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.
March 20, 1984 started out as a promising spring day for a single mom from Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio. It wouldn’t end that way. Phyllis Cottle is assaulted in broad daylight as she leaves work, forced into her car at knifepoint, and left wondering why no one came to her aid.
A warning before I begin – this is a story that includes sexual violence. It is not suitable for children to hear. If you have suffered trauma – please, listen with care.
It was just such a brutal case. Just so brutal. The impact of it, you know… was just something you just couldn't comprehend, somebody being that vicious, that evil.
That’s Delores. She was a Summit County, Ohio Sheriff's Deputy in 1984. She’s seen a lot of bad stuff go down. Yet, what happened to Phyllis is fresh in her mind, even though it happened more than 30 years ago.
I was 22 at the time. Like I said, I had just snagged my first, professional job. I thought I knew what I was doing, but I really didn’t. What university prepares you to cover something so…ungodly?
So I learned on the job that, yeah, there’s evil in the world. And, I’ll be honest, it freaked me out.
I wasn’t exactly naive, but I believed the good guys eventually won out - that there were angels in the world who would, at the very least, come to my aid if I ran into the devil.
But real life is not like that. Not always.
Especially in the ‘80s. Like many young, professional women, my ambitions were often at odds with the rules of a man’s world.
But more than that, it was a world that could also be incredibly violent. For all the nostalgia of high-waisted jeans, leather jackets, and bike shorts set to the sounds of synth-pop, there was a darker side to the decade.
Sexual assaults were insanely common all around the country, as was the victim-blaming that went along with them. It was legal in 1984 for a husband to rape his wife. And the concept of “date-rape” hadn’t yet found its way into the American consciousness.
So maybe you can understand why I was not exactly objective when it came to covering Phyllis’ story. I’m not sure anyone was. I mean, how could you be?
She did try to make a scene, and nobody listened. Everybody thought it was a domestic dispute. And so, she just was like, "Okay, that's not going to work." I think people want a knight in shining armor, and in that reality, there's not a knight in shining armor.
I’m Carol Costello, a former CNN anchor and national correspondent. This is Blind Rage Episode 1: That Day
There was ‘something’ special about Phyllis Cottle. It’s hard to put it into words, but I’ll try.
Phyllis saw the world in vivid color. Even when she was in the most mundane of places – like the bowling alley. She loved to bowl. Delighted in watching the colorful balls – blue, red, and green - spin their way down the alley. She liked the strategic way they crashed into the white pins – picking them up and sending them into the darkness.
I sat down with Phyllis in 2004. We talked about her case, and I remember how she emphasized a lot of things, but especially this: everything she did was visual. Everything.
This isn’t the greatest recording -- it’s an old audio tape. And I wish I’d kept a longer version of the interview, but I thought you should hear part of Phyllis’ story in her own voice.
Everything I did was visual. Even bowling. It was a visual thing for me because I’d throw that ball down there and watch how those pins and go, "Okay, well, next time I'll get. Everything was visual.
Phyllis’ daughter, Dianne, said her mom took pictures of everything. She saw beauty everywhere.
Phyllis could name every plant, every flower, every tree – her recall was astonishing.
I think she's got that photographic memory. I mean, she could just remember things just through life that were just insignificant to other people.
Phyllis’ eye for detail was her superpower – and her daughters loved her for that, and for so many other things.
She was a great single mom. She struggled with not having any input from my dad. But she did really well on making sure that we were able to do some things like camping, she got us out into the woods, hiking – things that you would normally be able to do kind of on the cheap, as she called it.
Dianne’s tween friends loved Phyllis too. She reminded them of the most popular mom in seventies pop culture: Mrs. Cunningham, from the iconic TV show, Happy Days.
They were like, "She's so cool." Mrs C was what they called the mom. They said, "Well can we call you Mrs. C?" Sure, go for it! So, she was, I guess, fun-loving would be another way to say it.
On a balmy day in March of 1984 – the kind of day that Northeast Ohioans long for after the bitter cold of winter - Phyllis looked every inch like the “cool mom.”
Oversized sunglasses, purple coat, burgundy boots. Bold colors for a bold woman who was warm and funny, but tough, too.
She's kind of like a, no offense, please don't take it, like a pit bull. Because pit bulls, they're so soft and so cuddly. They're so sweet. But you know what? When you piss them off, they will show teeth.
