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Stephanie Ilene LAZARUS

 
 
 
 
 

 

 

 

 
 
 
Classification: Murderer
Characteristics: Los Angeles police detective - Fit of rage and jealousy
Number of victims: 1
Date of murder: February 24, 1986
Date of arrest: June 5, 2009 (23 years after)
Date of birth: 1960
Victim profile: Sherri Rae Rasmussen, 29 (her ex-boyfriend's new wife)
Method of murder: Shooting (.38 caliber revolver)
Location: Van Nuys, Los Angeles, California, USA
Status: Sentenced to 27 years to life in prison on May 11, 2012
 
 
 
 
 
 

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Stephanie Ilene Lazarus is a former Los Angeles police detective who was convicted in March 2012 of the 1986 first-degree murder of her ex-boyfriend's new wife, Sherri Rasmussen. Lazarus is serving a 27-year to life sentence for the offense at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla, California. Her case made national headlines.

Murder of Sherri Rasmussen

On February 24, 1986, Sherri Rasmussen, a critical care nurse was living in a condominium with her new husband, and Stephanie Lazarus' ex-boyfriend, John Ruetten. That night, Ruetten found his new wife beaten to death, and shot numerous times with a .38 caliber revolver.

The crime was initially deemed to be a robbery gone awry, as Rasmussen's BMW was stolen. The initial suspects were two Latino men who were believed to have committed other burglaries in Rasmussen's neighborhood. Lazarus was also a suspect in the initial investigation, but was later cleared. Rasmussen's family still believed Lazarus was involved, as they had both dated Ruetten and Lazarus had once showed up at the Glendale Adventist Medical Center where Rasmussen worked and threatened her, supposedly stating: "If I can't have John, then nobody else will." In the meantime, Lazarus continued working with the Los Angeles Police Department; she went on to start her own private investigation firm, Unique Investigations.

Arrest and trial

Twenty-three years after the murder of Sherri Rasmussen, the case was still unsolved. In February 2009, however, a cold case detective squad decided to re-investigate the case. Investigators discovered female DNA from a bite mark on Rasmussen's body, and Stephanie Lazarus became the prime suspect. After the detectives were able to match Lazarus' DNA with the DNA found on Rasmussen's body, Lazarus was arrested for the murder on June 5, 2009. She was then allowed to retire early from the LAPD; she was held in the Los Angeles County Jail in lieu of $10 million bail.

Stephanie Lazarus' murder trial began in early 2012. Prosecutors believed Lazarus' motive for the murder was jealousy over Sherri Rasmussen's relationship with her ex-boyfriend, John Ruetten. The prosecutor, Deputy District Attorney Shannon Presby stated, "A bite, a bullet, a gun barrel and a broken heart. That’s the evidence that will prove to you that defendant Stephanie Lazarus murdered Sherri Rasmussen.

Lazarus' attorney, Mark Overland, argued that the investigation into Rasmussen's death was botched from the beginning, and the evidence collected did not point to Lazarus as Rasmussen's killer.

On March 8, 2012, Lazarus was convicted of Rasmussen's murder in the first-degree. She was later sentenced in May 2012 to 27 years to life in prison, and she is currently serving her sentence at the Central California Women's Facility. She will be eligible for parole in 2039.

Wikipedia.org

 
 

Stephanie Lazarus and the Murder of Sherri Rae Rasmussen

By Tricia Romano


Introduction

In 1986, Sherri Rae Rasmussen was 29 years old, living in a condominium with her new husband of three months, John Ruetten. In a few short minutes, though, her new, charmed life ended in a vicious brutal murder that would go unsolved for over 20 years.

On the night of February 24, her husband came home to discover his new bride, who had stayed home from work that day after injuring her back doing aerobics, bloodied, beaten and dead from numerous gunshot wounds to the chest.

But with the help of advancing technology, the Los Angeles Police Department's Cold Case squad cracked a case as dramatic as any on television. After running a DNA test on a bite mark on Rasmussen's body, they confronted a new and shocking likelihood: the perpetrator was one of their own, Officer Stephanie Lazarus.

Rising in the Force

At the time of Rasmussen's murder, Lazarus had only been on the force for two years, as a patrol officer.

In the course of her career, she became involved with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education program—D.A.R.E.—as a training officer and visited her former junior high school. She served as a treasurer for the Los Angeles Women Police Officer's Association for five years. She helped fundraise to provide reliable, round-the-clock childcare for parents who worked on the force.

At one point, she'd even started her own private investigation company, Unique Investigations.

After over 20 years on the force, she'd been promoted to the high-profile, high-stakes Art Theft Detail, which tracked stolen art and art forgeries. In April 2009, she was featured with the head of her department, Don Hrycyk, in L.A. Weekly's annual L.A. People issue. She told the paper that working the art beat inspired her to become an artist and had been taking oil painting classes.

But in 1986, she was working the streets. She had also just come out of a long-term relationship with John Ruetten, and it seems she was none too pleased with his new wife.

A Robbery Gone Awry

Investigators had focused on the possibility that the crime had been a robbery -- Sherri Rae's car had been stolen. The silver BMW was discovered two miles from the couple's house ten days after the murder. Because stereo equipment had been stacked next to the body, police fixated on the possibility of a botched robbery.

