After 'Torso Killer' confession, NJ loved ones tell how 1960s murders changed their lives
Jacalyn Harp's mother called the police around midnight. Her teenage daughter still wasn't home, even though her practice for the Imperial Knights Drum and Bugle Corps had ended three hours earlier. Harp's body was found the next morning in a wooded ravine off Morrow Road, about a half-mile from her Midland Park home. The petite 13-year-old with a page-boy haircut had been strangled with her leather flag holder.
Nine months after Harp's July 1968 murder, Irene Blase, who was living with her mother in Bogota, was abducted from the Hackensack Bus Terminal. The 18-year-old's body was found floating in the Saddle River in Saddle Brook. She had been strangled.
Just a few months later, the body of 15-year-old Denise Falasca was found in Saddle Brook. The chain of the crucifix she wore around her neck had been used to strangle Falasca.
The killings of the teens reverberated in Bergen County, which at that time was rapidly transforming from farmlands to suburbs. In small towns like Midland Park, people began locking their doors, and parents warned children not to go out after dark.
Many family members and close friends of the victims left Bergen County soon after their slayings. But the anguish remained. And so did the mystery of who had killed the teens.
Then, in January of this year, the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office made an announcement: The notorious serial killer Richard Cottingham, known as "the Torso Killer," had confessed to the slayings.
And he may have killed more.
Cloud of suspicion
In Midland Park the mystery had festered, to the point where 50 years after Jacalyn Harp's murder, suspicion still surrounded some local boys, now men in their 60s and 70s. Rumors spread across social media involving neighbors and longtime residents.
“I remember the theories,” longtime resident John Bandstra said. “Every town has those boys who are in trouble with the cops. The guy who acts a little weird. There was a lot of finger-pointing.”
A community meeting in Midland Park in December 2019, organized by friends who for years carried questions of what happened the night Harp was killed, made public what some had already heard rumored: a serial killer had confessed to the murder in 2017.
Days after the meeting, officials with the Bergen County Prosecutor's Office confirmed that Cottingham had confessed to killing all three teens.
Cottingham, 73, confessed to the murders over the past several years in interviews with Prosecutor’s Office detectives. Officials shared the information with the victims’ immediate families — the few still living — but chose not to make it public at the time.
Elizabeth Rebein, a spokesperson for the Prosecutor’s Office, declined to comment further on the confessions. There are other open cases possibly connected to Cottingham that detectives are still working to solve, she said earlier this year.
“We issued a statement after certain information had been relayed to the public. We confirmed what we could, but we didn’t seek that out,” she said. “It’s really considered an ongoing investigation. There are still victims that haven’t been cleared.”
For some of the victims’ loved ones, the revelation of Cottingham’s confessions brought a sense of closure. Others say that nothing will heal the wounds from a half-century ago.
The Midland Park meeting in December 2019 that prompted the public disclosure was initially planned as an intimate dinner, but grew as word spread through the small town.
Bandstra, a 66-year-old plumbing and heating contractor who had lived around the corner from the Harp family, rented a church hall to accommodate the 50-person crowd. He invited Peter Vronsky, a Canadian author who has written several books about serial killers and had been meeting with Cottingham regularly over the past two years, to share what he knew.
At the meeting, Vronsky told the group of Cottingham's confession.
Cottingham, an inmate in New Jersey State Prison in Trenton who is serving multiple life sentences, was convicted in the early 1980s for the murders of five women. In 2010, he also confessed to the 1967 murder of Nancy Vogel, a Little Ferry woman who was found strangled in her car.
In the days after Harp's body was found in 1968, police interviewed more than 150 people who knew her or lived or worked near the crime scene. Dozens of teenage boys were questioned by police; some were given lie detector tests, Bandstra said.
After family members were told of the confessions, the news began to circulate in the victims' hometowns, reigniting a rumor mill from decades earlier. Some in Midland Park who got wind of the confession had a hard time believing the killer was an out-of-towner.
“People get carried away on Facebook,” Bandstra said. “There were accusations being made, that police knew who it was but they couldn't prove it. Or ‘I always thought it was so-and-so because he’s crazy.’ ”
Vronsky said he had heard of the confessions while working on his latest book and confirmed with the Prosecutor’s Office that those cases were in fact closed. He decided to share the information after considering the effect Harp’s killing had on the tight-knit community.
