The Last Dance
Produced By Patti Aronofsky
In July 2002, 18-year-old Catherine Woods left her home in Columbus, Ohio, to find fame in the footlights of Broadway. But three and a half years later, Catherine tragically made her name in New York as a murder victim.
Correspondent Erin Moriarty reports.
Catherine's parents, Jon and Donna Woods, still remember driving their daughter to New York. "So it wasn't easy for us to drop her off there and put her on her own. But we did, and she loved it," Jon remembers.
After the killing, her parents faced the difficult task of returning to Catherine's apartment to pick up their daughter's belongings. "Probably the toughest thing I've ever done. We talked about Catherine coming to New York with a dream," Jon says.
One of Catherine's closest friends, Emily Pettigrew, says Catherine was the most beautiful person inside and out, with a love for dance. "It was always what I knew her as, as Catherine the dancer," says Emily.
Catherine's first ballet teacher, Mary Rose Bushroe, says that even at an early age, Catherine had all the right moves. "She knew she was going to be a ballerina," Mary Rose recalls.
Catherine grew up in the spotlight. In Columbus, where Ohio State Football is sacred, her dad is a revered figure, as the director of the OSU marching band.
Jon Woods admits he expected Catherine, the oldest of his three children, to follow him into music. "She accommodated us by playing the baritone horn in sixth, seventh, eighth grade but when we hit ninth grade, that was the end of the baritone horn and she decided dance was it," he says.
Neither Jon nor Donna was happy when Catherine announced at the end of high school that she was going to New York instead of college. "She told me that if she didn't leave now, she never would," Donna remembers.
In New York, Catherine was just another talented aspiring dancer, willing to do anything to get that one big break on Broadway. The city was far more expensive and lonelier than she expected.
Catherine would go home often and on one of those trips, met David Haughn at a pool hall. David, then a 20-year-old Columbus rap musician, was selling his CDs in the pool hall parking lot and within months moved to New York and into Catherine's apartment.
"I remember the phone conversation. She was like 'He's going to live with me. He's moving. He's giving up everything. I'm so excited,' " explains childhood friend Megan Wilkins.
Megan says she loved David. "He's a very nice guy. I love David. I think of him as my brother."
But David and Catherine were, in some ways, an unlikely couple. She was raised in middle class comfort by a loving family, while David's mother struggled with drugs and he grew up in foster homes.
David says being with Catherine made him feel as though he had a family again. "She made me feel confident about myself. I looked up to her so much, almost in a way as a parent," he says.
David got a job as a doorman working nights, while Catherine worked various part-time jobs to pay for her voice, acting and dance lessons.
David says he and Catherine's relationship was "real serious" and that the topic of marriage had surfaced. "I'd say we thought about it. I don't think it was anytime soon. She asked me numerous times 'Are you gonna marry me?' " he recalls.
"It was off and on at first. I knew they were very serious. And then the last little while it was 'Well, I don't know, yes, no, maybe so,' " says Katie Miller, who met Catherine at the dance studio and took lessons with her throughout their childhood.
Finally last fall, Catherine broke off the relationship. Still, David and Catherine remained friends and he was still living with her on Thanksgiving weekend of 2005.
On that Sunday night, as she was preparing to go to work, Catherine called her friend Megan. "I spoke to her until like 6:25 (p.m.). She seemed really happy. She was excited," Megan recalls.
Shortly afterwards, around 6:40 p.m., David says he left the apartment to run some errands and get his car to drive Catherine to work.
David says he left the apartment for maybe 20 or 30 minutes. When he returned, he says he pulled his car in front of their building and called Catherine. When she didn't answer, David buzzed their apartment. When there was still no response, he says he went in and found her.
David says when he entered, there was blood everywhere. Catherine was on the bedroom floor, her throat cut, face down in a pool of blood.
"I didn't know if it was an accident or what it was. I really didn't know. I was really in shock. My first instinct is to call 911," says David.
Later that night, Catherine's parents were home when three Columbus police officers arrived and asked them to call a detective in New York.
"I called and could not get through and so one Columbus policeman said 'Well, OK, I know. They told me.' And he said is 'Is your husband here?' and, so, as I turned to get Jon I said 'How bad is it?' And he said 'It's bad.' And I said 'Is she dead?' and he said 'Yes,' " Donna remembers.
"Once I heard she was dead. I was gone. In shock," Jon says.
Just as shocking was the identity of the main suspect: David. He says police first accused him. "I just couldn't believe it was happening."