Their hunch was reinforced by events that occurred just after the Rasmussen murder. A few days after the slaying, two men had robbed a woman at gunpoint. A few months after the murder, they held another unsuspecting woman at gunpoint after she walked into a break-in. Her house was just a few blocks from Rasmussen's house. They were described as Latinos between 5 feet, 4 inches and 5 feet, 6 inches tall. They therefore emerged as the primary suspects in Rasmussen's death, but they were never found.

Other than the car, the only other object taken from the scene should have given investigator's pause: the couple's marriage license was missing. Also undermining the random theft theory were the deep bite marks left by the assailant on Rasmussen's arm.

"If I can't have John, then nobody else will."

After months of stalemate in the case, Rasmussen's parents began holding press conferences asking for people to come forward with clues, and offered a $10,000 reward. During the initial investigation, Lazarus was only a blip on the radar screen, despite repeated pleas from Rasmussen's father, Nels Rasmussen, for the LAPD to consider that Rasmussen and Lazarus had both dated John Ruetten, and that Lazarus had turned up at the Glendale Adventist Hospital, where Rasmussen worked as a critical care nurse, and allegedly threatened her: "If I can't have John, nobody else will."

Another confrontation had occurred a month before the murder, her father recounted. When Rasmussen had arrived home, she found Lazarus waiting for her inside. She was wearing her uniform. And just a few days before the murder, Lazarus had allegedly called Rasmussen and threatened her; Rasmussen had told her father that she thought the officer had been stalking her on the streets.

At the time, Mr. Rasmussen's allegations were dismissed. He was told to stop watching so much television. He wrote letters to the head of the police department at the time, Daryl F. Gates. His pleas for the department to take a second look at the case went unheeded, and, after five years, Mr. Rasmussen gave up.

Cracking the Cold Case

Mr. Rasmussen's reports had been dismissed as products of viewing too much crime fiction, but the discovery that led to the new charges against Lazarus would have been perfect for an episode of Law and Order. In February 2009, the Cold Case squad, with time on its hands due to the dwindling number of murders in the area, reopened some additional old cases. Investigators ran DNA tests on all the old evidence, including the bite marks on Rasmussen's body. The DNA testing revealed that the suspect had to be a woman, disposing of the linkage to the other robberies. At the time of the initial investigation, Lazarus had been duly interviewed, but never pursued as a likely suspect.

The LAPD officers working the case were now faced with an uncomfortable prospect. A person who worked literally next door (Lazarus' department and the Cold Case department were situated across the hall from each other) was now their prime suspect.

After a day of following Lazarus around, they nabbed a discarded item with her saliva on it. It proved to be a match.

On June 5, the announcement of the arrest of Stephanie Lazarus in the 23-year-old case sent shock waves through the press and the LAPD.

She had been sitting in her third-floor office when she was told that a suspect in custody in the jail might have information on one of her cases. She immediately left to check on the suspect.

But, in accordance with policy, to get through jail security she had to surrender her weapon.

It was a trap. Once disarmed, the 49-year-old was arrested. The announcement stunned the police department. One veteran officer told the Los Angeles Times, "Never in my wildest imagination would I ever think she could do something like this. We drank beers. She was always quick to give you a hug or tell a joke."

She had been described as "bubbly" and "vivacious" in a story about her private investigation firm, Unique Investigations, in the Ventura County Star in 2000.

She was the type who made homemade soaps and chocolate-covered cherries to give her neighbors for Christmas.

But other details about Lazarus began to appear on the Internet. She was nicknamed "Spaz" or "Spazarous" for her erratic behavior when she became flustered or angry.

Redemption

Nels Rasmussen held a press conference the day of her court appearance and told the press corps what he'd been telling the Los Angeles Police Department all along: the likeliest suspect is one of your own.

He recounted for the Los Angeles Times the numerous attempts he had made to get the LAPD to take a closer look at the jealous ex-girlfriend of his daughter's husband.

The Rasmussen family attorney said, "They provided information on the first day that there was a woman who was problematic." Taylor added that, "the family is extremely pleased and relieved" with the arrest of Lazarus.

New Details & Trial

After Lazarus's arrest, new details emerged. One key piece to the puzzle was missing: the gun used to shoot Rasmussen three times in the chest.

The Los Angeles Times reported that Lazarus had called the Santa Monica Police Department a few weeks after the murder to report that her car had been broken into near the Santa Monica Pier. She reported a stolen gym bag, money, clothes, and her .38-caliber handgun. The two departments never put two-and-two together.

Twenty-three years later, the break-in looks like a cover up—and police now believe that she ditched the gun in the Pacific Ocean.

The scene was more gruesome than originally revealed: Rasmussen's head had been bludgeoned; she had wounds on her wrists that indicated she'd been tied up. A robe laying on the floor nearby had bullet holes in them; it appeared the killer used it to muffle the shots.

And the slaying might have been averted, had a maid working in a nearby apartment who'd heard screams called the police. But she hadn't.

Lazarus could have been apprehended even earlier. The DNA had been proven to be a woman's in 2005, but the investigators hadn't realized that the original suspects were male at that time. When the case came up for re-review in February, they realized the mistake, and a secretive four-month investigation was launched.

