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.
Blue House, Black Eagle
Police continue their search throughout Akron for a blue house with a black eagle, which they hope will lead them to the scene of the crimes. But will Phyllis’ descriptions prove accurate? And detectives dig deep to learn more about their suspect’s past — but how will they link him to the crime scene?
Blue house with a black eagle. Blue house with a black eagle. Where the hell was it?
That house had become Akron’s obsession. Everybody looked for it – postal workers, taxi drivers, ham radio operators. Everybody.
Perhaps no one was more obsessed with finding that house than Officer Gus Hall. He was fairly new to the force – in his 3rd year. And he was hungry. He’d work his shift, then spend hours of his own time looking for just the right “freedom flyer” that would lead him to what could be a huge break in the Cottle case.
To be clear – officers in medium and large-sized cities do not normally work cases on their own time.
But Gus Hall did. He was motivated by Phyllis’ courage, and the urgent need to get a dangerous man off the streets.
It was 7:00 am on a Thursday morning when Officer Hall pulled up to the umpteenth address of a blue house – this one on Grant Street.
He looked at it intently. It was the right color. A bright, rather garish, potter blue. The eaves were white. And there was a black eagle flying high above and between the second-floor windows.
It all fit.
Officer Hall got out of his car. He stood in the driveway. Surveyed the landscape.
From the police reports:
Voice of the Court:
Officer Hall stated, “I stood in front of this house and looked for homes that were in sight of this blue house. I noted 2 houses on Bellows Street.”
Both houses on Bellows St. were the right cream color. Could one of them be ‘the house?”
Hall had checked out so many properties, on W. North St, Mull Ave, 5th St, Crestview – the list went on and on and on. And each time, no go. Either the house wasn’t vacant, or it wasn’t two streets away from the blue one.
But as Gus Hall stood in the driveway of this particular blue house, he had a feeling.
Hall climbed back into his patrol car and headed toward Bellows Street. The houses shared a driveway. The first house had been condemned. “Good,” he thought, that meant it was, most likely, vacant.
Officer Hall peered through the window. No green carpet. No electrical wire, no nothing. As in none of the items inside the house matched what the victim said she saw. Damn.
He walked over to the house next door. It was a two and half story wood-framed house with light gray peeling paint. The lower half of the house was painted a yellowish color.
From the police reports:
Voice of the Court:
“I noted at this time there were no footprints in the snow anywhere around the house. The steps leading to the rear of the address had fresh snow on them, and no footprints.”
A good sign. No footprints. No occupants.
Hall noticed the electric and telephone wires had been cut. He noted the top half of a broken bottle on the porch. It appeared to contain a dried dark-pinkish-substance. He checked his notes: The victim said the suspect cut her bindings with a glass bottle and threw the remnants outside. “Interesting,” he thought.
He knocked on the front door. No answer.
All of the windows were covered with curtains. Some opaque, others not so much.
He walked to the back of the house.
From an affidavit:
Voice of the Court:
“I noted I could see a house located at Grant Street and that the Grant Street house was blue with white trim and a black eagle emblem.”
I don’t know how Gus Hall felt at that moment, but my adrenaline would have been pumping.
He put his forehead on one of the windows and cupped his eyes to look into the house.
And saw – nothing. Hall pulled back from the window, and looked up with a start.
A man had come out of a near-by house. He told the Officer that the house had been vacant for about a year. It was owned by a guy named Bruce who lived on Sherman. He drove a red and blue Pontiac.
Officer Hall needed to find this guy. Maybe he would let him in the house, without a warrant. So Hall called for patrol officers to look for a red and blue Pontiac parked at a house on Sherman Street.
He needed to get inside that house. Four more officers joined him on Bellows. One of them checked out a boarded-up window on the south side of the house. The boards were loose – he pulled them off. And hoisted Gus Hall up on his shoulders so he could look inside.
Hall shined a flashlight through the now-open window. And there it was: dark green carpeting. In a one-room-wide room. Just as Phyllis had described.
He shined the flashlight around the room. And – oh – oh my freaking god –
A bumper jack. It was in the corner, and it looked like a bumper jack.
