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.
Phyllis’ nightmare has only just begun. Crumpled onto the floorboard of her Buick, she begins to mentally catalog every detail she can about her knife-wielding attacker as he drives toward an unknown destination where she endures horrible consequences. But a request from the assailant and an eye-catching object provide her with the ammo she needs to not only survive, but to “fry the bastard.”
A warning before I begin – this is a story that includes sexual violence. If you have suffered trauma, please listen with care.
It's called a "Freedom Flyer.” An eagle – made of plastic or metal – soaring over the front doors of homes across America.
Those cheesy eagles were all the rage in the ‘70s. It was a way to wrap yourself in the American flag or – I kid you not – a way to show the world you were free of mortgage payments, and now owned your American dream. My dad had a Freedom Flier. It hung over his garage and stayed there for decades.
In March of 1984, that slice of Americana – a fleeting image in the midst of a violent crime – would captivate a city of 274,000 people.
It would send police officers, mailmen, truckers, senior citizens, and news reporters on a quest to find a particular Freedom Flyer on the right house in precisely the right place.
Delores, a former Summit County Sheriff's deputy, said the police scanners told the story back then.
They were just like bloodhounds. I mean they were focused on that, and…it just, constant, the chatter on there.
It was like the entire city had mobilized to find a cheap piece of plastic that would soon become a symbol of strength, hope, and courage.
I’m Carol Costello, an investigative reporter and former CNN anchor and correspondent. This is Blind Rage. Episode 2: Terror.
Phyllis, her purple coat over her head, her body twisted into a pretzel, lay on the floor of her car. Terrified.
She had done all the right things to escape this monster – she pummeled him, screamed for help, laid on the horn, but no one came.
It was broad daylight. Her car was parked in the middle of the city – a gas station and a business park nearby. Where was everyone? It was as if the world had been emptied of people.
“Stop fighting,” her abductor told her, “or I’ll kill you.”
Then the car started to move – destination? Unknown.
Well, she always told us girls, she said, "A simple rule of thumb is no matter what's going on, keep your wits about you. Because that will get you through it.
This is Phyllis’ daughter, Dianne.
Bad storm, traumatic event, anything. Keep your wits about you. Fall apart after it's over. But in that moment, keep your wits about you. Because it will save you.
Phyllis Cottle tried hard “not to fall apart.” It was not easy. There she was – on the floor of her own damned car – her head and shoulders on the floorboard, coat over her head, while a madman with a knife threatened her. A madman who was driving her Buick to god knows where.
Phyllis’ granddaughter, Drew:
Most of us have never been in a situation where fight or flight doesn't work. So, when you're in that situation, and you can't fight, and there's no flight option, you go to your next thing.
Phyllis’ next thing: her superpower. Her uncanny ability to notice – and remember – trivial details. Her eyes were obstructed by her coat, but she could rely on other senses.
She felt the car go over a bump – so she knew he went over the curb. From the court proceedings:
Voice of the Court:
Ms. Cottle said, “I felt a bump, it did not feel like the driveway that goes off onto Rhodes Ave. It felt more like the curb – Onto W. Cedar St.”
That meant he turned on W. Cedar St., not Exchange St. She filed that information away. Phyllis felt the car pick up speed. That meant he had taken the innerbelt around the city so he could drive faster.
Voice of the Court:
Ms. Cottle continued testifying, “He asked me if I’d ever been raped. I just answered him, no.”
I don’t know how Phyllis kept it together after that. She now knew why she’d been kidnapped and what she would endure. She struggled to remain calm. To control what she could - and survive.
The car slowed after about ten minutes, and stopped.
Phyllis heard the man dig through his gym bag – she knew it was a gym bag because he had hit her in the face with it.
Voice of the Court:
He said “don’t move,” at which point Ms. Cottle realized he was binding her ankles.
The man tied her ankles – leaving just enough leeway between each, so she could put one foot in front of the other. He tied her hands behind her back. Then he dragged her out of the car.
