dell managed to signal her distress, alerting the staff to call the police. Authorities apprehended Cottingham, (found armed with a significant inventory of sedatives, knives, handcuffs, and tape) who claimed that the acts were consensual. He was arrested and held, as the New Jersey press began to cover dribs and drabs of information about the suspect in the Quality Inn murders.
New York investigators eventually got wind of the developing story in New Jersey, contacting Bergen County authorities with the mirrored details of their unsolved Times Square cases. The ensuing calls to the public for information on Cottingham (along with a burgeoning feminist movement dedicated to speaking out against sexual assault) led to several of Cottingham’s surviving victims — Karen Schilt, Susan Geiger, and Pamela Weisenfeld — coming forward to identify him in a lineup.
Cottingham was quickly found guilty for the murders of Deedeh Goodarzi, Jane Doe, Jean Reyner, Valerie Street, and Maryann Carr — aided in no small part by the first-hand descriptions of his attack patterns by his surviving victims, the large collection of stolen “trophy” items stored in his basement, and the testimony of one coworker, Dominick Volpe. Volpe, who had frequently been subjected to Cottingham’s boasts regarding his conquests had held onto a detailed diagram of the Quality Inn and its many exits drawn by Cottingham. Volpe turned the diagram into police and detailed the many times that Cottingham left work early — refuting protestations by Cottingham that he was at work during the time of the murders.
The legacy of Cottingham’s crimes has extended to the present day — in the nearly 40 years since his conviction, he has confessed to several additional murders, including the previously unsolved disappearances of New Jersey residents Nancy Vogel, Lorraine Marie Kelly, Mary Ann Pryor, Jacalyn Harp, Irene Blase, and Denise Falasca. Cottingham, still alive and serving an over 200-year life sentence at South Woods State Prison, claims to have murdered somewhere between 85 and 100 people over the course of his active years. In a determined quest for closure, Jennifer Weiss, the daughter of victim Deedeh Goodarzi, maintains a relationship with Cottingham to this day — visiting him in prison in hopes of gathering additional confessions. Weiss says of her mission to identify Cottingham’s unknown victims, “I think we need to remember them, because they deserve justice.”
While the sex work industry of Times Square has changed significantly, the discourse over legalization in favor of creating a safer environment for workers continues. Says Dr. Chateauvert, “Transactional sex is part of the way that society has developed for millennia. For some sex workers, it’s how people survive and how people thrive. Sex workers call for decriminalization as a first step for recreating regulations on their own terms, creating conditions for safety, paving the way eventually for the stigma of being a sex worker to erode.” One can’t help but wonder how many lives could have been saved had many of Cottingham’s victims experienced agency, protections, and a choice of whether to work in the industry at all.
Romola Hodas wonders if the area would or could have been different, had her father taken a different approach — “My father had a lot to do with why so much danger came in — that energy…If my dad had a different personality, and he was like Hugh Hefner, and made 42nd Street look pretty, it would have been different.”
Despite her history with the neighborhood, Hodas maintains a strong connection to this day — she’s lived in Hell’s Kitchen twice, residing at both W50th Street and 9th Avenue as well as her old stomping ground, W42nd St and 9th Ave — “I loved Hell’s Kitchen, because they don’t let them build more than 4 stories,” says Hodas. And does the now Boynton Beach-based speaker ever visit Hell’s Kitchen now? “Always,” she responds. “Nothing keeps New York down.”