The Other Side of the Thin Blue Line

On June 9, 2009, Stephanie Lazarus found herself on the wrong side of the law. She appeared in court in an orange jumpsuit, appearing distressed, her eyes wide-open. Lazarus spoke just once, answering the judge about the continuance. "Yes, your honor."

On March 9, 2012, Lazarus was found guilty of first degree murder. During testimony heard prior to sentencing, John Ruetten said, "The fact that Sherri's death occurred because she met and married me brings me to my knees." On May 11, Lazarus was sentenced to 27 years in prison, with credit for time already served. She will be eligible for parole in 22 years.

TruTV.com

 
 

Ex-LAPD Det. Stephanie Lazarus gets 27 years to life for murder

Los Angeles Times

May 11, 2012

Former Los Angeles Police Det. Stephanie Lazarus was sentenced Friday to 27 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole for killing her ex-boyfriend's wife nearly three decades ago in a fit of rage and jealousy.

Prosecutors said in a "statement of views" filed in court that "Lazarus misused her police training in the most profound way imaginable by utilizing that training and experience to commit murder and to cover up her crime. Lazarus betrayed the trust placed in her by the Los Angeles Police Department and by people of Los Angeles in order to pursue her own murderous ends."

"Lazarus' profound narcissism led her to kill and continues to motivate her denial of responsibility."

Lazarus was convicted in March of first-degree murder in the death of Sherri Rae Rasmussen, who was shot three times in the chest in her Van Nuys home on Feb. 24, 1986. Several months before the attack, Rasmussen, a 29-year-old hospital nursing director, had married John Ruetten, who had also dated Lazarus casually for a few years before the wedding.

Los Angeles County prosecutors had asked Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry to sentence Lazarus to at least 27 years behind bars before she is eligible for parole.

The sentence came after emotionally charged statements from the friends and family of Rasmussen.

The case garnered national attention for its sensational story line of a lovelorn cop killing a woman she viewed as a romantic rival, and then for decades harboring the dark secret. Adding to the drama, detectives ignored pleas by Rasmussen's father at the time of the killing to look at Lazarus as a possible suspect.

Instead, investigators stuck to their early theory that Rasmussen must have been killed by unidentified Latino male suspects during a botched burglary. That theory eventually would be proven wrong by DNA in a saliva sample gathered from a bite mark on the victim’s left forearm.

But it would take a generation, a revolution in forensics technology and a second LAPD investigation before Lazarus, who had become a respected art theft detective, officially emerged as the prime suspect in the case.

Rasmussen family attorney John C. Taylor, who praised the work of current LAPD detectives, said in March that the family would address the handling of the original police investigation.

The case against Lazarus came down to "a bite, a bullet, a gun barrel and a broken heart,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Shannon Presby said in his opening statement. Presby and co-counsel Paul Nunez sought to hammer home those points throughout the five-week trial, in which more than 60 witnesses testified and 400 exhibits were presented from the state and the defense.

Defense attorney Mark Overland countered by repeatedly questioning the integrity of the DNA bite mark evidence -- arguing that the vial it was stored in was not properly sealed and the envelope containing the sample was ripped.

He also noted that a blood smear from an unidentified male was analyzed for DNA and did not match either the blood of Lazarus or Rasmussen, suggesting the possibility of another suspect. During cross-examination, Overland tried to show his client was not the obsessed, jilted lover portrayed by prosecutors.

In fact, Overland said, her former boyfriend Ruetten continued to pursue Lazarus after becoming engaged.

In the end, the DNA evidence proved too difficult to overcome. After little more than a day of deliberation, the panel of eight women and four men found Lazarus guilty.

 
 

Bite mark, DNA tie LAPD detective to 1986 murder

CBSNews.com

May 26, 2012

Two years ago, "48 Hours Mystery" first reported on a cold case that would become so hot it would rock the Los Angeles Police Department. Now, correspondent Maureen Maher has the final judgment.

(CBS) LOS ANGELES -- The arrest of a cop was shocking news in the City of Angels.

It wasn't just any cop. Stephanie Lazarus was a well respected, highly decorated female detective with the Los Angeles Police Department. And it wasn't just a minor crime. She was charged with the murder of Sherri Rasmussen, a young nurse, 23 years after the killing.

"A Los Angeles police officer arrested for murder is just - it's a bombshell! I mean, you just don't get those kinda cases," Andrew Blankstein said. "People were really stunned by this."

Blankstein and Joel Rubin cover the police beat for the Los Angeles Times and are consultants to "48 Hours Mystery".

"Nobody saw this coming. Nobody says she was a cop that they saw on the edge," Rubin explained. "As far as we can tell, people in the department saw her as, you know, a cop's cop, a good cop."

"She's been a longtime patrol detective," Blankstein added. "She was with the art theft detail in commercial crimes...which is theft of high-end art in L.A .And in doing those kind of investigations... it gets a lot of press, a lot of attention... If the police and prosecutors are going to be believed, she's harboring a secret about murder for 23 years!"

