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.
The Living Homicide Victim
Police, fire fighters, and reporters descend on the smoldering crime scene. In an emergency room at Akron City Hospital, medical staff tend to Phyllis while detectives attempt to interview her. The biggest question of all isn't whether she'll lose her vision, but whether her memory superpowers will be enough to catch the bastard who did this to her.
A warning before I begin: this is a story that includes graphic descriptions of violence.
It was late afternoon, the warmth of the spring day, gone.
Cops, firefighters, crime scene photographers, reporters flooded the corner of Myra and Keck. That included me.
An Akron police lieutenant took questions. I can still see him: a middle-aged guy who looked like someone’s uncle, although to a 22-year-old, every man over 30 looked like someone’s middle-aged uncle.
Coincidentally, on that same day, there had been another grisly crime – a rape and murder – five blocks from where Phyllis rolled out of that car. The crimes were not connected, but police didn’t know that then.
So this lieutenant had to be sweating under his starched uniform. Two violent crimes that involved women – in a city with a rape problem.
I have no idea what it felt like to be a police officer that day. But I learned what it felt like to be in the middle of a bunch of reporters who were hyper-competitive. It’s sort of like being in a mosh pit at a concert.
There were newspaper, radio, and TV reporters with their photographers – who were armed with huge cameras and recording decks. It was ’84 – TV gear back then was of prehistoric proportions, like the size of a Tyrannosaurus Rex.
Every time I opened my mouth to shout-out a carefully thought-out question, so I wouldn’t sound green, or worse – stupid - some other reporter shouted over me or beat me to the punch.
The police lieutenant tried to tame the beast, but he had nothing.
The Akron Beacon Journal quoted him: “Both crimes are extremely violent,” he said. “They have stirred the emotions of the community. We are concentrating every effort to solve these crimes.”
He added there were “No suspects. And that “Both crimes are real whodunnits.” He ended with, “We have assigned officers from other divisions to work on these crimes.”
It was so 1950’s Perry Mason – with that “real who-dunnit” line. To say it underwhelmed reporters would be an understatement.
But police didn’t have much choice. There was little evidence to go on.
A burned-out car.
A rape victim who could not see.
Who told them what the assailant looked like, but could not tell – or show them – where she had been assaulted.
Police knew she had been stabbed, but – they couldn’t find the knife.
It would not be long until what happened to Phyllis Cottle leaked – and once people eventually learned of the total brutality of the crime, it seemed to give credence to what President Reagan had said just a few years prior:
"The truth is that today's criminals for the most part are not desperate people seeking bread for their families; crime is the way they've chosen to live."
And, on that day – it was hard to dispute that.
I’m Carol Costello. This is Blind Rage Episode 4: THE LIVING HOMICIDE VICTIM
Sometime between 4 and 5pm, paramedics wheeled Phyllis into Akron City Hospital.
Emergency room personnel took one look at her and gasped.
They heard about her injuries from paramedics at the scene, but the doctors and nurses – people used to treating catastrophic injuries – found themselves unprepared for what they saw.
Here’s me talking to Dianne, Phyllis’ daughter, about what the surgeon said when her mother was brought into the emergency room.
He said that Phyllis' injuries were worse than anything he had witnessed in Vietnam.
I don't doubt that. Because looking at her, just a couple of days out, she looked like she had went 12 rounds with a pro-boxer because he did a number on her. I mean, he beat her to the point that I think he was hoping that she honestly would die.
Doctors hovered over Phyllis. Nurses tried to tend to her. Detectives tried to ask questions. Confusion reigned.
What to do first? Allow detectives to talk with her? Rush her into surgery? Collect evidence from her body for a rape kit?
Fred Zuch, a former prosecutor, talked with the emergency room doctor on duty that day. I interviewed him back in 2004. The recording is not great, so listen closely.
This would bother anybody. Take the emergency room physician, I mean, what does he see? And it upset him. And…he candidly admitted that, about how much turmoil that emergency room was when she came in when they learned what happened. They didn’t know what direction to go.
I remember the guy saying, “I didn’t really know what to do.” He said, “I didn’t know who to call, I didn’t know whether to call eye people, I didn’t know whether to call other surgeons…”
And I said, “Well, what was her condition?” He says, “The calmest person in the room when we were trying to figure out what to do was Phyllis”.
The calmest person in that emergency room was Phyllis.