Hours after Catherine was found brutally murdered, David, her roommate and former boyfriend, was in police custody. "I told them 'No, you have the wrong person. You have the wrong person.' I would never, never hit that girl. Not at all. Not at all. I loved her. I would have done anything for her," says David.
Investigators were looking at David, in part because of the timeline of the murder. Catherine was alive at 6:25 p.m. when she spoke to her friend Megan on the phone. She was already dead by 6:59 p.m. when David called 911. That left a half hour or less for the killer to get into the apartment, slash Catherine so viciously that she was nearly decapitated and walk out undetected.
David admits his apparent lack of emotion gave detectives even more reason to suspect him. "Couldn't even cry, even afterwards," he recalls. "The detectives are asking me, 'If you love this girl why aren't you crying?' I look at them, 'I don't know. I really don't know.' "
After more than 35 hours of police interrogation, David himself says he began to accept that he would soon be charged with Catherine's murder. "At one point, I said, 'Well, maybe this is the way it's supposed to go down.' I really felt that at one point I was gonna take this."
But police didn't arrest David, and in the following days, Catherine's parents got more disturbing news. Jon Woods had told reporters that Catherine got a job as an understudy in an off-Broadway play called "Privilege."
But as it turns out, the play "Privilege" had been closed for months. Catherine had in fact been performing at a very different "Privilege" — a topless bar. Suddenly, reporters weren't just interested in how Catherine died but how she lived.
"I was thinking, 'Oh my God. What did I miss?' " says Donna.
Chloe calls herself the club's house mother and hires dancers for Privilege and manages them. "I looked at her. And I'm like 'What is this girl doing here?' Because she looks like the girl next door," she recalls.
Last spring, Chloe gave Catherine a job after an audition. "Probably the sweetest girl that ever walked in here or the most innocent. Seemed that way, definitely," Chloe remembers. "I said, 'What made you want to start dancing?' And she just said, 'Because I want to try and work on Broadway.' "
Catherine danced a couple of nights a week at Privilege from April to July 2005, dancing under the stage name "Ava."
Asked whether Catherine talked about money or had trouble making ends meet in New York, Donna says: "Not that we knew. In fact, I said something about do you have money and she said, 'Yes, mom. I have money, don't worry about it.' "
But Catherine did tell friends such as Katie Miller about her job. Katie says she tried to talk her out of it. "I was just like, 'You know, this isn't you.' She's like, 'I know. I know.' "
"In the stripping industry, you get a lot of egos and snotty girls. She came in just very bright and open and wanted to talk to everybody," says Jennifer Caron, 27, who also danced at Privilege and met Catherine there.
Jennifer, who moved to New York from New Hampshire with dreams of working as a film actress, says the money she made dancing topless was very seductive.
"I think we're all very uncomfortable being there deep down. I don't think any of us really want to be there. We just want the money. And it's good money," Jennifer explains. "You know you can make anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000 a night on a good night."
But most nights, Catherine made much, much less. And although she worked at other clubs, her friends say she planned to quit exotic dancing altogether.
The revelation that Catherine had been working at topless bars raised the possibility of other suspects in her murder. And there was more — there was another man in Catherine's life, Paul Cortez. What did he know?
Like Catherine, Paul Cortez was determined to be someone. At 25, he was the lead vocalist in a rock band called "Monolith."
Iliyah Hamovic on drums, bass player Steve Logan and guitarist Alex Rude say Paul is both a gifted singer and a song writer. "So many rock singers are just mediocre singers with great deal of charisma. He had a great voice. He's a fantastic singer," says Alex.
"He knew how to write a song basically. He knew to throw in a lyric, he knew where to throw in … where to put the 'oohs' and the 'aahs.' He knew," adds Steve.
"Paul [is] very intelligent and very well read," Alex adds. "His lyrics were very much influenced by mythology and science fiction."
Paul grew up in a tough south Bronx neighborhood in New York City. But he was singled out at an early age for his intellect and talent. At age 11 he was granted admission into one of the most elite private schools in New York.
Paul's mom, Ivette Cortez, was single, raising three children, and says she couldn't have afforded to send Paul to the private school on her own. "I think at the time it was actually like $30,000 a year," she explains.
Ivette says Paul, her youngest child, got into the school through his grades. Every day, Paul rose before dawn to begin his two-hour subway ride to school and traveled in a different world as his mother Ivette watched and marveled.
"The first in our family to go to private school, to learn Latin and French," she explains. "He actually embraces Shakespeare and the classics and things that, quite frankly, most of us in our family just don't understand."