There was a bumper jack. In the corner.
It was all there - the green carpeting, the broken bottle, the steps that led up the porch with no backs and. Lengths of rope.
And that blue house with the black eagle that you could definitely see if you sat on a bench on the porch.
It all matched.
At 8:19 am Officer Hall radioed the detective bureau. “I found it, he said, I found it!”
I’m Carol Costello: This is Blind Rage, Episode 8: Blue House, Black Eagle.
Word was out on the street about Sammie Herring. And those who knew Herring, did not seem surprised that he could have attacked that poor woman.
Anonymous calls about Herring flooded police lines.
A 5th grade teacher told detectives one of her 10-year-old students said he and his mom visited the Herring residence, and heard Herring tell his family he was ‘the person who stabbed that lady and raped her.”
There were other calls too – from Black women. Calls that broke your heart.
One call in particular interested detectives. A woman claimed Herring dated her sister and caused her to suffer a “nervous breakdown.” She had to leave town to “get away from him.”
If that caller told the truth, their “pretty good suspect” would become a “great suspect.” Herring had never served time for rape or sexual assault. The most violent crimes he was convicted of involved men. So, detectives dug deep. I know that because I’m looking at documents from a psychiatric hospital in Summit County, Ohio.
The documents are dated March 4th, 1984. 16 days before Phyllis was carjacked. A woman, I will call Sarah, tried to kill herself because “she had been raped three years ago” and, that recently, “she had an argument with her boyfriend who was violent toward her.” She was so deathly afraid of that boyfriend she would have rather died than deal with him ever again.
“Sarah” was released 8 days later and fled to Detroit to “hide-out” with her children. The father of at least one of those children … was Samuel Herring.
As far as I can determine, Sarah never filed charges against Herring or any other man. I’m not surprised. Not at all surprised.
And neither is Judge Irma Brown, who served as a Superior Court judge for 39 years. She was a young lawyer back in the 80’s – who worked at the Greater Watts Justice Center of the Legal Aid Foundation of LA. She also co-founded the Black Women Lawyers organization.
Judge Irma Brown:
Victims I think for years were sort of stereotyped and brainwashed into believing that there was some fault involved with it and that it was deserving, it was an adequate punishment for some kind of mishap during a relationship. And to make it public was a further, like a scarlet letter so to speak, that you allowed this to happen to you and so you bear some fault.
Yeah - it was legal to rape your wife in 1984. And it wasn’t until 1994 that Congress recognized domestic violence as a national crime.
I also uncovered documents that detail what happened to a woman I’ll call Glory. It’s an inter-office report to the parole board. It’s dated September 11, 1978. It alleges Samuel Herring “beat her” and “attempted to choke her son.”
In this instance Glory did report Herring to parole board authorities, but as far as I can determine, nothing happened. Remember: Herring was released on parole in 1978, only to commit a violent crime and be sentenced again…before being paroled again just months before Phyllis was attacked.
Here’s Judge Brown:
Was that unusual?
Judge Irma Brown:
I don't think that it was unusual at all. Those were not the kinds of things that were just generally reported, and if they were, it was black on black, I don't even know that they looked at it as crime, it was just kind of a cultural thing. That that's the way that people kind of relate to each other and so you just move on.
Wait, what? Okay, so that’s…shitty. Did they really did look at it as a cultural thing and something not to be taken so seriously?
Judge Irma Brown:
I think so. Violence, domestic violence in the African American community was not really considered as a crime. It might have been on the books as so, but domestic violence was not treated like it is today. And so you just sort of went out and gave a warning, and don't do that again. And you moved on to the next time.
But this time detectives needed these women to bolster their case against Samuel Herring. To testify against him.
But it was not to be. Glory eventually agreed to talk to police, but only with an officer who grew up in her neighborhood. I don’t know what happened after that.
On March 24th – four days after Phyllis’ attack, four hours after Gus Hall found the house on Bellows St. – police secured a warrant to go inside.
An Akron detective shouted – all clear! –
…and kicked-in the locked front door. It was the only way in unless you climbed through that boarded-up window in the back of the house.