Voice of the Court:
The victim attempted to look at her attacker’s face. He replied, “don’t look at me, close your eyes.”
Then he grabbed her coat and put it back over her head. Again, Phyllis displayed remarkable poise and resourcefulness. She dropped her head to her chin so she could see what was at her feet. Pebbles. Dirt. Wooden steps with no backs. They were light green, with metal treads.
The man then forced her to sit down on some kind of metal bench. Phyllis listened as he walked away. She thought about trying to run for it, but her ankles were tied, so that wouldn’t work. She couldn’t loosen the cords around her ankles because her hands were bound behind her back.
She just sat there. And waited. Minutes ticked by – or maybe seconds. The door opened. He grabbed her by the arm and hauled her to her feet. Forced her to make a right hand turn into the house. She filed all of that away.
Emily Pelphry, a former prosecutor and my legal guide, is with me today.
Emily – Phyllis’ poise. All of those details filed away in her brain. You’ve worked with survivors – is this unusual?
I think it says a lot about who she is and what she’s experienced in her life that she’s able to disassociate herself from that situation and to take in details, and not just “is the wall red, or is the wall blue?” But she’s taking in specific visual cues from around her. She’s taking in scents, textures, all of this, and just filing it away. And I think that just goes to show how strong of an individual she was. But it also makes you think about why is she able to make these memories stick? Why does she know to notice certain things, and how is she able to disassociate herself?
Let’s pause for just a minute to talk about control, disassociation, terror. I don’t know what that’s like – and I pray I never do. But I wanted to understand, so I talked with Summit County Prosecutor, Sherri Walsh. She’s a force when it comes to protecting women in her county. She is also a survivor.
I was assaulted on February 21, 1986.
So, two years after Phyllis was assaulted.
Two years after.
Here’s where it gets…eerie. I can’t think of the right word, so I’ll just lay it out for you:
In 1986 – two years after Phyllis was carjacked, Walsh was carjacked too. She left her apartment to go to work in the morning. And a man with a knife – in broad daylight, on a busy street - approached Walsh from behind and forced her inside her car. Just like Phyllis.
I was in the driver's seat of my car and the man had a knife and he had me around the throat and I felt like I was actually in the air looking down at something happening to somebody else. You're in a different place. Thankfully I didn't freeze, and I actually was kicking and hitting and I was able to get away. But I remember just such a weird feeling, like all of a sudden I was floating or...
So it was happening to someone else.
This couldn’t possibly be happening to you.
You’re just so terrified, it is really hard to describe unless you've been there. It was just really terrifying.
Back to March 20, 1984. Location: Who knows? It’s now roughly 1:15 in the afternoon on a beautiful spring day.
Phyllis was now in the house. Her attacker had removed the coat covering her eyes. She desperately wanted to look at him so she could identify him later, but he told her to close her eyes.
Every time she opened them, he would threaten her.
But Phyllis continued to use her superpower. And in doing so, she continued to demonstrate a courage – an empowerment – that inspired me and countless other women navigating a world still not quite ready for feminism.
Her nose told her the house was musty – like it hadn’t been lived in for a long time. She heard a bottle break – then felt the man use a shard of glass to cut her bindings.
You know what comes next. Phyllis was assaulted in ways I cannot bear to articulate. But even through the assault, Phyllis’ mind worked like a machine.
The house smelled, but her attacker did not. He was clean.
She was afraid to look at him, but she used her sense of touch – he was athletic, but not muscle-bound. He had hair on his upper lip, but not a full mustache.
He wore gloves. Distinctive gloves. They were “a nice deep kind of tan. That’s her own description. They weren’t dark brown or light brown – they were tan. With zippers on front, with little metal rings attached.
After the attack, the man told her he needed money.
Voice of the Court:
At this point, the defendant held up a bumper jack over the victim’s head and said, “You got to get me money or I’ll kill you.”
He forced her to turn her back to him. And threw her purse on the floor. Phyllis emptied her wallet – she had two dollars and some change.