Paul didn't just thrive academically; he starred in the school plays such as "West Side Story" and "Pippin."
On scholarship at Boston University, Paul majored in theater and, like Catherine, dreamed of making it on Broadway. When he moved back to New York, he found part-time work at a yoga studio and as a private trainer at a gym.
He met Catherine Woods in the fall of 2004 when she came to the gym.
Asked what he saw in her, Paul's mother Ivette says, "It was obvious that she was pursuing a dream. I think that spirit is what touched him."
By early spring 2005, although Catherine was still living with David, she was also secretly dating Paul. He brought her to the Bronx to meet his mother.
"I'll always remember because, although it was a little chilly, we went to the zoo," she recalls. "She was a nice girl. He did mention that he loved her."
"I remember him calling me. He was like, 'Oh, you got to meet Catherine. You know I really think that she's the one,' " recalls Jaki Levy, one of Paul's closest friends. "He said that 'Oh, she's so beautiful. She makes me feel so good.' "
But Paul didn't feel good about Catherine's job as an exotic dancer.
"He was very conflicted and he didn't know what to do because he wanted her to stop because he saw what a dangerous environment she was in," says Jaki.
Paul became determined to make Catherine stop dancing after an incident at the club in April. "She set her drink down, and she shouldn't have went back to pick it up and drank it. And then later in the evening she wasn't feeling very well," says Megan, Catherine's friend. Catherine, Megan says, believed a customer had slipped drugs into her drink. Feeling ill, she called Paul.
"He came from the Bronx down to get her," says Ivette. "Paul thought for her own safety and good, her parents should know about the incident."
Paul took Catherine to a hospital and then, without her permission, searched her cell phone until he found her father's phone number.
Jon Woods was completely unprepared for what he heard over the phone. He says Paul Cortez didn't just tell him that his daughter was dancing in a topless club but says he also told him she was working in prostitution and using drugs.
The Woods say that at first they were grateful that Paul had called. "I mean he's very impressive on the phone. When he told me that as a father I thought 'Wow, you know, thank you for calling.' I'm going to deal with this. You know he's a bright, intelligent person. Sounded, you know, rational and helpful, and caring," Jon remembers.
The first thing Jon did was call Privilege. "I could've gotten, you know, the cleaning lady, I mean I don't know. All I know is that I gave the information that he said and nobody there admitted to knowing her," Jon recalls.
"Most people didn't know her by her real name," explains Chloe. "She went by the name Ava here. She didn't go by Catherine. So if he called and asked for Catherine, I don't know."
"I called the hospital from here and they wouldn't give any information out. And so, you know, I got on the first plane out there," says Jon.
When Jon confronted his daughter, she denied it all. "She said, 'No, she wasn't doing this. She wasn't doing that, she wasn't doing that,' " says Donna.
Catherine convinced her parents that Paul was lying. She said she wasn't dancing topless, there were no drugs and certainly no prostitution. The Woods believed her.
"She was very angry and said this person, he's, you know, crazy," Donna recalls.
Paul then began calling the club's housemother, Chloe, begging her to make Catherine quit.
"I'm like, 'Catherine, what is going on with this boyfriend of yours?' " Chloe says. "She was like 'Oh, don't worry about it. He's crazy you know. I'm not with him anymore. He's an ex-boyfriend.' "
After Catherine broke things off, Ivette says Paul was upset. "But, by the same token, in his heart he felt that you know it would just blow over. Which it did."
Catherine and Paul did begin seeing each other again. In August, she attended one of his concerts. But the true nature of their relationship is unclear.
Paul's friends insist they were lovers. "They were kissing very passionately, like you would kiss someone you've been dating a long time," says Jaki.
Meanwhile, Catherine's friends are just as insistent that Paul was only a friend. "He may have been in love with her. She was just his friend," says Megan.
And she may have kept her boyfriends guessing as well. Paul, who thought she had broken with David Haughn, once arrived unannounced at her apartment, only to find David still there.
"He actually had said that he had been seeing Catherine since August of the year before and I told her and she denied it so," says David.
What is certain is that on Thanksgiving 2005, Paul hoped Catherine would spend the day with his family. Instead, she spent it with David.
Ivette says Paul was sad when he came to the house. "But it was Thanksgiving. The house was full. There was food, he was having a grand old time."
On Sunday, three days later, Catherine was dead. Monday morning, Ivette woke up, turned on the radio and heard about a murder. When she saw Catherine's picture in the paper, she recognized her instantly.
