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
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
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.
Stephanie Lazarus and the Murder of Sherri Rae
By Tricia Romano
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
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
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
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.
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
Twenty-three years later, the break-in looks like a
cover up—and police now believe that she ditched the gun in the
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.
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
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
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
(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
"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
"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
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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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.
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
"...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
"... 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
"Absolutely not," Overland said. "Infatuated? Yes.
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
"Do you think he was holding back on information?"
"I have no idea what's going on in that boy's
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
"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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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
"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
Stephanie Lazarus: I mean why are you guys -
is this something - I mean you said it was gonna be an interview about
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
Stephanie Lazarus: Yeah. I know she got
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
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
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
Asked is his client is innocent, Overland told
Maher, "Absolutely... The bottom line is, this DNA evidence is
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
"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
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
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
"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
Ballistics tests and gunshot residue found at the
crime scene have led prosecutors to believe that gun was the murder
"Prosecutors and cops believe that perhaps she
reported the gun stolen so as to, obviously, make it untraceable,"
"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'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
"I am very disappointed," Overland said of the
guilty verdict. "I think the speed of the verdict showed we never had
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,"