You would think the lead detectives in Phyllis’ case would have been urgently called into their lieutenant’s office on that first day, and read the riot act: “Drop what you’re doing! Get to the scene! We’ve got to find this guy! Women are terrified. The media is up our ass. But do it by the book!”
You know, just like it happens on Law and Order SVU.
But, real life is not like that. It’s much more…mundane. You’ve met Chris Contos - one of the lead detectives on Phyllis’ case.
I heard just like everybody else. A lady was assaulted and raped. And I knew that we were going to have the case handled. We're going to handle the case the next day.
Did you know many of the details of what happened?
No. As you go on, people are talking, heard about the eyes, things like that. But I didn't know, if it's a friend of hers that did it to her. If it was a stranger, I didn't know that kind of stuff.
The man that would lead the investigation into one of the most sensational crimes in Akron’s history heard about it on the news.
Not so surprising. Detective Chris Contos was busy that day – as he was most days. He was one of two detectives – TOTAL – in Akron’s sex crimes unit.
He and his partner, Gary Moss were working dozens of other cases in Akron on March 20th, including rape, child sex abuse, and domestic violence cases. They were overwhelmed.
That time around the ‘80s, sex crimes was the top crime at the time, the important serious crime to investigate right now. I don't know why, even over homicides.
The problem so urgent - police, along with the prosecutor’s office and the hospitals developed rape protocol kits. They’re routine now – but were not always used in 1984.
Detectives were thrilled – rape kits meant specially trained doctors could take hair clippings, vaginal swabs, oral swabs, nail clippings and blood samples from victims to help police.
Phyllis would be among the first victims to undergo this awful, but necessary procedure.
So, that first day, when you heard about her injuries, did it register how serious the injuries were?
I didn't know how a guy can look at a victim and stab her in the eyes. She might have even, I didn't know if she had her head covered or what. But I just think that's so vicious. I mean, that's … about as bad as you can be.
It was – is – hard to understand, even for Contos.
Casey Jordan is a friend of mine. She’s also a criminologist, and forensic psychologist. She has studied the ‘why’ of crime for decades.
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.
…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."
Contos and his partner were not only dealing with a rare crime, but an especially terrifying crime. That meant pressure - enormous pressure to make an arrest – like right NOW.
They had one huge advantage: Phyllis survived.
Had she died in that car, detectives would have faced daunting challenges.
They would likely not know about the sexual assault - the body would have been burned beyond recognition. It would have been impossible to determine whether a sexual assault had occurred.
Had Phyllis died, detectives would not have had even a basic description of the criminal.
They would have had no idea of exactly what happened, where the crime started, what happened at the house, the bank, the car – everything. It’s not like there were cameras everywhere in ’84.
Phyllis’ survival was crucial to solving this case.
Phyllis, as we find out, she's not a shrinking violet. She is a woman who fought back. She is a woman who screamed, honked her horn. She did everything. So, in many ways, he chose his victim not wisely. If he had chosen a teenage girl, far more likely he would've been able to get away with it.
Helpful for detectives except for one thing:
Phyllis was still a blind, traumatized victim. Doctors said there was a chance she could regain her sight, but that wasn’t a given.
So, detectives and prosecutors had to treat this case differently. They had to come up with a solid game plan.
Former Summit County Prosecuting attorney, Bob Bulford:
You treated this case, and Phyllis, as a living homicide…
Yes. I remember talking to Chris Contos and maybe, Moss. I remember when they were trying to investigate this. It’s like, you got to do this like a murder case because you don't really have someone who can point and say, "He did that to me." You have to treat it like a murder case. You have to put it all together like you'd put together a murder case.
Did the case seem like it was going to be impossible to solve?
I don't think it seemed like it was going to be impossible to solve.
Difficult, but I'm always pretty optimistic that something's going to break. Some way you're going to figure it out.
But at the very get-go, did it look grim?
Yeah. I think so. At the get-go.
In short – they had a victim who could not see. Who could not look at a composite and say, “Yeah, that’s close.” Who could not participate in a police line-up and say, “It’s that guy, number three.”
They were dealing with a living homicide victim
There was also no guarantee Phyllis’ memories would prove accurate.
Former prosecutor Emily Pelphry:
She was right from the start making comments about what happened to her. 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. It's an utterance that happens at that moment. And she's saying it not knowing whether or not she's going to survive.
A lot has been learned over the past forty years in how to investigate sexual assault cases. You want to minimize the number of times that that individual is having to tell their story.