At 8:20, on a Tuesday morning, Phyllis drove to work like she always did. She pulled her decked-out Buick LeSabre into her normal parking spot – across the street from a business park on Akron’s busy West Exchange Street. And when I say "busy Wes Exchange,” I mean busy. There were gas stations, antique stores, and apartments on this part of West Exchange.
Emily Pelphry, a former Ohio prosecutor and my legal guide for this podcast, spent part of her childhood in Akron. She remembers that part of West Exchange clear as day. It was safe – but, like a lot of neighborhoods in Akron, walk a few blocks and things turned dicey.
When I lived in Akron in the early eighties, we went to a Catholic school and we were allowed to walk those three blocks to Catholic school, but we weren't allowed to go down one street past where we lived, or over two streets.
Because your parents would say it's too dangerous?
It was a very strange atmosphere in that there really just was this delineation of where you knew you could be, and where you couldn’t be, and it was just a very divided city.
Akron, Ohio, is a mid-sized city in the industrial Midwest. It was mired in a deep recession in 1984. Manufacturers had moved their factories down south in search of cheap labor. The unemployment rate was insane – 12 percent.
Crime was a problem, not just in Akron, but across the country.
Politicians ran with that. President Ronald Reagan blamed – “human predators,” “career criminals” whose psyches were not affected by poverty or abuse, but who were born evil – who committed crime “because they could get away with it.”
President Ronald Reagan [archival]:
Just during the time you and I are together today, at least one person will be murdered, nine women will be raped, 67 other Americans will be robbed, 97 will be seriously assaulted and 389 homes will be burglarized. This all will happen in the span of the next 30 minutes, or while I’m talking.
Reagan spoke those words to an audience full of international law enforcement officers. He went onto say:
President Ronald Reagan [archival]:
I commend you for manning the thin blue line that holds back a jungle which threatens to reclaim this clearing we call civilization.
And by “jungle” – well, you know who Reagan meant.
None of that was on Phyllis’ radar as she got out of her car and headed into Murphy’s Siding across West Exchange Street.
As the much-appreciated, much-admired, much-loved office manager and bookkeeper, she had tough day ahead..
Her car, that Buick LeSabre, had been a gift from her boss for a job well-done. He couldn’t afford to pay her more, so he gave her a car so she could get to where she needed to go safely.
The Buick was a distinctive metallic tannish brown, with a black vinyl top and black interior. It was decked out on the inside, too, with a good stereo system, electric locks and tinted windows. These were not standard features in 1984 – they were luxuries on a car back then. Phyllis loved that car. It was her pride and joy.
She had to be out of the office by 11:30 that Tuesday because Murphy’s sponsored two booths at a flower show at the mall. That tight time frame made her anxious.
Other things, personal things, weighed on her too. She was 44 years old. A woman who had endured an abusive relationship so painful she refused to talk about it. A divorced single mom who survived with little financial help from her ex.
Things were better now – 2 of her daughters had moved out of the house to start lives of their own.
Still – these are her words – she “didn’t have a damn thing to show for all those years of working.” Phyllis yearned to change her life. It was time to move on from dead-end jobs, from years of hard work, from a lot of things.
Five years before, Phyllis’ mother drove to a bus station and disappeared. The family had done everything to find her - even hired a private detective. But, nothing. It was as if Phyllis’ mother had simply vanished from the face of the Earth.
Her dad had finally given up – he had Phyllis’ mom declared legally dead. It had been a painful decision for Phyllis. Still was.
She glanced at her watch. It was almost noon. She still had to close down the shop, and pop over to a friend’s nearby apartment to remind him the bowling match was still on – because in 1984 there were no cell phones – she couldn’t call him from her car on the way to the mall.
She was just about to run across the street to her car to take off for the mall, when she remembered she needed to gas up her car.
She turned back to Murphy’s, unlocked the door to get the company credit card.
A young black man, on foot, with a hat pulled down over his eyebrows, noticed all of this. He looked out-of-place, with his hat pulled low and his too-warm clothes, but he looked comfortable too. Like he’d been there before.
Did he have some plan to abduct a woman and rape her? I don't know. Maybe that's what he wanted to do. It seems like that day that was his mindset.
Bob Bulford worked in the Summit County Prosecutor’s office in 1984.
You think, initially, he had his eye on another woman, not Phyllis?
Yeah, I do. I do.
Bulford believes this man had his eye on a young woman he had spotted near Murphy’s a few days before, but when she walked out of the antique store near Murphy’s, the suspect changed his mind. The woman had her children with her – that would make things way too complicated.
So, he needed a new mark. A new victim. He turned his attention to a woman in burgundy boots who carried a purple coat.
