Decades later, Bergen County teen slayings remain unsolved
Aug. 9, 1974, started out as an ordinary summer Friday for Nancy Pryor, who, at 19, never could have imagined how this day would become an awful anniversary she’d be marking 42 years later.
She saw no red flags when sister Mary Ann left their North Bergen home, headed to a Paramus mall with Lorraine Marie Kelly to shop for a new bathing suit for a trip to the Jersey Shore.
“She said, ‘We’ll go to the mall. We’ll take the bus.’ And to me, it was perfectly normal. We took buses everywhere,” Pryor recalled. “So, that was probably early afternoon, and I said, ‘All right. I guess I’ll see you later.’ ”
She never did. That was, in fact, the last time Pryor ever saw her only sibling alive. Five days later, the nude, battered bodies of 17-year-old Mary Ann Pryor and 16-year-old Lorraine Kelly were found facedown in a wooded area in Montvale. Although theories abound about potential suspects — including River Vale-bred convicted serial killer Richard Cottingham — their murders are still unsolved.
At her Ocean County home on a recent August afternoon, the week before the anniversary of the teens’ disappearance, Pryor talked about the feisty, big-hearted little sister she still dearly misses, the unsolved homicides that joined the ranks of North Jersey’s most notorious cold cases — and the day that had started out so innocently.
“To be like this for 42 years, without her and without answers, is just brutal. Brutal,” said Pryor, now 61 and a widow who, without children of her own, can’t help imagining what might have been. “It’s all up to me, and all I want is some answers. I can’t bring her back. I can’t share an adult life with her and with her possible husband and children. What would life be like?”
Every few months, for more than four decades, Pryor has checked in with detectives from the Bergen County Prosecutor’s Office, which lists the Kelly/Pryor slayings in an “unsolved cases” section of its website (bcpo.net). They are among nine “cold case” homicides.
In an hourlong interview on Friday, two Prosecutor’s Office detectives — Deputy Chief Robert Anzilotti and Lt. James McMorrow, head of the office’s Major Crimes Unit — spoke with The Record about Bergen County cold cases in general and the Kelly/Pryor slayings.
“For both Jimmy and I, [this] haunts us as one that we desperately would like to solve,” Anzilotti said. “Every cold case that we have, every homicide that we have, obviously we want to solve. But both of us having daughters ourselves, this one is one we’d love to bring closures for the families and bring somebody to justice.”
When families of victims call, McMorrow said, “We’ll always take their call, we’ll always speak to them, we’ll try to give them whatever kind of information we can, but the information we can provide is obviously very limited.”
“Nancy Pryor is still very much involved, to this day, in the investigation of her sister’s death.”
It’s something she can’t, won’t ever forget — the timeline forever seared into her memory.
Her parents, Wanda and James, were not home, and Nancy had plans to go out.
“Mary Ann had to be home by 10 o’clock, and she was anxious to get back home, because she was going to pack and go down the Shore,” said Pryor. “When I came home close to probably midnight, the door opened before I could put my key in and my mother was standing at the door and she’s like, ‘Where is your sister?’… Of course, she started panicking.”
The house rule was that “We had a dime and we would use the phone booth and call and say we’re gonna be late.”
In this era, long before cellphones or Google news searches, the Pryors started making phone calls. Lorraine’s family, who lived on 71st Street, hadn’t heard from her either. Nor had Mary Ann’s boyfriend, Sal Rubiano, who’d grown up in North Bergen but had moved with his family to Georgia.
“They were calling me up, just on the outside chance that maybe they took off to come join me down in Georgia,” recalled Rubiano, who hadn’t heard from the girls, but promised to call if he did.
They also contacted the North Bergen Police Department, only to be told to wait 24 hours to report the teens as missing persons, because they might be “runaways.” The Pryors knew better, but had no choice but to wait.
As the nation obsessed over Richard Nixon’s Aug. 9 resignation, the Pryors waited for news on Mary Ann.
“After no sleep, my parents were too distraught to do anything. They manned the phones and we had the news on constantly,” Pryor said. “And I immediately started going out searching. I went by everybody I thought she knew’s house. Nobody’d seen her. Nobody’d heard from her. I just roamed the streets calling her name: ‘Mary Ann, Mary Ann, where are you?’ ”
Pryor keeps a binder with news stories from the time. To read them today is to get some small sense of the families’ journey from worried disbelief to raised hopes to unimaginable horror.
“Of course there were sightings, supposedly,” recalled Pryor, citing one of many false reports. “A waitress in a Union City diner said, ‘Oh, I saw them. They ate here,’ and we got all excited. … [But] it was never them. A lot of the girls back then looked exactly the same. Their hair was parted in the middle, long and straight. So, that was a big, huge let-down. Everybody thought maybe they were helping. But it just made it harder for us, because we had hope.”
And then, on Aug. 14, all hopes were dashed.
“We had, of course, 1010 WINS on the radio. We were sitting in the kitchen and a breaking news report comes on — ‘Two female bodies have been found in Montvale. Could it be the missing girls from North Bergen?’ And then, just right after that, the knock came on the door and it was the detectives. They said, ‘We need you to come with us. We want to take you to identify a body. It’s possible it’s her.’ ”
Wanda Pryor was so distraught that she fainted, and detectives stopped at a nearby doctor’s office to get her Valium before continuing to the coroner’s office.
“I was just numb. I was angry,” said Pryor, who deeply resented the “sea of reporters” outside their Second Avenue apartment.
She remembers the families being first taken to separate areas to identify pieces of jewelry recovered from the bodies.
“As soon as I saw the cross, I knew it was her,” Pryor said of a gold cross on a necklace that Mary Ann’s godfather had given to her. “But I still didn’t believe it.”