“The murder affected that community in a very deep way,” he said. “I just didn’t want people to suffer anymore, particularly those boys who were suspected and some almost ostracized by the community”
Close family members knew about the confessions, but many other people who were profoundly affected by the killings did not, Vronsky said.
“These people are reaching an age where they’re much more fragile. Some are passing away,” he said “People were carrying that trauma to this day. They carried this almost all their lives, and they needed to know.”
'It kind of changed everybody'
For Cyndie Neil, everything changed that summer night when she was 14. She lost her close friend, her trust in the world, her innocence, she said. She had walked with Harp to practice the day she was killed.
Neil, who is now 66 and lives in Idaho, left town in 1975 for California.
“As soon as I was old enough to get the hell out of there I was gone,” she said. “It kind of changed everybody. Your childhood was gone.”
She remembers being questioned at the police station every day for two weeks after the murder. But she has no memory of her friend’s funeral.
“I’ve been told I went to her wake. I don’t remember being there,” she said. “But I’ve hated pink ever since, and apparently she was buried in a hot-pink dress. I’m grateful my mind blocked that out for me.”
For more than 50 years, she would call the Prosecutor’s Office on the anniversary of her friend’s death to check on whether they had any new information. When she first learned of Cottingham’s confession, Neil said, she had a hard time accepting it, but now she is grateful finally to know who was responsible.
“At first I didn’t want to believe it, and then I thought: Now I have someone to blame for everything,” she said. “But I don't want to hang on to that hate. I’m glad that he finally admitted to it. I’m at peace with it. I needed to forgive him so that I could move on.
"That was a lot of crap to carry for 50-something years,” she said.
'There is no closure'
Ursela Lewerenz, Irene Blase's older sister, was living in Paterson with her husband and her four children, the youngest a newborn, when Blase was killed.
Lewerenz, who was 25 at the time, spent most of her life wondering what happened to her little sister on the night of April 7, 1969.
Now 75 and living in Florida, she said that after waiting 50 years for an arrest, the announcement of the confession brought her little comfort.
“There is no closure. After 50 years, what closure can there be?” Lewerenz said. “All those years wondering why, who did it. It takes its toll emotionally.”
Lewerenz said she was told by detectives about four years ago that their conversations with Cottingham had raised “red flags” that he was the one responsible for her sister’s death. She wrote the serial killer a letter hoping to learn definitively what happened to her sister. She never heard back.
In news reports after her death, Blase was described by police and school officials as a troubled high school dropout who hung out with the wrong crowd. But Lewerenz said her sister had started attending classes at a technical school and was studying for the high school equivalency exam.
“She wanted to improve her life,” she said. “Her and my mother used to fight a lot. She would take off and not call my mother for days. I was going to ask her to move in with me. She loved the kids.”
Lewerenz remembers hearing her mother’s screams as she walked into the police station to identify her sister’s body.
Police initially questioned the people closest to Blase, including an ex-boyfriend and Lewerenz's husband. They interviewed dozens of members of the CC Riders and Society’s Children — two local motorcycle clubs Blase spent time with — but they never seemed to have concrete leads, Lewerenz said.
Years after she lost her sister, her husband would wake her up as she cried in her sleep.
"I would think about her in my dreams. I was looking for her," Lewerenz said.
'A sweet, kind, loving friend'
Many people remember July 20, 1969, as the date a man first walked on the moon. For Anita Lish, it was the day she buried her friend Denise Falasca.
The five Falasca sisters' house in Closter was like a second home to Lish, who was 17. She first became friends with Denise’s older sister Dianne, but Denise quickly won her over with her loving personality.
“We all hung out together. If she was getting her hair done in Closter and saw me walking to my job at the A&P, she would run out with all this stuff in her hair and jump on me,” she remembered. “We were all just wonderful friends.”
The night of July 14, Denise Falasca had left the house to meet a friend in Westwood. When she didn’t return home by midnight, her father called the police.
Lish remembers calling their house the next day to ask if she could come over.
“I spoke to Dianne, and she said: ‘Denise didn’t come home last night, and we’re all kind of freaked out over here — it’s not a good time,’ ” she said.
Denise's friends formed groups to look for her, fanning out across Bergen County and Greenwich Village.