"And my greatest fear at that precise moment was the fact that they just kept on mentioning the boyfriend being held. And I didn't know what that meant," says Ivette.
Ivette wasn't sure whether they were referring to her son. "But I tracked him down. He was at work. He didn't even realize what was happening."
She says Paul didn't know Catherine had been killed and collapsed when he heard the news.
Ivette wasn't worried when police called and took her son to the precinct where Paul spoke with authorities for six hours. He gave them DNA, and they photographed his hands. Then they sent him home.
Ivette thought their involvement with the investigation was over but it wasn't.
"There seemed to be people, in the East, who found something obscene about her life when I think the general conviction here in Columbus is that the only obscenity was her death," says Mike Harden, a columnist for the Columbus Dispatch.
The lurid stories about Catherine Woods sold plenty of tabloid newspapers in New York, but in Columbus, Ohio, they made Harden's blood boil.
"So many of us here would have been proud for her to have been our daughter," he says.
Harden says there's only one story that really matters: "She was a beautiful young woman who had a beautiful dream and had it snuffed out."
For Catherine's parents, Jon and Donna, every new headline brings new pain and a reminder of how little they knew about their daughter's life in New York.
Dance instructor Diana Laurenson had a window into Catherine's life. Diana once danced for celebrated Broadway choreographer Bob Fosse, who brought the original "Chicago" to the stage.
Now she teaches up-and-comers such as Catherine Woods. "I'll say out of, sometimes, a class of 35, my eye will go to maybe six, six people in my class that I know have that something special," she explains.
Just days before Catherine was killed, Diana had told her just how special she was. "I let her know that she stood out in my class and if Bob Fosse were still alive, she would have probably been hired very quickly by him," Diana recalls.
But, like every dancer in New York City, Catherine faced the same obstacles.
"You've got high rent to pay, you have to eat. You're taking classes which are very expensive. Your headshots and resumes. Extremely expensive to get together," Diana explains. "You must [do that] or else you're not going to get ahead."
Catherine never told either Diana or any of her teachers exactly how she paid for her classes. "If she had discussed it with me, I probably would have guided her into another survival job area because it is dangerous. It is," says Diana.
Dangerous, possibly. But when most theatre auditions end with rejection, Catherine may have felt like a success on this stage. And Diana is convinced — despite what Catherine's boyfriend Paul Cortez may have told her parents — that she would not have done anything to jeopardize her dreams.
Diana says she didn't see any signs of drugs use. "Her skin was clear. Her eyes were bright. She looked terrific."
If Catherine's friends and family feel she has been unfairly portrayed in the press, they are not alone. Those who know Paul Cortez feel the same way.
"In the eyes of the press and the eyes of the public, my friend is guilty as sin," says Jaki Levy.
He says the press turned the gentle friend he's known since high school into a monster. Days after Catherine's murder, it became clear that the main suspect was no longer David Haughn, Catherine's roommate, but Paul Cortez. Police leaks to newspapers described Cortez as obsessed with Catherine and determined to stop her from dancing in topless bars.
"What I've read in the papers does not match up," says Jaki. "They're describing another person."
Jaki, who works at a yoga studio, says that he first learned of Paul's possible involvement when he heard that a suspect in Catherine's murder worked at the same studio.
"Out of all the people in the yoga studio, he would actually be the last person that I would think of," Jaki says, describing Paul as gentle and caring.
According to police reports, Catherine had defensive wounds on her hands and arms, indicating that she may have fought her attacker. Jaki saw Paul three days after Catherine's murder, and says Paul had no injuries.
"I looked at him and I saw his body was totally clean. His back was totally clean. His hands were totally clean," says Jaki. "No scratches, nothing."
The same news stories that are causing Paul's friends so much distress have caused others, not so friendly, to come forward. One woman told authorities that a year earlier, Paul Cortez had sexually assaulted her.
"How did you react when some woman came forward saying she had been assaulted by him?" Moriarty asked Jaki.
"I was very, very, very shaken," he replied.
Paul was arrested and charged with sexual assault. When fingerprinted – police got the big break they were hoping for. Police now say his fingerprints match one bloody print found in Catherine's apartment. On Dec. 23, 2005, almost one month after Catherine's death, Paul Cortez was charged with her murder.
"Anyone that knows Paul just knows that it's not in his nature; it's not in his heart to do what he's been accused of," says Ivette.