Because sometimes, victims’ memories vary or change. Or later, they block all memories of their trauma.
Here’s current Summit County Prosecutor Sherri Walsh:
Women continue to be ashamed when they are victims of sexual assault, and they continue to blame themselves. A lot of victims in general blame themselves, and maybe more so with sexual assaults. That just tends to be a natural response to victims, because there are always things that you in hindsight can think about and say to yourself, "I should have done this instead," or, "I wish I had done this instead." It's really easy to go back and second guess.
And sometimes - inadvertently - detectives reinforce a victim’s belief that she was somehow to blame with ill-chosen words or a gesture or a look.
All of this matters because – let’s face it – if victims’ stories change or they are emotionally unable to share what happened to them in court, they will be challenged by defense attorneys, and that can be…ugly.
So detectives going into that crucial first sit-down interview with their living homicide victim – were anxious.
So, going in to interview Phyllis, what was your state of mind?
We just didn't know what to expect.
Because you didn't think that she would be forthcoming?
First of all I didn't think she'd be well enough to answer the questions, but we did check and we made sure the doctor told us we could talk to her. And, the nurses told us we could be in there. I think the nurse was in the room with us and I think maybe a family member of her’s.
When detectives sat down beside Phyllis’ hospital bed, along with a nurse and Phyllis’ youngest daughter, they saw a vulnerable woman.
Her eyes were covered in bandages, her face swollen, her neck scratched and bruised.
What they could not see was the quiet rage that boiled inside Phyllis Cottle.
The first words out of her mouth – I mean, I couldn't remember them. But it just right away made us more comfortable. She's talking to us. “Oh, hi officers or detectives.”
So, wait a minute. This victim whose, I mean, she's been strangled…
…she's been stabbed. She's been... tried to murder her…
And she made you guys feel at ease.
Oh, that's the whole thing with her. She always made us feel at ease. It wasn't one of these things that, “I'm tired of talking to you. You guys talked to me ten times already. I don't want to talk to you again.” It was not like that. She was willing and helpful, very helpful.
Phyllis pulled all of those memories she had filed away to the surface.
The bump the car went over indicating her assailant turned on Cedar Street. The dark-colored gym bag. His large, dark eyes. His distinctive gloves. The light greenish, wooden steps leading up to a musty-smelling house.
She told detectives the house had no heat, but it was daylight, so she didn’t know if it had electricity.
She said the house was “one-room-wide.” That the road to the house was on a “paved street.”
She told detectives she glimpsed an old coffee pot, an electrical cord, and dirty green carpeting from beneath her coat.
And she repeated over and over that she saw a blue house with a black eagle across the way. This is the voice of the court:
Voice of the Court:
Ms. Cottle stated, “I’m sitting like this and I looked completely to my left, out that door and I saw the end of a white house. Then, this way, was this blue house with the white trim and the black eagle. I believe it was like…in the gable. It was up fairly high because this was a two-two-and-a-half story, three-story home. And then he slammed the trunk down and I didn’t want him to catch me looking up.”
Phyllis’ manner was so calm, her memories so clear and consistent – that when I read them today it just seems – impossible.
Her 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
She almost acted as her own detective.
Yeah, she was really good and she's a great person to talk to, strong. Strong.
She said she felt like a member of the team.
Well, she was, she was the team. She led the investigation real well. She was the leader of the team.
Still, in those early days of the investigation there was anxiety about the ‘leader of the team.’
Detectives suspected – but were not certain – that Phyllis’ memories would prove accurate.
And there was little physical evidence.
No knife. No fingerprints.
And…no rape house.
Think of the ‘what-if’s’ –
What If they found a house they suspected to be the house, and Phyllis’ memories of what was inside didn’t match or were removed? What then?
Could detectives obtain a warrant to search a suspected house if they could not provide good reasons to go into someone’s home?
What if Phyllis had imagined that freedom flyer? Or mistook where she had seen it?
But detectives had little choice -
They had to go all-in on a traumatized, oddly composed victim who could not see.
And hope her memories proved accurate.
NEXT WEEK: EPISODE 5: WHO WOULD DO THIS?
It's a frenzy at the very end. An absolute frenzy. There is no logic to it. There was logic leading all the way up to his decision to stab her in the eyes and his decision to set the car on fire. That is pure panic. He is no longer organized. He is decompensating. It's as if he's been operating in a fantastical fugue. And now reality is really setting in.