“Someone had the bright idea of buying LSD. It was the '60s," Lish said. "I only took a little bit and we were up all night looking. We didn’t find her, obviously."
The next morning a call came that a boy riding his bicycle in Saddle Brook had found Denise’s partially clothed body outside St. Mary’s Cemetery.
“All of us close-knit friends had to go to the police station high. They questioned everybody,” Lish said. “It was just the most devastating thing. Out of all people, Denise was such a sweet, kind, loving friend.”
After the murder, the other sisters began attending school in Bergenfield and the family eventually left Closter altogether. Lish moved to California at 19.
“I don’t know, I guess I just didn’t want to be there anymore,” she said. “What a loss for that family. They were never the same.”
Falasca's killing became a cautionary tale for local families, said Anthony Scalia, a filmmaker who is producing a podcast about the events. People began locking their doors. Girls were told not to go out at night, not to behave like the Falasca sisters.
In 2006, Lish reconnected with Karen Miller, Denise’s younger sister, who was 13 at the time of the murder.
She had since moved to Colorado and had gone into law enforcement, motivated in part by the desire to solve the mystery of her sister's death.
As she saw forensics and technology become more advanced, Miller gained some hope that the killer would one day be found. She called and emailed the Prosecutor’s Office regularly, looking for updates. She learned of Cottingham’s confession just a few months before she died of cancer in May 2019.
Miller had her own theories of who was responsible, said Scalia, who spoke with her almost daily over the last two years of her life.
At first, Miller had difficulty accepting the confession, Scalia said. But toward the end, he believes it did bring her peace.
“It was a hard pill to swallow. She was passionate. It’s hard going from 100 miles an hour to zero,” he said. “Her parents had passed away; all of her sisters had passed away except for one. She was trying to get closure for all of them. I think she did eventually get the peace she needed.”
Cottingham doesn’t fit the typical profile of a serial killer, Vronsky said. Born in the Bronx, he grew up with his parents and three sisters in River Vale and ran track at Pascack Valley High School. He married and had three children, living first in Little Ferry, then Lodi. In the late 1960s, he worked as a computer operator for Blue Cross/Blue Shield in Manhattan.
“He had none of the juvenile history that most serial killers have,” Vronsky said. “He wasn’t driven by fantasy, like many serial killers. These were impulse-driven crimes, which makes it harder to find the links between them.”
In Harp’s case, Vronsky said, Cottingham spotted her walking while he was having a root beer at a roadside stand.
Cottingham was arrested in 1980 on charges of attempted murder and rape after a maid in a Hasbrouck Heights motel heard screams coming from a guest room. Inside, police found an 18-year-old woman with handcuffs around her ankles and bite marks and knife wounds on her body.
Police quickly made a connection between that crime and others. A woman’s body had been discovered under a bed at the same motel earlier that month. And three years before, the body of Maryann Carr, a Little Ferry woman, had been found in the back of the motel.
New York detectives then connected Cottingham with the killings of three sex workers, two of whom he had dismembered.
Cottingham’s later crimes differ from the murders he confessed to committing in his 20s, said Rod Leith, a former reporter for The Record who has written several books about Cottingham.
“These are much younger victims that he apparently attacked and killed in the 1960s,” he said. “Later in life he attacked prostitutes and nurses.”
Blase, Falasca and Harp were three victims in a string of homicides of young Bergen County women from 1965 to 1970. The killings of Janet Adams, 19, of Paramus; Donna Albright, 13, of Hasbrouck Heights; Alys Eberhardt, 18, of Fair Lawn; and Mary Ann Della Sala, 17, of Hackensack remain unsolved.
Cottingham, sentenced to 179 years in New Jersey and 75 to life in New York, will die in prison. Confessing to the slayings of Blase, Falasca and Harp will not alter his sentence.
Last year, the Prosecutor’s Office created a task force that officials hope will help detectives solve Bergen County’s roughly 100 or so cold cases. For loved ones, the waiting can be excruciating, but getting answers is also difficult. Learning the truth can reopen old wounds and serve as a painful reminder that they may never have true closure.
“I don't forgive him, but I'm not as mad anymore," Lewerenz said. "I'm glad he's locked away and can't hurt anyone else. But there’s no closure. Not for me anyway."