The Phyllis Cottle Story
In this podcast, journalist Carol Costello revisits the first big assignment she covered as a 22-year-old, novice reporter: Phyllis Cottles’ brutal attack. Psychologists call them “Triumphant Survivors,” but Phyllis Cottle was more than a survivor, she used this crime to better herself and the world around her.
Ninety minutes after her abduction, Phyllis, bound and lying down on the back seat of her car, is brutalized and left for dead. Good samaritans rush to her rescue. And host Carol Costello recounts how, as a 22-year-old reporter at WAKR/TV23, word of something strange in East Akron began to spread through the newsroom.
A warning before I begin – this episode contains graphic descriptions of violence endured by Phyllis Cottle. She was adamant that others understood what she went through, as her family explains.
She was like, if somebody doesn't want to hear it, they can leave. I mean, she needed to let that whole courtroom know what monster he really was.
Well, I think that's the thing. I think it was so brutal and gruesome that – this sounds kinda rude – but she was like, "If this happened to me, you can sit down, shut up and listen to it." Like, that's just the kind of person that she was. Like, if I went through it, it is not going to harm you to sit and listen to it.
Please listen with care.
2:30PM. Roughly 90 minutes after Phyllis, 44-years old, and a single mom, was carjacked in broad daylight on a beautiful March day.
She was inside her decked-out Buick – the car she loved. The car that now was her prison.
Her feet were bound; her hands tied in front of her. She lay on her back on the back seat and tried to look out the windows.
The car started to move. The man at the wheel, her abductor, drove erratically.
He was agitated. At one point he asked her, “Do you smoke?” “No,” she mumbled. “Got any matches?” he asked.
Phyllis listened as he wrenched the ashtray open. “I thought you said you didn’t have any more money,” he said. “Liar.”
The car sped up. Then stopped. Abruptly.
Phyllis heard him roll down the window. “Hey Buddy,” he shouted. You got a match?”
This asshole wanted to smoke?
Phyllis was exhausted. In pain. Everything hurt. He started to drive again - for what? Five, ten, fifteen minutes? She didn’t know any more. Her senses were shutting down.
And then the car stopped.
Here’s Phyllis – the real Phyllis – from an interview 2004. It’s an old recording and hard to hear. But you need to hear Phyllis’ voice.
I do know that just before he tried to strangle me and everything, he said, "You promise you won't go to the police?" And I said, "Yeah. That's what I told you." Or I said, "I promise." I said, "I don't need that hassle. I'm not going to go to the police." And then all of a sudden he kind of turned and leaned over the seat and he said, "You lied to me because they all lied. They all went to the police." And I'm thinking, "Oh shit.”
If you didn’t catch that – Phyllis told this monster she would not go the police.
Her attacker said, “You lied to me because they all lied. They all went to the police.”
And then he lunged toward Phyllis. Pulled her upright. Put his hands around her neck – and squeezed tight.
Phyllis started to black out.
He grabbed the back of her hair.
Yanked her head back, hard.
She felt something cold against her face. Pressure. It was the knife.
A warning: This next part is hard to hear. Again, Phyllis wanted people to understand what she went through. Please listen with care.
The man stabbed Phyllis – first in her left eye – one, two, three, four times. Then he stabbed her in her right eye. The pain was unbearable.
Then everything turned red, and then went…black.
Phyllis lay on the back seat. Barely conscious. Bleeding. In pain. Her hands behind her back, her ankles bound.
She could not open her eyes.
Again, she allowed her other senses to take over.
She heard her would-be killer take the spare change from the car’s ashtray.
He opened the car door and doused her body with something cold and wet. It smelled like Pine Sol.
Then she heard it. A kind of ripping sound. Her mind played with what it was – it did not sound exactly like fabric ripping. It was more rhythmic.
She realized he was using the knife to slash the front seat.
And then he stopped.
You’re about to hear from retired Akron Police Detective Chris Contos. He worked sex crimes back in ’84.
To me that was probably the scariest thing in the world. You know you can't get out, you can't see. And then one of the things that he did all along, look for matches. “Do you have matches, Phyllis?” “No, I don't have any.” And he stopped a guy on the street, and he got some matches. I think there's a, well what's he going to do with the matches? He's not smoking now with me, what was he going to do with the matches? So, she was thinking, I know it's coming up. Now she's probably getting very scared.
Phyllis’ assailant set the car on fire with Phyllis inside, tied up, bleeding and helpless.
The bastard had planned it all along. He was going to fry her.
Acrid smoke filled the car.
Goddamn him, she thought. She had done everything he told her to do. He promised her he would let her go by supper, but that had been a lie. He had always meant to kill her.
Phyllis did not cry. Or scream. Or ask God to save her.
As Phyllis lay on the back seat, she knew there would be no miracle from above, no knight in shining armor. She had been abducted in broad daylight, from a crowded business district. She had been taken to a neighborhood full of houses, people – and no one had come to her aid.
She had endured this day by “keeping her wits about her.” By staying calm.
Now it was time she allowed a different kind of emotion to engulf her. Rage. White-hot-rage. She. Was. Pissed.
Phyllis pulled her bruised body upright. She forced her bound hands to unlock the doors. She fell out of the car.
