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.

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Prologue

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Veteran journalist Carol Costello introduces the story of Phyllis Cottle, examining the case itself and its unimaginable cruelty, as well as the story of the victim who became a determined, heroic detective in the pursuit of justice.

Carol:

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.

[Police Sirens]

Voice:

It was one of those days that – I could remember it so vividly, it was like something if you heard like when John F. Kennedy was killed, you knew what you were doing. You knew what the day was like.

Carol:

I remember that day, too. It was March 20, 1984. That was the day Northeast Ohio – and the nation – first heard about the bravest woman in the world, who suffered a crime so brutal it forced people to ask themselves if they could have survived.

Or if they would have wanted to.

Mark:
There was this woman in Akron, Ohio that was, I don’t even what the word for it is…brutalized as an object of a vicious human being who hated women.

Carol:

I used to work with Mark Williamson back in the day. He anchored the news on Akron, Ohio’s only local TV news station, TV23.

[Clip of Mark’s 1980s newscast sign-on]

Carol:

He remembers that day too.

Mark:
So to take a knife. I mean, it's almost, it’s so inhumane – it's beyond anything that anybody can imagine. Stab me in the gut, stab me in the back, cut my carotid, whatever you want to do, but don't do that! That says something way beyond vicious.

Carol:

I’m Carol Costello. I’ve been an anchor and reporter for a long time – 18 of those years at CNN.

I’ve covered every kind of tragedy imaginable. 9-11. Hurricane Katrina, the Pulse nightclub massacre.

They were difficult stories to cover, but most stories – even emotionally heart-wrenching stories – I was able to leave at work.

But other stories – like the story I covered when I was a rookie reporter – I can’t shake. It has stayed with me all of these years.

Not because of the brutality, but because of the survivor, Phyllis Cottle.

She gets under your skin.

I’ve never met another person like her – who used her intelligence, courage, and tenaciousness to transcend what happened to her. I talked with Phyllis’ daughter, Dianne.

Dianne:
His mindset was he was out to kill her. That's where he was. His mind, he was going to have a little bit of fun and then kill her, and go on about his business like it was an average day.

Carol:

A lot of people ask me why I waited so long to share Phyllis’ story.

Good question!

I started writing her story dozens of times over the years, only to suffer frustrating periods of writers’ block.

That is unusual for me. I can write a news story in like – a minute. But not Phyllis’.

A friend of mine – a psychologist - told me he understood why. Writer’s block, he said, “is a smoke detector – it detects your emotional trauma – and, at some point, when you’re ready, it forces you to fix things.”

Maybe he’s right. But I’m not ready to bare my soul – this is Phyllis’ story, not mine. I do know that “fixing things” would thrill Phyllis – who told me years ago:

Phyllis:
When something happens to somebody, you have choices. And, like I said, one of them is to sit in a corner and let yourself be buried with pity and bitterness and hatred.

Carol:

In other words, she said, “it’s your choice – but you can’t sit in a corner and cry the rest of your life.” Phyllis was that kind of woman.

So, it’s time for me to share Phyllis’ story – all of it.

Luckily, I found someone to help me do that. Her name is Emily Pelphry. She’s a former prosecutor who has tried dozens of cases, including rape and murder. She now coaches pre-law students at Denison University. And she loves to examine cold cases.

Emily – I can’t thank you enough.

Emily:

Absolutely. Thank you. I'm honored to be a part of it.

Carol:

It's just such an interesting case, right?

Emily:
It's a very interesting case. And I think what makes it very interesting is the environment, what was going on with women’s rights at the time and just how quickly the case came to fruition. I think there are a lot of things with circumstantial evidence that play into this case, along with eyewitness testimony. So, all of those things make this very interesting.

Carol:

And it could get even more…interesting. If that’s the right word.

The man convicted of the crimes against Phyllis has never admitted guilt – which, of course, doesn’t mean he is innocent. He was convicted by a jury of his peers. His sentence? 290 years. After he was convicted - he bombarded her with angry letters.

Here’s Dianne.

Carol:
Did he ever admit to doing it?

Dianne:

No. He was writing letters to my mom saying that he had the wrong guy and she's all wrong. Then the letters kind of turned to a more nasty nature. Saying that she was going to burn in hell because she got him in prison and he's innocent and blah blah blah. And I finally told her, I said, "You know what, don't even open them. Just throw them in the trash."

Carol:

But this man – Samuel Herring – never stopped trying to get out of prison. He’s still trying. And it’s possible he may succeed. There’s a push today to release prisoners – even violent prisoners – who’ve been incarcerated for decades. Herring is in his 60’s now – experts say he is unlikely to hurt anyone else.

But there’s another reason Herring may get his freedom. I’ll tell you about that – later. It’s just too insane for me to talk about it now.

What I can tell you now is that Phyllis’ family is angry about it.

They’ve worked for decades to keep this man in prison for the rest of his life. They’ve collected thousands of letters from the community urging the parole board to deny and keep on denying Herring’s parole.

In 2019, the last time Herring was up for parole – a full 37 years after his conviction – the number of letters was so overwhelming the parole board finally asked Phyllis’ family to “please stop it with the letters, we get it.”

Drew is one of Phyllis’ granddaughters.

Drew:
Because he has a vengeance. He is angry. That's clear. I mean, he's still being violent. She has me, she has a daughter. I have two kids. Our family members have kids and daughters. And you don't know what somebody like that is – I mean you know what they're capable of – but at what point are they going to stop? Is he going to stop with just her? Is he gonna keep coming? That's why we make it such a point to get everyone that we know to write letters, emails, phone calls, all of it.

Carol:

The effort to keep this man – this monster – behind bars, is even more urgent now that Phyllis has passed away.

Samantha, another grandchild, promised on her grandmother’s deathbed to make sure Herring stays in prison for the rest of his life.

Samantha:
No matter what, I'm going to be this guy's worst nightmare. I'm going to be there and I'm going to fight. No matter what I got to do, I'm going to keep her wish alive, and I'm going to honor that wish.

Carol:

So here’s what we’re going to do: we’re going to examine the case against Phyllis’ attacker, yes. But we’re going to make sure you know Phyllis’ story.

Because this is a story about a survivor turned detective - who became an indispensable part of the team investigating the crime against her.

And – in the process – Phyllis became a hero for every woman who yearned to be heard, to be taken seriously, to not only survive, but thrive.

Phyllis Cottle was one badass woman – and you should know her name.

Next week: That Day

[Music]

Drew:
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.

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