At first glance, Stephanie Lazarus has no obvious connection to the victim in this murder case - Sherri Rasmussen, a highly regarded nursing administrator.

Sherri came from a very close-knit family. Her parents, Nels and Loretta Rasmussen, adored their three daughters and their growing family.

"Sherri was the glue that held the family together all the time... and made everything that much better," Sherri's younger sister, Teresa, told "48 Hours Mystery" correspondent Maureen Maher.

But in February 1986, Sherri would be attacked, beaten and shot to death in her Los Angeles home.

"We were an ordinary family, you know... You never think something like this is gonna happen to you," said Teresa. She says she never could have anticipated that only just now - more than 20 years after her sister's murder - there's been arrest.

"It doesn't make the pain any less," she said. "You start the grieving process all over again, one more time."

The pain is most obvious when the family visits Sherri's grave.

"I don't believe that you can understand the grief ... a part of your life has just been taken away forever," Nels Rasmussen told Maher in an exclusive interview.

Her parents say Sherri excelled at everything she did. She became a nurse when she was only 20. At age 27, she was named director of critical care nursing at Glendale Adventist Medical Center, where she sometimes lectured.

"She liked taking care of people and making sure things were done right, that people were cared for properly," said Loretta Rasmussen.

"She said, 'I'm gonna elevate the stature of nursing in the nation,'" Nels recalled. "And she was on her way."

On top of a successful career, in early 1986, Sherri was extraordinarily happy, having just married the man she loved. Her new husband was John Ruetten, a young engineer she'd met in 1984.

As it would turn out, Ruetten was the single link to the woman accused of murdering his new bride.

That is because Stephanie Lazarus was Ruetten's ex-girlfriend. And according to Sherri's friends and family, Lazarus was not willing to give up the man she'd first met in college several years before the murder.

"Sherri was competition," Teresa said. "If she could get Sherri outta the way, then possibly John would be free to be with her again."

Ruetten is the one who discovered his wife's body.

"He was in a daze," Teresa explained. "He was sort of the deer in the headlights look, you know?"

John Ruetten had little to say publicly after his wife's murder in 1986.

He briefly addressed mourners at a hospital memorial service for Sherri, telling them, "I just want to thank you all for coming and I want you to know that Sherri was the best professional in the world - she was the best wife that anybody could ever have."

"To me, he's kind of a central character that we really know the least about," said Blankstein.

"There's a lot of questions left unanswered," added Rubin.

Questions like: what did John Ruetten know? Or suspect? He says that early on, he told detectives to talk to his ex-girlfriend - an LAPD cop.

"John is really the only person that has this connection to both women that can tell us what was going on to some extent?" Maher asked Rubin.

"You would think, yeah," he replies.

But police were off chasing other leads, and Sherri's friend, Jayne Goldberg, says that Ruetten just quietly faded out of sight, leaving her quite angry.

"I would have expected that John would have been much more involved in the investigation...and demand answers," she said.

Especially, as months - and then years - went by with no resolution to the case.

"He should have been her advocate. She would have been his," Goldberg said. "Why wasn't he camped outside the police station? I don't understand it!"

In the winter of 1986, the dramatic spike in street crime was beginning to strain the Los Angeles Police Department as cops were called to investigate yet another killing; this time in a quiet, gated community in Van Nuys, the scene of Sherri Rasmussen's murder.

"There was a terrible struggle. She had been beaten badly about her face and there was blood on the walls. The place was a mess," according to Joel Rubin, a Los Angeles Times police reporter who has been looking into how police investigated this case 25 years ago.

"The presumption," Rubin explained, "is the attacker hit Sherri over the head - perhaps stunning her... which perhaps gave the attacker time enough to pull out the gun and shoot Sherri."

Rubin learned that investigators back then wasted little time theorizing what had happened.

"...the lead detective in the case very quickly hatched on the idea that Sherri Rasmussen had happened upon two men as they were trying to burglarize the house and that they killed her after being discovered. The crime scene includes... two pieces of electronics equipment stacked at the foot of the stairs. And they pointed to that as indication this was a burglary gone bad," Rubin explained. "...a few weeks later, two men tried to commit a similar burglary in the area and it bolstered their theory."

Police even had sketches drawn of those two men, who they considered suspects in Sherri's murder. But there seemed to be little evidence that could tie anyone specifically to this crime. There were no witnesses and no gun. Even fingerprints they found led nowhere. But the Rasmussen family just wasn't buying any of it.

"...it wasn't a robbery," Nels Rasmussen told Maureen Maher. "They couldn't convince me of it."

That's because Nels had his own idea about who was responsible for his daughter's killing. At the time, he didn't know her name - just that she was his son-in-law's ex-girlfriend - an L.A. cop.

She was his No. 1 suspect from day one of the murder because of a troubling story Sherri had told her father and some of her closest friends in the weeks leading up to her murder.

\

"She told me that John's ex-girlfriend had come to her office at the hospital - dressed provocatively..." said Jayne Goldberg.

"...and confronted Sherri about John and said that if she couldn't have John, nobody could," Nels recalled.

"And she said if this marriage doesn't work out, I want you to know that I'll be waiting to pick up the pieces," Goldberg continued. "At the time, I didn't realize how significant it was."