Paul Cortez spent his 26th birthday in the New York City jail known as "the Tombs," where he has been held since December, facing sex assault charges in the case of one woman, murder in another.
His mother Ivette remains convinced of his innocence. "He did not do it," she says.
But Catherine Wood's mother is just as sure of his guilt. "I trust the police, that they've done their job appropriately," Donna says.
Catherine's friends believe Paul may have been driven into a rage after she finally broke off their relationship just weeks before her death. "I think he just let this fantasy that he created run amuck in his head and maybe he thought, if I can't have her no one can," Megan says.
Catherine told a friend that Paul had called threatening to kill himself if he couldn't have her. But Paul denies he made that call; Paul's friend Maggie says he had accepted the break-up.
"That was one part of his life. That wasn't his whole life. I mean, it wasn't like he couldn't get out of bed in the morning," she says.
And what about the sexual assault charge that Paul Cortez was also facing? Just last month, the prosecutors shocked everyone by suddenly asking the judge to drop those charges. Reportedly, that woman was no longer willing to go to trial but Paul is still facing the most important trial of his life, the murder of Catherine Woods. And the big question — where was he when Catherine was murdered?
"We had rehearsal scheduled for 6 p.m. that night and Paul didn't show up," says guitarists and fellow band member Alex Rude.
Asked if that was normal, Alex said, "No, he normally showed up."
Catherine was killed sometime between 6:40 and 7 p.m. When Alex later called Paul around 8 p.m. that same night, Paul claimed he was sleeping. "He said he was at home," Alex recalls and says he sounded normal.
But Alex says Paul was acting very strange just days before the Catherine's murder — at a band performance, Paul appeared to be stoned. How could he tell?
"How could you not? Slurring, dilated eyes," says Alex. "And that final show we did, he called three of us, introducing us by completely wrong names."
Still, none of the band members can imagine Paul killing anyone.
"He's always been a very laid back person — very Zen like," says Alex.
What's more, the band members have doubts about some evidence they've read about. One is a diary found in Paul's apartment that reportedly contains incriminating passages about throat slashing.
"That diary, his journal is a red satin journal is where he wrote his lyrics. It's not a diary, it's where he wrote his lyrics," says Alex Rude. "Lyrics are fiction," says Iliyah.
"I know more about that journal than police," says Alex. He added that police hadn't talked to any of the band members.
But was Paul really where he said he was when Catherine was killed? In his statement to police, again, Paul says he was home, making phone calls. His apartment is a mile and half from Catherine's.
But a police source says cell phone records tell a different story — Paul called Catherine several times that night. If Paul was home, those calls would normally go through a cell tower in his neighborhood, but according to a police source, some of his calls were handled by a tower just two blocks from Catherine's apartment, putting him in the vicinity of the crime.
While Paul may not have a solid alibi for the time of Catherine's murder, many people saw him or talked to him an hour later.
"When I spoke to him at 8 o'clock, I remember him being just grounded and peaceful," says Jaki Levy.
"When you think back at the conversation, did it sound like a man who had just killed someone the hour before?" Moriarty asks.
"No, absolutely not," he replies.
Asked if Paul could be a good actor, Jaki said: "I wish I could say that about him but I don't think he's that good. I don't think anybody is that good of an actor to be able to go from a murder, a grisly murder of someone you love, and then just be blasé to your friends?"
The most damaging evidence against Paul may be that one bloody fingerprint found in Catherine Wood's apartment that police sources say matches Paul's.
Paul Cortez' attorney, Laura Miranda, has her doubts and says they need to hire experts to look at the fingerprint print. And she wonders why there appears to be so little physical evidence linking Paul to Catherine's death.
"You would think something that brutal and bloody, there would be more evidence," says Miranda. "It's uncanny how professional a job it seems to have been. Unfortunately, there are many people out there, especially in the work she was doing, that might have stalked her and been obsessed with her."
At trial, Paul Cortez' lawyer is likely to point the finger at others, including David Haughn, who found Catherine's body and was a suspect himself early in the investigation until police verified his alibi.
Ivette Cortez is hoping her son will be vindicated and freed.
The ordeal has been very tough on Catherine's parents, who are steeling themselves for Paul Cortez' trial. Even if his defense raises questions about their daughter and her lifestyle, Jon and Donna say they no longer have any questions at all.
"I feel in my heart that my daughter was a wonderful woman. And no matter what the defense might say in terms of these allegations, I can sit here and, in my heart know, I don't believe this," he says. "That she was a wonderful person. And I feel she's with the angels."
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