She and her mom were then taken to the window of a viewing room. “My father couldn’t. My father had a nervous disability. … They only open the curtain partially. She was covered, except for her face, because the body was bruised and already starting to [decompose] and I said, ‘That’s not my sister.’ … My mother didn’t say a word. … But they gave us like a few more seconds, and in my heart, I knew it was her.”
“I still have that image in my head and that was 42 years ago. … That’s something you can’t erase.”
Lorraine Kelly was reportedly found with a beaded bracelet and a necklace with the inscription “Lorraine and Ricky,” a reference to boyfriend Ricky Molinaro. Lorraine had lost her mother to cancer just two months before and her father to emphysema five years before that, according to news reports. At the time of her death, she was living with her three older siblings — Thomas, 23, Maureen, 21, and John, 19. The Record could only locate a number for Thomas, now living in Arizona, and he did not respond to a call for comment.
They were waked in separate rooms at Vainieri Funeral Home, in closed caskets topped with a photo of each girl, Pryor recalled. On Aug. 21, they had a joint funeral Mass at Our Lady of Fatima in North Bergen, their caskets side by side.
The Rev. George O’Gorman referred in his eulogy to police reports that the girls had been picked up while hitchhiking, and then abused sexually and murdered, according to a story in The Record. He urged young teenagers, who packed the church, to let the girls’ deaths be a warning about hitchhiking. The Record ran several articles about police concerns about the dangers of hitchhiking, a common practice at the time.
But Pryor never knew her sister to be a hitchhiker. “It was an easy time for … people who especially wanted to abuse young girls. They were vulnerable. There were no cellphones, there was really no video cameras that would pick anything up,” McMorrow said. “There was a lot of hitchhiking that happened in those days.”
It was an era, in fact, when several serial killers were later found to have been operating in Bergen County, including Richard Kuklinski of Dumont (who died in 2006 in the prison wing of a Trenton hospital), Robert Reldan of Tenafly (though imprisoned in the summer of 1974, he later went on to kill two Bergen County women) now incarcerated at New Jersey State Prison, where Cottingham, of Lodi, is serving a life sentence.
Retired Bergen County Chief of Detectives Alan Grieco has strong suspicions that the Kelly/Pryor murders were committed by Cottingham, whom Grieco and his partner at the time, Ed Denning, interviewed following his initial arrest in the parking lot of a Hasbrouck Heights motel on May 22, 1980. After a maid overheard a scuffle in a guest room, local police were called to the scene. (The 18-year-old prostitute he was with survived.) Earlier that month, the body of another prostitute (whom Cottingham was later convicted of killing) was found under a bed at the same motel. And Cottingham had previously dumped the body of another victim, X-ray technician MaryAnn Carr of Little Ferry, behind that motel in 1977. Cottingham was also found guilty in New York of the mutilation murders of three prostitutes. And in 2010, he pleaded guilty to killing Nancy Vogel, a Little Ferry mother, in 1967. Paperwork documenting the guilty plea states Cottingham killed Vogel in Montvale, the same town where the North Bergen teens were found.
Grieco believes that Cottingham, who was into “S&M bondage” and abusing his victims, “most definitely” could have killed the two girls, “because there were many similarities between the way that Kelly/Pryor were found and the torture methods” he used. However, there was no direct evidence linking him to the killings, he said.
Grieco became even more suspicious after Cottingham reached out to him a couple of times over the years looking for favors in exchange for sharing some secrets.
During one visit, Grieco said the killer told him and Denning, “ ‘You did good detective work, but you got one thing wrong.’ … He said, ‘You didn’t go back far enough.’ And suddenly, naturally, the bell went off in my head and I said, this guy is going to tell us that he started years before.”
In addition to alluding to Vogel’s murder, Grieco said Cottingham had also vaguely referenced other crimes, once saying, “ ‘I remember picking up a couple of girls, by one of the malls, on one of the highways, or near one of the highways,’ and he said, ‘I disposed of them out of the area,’ ” Grieco recalled, saying they could not get a deal approved.
Anzilotti and McMorrow said they can’t comment on whether Cottingham — or anyone else — is a suspect in the Pryor/Kelly case, but Anzilotti said, “I wouldn’t rule anything out and certainly there were serial killers that were active in Bergen and the surrounding area during this time frame.”
Nor can the detectives comment on time of death, cause of death, theories of the case (whether the murders were committed by one killer or more than one), specific injuries to the teens or how they were killed, because, McMorrow said, “these are the intimate details of the crime that sometimes only the killer would know.”
What Anzilotti will say is that “We do not believe that they were killed where they were found, but we do not know exactly where they were killed.”
Asked if they think they’ll solve this before they retire, McMorrow said, “Well, we’re going to give it 100 percent, we can guarantee you that.”
Mary Ann still lives on in the lives of those who loved her.
“She was just a very, very nice person. More quiet or shy. Lorraine was a little more outgoing,” said Rubiano, who was introduced to her by Lorraine.
Rubiano, now a grandfather who still lives in Georgia, said of Mary Ann, “Throughout my life, I really felt she was the first person who loved me,” he said. “It does stay with you your whole life.”
Pryor, who has remained friends with Rubiano through the years, chuckles when asked to describe her sister. “Mary Ann, she was a feisty one, let me tell you,” she said. “She had a heart of gold. She’d give me a hard time maybe about borrowing her shirt, but she’d say, ‘Oh, if you really want it, you can.’ But she had to make sure she’d give me a hard time about it first. Extremely feisty.”
Those memories help fuel Pryor’s vigil.
“I keep saying, before my time comes, I’d love some answers, and I never give up hope that we will get them.”