A Recorded Confession Can Rival the Power of DNA Evidence
In the past decade, forensic DNA technology has made significant advances, including tools like the M-Vac® that extract evidence from previously inaccessible sources, and genetic genealogy, which helps identify killers by constructing family trees. These advancements have greatly assisted in solving cold cases.
While these technologies are undoubtedly powerful crime-solving tools, traditional techniques such as recorded criminal interrogations still hold the potential to close even the coldest of cases. One individual utilizing the power of his interview skills to connect known killers to cold cases is former detective Robert Anzilotti.
A Serial Killer Connection:
In March 2022, Anzilotti, the retired Chief of Detectives for the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, obtained a confession in a cold case from 1967. Mary Ann Della Sala, a 17-year-old who went missing after her shift at a grocery store in Hackensack, New Jersey, was found dead three days later in the Passaic River. Despite remaining unsolved for over 50 years, it was not DNA evidence that led Anzilotti to the killer; rather, it was nearly two decades of relationship-building and persistent effort that ultimately prompted serial murderer Richard Cottingham to confess.
A History of Violence:
In 2004, Anzilotti was assigned a series of unsolved homicides primarily targeting women in Bergen County, which eventually led him to Cottingham, who was already incarcerated. Known as The Torso Killer, Cottingham had been arrested in 1980 and sentenced to five life sentences for numerous crimes, including murder, committed in New York and New Jersey. Anzilotti spent the following six years gaining Cottingham’s trust, eventually obtaining a confession for the 1967 murder of 29-year-old Nancy Vogel. Over the years, five more confessions would follow, and Anzilotti would continue this important work even after his retirement in 2021.
When Cottingham finally confessed to the murder of Della Sala, she became the seventh cold-case victim Anzilotti was able to link to the killer, marking one of the oldest cold cases ever solved. Anzilotti stated in an interview with the New York Post in March 2023, “[Cottingham] was a very tough nut to crack and remains so today. […] He likes to play games—and gaining his trust was most definitely the biggest priority over the years.” As part of building that trust, Anzilotti asked the families of the victims to refrain from speaking publicly about the confessions for years while he persisted in his efforts to elicit further information from Cottingham. This sacrifice played a crucial role in bringing resolution to other grieving families.
What DNA Can’t Provide: While DNA technology often receives praise for solving cold cases, Anzilotti’s success in eliciting confessions in decades-old murders demonstrates that new evidence can sometimes be discovered through interrogation. Unlike DNA, a confession can offer something invaluable: insight into the “why” behind the “who.” Motive strengthens court cases and can even provide a trail of clues linking other victims to a known killer.
As time progresses, DNA and other forensic technologies will continue to evolve and advance. Detectives will continue to benefit from microscopic traces of evidence preserved from cold cases. However, it will always be the meticulously developed interrogation skills put to the test in the interview room that can achieve what DNA alone cannot: extracting a confession from a killer—and capturing it on video.