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.
Who Would Do This?
Recovering in her hospital room, Phyllis mines her memory for any details that might help apprehend her attacker. Detective Chris Contos develops theories about what kind of perpetrator the Akron Police Department is dealing with. Carol talks to criminologist Casey Jordan about the mindset of such a criminal, and discusses the question that’s on everyone’s mind: who would do this?
A warning before I begin. This episode contains references to sexual assault.
Tomorrow morning the janitor’s gonna come in here and sweep you out with the rest of the trash. Unless of course you do the honorable thing: get in the elevator, go up the room, and jump off, huh? Haha.
Dallas was the campiest, prime-time TV show going in 1984.
If you wanted to escape reality and immerse yourself in a world inhabited by the stereotype that defined the 80’s – wealthy, greedy, immoral capitalists – Dallas was it.
Phyllis Cottle, her eyes covered with bandages, sat up in her hospital bed and tried to get someone’s attention.
It was 9:45 on Friday night, three days after she was admitted to Akron City Hospital.
In 15 minutes, her favorite TV soap, Dallas would come on TV.
She called out to one of the sheriff’s deputies who guarded her room 24/7 – Delores.
I was assigned up there a Friday night.
What were police afraid of?
He would try to come back in there, and finish what he thought he already done. I'm sure it shocked him that she was able to get out of that car.
For days, Phyllis had mined her memory for any small detail she had inadvertently neglected to tell the detectives investigating her case.
Here’s Phyllis in 2004.
It didn't register in my mind at the time, but I'm laying in that hospital room and all of a sudden I remembered what I saw sitting in the corner. And I rang the bell. I don't know if there was any police around, but I go, "I need to talk to the police. Get a police officer. Anybody." And I said, "I remembered something." And pretty soon, there was somebody there, and I said, "It's a bumper jack. It was in a corner and it looked like a bumper jack.
“It's a bumper jack. It was in the corner, and it looked like a bumper jack.”
I just always think that the last thing she saw was him.
Yeah. She was just focused on remembering little aspects, what had happened so she can get with the detectives and give them all the information she could, was coming back to her. And I think she was just so focused on nailing him, and giving that information.
Phyllis also remembered something else: her attacker had worn some kind of cotton garment with a drawstring under his pants, not underwear. Remembering this awful detail must have been an excruciating, exhausting process.
Phyllis needed a break. She needed – Dallas.
Phyllis comes and goes, “Hey, can you help me get my TV ordered?” And I said, “Yeah, what do you need?” She goes, “Well I want to watch the show Dallas.” Remember it was a big show at the time, and I says, "Oh yeah," I go, that was my favorite, and I told her that. She goes, "Well, would you like to come in here and watch it with me?" And I said, "Let me check with the nurses and stuff." So we talked to them. Phyllis talked to them, and they said, "Sure, go on in and we'll lock the door," and they did, so we ordered Dallas, and we sat there and watched it that night.
So, on that night, Phyllis turned off the memories.
It was just 2 women glued to the TV show Dallas.
One the protector, the other the protected.
One who could see the action, one who could only hear it.
They watched – and listened – transfixed as the shocking end of Season 7 would build to a climax. Someone would shoot the fictional Bobby Ewing in the head.
It would be a tough case – the bullet would blind Bobby.
I’m Carol Costello. This is Blind Rage, Episode 6: WHO WOULD DO THIS?
Detective Chris Contos is the antithesis of TV’s ragey Elliot Stabler. I know – I keep referencing Law and Order SVU.
But, that’s how a lot of people think sex crimes are investigated – how detectives actually do their jobs. And they admire that. There is a YouTube Channel dedicated to the fictional Detective Stabler being a dick.
[Law & Order Clip]
What do you want me to say? That I fantasized about killing the perp?
Yeah, you’re damn right I did. And this time, I fed him my gun and pulled that trigger.
Yeah, I can’t imagine Chris Contos doin’ that.