Mark Overland, Stephanie Lazarus' attorney, says that never happened. Overland confirms that a confrontation did occur at the hospital, but he tells a completely different version of what his client said to Sherri.

"'...that you should tell John to leave me alone, since you two are now engaged,'" he said.

"So she went to say your fiancé is pursuing me?" Maher asked. "Yes," Overland replied.

But another one of Sherri's friends, Peggy Crabtree, who had worked in nursing with her, says Sherri told her about some alarming behavior by Stephanie Lazarus, who seemed to be showing up everywhere.

"John's ex-girlfriend kept appearing in places that Sherri would go. She couldn't go out to the store or go to the gym without having this woman show up," Crabtree explained. "Sherri was clearly fearful and unhappy that she just couldn't get this person out of her life."

"To me, it would border on harassment," said Nels.

When asked if Sherri thought there may have been something going on between John and Stephanie, Nels replied, "She had suspicion."

"... clearly the message wasn't getting through that the behavior of his ex-girlfriend wasn't acceptable. And it was creating enough stress and unhappiness for Sherri, that she was considering breaking up with John," said Crabtree.

Even more unsettling, Nels said at one point, Sherri told him she was being followed by someone in disguise.

"...she said the person that was following her was dressed like a boy... That sounds like she thought the person was a woman... but had eyes that could penetrate you and she said would make you think that they could see right through you."

John Taylor, the Rasmussen's attorney, says he has a pretty good idea who Sherri was describing.

"It's very telling. One of the things that Sherri told her father is she believed she was being followed by somebody who had either crazy or wild looking eyes," Taylor told Maher. "Look at some of the photographs now of Stephanie Lazarus and maybe it's not that far off."

"What's the timing on when the stalking incidents began for Sherri with Stephanie?" Maher asked.

"I think immediately before they were married, and then after they were married," said Taylor.

Lazarus' attorney calls the stalking charges nonsense and says that it never happened. More importantly, he claims it's highly unlikely that any of the so-called stalking behavior that Sherri told her friends and father about can be used by prosecutors against this decorated cop.

"Evidence of any prior contacts is not gonna come in at trial," Overland said. "That's all hearsay. It's unreliable. That's why it's inadmissible."

"And you will be able to keep it out? Are you confident of that?" Maher asked.

"Unless the judge makes an error," he replied.

"Do you believe that Stephanie was obsessed with John?"

"Absolutely not," Overland said. "Infatuated? Yes. Obsessed? No."

For more than two decades, Nels Rasmussen has been on a frustrating quest to uncover the truth about his daughter's murder. But in 1986, he says he got nowhere trying to talk about it with Sherri's husband, John.

"I was unable to get much outta John," he told Maher.

"Do you think he was holding back on information?"

"I have no idea what's going on in that boy's mind."

In fact, he was holding back. Years later, John Ruetten would finally admit he had sex with Stephanie after he became engaged to Sherri.

"Did you think he was involved in Sherri's death in some way?" Maher asked Nels.

"I do not believe that John had any involvement whatsoever," he replied.

Apparently, neither do the police, who reportedly eliminated Ruetten as a suspect early on. But Nels Rasmussen says he tried - unsuccessfully - to get the lead detective to focus on John's ex-girlfriend.

"That first week, the first five days, I mentioned it so many times that...he kind of lost his cool with me saying that there was no need to go there because there was nothing there," Nels recalled.

Said Taylor, "He kept pressing them to follow up on what was a very obvious lead to him - eventually to the point where the investigating detective told him, 'You're watching too much TV.' It's sloppy police work. It's negligent police work. It's incompetent police work."

"Is it possible it was a cover up?" Maher asked Taylor. His reply: "Yes!"

It was about 6 p.m. when Sherri Rasmussen's husband, John Ruetten, returned home from work.

Los Angeles Times reporter Joel Rubin explains what happened next.

"He drives up to the townhouse. Her car is not there... He sees broken glass that's shattered from the sliding door. He comes up the stairway, opens the door...and finds his wife's body on the floor. Sherri's found with three bullet wounds - two in the upper torso area...and then a third one to the abdomen area."

Alan Tarsky, Sherri's neighbor in 1986, spoke to John Ruetten just moments after he discovered Sherri's dead body.

"When he came in from the garage, her body was the very first thing that he saw," Tarsky told Maureen Maher. "His face was gaunt. He simply said, 'Sherri's dead. She's dead.'"

Shocked and curious, Tarsky became an eyewitness.

"I actually kind of snuck in while the police were still running in and out at the time... I saw the results of this disaster," he said. "There were signs that obviously there had been a struggle because chairs were turned over... The pool of blood that was in the living room was at probably three feet across at least."

Although he was a close neighbor, living about 20 feet away, not a single detective ever questioned Tarsky; never knocked on his door to ask if he saw anything. "In all these years, I've never been contacted by police," he said.

Police also never interviewed Sherri's sister, Teresa, who was among the last to see her alive.

"I saw her the day before she died. They didn't even talk to me," she said.

Detectives also failed to contact close friend Jayne Goldberg.

"The police never came to me. They never questioned me," she said. "Why aren't the police coming to me, and saying, 'Do you know anybody who Sherri had a problem with?'"