Dianne is Phyllis’ daughter.
So, even with her hands tied behind her back, she was able to hit that power lock switch, pull the handle, roll out, and she rolled until she could not feel the warmth of the fire anymore. And she knew she was safe enough, would hope that she was safe enough, away from the fire.
Later Phyllis told me what she said to herself in that moment:
“You sonofabitch,” she said. You think you’re going to fry me? I’m going to get out of this goddamned car and I’m going to fry you.”
I’m Carol Costello, former anchor and correspondent for CNN.
This is Blind Rage, Episode 3: BLIND RAGE
It was 3 o’clock in Akron’s Goodyear Heights when the smoke from Phyllis’ car billowed up into the sky.
Rube Sanders – a young Black man didn’t notice it at first. He was hanging out with his friends. They were replacing the rear brake pads on a buddy’s Ford Elite when a kid came around the corner and said, “Hey! There’s a car on fire over near Myra.”
Curiosity got the better of Rube. He and his friends walked east toward the smoke. It was coming from a semi-secluded, wooded area half a block away from Wellington Street, in the Goodyear Heights neighborhood.
And sure enough, there it was – a car engulfed in flames. A White woman was on the ground struggling to get away from the car.
Rube and his buddies started to run.
This woman’s hands and feet were bound with electrical wire. And her face - oh, god, her face. It was covered with blood. Her eyes were closed and swollen.
She heard a man’s voice and she kinda panicked. She was like, she thought, "Oh my god, the SOB is coming back to do me in for real." And she was screaming, "Get away from me. Get away from me."
Rube and his friends ignored Phyllis’ screams. They had to get her away from that car. They all had to get away from that car. Now.
They hauled the woman to her feet and pulled her away – just in time.
The car exploded into flames.
A crowd started to gather. The wounds on Phyllis’ face were so horrific a woman who lived in the neighborhood became hysterical.
Rube shushed her. “Who did this to you?” he asked Phyllis. “Some Black guy with a mustache picked me up on the west side,” she said faintly. “He tied me up. Raped me.”
Rube, horrified, said he was going to call the police. “Call my family,” Phyllis pleaded. “My daughter. Her number is –” The words sapped the woman’s strength – she started to lose consciousness. Rube panicked.
“Stay with me, honey,” he said. “I’m going to get your daughter.”
By this time police had arrived. An officer told Rube he would have to come down the station to answer questions.
Rube nodded, but he had to get a phone first. There were no cell phones in 1984 so he had to ask a neighbor if he could use their phone.
He frantically dialed the number the lady had given him.
As Rube dialed, he tried to think about what he would say. Someone had hurt this lady, bad. He didn’t want to frighten this woman’s daughter, so in that moment, he decided to tell her that her mom had been in a car accident. He tried to keep his voice calm.
And this guy said, "Hey, I'm calling about your mom. She's been in a horrible accident, and you need to go to the hospital." And I'm like, "Okay, whatever." And I really honestly thought someone was prank calling me. And I said, "Nah, this isn't funny," and hung up the phone on him.
Dianne was tired that day. She had just put in a full day at work. She didn’t have time for cranks.
Rube, desperate not to let this brutalized woman down, called back. And begged Dianne not to hang up.
He called me back. And that's when he begged me, he goes, "Please don't hang up the phone." He goes, "I'm legit. You can call me back at the police station." That is when he was rambling, talking really fast so I wouldn't hang up on him again. And he said, "You need to get to the hospital. And this is where she's at."
So, I was married to my ex-husband back then. We only have one car. So, I'm like, he has the car. How am I supposed to get there? That's when my head started spinning around, how do I get there? So then, I had to call him. He had to come home. So, that part was chaotic.
But at first, like I said, I mean, you don't think something's like that going to hit that close to home. You're like, "Yeah, okay." You read about it in a paper, it's not going to happen to your family.
Word of something strange going down in East Akron was broadcast over the police scanners in WAKR/TV23’s newsroom right around the time Dianne hung up on Rube.
It didn’t sound like much, not then.
Again, I was just 22, psyched to be manning the phones in a professional newsroom.
My experience thus far consisted of a birthday party at a senior citizen’s home. A man had turned 100. He hadn’t been able to talk. He was bedridden. Let’s just say it wasn’t a great experience.
I yearned for something more. So, when that call came into the newsroom – “car on fire, ambulance on the way” – I was ready to bolt out the door.
Until one of the crusty old guys in newsroom said, “It’s a fuckin’ car fire. Dime a dozen.” Intimidated, I sat my ass down.
We paid attention to much more serious calls, like robberies and shootings. Violent crime in Akron – like in cities across the nation – was a big problem.
Years later, I did a deep dive on car fires – turns out they are a dime a dozen. Nine times out of ten no one is ever hurt – except the car.
But on March 20, 1984 - everyone was wrong. And it left an indelible mark on all of us, not least of all, on a 22-year-old me.
Next week: EVIL RUNS
She looked like she had went 10 rounds in a boxing match. I mean, she was a mess. And that's when the anger kicked in. And I'm like, "Who is this guy? I'm going to hunt him down like the rabid animal that he is."