Voice of the Court
Ms. Cottle stated: “He noticed my checkbook. And said, ‘write a check for 100 dollars.’”
“I can’t,” she replied. “I only have 19.67 cents in my account.’”
The man grabbed her checkbook and ripped out a check. “Now,” he said, “if you go to the police I know where you live.”
After a time, he tied her up again - and forced her back into the car. This time he allowed her to sit upright, close beside him – without her coat over her eyes. Still, she could feel the knife.
Every time she tried to glimpse his face, he grew agitated and growled, “don’t look at me.”
He drove to a bank – her bank. He used the drive-through. He whispered: “Do what I say and you will be home by supper”
He uttered that phrase over and over – it became her mantra – her ticket to survival. “If I just listen and do what he says it will be over soon.”
Phyllis heard the bank teller over the intercom just like it was any other day. It was surreal.
She did as she was told. She filled out a personal check, made it out to “cash” – and signed her name.
But, inside the bank, the teller sensed something was “off” about this transaction. The signature on the bank slip was so shaky she could barely read it. The employee hit the mic and asked her to come inside.
I want to stop here and talk with Emily Pelphry again, my legal guide because I know what you might be thinking: why didn’t Phyllis scream? Or pound on the windows? Or write HELP ME on the bank slip?
This is something that I would try to get jurors to understand. We tend to judge victims as harshly, if not harsher, than the actual defendant we’re prosecuting. So I would ask them to not think about what the typical response would be, or what they’ve seen on television, or what they'd expect this person to do, because it’s very easy for us to think “well, why didn’t she just yell? Why didn't she try to write something?” The truth is that she did what she had to do in her mind to survive, and she wanted to be safe on that other side.
Plus – her attacker had a knife. And he knew her address. He knew where her family lived. She could not risk their lives.
Her attacker did not let her go inside the bank. Instead, he drove off, and taunted Phyllis.
“You know I’ve been doing this since I was 11. I’ve killed 5 women.” And then he repeated, “Do what I say and you’ll be home by supper.”
It was the first time this guy had mentioned murdering other women. And it made a devastating impression.
He drove Phyllis back to the same house, and assaulted her again. And when he finished, he tied her up, led her to that same enclosed back porch, forced her to sit on that same metal bench, and left her there while he went outside. He didn’t cover her eyes this time, so she could see outside of the back porch.
You are about to hear Phyllis describe that moment. I interviewed her in 2004. The audio quality isn’t great, but listen carefully and I’ll help you along the way.
I remember sitting on, it was metal, whatever I was sitting on, I remember putting my hand, trying to leave finger prints. I'm looking around the room and I kept looking at this window thinking even if I get out there, he'll catch me…
Carol [narrating as Phyllis]:
…And something had told me from the get go to remain calm and not fight him in any way, shape, or form. And I think that that kept me alive a lot longer, because I didn't know what his intentions were at the end. But, up to that point, I hadn't really, I didn't feel that I had actually been hurt, and I honestly don't know if I would have went to the police.
Oh Phyllis, really?
At that point in time. That was something I would deal with later, because he kept telling me, he said, "If you do what you're told, you'll be home by supper."
Phyllis turned her head slowly – so she would not attract attention. And that’s when she saw something – something that would prove vital. A spot of bright color in a sea of white and beige two-story houses. Flying above the door: a cheap, plastic bit of Americana.
I didn't know where we were because when he had taken me to the house, I wasn't familiar with the neighborhood. I couldn't see any street signs. But when I was sitting on that thing, I could see out the back door, just the tail end of my car, and him looking through the trunk and right – kind of through maybe two houses on street over, I saw this blue house with white trim and black eagle
A blue house. With a black eagle – that "Freedom Flyer.” As I told you, they were everywhere in 1984. But this one on a bright blue house would prove vital. Phyllis did not know that at the time, but she filed that image away.
She heard him slam the trunk – and waited for whatever would come next.
Next week: Blind Rage.
“To me that was probably the scariest thing in the world. 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, you’re thinking, I know it's coming up. I know now – she's probably getting very scared.