Sherri had confided in Goldberg about all the problems she was having with her husband's ex-girlfriend.

"You know, that somebody recently came to her office and discussed her husband with her," Goldberg continued. "And then Sherri's murdered? It was the first thing I thought of."

But investigators still continued down the road of a botched burglary, even though the only missing items from Sherri's home were her car, which was a gift from John and, according to Goldberg, her marriage certificate.

"And I thought, 'Hmm...her marriage license and her car that she got when she was engaged?' Those two things are gone. It's just so symbolic," said Goldberg.

"When detectives did their walkthrough, there's nothing else in the house that's disturbed. So it raises questions about whether this was, in fact, a burglary," said Los Angeles Times police reporter Andrew Blankstein.

Detectives stuck to that botched burglary theory even as the trail went cold for more than two decades.

"You have to look back into the investigation to see if there's anything you missed. And in this case it was Stephanie Lazarus," said Burt Luper, a retired detective who spent 27 years working for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Now an investigator on Stephanie Lazarus' defense team, even he believes she was an obvious suspect.

"She should've been looked at right away," Luper said. "Who knows what would've come of that? We don't know. We'll never know because nobody did it. ...They should have looked at her if nothing else to eliminate her and had they eliminated her we probably wouldn't be here."

"As a result of not looking at her, we've lost valuable evidence that may have exonerated her," said defense attorney Mark Overland.

But Stephanie Lazarus was an unlikely suspect. She was just a beat cop at the time, but would go on to be a star detective in her department. The UCLA graduate eventually married another detective. She had survived thyroid cancer and even raised money to start a daycare program for members of the LAPD And eventually, she adopted her own little girl.

Steven Lazarus, Stephanie's younger brother, says there is absolutely no way his sister committed this brutal crime.

"When you know Stephanie and you know her devotion to law enforcement and to her family and humanity, it doesn't make sense, nor do I believe it," he said.

"To the best of anyone's knowledge, was Stephanie ever looked at? Was she ever questioned?" Maher asked reporter Joel Rubin. "No," he says. "The lead investigator at the time told me he never considered her a suspect."

That detective, Lyle Mayer, spoke to reporters in 1986 about the burglars he suspected of the crime. He's retired now and reluctantly spoke to "48 Hours" about that original investigation.

Mayer emphatically denies nearly every point made by Sherri Rasmussen's family and friends. He refused to go on camera, but told Maher that Nels Rasmussen never told him that Sherri was having a problem with John Ruetten's ex-girlfriend. He also denies that John Ruetten ever told LAPD to check into Stephanie Lazarus and flat out denies any accusation of a cover-up.

Said Rasmussen family attorney John Taylor, "Lyle Mayer's got a lot of explaining to do."

"He absolutely claims John never brought up the name Stephanie Lazarus, to LAPD. Never mentioned any of the altercations," Maher said to Taylor.

"Within two days of the murder, there was a crime scene walk-through and John Ruetten gave Lyle Mayer - at least told him - you should look at my ex-girlfriend...and he identified her as being a Los Angeles police officer," said Taylor.

"So is Lyle Mayer lying?"

"He has a selective memory," he said.

Mayer does admit Stephanie's name came up during his investigation, but he says it was months after Sherri's murder and he felt there was no sufficient reason to question her. As for Mayer's failure to interview critical witnesses, he firmly denies those accusations.

"He says he spoke to hundreds, hundred of witnesses and that he absolutely canvassed the neighborhood. Do you think that's true?" Maher asked Taylor.

"I think that there would have been a paper trail that would reflect the hundreds of interviews," he replied. "I think he's fabricating that."

Whatever the shortcomings of the original investigation, forensic investigators did manage to collect one crucial piece of evidence: a saliva sample taken from a tiny bite mark on Sherri's arm.

"When they re-open the case, the saliva sample is sent out to a DNA lab for testing," Rubin said, "and the DNA testing comes back as belonging to a woman."

The DNA belonged to a woman. The results were mind blowing and totally destroyed the theory that Sherri was killed by two male burglars.

Rubin said, "It led police to suspect one of their own... Stephanie Lazarus."

Twenty-two years had passed since Nels and Loretta Rasmussen's daughter, Sherri, had been brutally murdered.

"You never get over it and such heartache and such pain," said Loretta. "We thought that it was a lost cause," said Nels.

Little did the Rasmussen's know LAPD cold case investigators had quietly re-opened Sherri's case and had found that the bite mark on her arm contained DNA of an unidentified female. In 2008, a detective called Nels with the news.

"I was ecstatic," Nels told Maureen Maher. "I told Loretta, 'We're gonna get it solved.'"

Nels says for the first time in two decades, a detective from the LAPD finally listened to him; that he believed an LAPD cop had murdered his daughter.

"He said, 'You know, if we get the DNA, and it doesn't match, we're back to base one.' And I say, 'You don't have to worry about that. You get the DNA and you've got yourself an arrest.'"

The new detectives immediately started trailing Det. Stephanie Lazarus.

"At the point they find out that Stephanie Lazarus could be one of the suspects... next step they have to get a surreptitious DNA sample," reporter Andrew Blankstein explained.