Contos’ is quiet. Patient. The only things he has in common with Stabler are A) he cared, and B) He was a handsome dude - with thick dark hair, and dark eyes.
In 1986, two years after Phyllis was attacked, Contos investigated Sherri Walsh’s attempted rape.
It was an assault eerily similar to Phyllis’ attack.
Walsh, now the present-day Summit County Prosecutor, was also carjacked at knifepoint, in broad daylight.
Here’s how she describes Detective Contos.
He was very patient. He could see that I was frustrated when I was forgetting things. He was asking for descriptions on what he was wearing and I wasn't entirely sure. And I just was still trying to process the fact that I'm dressed up and I'm leaving to go to work and some mad man with a knife grabs me by the throat, opened, jerks open the car door and you just don't expect that to happen.
But I remember detective Contos just assuring me this is normal, it's okay. You aren't going to remember everything right now. You just went through a horrible trauma, putting a notebook and a pen on my end table in my apartment and saying, "Here's what I want you to do: over the next couple of days, you're going to probably remember things. And every time you remember something, grab that pen and write it down on a piece of paper."
I’d like to believe Contos’ technique was, at the very least, refined by Phyllis Cottle.
In March of 1984, Detective Chris Contos stood in the woods near where Phyllis’ car had been found.
He looked around. Took in the scene.
A footprint had been found near the car – just the outline of a shoe. No treads. Not much help, if any.
A tin can had been found too. Smelled funny. Didn’t know what it was yet.
I suspect Contos played 20 questions while he studied that crime scene.
Why did the suspect drop the car off in this particular spot? Sure, it provided an escape route. But did the suspect live near here?
He had to take off on foot. So where did he go?
[SOUND OF CAR DRIVING]
This place, I haven’t been down here in years.
Today, I’m in a car with Contos. We’re driving through the neighborhood on the other side of that wooded area.
I had a homicide at the house right back there. Yeah, the guy was sitting on the porch on the rail, and the guy came up behind him and stabbed him in the back.
It amazed me how many details Contos remembered over the decades he served.
But, then again, maybe his job is a lot like reporting. Those violent, emotionally-wrought stories stay with you. Forever.
I think he was trying to catch a bus down here and he didn't want to stand out on the road waiting for the bus
Contos figured the guy who attacked Phyllis panicked as he ran from the car. He would have been desperate to get off the streets. He couldn’t risk standing at a bus stop while dozens of police cars responded to what he’d done. That would be too risky. So…where would he go?
But top of mind was – is - the question we all have. Who kind of person would do something like this?
Even with all that you'd experienced, and all the cases you covered, you still thought this was particularly…
Very, very, very difficult and very aggressive, very violent.
What did that tell you about the suspect from the get-go?
I felt it would have been someone who had done some serious crimes before. I mean, it, wasn't a guy's first time. We had serial rapists here that you could see them go through there. At first, it's a certain type of rape, then it gets more aggressive. Then if the victim fights back, he gets more aggressive then he takes a weapon with him too, when he breaks into the house and assault someone. This guy was right at the top, he had the weapon, he did the most vicious thing you could do to someone I believe.
To solve crimes – you have to understand them. You have to understand the criminal mind is not normal – he or she does not reason, does not react the way you or I do.
I want to bring Casey Jordan into the mix.
It wasn't that impulsive of a crime because she had encountered him on the street maybe an hour before he abducted her. So the fantasy was swirling in his mind. She 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.
Casey is a criminologist – and forensic psychologist.
It’s a frenzy at the very end, an absolute frenzy. There us 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.
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.”
Not that he has any regret. He could have easily made sure that she was dead, but he did not, and that's just sloppy. That's not him having remorse or having regret or hoping she escapes. That's just him in a frenetic final denouement to several hours of horrific crime, just being sloppy and trying to get out of there.
As a young reporter at WAKR – I only knew the most salacious part of what happened to Phyllis – not all the details I am sharing with you now.
