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A dancer’s secret life and savage murder

How did an aspiring Broadway dancer end up murdered in her Upper East Side apartment? Keith Morrison reports.
Catherine Woods, seen in 2001, told her family she was working in off-Broadway shows. AP

There is, in all the world, only one Broadway. Its whose tantalizing promise is so irresistible to countless thousands, including —  in this harsh tale of the city — a hopeful young woman from Ohio named Catherine. 

Catherine Woods wanted it so badly. She became, herself, a Broadway tragedy. 

Her story begins as well as anyone’s could, accompanied by the rousing presence of the Ohio State marching band.

Catherine’s father is Dr. Jon Woods. He is the director, and symbol of the beloved Ohio State University marching band.

Holly Hollingsworth, local reporter with WCMH-TV, Columbus: Dr. Woods means a lot to the community. Her dad is such a great artist and musician. And she was just pursuing the same dream.

Her dream was dance. Tracy Wholf, a dance classmate, says Catherine was "wonderful." She shared dance lessons with Catherine for 10 years. 

Tracy Wholf, dance classmate: She was diligent. She always had a drive and a focus.

She had so much drive that when Catherine finished high school, she decided she would take on Broadway. She moved to New York in 2002, and launched into an endless round of auditions, dance classes, workouts at the gym, odd jobs to pay for it all.

Wholf: That was a really risky step for her to take, to go straight from high school and come to New York.

She wasn’t entirely alone. Catherine lived with her Ohio boyfriend, David Haughn. And even after they broke up, they remained roommates. Their apartment was modest, but in one of the safest areas in town— the Upper East side. Crime in that neighborhood makes news.

Catherine’s brutal death
It was Thanksgiving weekend when Catherine’s throat had been slashed. The attack particularly savage.

In his fog of grief, Dr. Jon Woods came from Ohio to claim her body.

But who would want to extinguish this beautiful young life?  And why?

The clues
There were some clues: Someone on a cell phone had made seven calls to Catherine in rapid succession just before she was killed. And a bloody fingerprint was left in the apartment.

Police focused their attention on Haughn, the roommate and ex-boyfriend.

He claimed he’d gone to get his car to drive Catherine to work, and returned some 20 minutes later to find her dead. The story sounded suspicious, but Haughn was surprisingly cooperative.

Jonathan Dienst, local reporter with WNBC, New York: He was cooperating fully. "Take my DNA.” “Take my fingerprints.” “I don’t need a lawyer.” “I will help you anyway I can.”

But if not Haughn, then who?

Secrets uncovered
There’s a merciless business to homicide investigations: Secrets, once inviolate, are yanked from the dark where perhaps they should have stayed. Catherine’s secret was what she did to survive in her expensive city of dreams.

Dienst: She took to dancing in topless bars and topless night clubs to earn extra cash to pay her rent. It’s not cheap to live in Manhattan.

Anthony Regina is the operations manager at a gentleman’s club called "Privilege," one of two places Catherine used her dancing skills.

Anthony Regina, club manager: They can make between a $1,000- $2,000 a week maybe, depending on how hard they work.

But back home in Columbus, her family reportedly believed that "Privilege" was an off-Broadway show in which she’d landed a role.

Catherine was working on Broadway, but it was hardly the stage that she craved. Still, it did not seem to be connected to her death...  especially when police focused on Paul Cortez, a trainer at her gym, whom she had dated.

Dienst: He was very popular, very calm very cool.

Or so it seemed on the attractive surface.

But records show that the seven phone calls Catherine received just before she was killed were made by Cortez and placed from Catherine’s neighborhood.

Dienst: There are some witnesses at the Equinox club who said they’d seen some heated discussion between the two of them at the club.

And then, a break: Another woman reported Cortez had assaulted her sexually. It was a charge that allowed police to fingerprint Cortez, a fingerprint which, sure enough, matched that bloody one in Catherine’s apartment.

But why?  What motive could he have?

Trying to ‘save her’
Cortez told police he tried to persuade Catherine to quit her job at Privilege, and that he told her father what she was doing. Police sources say Dr. Woods was so alarmed he flew to New York, but Catherine convinced her father it was a lie.

But it was in Cortez’s diary that the truly bizarre dimensions of the sad story emerged. Investigators say he wrote about slashing Catherine Woods’ throat to “save her from her life as a stripper.”

He denies he’s committed either crime.

The whole thing was, for people at home in Ohio, hard to hear.

Hollingsworth, local reporter: Many people in this community thought, “You know what?  I just wish I didn’t know. It’s not something we want to be a part of her memory.”

It’s a big, hard city, and it grinds down dreams. 

This past holiday season the Woods family mourned a beloved daughter, a beautiful girl with a dream who wanted so much just to make it on Broadway.