To get a sample of Stephanie's DNA, detectives secretly followed her to a local retail outlet where she discarded a cup and a straw. Detectives then quickly collected the evidence and the samples were sent to a lab.

The results of the DNA test were stunning.

The DNA from the bite mark pointed directly at Lazarus. The test indicated there was a 1.7 sextillion-to-1 chance that the DNA belonged to someone other than Stephanie Lazarus. That's 17 followed by 20 zeros!

"It came back and it was exactly who I'd been pointing to for 23 years," Nels said, getting emotional. "I never felt so good in my life."

As soon as the match was made, a team of more than a dozen LAPD officers secretly planned Lazarus' arrest.

"The question was, 'How are they gonna make an arrest of an LAPD officer without tipping that officer off...'" said Blankstein.

It was a covert operation, with an intense degree of risk. In fact, Det. Lazarus worked directly across the hall from the detectives investigating her for murder.

Reporter Joel Rubin describes it as "an incredibly trying situation. "The idea of arresting a cop for murder is a pretty dramatic event and doesn't happen very often," he said.

While plotting Lazarus' arrest, detectives feared she might be wearing her service weapon. Rubin explains they came up a plan to disarm her that began with a visit from a fellow detective.

"She is approached by a colleague who says, 'Hey, I just got word that over the weekend an arrest was made. This person is telling us that they have information about one of the cases that you're working.'"

Within minutes, Det. Lazarus made her way toward the jail, where she thought the suspect was waiting. If the detective was armed, she would have to remove her weapon before interviewing the suspect.

"She walks through the security point, at which point she's confronted by robbery/homicide detectives who say, 'Stephanie we need to talk to you," Blankstein explained.

Unarmed and unaware that she is the suspect, Lazarus sits down in front a hidden camera still thinking the subject they need to talk about is art theft. But not for long.

Detective: Do you know John Ruetten?

Stephanie Lazarus: Yeah, I mean we dated, you know, what is this all about?

Detective: Well it's relating to his wife.

Stephanie Lazarus: OK.

Detective: Did you know her?

Stephanie Lazarus: Not really.

Detective: Did you ever meet her?

Stephanie Lazarus: I don't know.

Detective: You dated John. How long did you guys date?

Stephanie Lazarus: I mean why are you guys - is this something - I mean you said it was gonna be an interview about art...

Stephanie Lazarus: I don't understand why you're talking about some guy I dated a million years ago.

Detective: Well do you know what happened to his wife?

Stephanie Lazarus: Yeah. I know she got killed.

Detectives continue to circle back to the subject of Sherri Rasmussen.

Detective: Had you ever met his wife?

Detective: Well, one of the concerns I had, as we're looking at some of the notes, is -- some of Sherri's friends said that you and her were having a problem (laughter) because of the John situation ... and words were being exchanged and it's all relating to John.

Stephanie Lazarus: You know what? I -- I -- I -- I just -- I can't say.

Detective: You can't say?

Stephanie Lazarus: No. I -- that -- that doesn't even ring a bell.

Finally, an hour into the interrogation, detectives get down to the tough questions.

Detective: Did you ever fight with her?

Stephanie Lazarus: You mean like we fought?

Detective: Did you ever duke it out with her?

Stephanie Lazarus" No, I don't think so.

Detective: You'd remember that, right?

Stephanie Lazarus: Yeah, I would think so.

By now, there's no doubt about what's really going on.

Stephanie Lazarus: I mean if you guys are claiming I'm a suspect then you know I got a problem with that. I'm shocked. I'm really shocked that somebody would be blame -- saying that I did this. I mean, we had a fight and so I went and killed her? I mean, come on.

Detective Lazarus walks out only to be arrested and handcuffed. She was brought back to be read her Miranda rights -- those fateful words she knows all too well.

On June 5, 2009, more than two decades after Sherri's death, Det. Stephanie Lazarus was charged with the first-degree murder of Sherri Rae Rasmussen. But her defense attorney, Mark Overland, says the state's case against his client is no slam dunk.

Asked is his client is innocent, Overland told Maher, "Absolutely... The bottom line is, this DNA evidence is flawed."

It has been more than two and a half decades since the Rasmussen's daughter, Sherri, was shot dead. Finally, the woman accused of that murder is going on trial.

Nels Rasmussen says he is 100 percent confident that Stephanie Lazarus killed his daughter.

"Beyond a shadow of a doubt... this girl is guilty," he told Maureen Maher.

Steven Lazarus says people shouldn't be so quick to judge his sister.

"It's a bit mind boggling to me of how many people just think she's guilty," he said. "Just keep an open mind and watch and let the trial take place. She's entitled to her day in court."

The prosecution begins by portraying Stephanie Lazarus as a heartbroken woman driven to kill by jealousy over John Ruetten's decision to marry someone else. The evidence: Her diary saying: "I found out that John is getting married. I was very depressed."

"So prosecutors are saying that and other entries show she's getting progressively more upset about this relationship," said reporter Andrew Blankstein.

To back up their theory, prosecutors call their star witness, the man everyone has been waiting 25 years to hear speak publicly for the first time: John Ruetten. He testifies that Lazarus was so upset she cried and begged him not to get married. They had sex that day, he says, but he still went through with his wedding just weeks later.