It was 11:50AM when a young man approached Phyllis. She had just locked the office door. He asked if the place was closed for the day.
The man was polite. But something about him was off. Like his heavy clothing.
“He must be sweating,” Phyllis thought. Her eye for detail kicked in subconsciously.
Being a visual person, when I saw things, a lot of time they registered in my head. And I remember him wearing maybe tan or khaki, kind of slacks and jacket. He was carrying something and that didn't register later, it was a duffle bag. That's where he had all his stuff in. And he's wearing a knitted cap. And the thing that I didn't realize at the time, but when I thought about it, I thought it was strange because he was either bald or had very little hair because that cap fit kind of tight around his head.
And his eyes. She noticed his eyes. They were large and dark.
Phyllis watched as he walked away, then finished locking up. She slung her heavy coat over her arm – car keys in hand.
At noon Phyllis crossed West Exchange Street. to her car. She unlocked the Buick, heaved her purple coat inside, and as she turned around –
Something heavy, solid, hit her hard in the head. She realized in an instant it was a gym bag. Not the nylon, flimsy kind, but the kind with a hard bottom that hurt.
Phyllis fought, but the man who wielded the gym bag was strong – his body felt like a brick wall. He punched her in the face repeatedly.
She stabbed him with her keys. And then she screamed.
The man tried to push her into the car - she laid on the horn.
Phyllis did all the right things. She fought. Screamed. Beeped the horn. It was broad daylight, in the middle of a city. On busy West Exchange Street.
There was a gas station, a beauty school, a pawn shop and apartments nearby.
Someone should have heard her. Seen her. Helped her.
And she was right. Someone did see her. A man, on foot, on his way home from the grocery store, saw it all.
Samantha is Phyllis’ granddaughter:
If I see a woman yelling for help, being pushed and abused by a man, I'm going to step in and be like, back off, try to get her out of the situation.
But, that man, an ex-con named Terry, walked by. Just. Walked. By.
When he describes what he saw, it's clear that it wasn't just some little spat between a boyfriend and girlfriend or something. It was more serious than that. He saw it, he heard her scream, "Help me, help me." Then he walks a little further and he hears it again. I just don't know how you don't go do something.
But Terry did nothing.
Maybe he would have had cell phones that could take pictures been invented in 1984. Maybe he would have flung his groceries at the attacker if he hadn’t been an ex-con who harbored a deep distrust of police. Maybe.
But on that day — in this man’s mind – the whole thing just looked like a domestic. Just some guy, beatin’ up on his old lady. It wasn’t worth running to a payphone to call police. He was an ex-con – they wouldn’t give him the time of day anyway.
I think people want a knight in shining armor and in that reality there's not a knight in shining armor. It's you and yourself.
You and yourself…and a monster.
Now that would be a nightmare. But a nightmare would mean though, that Phylis would eventually wake up from this horrific encounter. But.. this was no dream for her, it was REAL. What happened on that day changed real lives forever. The events that are about to be described are real and… true.
Voice of the Court:
The victim, Phyllis Cottle, describes the attack that occurred on March 20th, 1984.
Throughout this series, you'll hear excerpts from transcripts and court proceedings. The voice you just heard is our "Voice of the Court," and whenever you hear it, I want you to imagine Phyllis, bravely describing the events that nearly took her life, in minute, horrifying detail.
Voice of the Court:
She was threatened by her attacker, who told her to stop fighting back. He then threatened to kill her.
When Phyllis felt something cold, hard and sharp at her neck – she knew no one would ride to her rescue – there was a knife at her throat.
And this man – with the knit hat, the too-heavy coat, and the heavy gym bag – made it clear what would happen if she continued to fight.
She was like, "I realized very quickly that I was not going to overpower him. There was no option of that. Where most people would fight and try to run and whatever else, she realized, she did try to make a scene. And nobody listened. Everybody thought it was a domestic dispute. And so, she just was like, "Okay, that's not going to work."
It was just Phyllis – and a monster with a serrated knife.
Voice of the Court:
During the attack, Ms. Cottle noticed a witness walking along the road, before being forced into her car and thrown to the floorboard, all while being taunted mercilessly.
Her body was positioned in a pretzel with her face down, she recalls a jacket being put over her head and could no longer see anything but his legs at this point. She was asked if she was aware that she would be raped by her assailant. He drove the car away abducting the victim.
And Phyllis – terrified, her eyes covered with her coat – could not see where he was taking her.
Next week: Terror.
When I was being attacked, 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….