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.

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Bonus Interviews

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This week, we present a pair of extended interviews with two of the voices in our series: former prosecutor Emily Pelphry, and criminologist Dr. Casey Jordan.



This week, we’re taking a break from our usual format and instead bringing you extended interviews with two of the voices you’ve heard in our series: Emily Pelphry, a former prosecutor – who has been proved invaluable in helping me to understand the investigation and Dr. Casey Jordan, a criminologist who provided fascinating insight into the criminal mind.

We just can’t fit everything into our weekly episodes, so we’re presenting longer versions here.

You’re going to hear the unedited conversation I had with Emily Pelphry. I was particularly interested to know how detectives begin their investigations. And how they would interview Phyllis after they deemed her a “living homicide victim.” I was intimidated by Phyllis when I interviewed her – I can’t quite explain why. Phyllis’ strength was otherworldly and, at the same time, she was just so lady-next-door. Plus, it’s difficult to ask people questions after the very worst has happened to them. You feel like an intruder. A vulture. I’ll get more into that in later episodes.

It did surprise me that two male detectives, Chris Contos and Gary Moss, interviewed Phyllis in those early days. A nurse and Phyllis’ daughter were in the hospital room too.

As Emily told me, that likely would not happen today. There would have been women detectives in the room, who most likely would ask questions. Rape counselors would be present too – there would be a whole team of people.

Here’s Emily:


A lot has been learned over the past 40 years in how to investigate sexual assault cases. Now we have multidisciplinary teams that consist of the nurses, the doctors, law enforcement, forensics, victim advocates, and those people all work in conjunction to build the case out. And perhaps that first meeting with that team is going to be the most important for purposes of the investigation.


So, so when Detective Contos and his partner, um, were planning out how they would question Phyllis Cobble for the first time, that was vitally important, that particular meeting.


Meeting. Absolutely. And I think too, looking back at how this investigation transpired, you know, she was right from the start making comments about what happened to her. I, I think that when she was first found, the thing that she first said was that she was “raped and he poked my eyes out.” And so not only is that statement made to another, you know, to the person that found her. So it's excited, it's an utterance that happens at that moment. And she's saying it not knowing whether or not she's going to survive. She then repeats stories like that when she gets into the hospital and the level of calmness that this woman had almost had to be intimidating to law enforcement because you would expect to see someone in shock, and screaming and crying. And she was relatively calm throughout, almost eerily calm, but she was on top of everything that she recalled, almost like she wanted to just give them a picture right from that start as to what happened to her. I don't think that she was the ordinary – and I'm using giant air quotes with my fingers – but the ordinary survivor that you would have. She was so knowledgeable about everything that had happened to her. She just wanted everyone to know every detail. She almost acted as her own detective.


Both the prosecutor and detective Contos told me that they were really struggling with how to investigate this case through using the, the victim, for lack of a better terminology, and they decided to treat her like a living homicide victim.


That's a very smart way to do it though.




Well, I, I think that because of the seriousness of her injuries right off the bat, you know, that there's going to be a problem with this individual getting on a witness stand, which admittedly is an impossible, not impossible, it's a very difficult thing right off the bat. But you have someone that's going to be on the witness stand who can't see just as a homicide, homicide victim wouldn't see anything. They can't testify at all. So you kind of have to think, well, once she's on the stand, she's going to be torn apart by defense counsel because of the fact that she can't see and she can't make that visual identification. So you have to build up that case circumstantially, which you usually do in homicide cases. There's no one there necessarily in a normal homicide that's going to say, yeah, this is the person that did that to me. They can't visually identify that individual. So they were very smart in thinking they had to build this case up circumstantially.


Is it more difficult for police to put together a circumstantial case for police in their investigation?


Yeah, it can be. I, but I think that if you have law enforcement that, and I think with sexual assault cases too, right? They're going to be different than a homicide case in a lot of ways, they all differ in a little bit. But I think that if you have a law enforcement officer or a detective that goes in with an open mind and some forward thinking training, I think it's going to be easier for them because they're going to remain open to more


So Contos gets this big case, and it happens so mundanely that and It's like, "Oh yeah, there's this big case we're going to assign you to.




And he's reading the details and it's like, holy shit. And he determines that the perpetrator has to be a certain kind of person. What led him to believe that?


Speaking from the way that I've worked with detectives and with officers, it's one thing where you're dealing with someone who's accused of just a sexual assault. And then you have different assaults that occurred during a sexual assault. So you'll hear people talk about stabbings, and stabbings are that of usually an intimate crime. Strangulation, the person really wants their victim to see what they're doing. So, I think the two things coupled here on top of sexual assault, so you have both a potential strangling and you have stabbing. So I think given his experience and what he'd dealt with with sexual assault investigations, he can take all of this effect and be like, "Oh my gosh, like we have a really bad F’er here at our hands," because he's not just raping. He's raping the same person multiple times and then he's engaging two assaults which are considered incredibly personal to the victim as well as incredibly, incredibly violent, especially with strangulation. What we know now about strangulation is it doesn't take a lot of force to actually to kill someone through strangulation or even to leave long lasting detriment to their breathing tubes, their spine, everything. So it's a very personal, very bad crime. So of course he sees all this and he's like, "We got to get this guy off the street like now. He's super, super bad."


I want to bring in criminologist Dr Casey Jordan. She had valuable input as to what kind of person could be so brutal.


Stabbing, as a method of violence in any crime, is not that unusual, but a targeted stabbing, specifically in the eyes, is relatively rare. In fact, it's very rare. Stabbing is going to be the kind of attack where you are on top of somebody. You are prepared to look in their eyes while you are thrusting that knife into their body, and you have to be ready for bloodletting.