So, on February 24, 1986, prosecutors say, Lazarus showed up at the newlywed Sherri's condo armed with a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver.

"There's indications of a prolonged struggle," L.A. Times reporter Joel Rubin explained. "There's indications that Sherri's wrists had been bound.

As for the bite mark, "There's an effort to try to -- wrestle for the control of the gun. And at some point during that struggle, prosecutors believe that the suspect bit Sherri Rae Rasmussen in the left inner forearm," said Blankstein.

Investigators believe, that at some point, Detective Lazarus finally got the upper hand.

"Perhaps she shot her once or twice," Rubin said, " and then dealt the third the fatal shot at point blank range..."

In the end, the prosecution's case all comes down to DNA found in that bite mark. According to their expert testimony, there is a 1.7 sextillion-to-1 chance that it belongs to someone other than Lazarus. And that, prosecutors argue, is proof positive that Stephanie Lazarus is the murderer.

"Stephanie Lazarus is a cold-blooded murderer," said John Taylor, the Rasmussen's attorney. " DNA-profiling technology absolutely nails her as the defendant."

Lazarus seems to be facing insurmountable odds by the time her attorney, Mark Overland, begins his defense. He paints a picture of her as a well-respected police officer who won commendation after commendation. She was a woman who made it in a man's world and certainly was not a woman obsessed with her former boyfriend.

"The defense is trying to say look, Stephanie Lazarus was not as close to John Ruetten as the prosecutors are trying to say. She's not jealous. This isn't as big a deal as they're saying," said Blankstein.

With that motive called into question, Overland focuses on attacking what was the states strongest evidence, the DNA. His argument: The DNA is suspect because of the haphazard way it was handled over the course of more than two decades. He explains that the swabs taken of that bite mark on Sherri Rasmussen's arm were kept in a vial and sealed in an envelope in 1986.

"The whole purpose of the envelope is to preserve the integrity of the specimen," Overland told the court.

Overland says the envelope had been misplaced for a long time, possibly years, but eventually was found in the L.A. County Coroner's Office.

He says that evidence may have been mishandled, or even worse, tampered with.

"This is approximately the way the envelope was found in the coroner's office," Overland told Maher, showing her the vial protruding from the envelope.

Asked if the vial was sealed, Overland said, "No. This DNA evidence is flawed... The bottom line is, because of this tear, you can't say that this is the evidence that was recovered from the scene."

"No ... This DNA evidence is flawed," he replied. "The bottom line is because of this tear, you can't say that this is the evidence that was recovered from the scene."

But prosecutors maintain they have a circumstantial case as well.

"Stephanie Lazarus reported a gun stolen to the Santa Monica police just two weeks after the murder of Sherri Rae Rasmussen," said Rubin.

" The weapon that was reported stolen was a five-shot, snub-nosed Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver," added Blankstein.

Ballistics tests and gunshot residue found at the crime scene have led prosecutors to believe that gun was the murder weapon.

"Prosecutors and cops believe that perhaps she reported the gun stolen so as to, obviously, make it untraceable," said Rubin.

"For all they know, it could be at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean," added Blankstein.

The defense disputes this theory.

"It's apparently the exact same type of gun that was -" Maureen Maher noted to Overland.

"Wrong," he replied.

"It wasn't?"

"Wrong."

"It's not the same kind of gun?"

"Wrong," Overland insisted. "The exact type of gun that was used in committing the homicide has never been identified."

After more than four weeks and some 60 witnesses, the jury takes little more than a day to reach a verdict:

We the jury in the above entitled action find the defendant Stephanie Eileen Lazarus guilty of the crime of murder of Sherri Rasmussen.

"I am very disappointed," Overland said of the guilty verdict. "I think the speed of the verdict showed we never had a chance."

Twenty-six years after Sherri Rasmussen's death, her family members finally have their chance to speak in court at the sentencing two months after the conviction.

"Because of a selfish brutal act of violence Sherri's family...and friends have endured extreme heartache and pain for which there is no cure," Loretta Rasmussen, Sherri's mother, addressed the court.

"What a waste," Sherri's younger sister, Teresa, said in tears."It was so callous to take Sherri's life because she lived in all of us."

John Ruetten joins the family to speak about the woman he loved.

" Sherri Rasmussen had an impact on so many people (cries) and I was so proud she agreed to be my wife," Ruetten addressed the court. "My heart still races when I look at her pictures, but Sherry was extraordinary more for who she was that the way she looked."

After remembering Sherri, Ruetten stuns the listeners by apologizing to the Rasmussen family: "The Rasmussens have treated me as a son and a brother and contemplating their profound grief that she met her death because she met and married me brings me to my knees."

The victim statements heard, Stephanie Lazarus is sentenced to 27 years to life in the state penitentiary.

She could be paroled after 16 years, but she'll probably spend the rest of her life in prison.

Nels and Loretta Rasmussen fought long and hard seeking justice for their murdered daughter.

"You never get over it. You only learn to live with it," said Loretta.

"We will feel that loss until we leave this earth," said Nels.

 

 

 
 
 
 
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