As I told you, Detective Contos was off-limits to reporters. Everything went through a police PR mouthpiece or the Chief of Detectives. And they told us squat.
That fueled our speculation, and later our collective aggression toward getting Phyllis on camera.
Yeah, there was that – but that’s a story for later.
Here’s Mark Williamson – WAKR/TV23’s anchor.
A psychologist would probably say, it was his way of making it impossible for her to, not just see, but I mean in the big picture, it's kind of blinding her to everything that happened, if you look at it metaphorically.
It’s how we talked about the back then – and talk about it today. Of course, we’re not experts. Back to Casey Jordan, the criminologist.
I also found it unusual that he targeted a 44-year-old woman because isn't it usually young women, or do I have that wrong?
It has to do with vulnerability more than anything. The choice of victim can be something very personal. Sometimes we have attackers like this who are triggered by sublimation, if you will, that their victim reminds them of someone or symbolizes a type of victim, the persona of which they want to destroy, a mission-oriented killer or attacker or rapist.
You’re about to hear our “voice of the court.” This is part of Phyllis’ testimony:
VOICE OF THE COURT:
“At one point he said, Well, do you know why I do this? And, I said, No. And, he said, Well, I don’t just rape white women. I rape black women.
Later he said, A white man had set up my mother for a black man to rape and murder her.”
But if, indeed, Phyllis was the first white woman he attacked, what he said to her – this is based on Phyllis's words in court – that not all his victims were Black, really does indicate that he had done this before. But here's the indication of paranoia, that all the women he attacked had all lied. And that makes me wonder if the police had questioned him in the past and that he was, if you will, being a grudge collector. He was building up his anger and paranoia about the women he had attacked who had informed the police, perhaps even threatened them so that they never followed through. But he seemed to be plagued with the idea that Phyllis, as a white woman, if she called the police, the police might pay attention.
VOICE OF THE COURT:
The suspect asked, “Are you going to go to the police?”
Ms. Cottle replied, “I promise you I won’t go to the police.
The suspect then said, “You lied to me. You’ll go to the police. They all went to the police.”
They all lied. Why even say that to Phyllis? And the fact that he said he hated white people makes you wonder if something recently had happened in his life that triggered it. It could be something as simple as a female White clerk in a store looking down her nose at him if he took too long to count out his change. It could be something like that because it would balloon huge in his mind where Phyllis simply symbolized a type of victim he wanted to destroy. It wasn't personal, they had never met before. But for some reason he chose her. And I suspect in his paranoia, if indeed he had signs of schizophrenia, it would just become larger than life. He would symbolically try to attack Phyllis for what she stood for, not who she was.
The top brass in the Akron Police Department were painfully aware of the kind of criminal responsible for Phyllis’ attack, and they knew he’d do it again unless they threw every resource they had at him.
We thought we got to get him off the street. I mean, it's not going to be a… we got to get this guy. That's why we put so much effort, the whole police department, patrol, Detective Bureau, and everybody. We really had a lot of people working on the case.
How many people would you say?
I know we had every shift. Our shift in Detective Bureau was the biggest. All our unit was on it. So, we had maybe 10 or 12 guys in our unit. But that's our shifts only, then the next shift and the shift after that worked on it too, and we got the information off the patrol. And these guys, they'll stop people, they stopped people on the street and they cleared them themselves, they brought guys in
Detectives worked on the premise that this guy had to be in the system – the clunky, system-that-was-the-system back the dark ages.
There were no central computers in the 80’s. You couldn’t punch in similar crimes and come up with a list of offenders.
Police had to rely on tips, sources or their partners.
And hope someone came up with a likely suspect.
NEXT WEEK: MANHUNT
So this is a neighborhood bar. The guy has never been in there before. He was nervous, walking, pacing back and forth. Well, he called a cab. And to me, that was the greatest thing happened right there, for us. The dumbest thing for him.