So it's very different than a perpetrator who might shoot someone with a gun. But stabbing someone in the eyes is very targeted because it means the person never wants the person they're stabbing to be able to identify them. There is a large overarching theme of paranoia. "You have seen me and these eyes must never see me again." And the circumstances of Herring's attack on Phyllis Cottle are really unusual because the attack took several hours.

She could see him the entire time. It's almost as if at the very end he really kind of had this come to Jesus moment, if you will, where he was like, "What am I doing? She's seen me. We've been to the bank. I've raped her twice. There is no way I can get away with this." But the interesting thing is that instead of choosing to take her life, to stab her in, for instance, the heart, or slice her neck, it was an attack on the eyes. And that indicates to me a level of paranoia that is probably indicative, and I know we don't have any psychiatric evaluations or diagnoses, but it sounds very schizophrenic. In fact, so many of his crimes really just indicate a person who has battled schizophrenia his entire life.

Everything about his crime was methodical, and I would not be surprised if he had done this before and not ever not just not been caught, if he had done it to street women, women who may be struggling with drugs or engaged in sex work, so they're the kind of women who would not report it to the police, which is very typical for street women.

Phyllis was on her way to a home and garden expo or something. "Are you closing?" And she said yes, but she didn't go to her car. She went and ran some errands, then returned to her car. It meant that he was stalking her. And everything starts with fantasy. And from fantasy, it goes to stalking. From stalking, abduction. It usually ends in murder.

It's the sort of thing that, towards the end, when he realized, "This has been going on for hours, there's no way that I can really get away with this," the question is, why didn't he kill her? Why did he blind her? And all I can tell you is that, if he is indeed schizophrenic, he is having delusions, hearing voices very possibly.

In some ways, attacking her eyes and stabbing her in the eyes was brilliant, but it wasn't enough because of who Phyllis is, and she was not going, for one second, to say, "Just because I can't see him doesn't mean I don't know who did this."


That would prove vital to Detective Contos’ investigation. Still, where to begin? Here’s Emily Pelphry.


Does he like just dive in and look at everybody's criminal record and kind of mesh past history to the crime? Is that how it works?


It can work and some people may choose to go with an investigation on that route. I think that what happened with this investigation is – and you hate to be cliche with things – but they understood from a very early point in the investigation that they had to investigate this as a homicide. Yes, we have a victim who has survived this assault, but as with a homicide victim, this person can't talk about... can't identify the person. Of course, they could sit and talk through a composite sketch of the individual, but they can't say, "Yes, that's them." They can't point to anything because they just can't identify. So to take this case as a homicide case, the track that they would use there, I think was a good place for them to start. I think that, that coupled then with just the gruesomeness of the crime and the sensationalism that it would receive in the media because it was so violent, would've called upon the public just to call in like, "Hey, do you know who this is? Have you heard anything? Have you seen anything?"

But given the time, and again, we have to remember to put ourselves back in the '80s. We're not dealing with a crime that occurred in the 2000s, certainly. So things were different. But I think that that initial hook that they got from the public really set the case into motion and helped dictate where they would take that next step.


But the fact that Phyllis lived – let's say she had died in that car. Do you think police would ever have found her attacker?


I think the fact that she not only survived, but was able to recount very certain things that occurred around her during the assaults. I can't say that's something that would've been found, especially if we're dealing with DNA or the lack of DNA on certain items found throughout the investigation. I don't know that it would've been solved and it's very possible that he would have gone free.


Yeah, because I'm thinking, let's say he did set the car on fire, and let's say her body burned. So maybe police would've never known that she was raped, or the ties wouldn't have been there – the things he tied her up with, I mean – or where the crime started. Right?


So whether or not they would've been able to tell from a burnt corpse whether or not there'd been a sexual assault or even the injury within the eyes, I can't say what the coroner would've been able to determine back in the '80s. I presume that he or she would've seen the damage to the eye sockets, but it would've been a different case completely if she'd not summoned the strength from God-knows-where to get herself out of that car.


When the detectives were thinking about going into question Phyllis for the first time in the hospital, they were kind of freaking out. Actually it was surprising to me that two men went to interview her, I guess that reflected the times. But they were very much aware that this was going to be difficult. So what kinds of things would go through their mind before they sit down with Phyllis, a woman who’d gone through what she had?


We're talking about law enforcement being people and being humans, they're about to walk into a room where a person has been set on fire and their eyes stabbed out.

You have to summon some kind of strength and courage to walk into a room of someone who's just been brutally assaulted and not lose your cool. And it's a hard thing to do. I've kind of lost it even just talking to people on the stand before because there is that human side that you really just have to push down while you're doing your job with this.

So these guys that went into interview, I think that they were probably better educated as to sexual assault investigations than a lot of their peers and they just went in and they kind of, I hate to say it, but they kind of just sucked up their own pride and their own emotion, shoved it down and went in to talk to her, not really expecting that they were going to run into this woman who's like, "Hey, let me tell you everything I know."

And, just again, the fact that they said that she was able to put them at ease, it probably grounded them a bit more and they're like, "Okay. So we have a little bit more leeway as to what we can expect from this person and what we can ask them without them either shutting down or pushing back."

Sexual assault predators pick their victims because they tend to pick people that are not believable and who are not seen as credible.


Well, they picked the wrong person in Phyllis Cottle.


Yes they did.


Fascinating, right?

We’ll be back with more episodes next week.

[End Credits]

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