The assembled search team – that included Detectives Contos, Moss and Officer Gus Hall – streamed into the house, and stopped to soak it all in.
Inside and out, it was almost exactly as Phyllis Cottle had described. And when they surveyed the landscape, what she told them made perfect sense.
…the way he went in, he left her outside in the car, and then on the back porch. He went in and came through the window. And she could see the green carpeting. And she said the house smelled musty…there was a jack in there…
…a little chest of drawers with glass on top, an old coffee pot, broken glass on the floor…
She’s telling us all this stuff, then we get to the house and it’s all in there and that’s great
But it's nothing. If you don't get the house, like I was thinking, if there's any one thing missing, let's say she hadn't seen the blue house with the white trim and the eagle…
We’d still be looking.
While detectives gathered evidence inside the house – outside a horde of spectators had gathered to gawk at one of the most sought-after homes in Akron – for all the wrong reasons.
Reporters were there too – a lot of them. It was madness.
Every time reporters spotted a cop, we shouted questions. They ignored us. They had to. Top brass had laid down the law: absolutely no one – including the public information officer – was allowed to talk to the press.
In the meantime, street officers and other detectives worked their sources, and those sources – even sources who were hardened criminals – talked.
They told police that Bellows St house was “used as an after-hours joint.” Lots of people stopped by to drink, gamble and to…do whatever.
And then. And then – lightning struck.
Sometimes you just get lucky. And sometimes you have a survivor who just nails it.
That musty smelling, dilapidated house two streets away from a blue house with a black eagle, belonged to a family named: HERRING.
Specifically, Bruce Herring. Who had a brother named - SAMUEL. As in Samuel aka Sammie Herring. BA DA BING!
Detectives could now tie Samuel Herring to the crime scene. And they had witnesses who were fairly sure Herring had been the man in the 1286 Bar, near Phyllis’ burned-out car. They had proof he showed up late to the parole board. Proof he carried a gym bag.
They still couldn’t put Herring on West Exchange where the crime originated, and they still had no physical evidence.
Police were eager to make an arrest, but Fred Zuch, who was Chief of the Trial Division in the Prosecutor’s office – the guy who had the authority to give cops the green light – wasn’t so sure.
I thought the evidence was light, but I figured it wasn't gonna get any better.
But after 3 days Zuch said – ‘go for it.’
On March 27th, 1984 – seven days after Phyllis was carjacked, in broad daylight, on a warm pre-spring day, police descended on a suspect.
The arrest went down at Herring’s sister’s house. Bruce Herring, the man who owned the alleged rape house, had just dropped-off his brother to get a pair of boots so they could ride Sammie’s motorcycle.
In seconds both were surrounded by 15 police officers. “Up against the car,” they shouted. In Herring’s words, those officers armed to the hilt with “shotguns and pistols.” All pointed right at him.
Back at WAKR – we knew something was up. The scanner traffic had gone ballistic. And, a source of mine called me with a cryptic message, “Go stand by the elevator downtown.”
I grabbed my reporter’s notebook, a photographer, and sped to the Akron PD.
I stood outside the elevator, and I was not alone. Other reporters had been tipped off too.
The elevator doors opened. We surged forward. And there he was. The monster who allegedly attacked a 44-year old woman who had already attained otherworldly status.
He looked so – normal.
Except that he was surrounded by cops. Cuffed. Silent. Cameras flashed. Questions were shouted-out. It was controlled chaos.
And, I won’t lie. I was exhilarated. Thrilled. Relieved. Not remotely objective.
I often wonder how Phyllis felt when police cuffed the man who allegedly brutalized her. I wished I had asked her that question.
I know rage had fueled her memories and helped put Herring in the back of that police car. But afterwards, that white hot anger faded into despair.
And that was thing that nearly killed Phyllis Cottle.
NEXT WEEK: WHAT IS THERE TO LIVE FOR?
She went into the bathroom and she just started crying uncontrollably. And, because she was crying she was trembling and she was just so upset, she dropped the pills on the floor and she's like, "Oh great."