03.08.12

L.A. Policewoman on Trial for Murdering Her Ex’s Wife

A cold case turns hot when the alleged killer turns out to be an LAPD cop accused of offing her romantic rival, Christine Pelisek reports.

Stephanie Lazarus was a dedicated police officer with the Los Angeles Police Department. She began her impeccable career in Hollywood as a patrol officer before quickly moving on as a supervisor of detectives. Eventually, she landed a prestigious post as an art-theft investigator, responsible for all thefts and burglaries targeting fire art. She and her partner appeared in the LA Weekly’s 2009 People Issue where she was described as a “serious Tyne Daly look-alike à la Cagney & Lacey.”

Over her 26-year career, the married mother of an adopted baby girl won numerous citations and awards by her peers who commended her outstanding abilities, sense of humor, and her “strong moral values.”

Today, the former cop, now 51, sits in a Los Angeles courtroom, accused of the vicious slaying of a romantic rival that occurred when she was a young rookie on the force.

Prosecutors believe that Lazarus was so overcome by being jilted by her lover that she bumped off his 29-year-old wife of three months, Sherri Rae Rasmussen, in a fit of jealous rage, and then used her skills as a policewoman to cover up the crime.

“[Lazarus] had special skills,” said Deputy District Attorney Shannon Presby in his opening statement. “She knew how crimes were committed, and investigated. She was trained as a locksmith and she knew about picking locks. She knew about fingerprints, how to lift them and not leave them behind. She knew guns make a distinct sound so she wrapped her gun in a blanket and while Sherri was on the floor she fired.”

To ensure that the critical-care nurse at Glendale Adventist Hospital didn’t survive, Lazarus made sure the last shot was made with the barrel of the gun jammed against her victim’s chest, Presby said. “It was not about her acting in the line of duty… It was personal.”

Presby said Lazarus got away with the horrific crime for almost 20 years until a saliva sample from a bite mark on Rasmussen’s arm that was found in a coroner’s fridge in 2005 linked her to the slaying.

“Sherri Rasmussen wore the white wedding dress [Lazarus] believed was hers,” said Presby. “She was beginning a future with a man Lazarus loved. Sherri’s beauty was disfigured, obliterated, blotted from existence by three close range shots to the chest. A bite, a bullet, a gun barrel and a broken heart—that is the evidence that Lazarus murdered Rasmussen because Rasmussen married the man she loved.”

The body of Rasmussen was discovered by her new husband, John Ruetten, on the floor of their townhouse in Van Nuys, Calif., on Feb. 26, 1986. She was wearing a red bathrobe and was lying on her back with her hands frozen in the air, as if she were trying to protect herself from one last blow. A rope was found nearby, indicating she had been tied up.

There were signs of a ferocious struggle. She was bleeding from a head wound. She had been shot in the chest three times at close range with a .38-caliber weapon, and there was a human bite mark on her arm. A blanket with bullet holes lay nearby. Police theorized that her killer used the blanket to muffle the sound of the gunshots. Crime-scene investigators gathered a saliva sample from the bite mark and sealed it in a plastic tube.

At the scene, detectives discovered video equipment stacked up on the living room floor near Rasmussen’s body, and her car and wedding certificate were missing. Cash, jewelry, and valuable items were left behind, and there was blood on the walls.

Ruetten told detectives that his wife, a fitness junkie, had called in sick that morning after straining her back in an aerobics workout. He left for work around 7 a.m. He told police he called Rasmussen around 10 a.m. but she never answered the phone. He arrived home at 6 p.m. and noticed the garage door open. He saw glass on the driveway, and the new BMW he bought his wife as an engagement present was missing.

“He saw his bride of four months lying on the living room floor,” said Presby. “He looked into her eyes and knew she was dead.”

At the time, the lead detective was convinced that Rasmussen was killed in a botched robbery. “[The detective] knew from the moment he looked at the crime scene what happened, so for 20 years she got away with it,” said Presby. “But there was one thing he didn’t know—a tiny piece of Stephanie Lazarus was hiding in the bite mark of Sherri’s arm.”

Rasmussen’s death remained unsolved for close to 20 years until a Los Angeles Police Department cold-case detective found the saliva sample from the bite mark buried in the basement of the coroner’s office and had the swab tested for DNA. What he discovered astonished him. Although they didn’t have a name of a suspect, they did have a gender: the killer was a female. Still believing the original theory that the killer was a burglar, the detective began looking for female suspects.

The case went nowhere until another detective picked it up and “decided to forego the previous theory and looked at it with fresh new eyes,” the deputy district attorney said.

“He saw his bride of four months lying on the living room floor,” the prosecutor said. “He looked into her eyes and knew she was dead.”

The detective looked at the crime scene and quickly deduced that it looked staged. He called Rasmussen’s parents and interviewed Ruetten. He learned from Rasmussen’s father that a female LAPD officer—who he didn’t know—had been harassing his daughter. Rasmussen had told her father that she came home one day to find the woman, in full uniform, standing inside the home she shared with Ruetten. On another occasion, Rasmussen’s father said the same police officer showed up at Glendale Adventist Hospital in uniform and threatened Rasmussen, stating, “If I can’t have John, nobody can.”

The detective discovered that Lazarus and Ruetten met at UCLA, and the two dated off and on for a few years until he met Rasmussen.

At trial, Presby read a letter Lazarus wrote to Ruetten’s mother shortly before the murder that read: “I’m totally in love with John and the past year has really torn me up,” it said. “I don’t think I’ll ever understand his decision.”

“For John the relationship was buddy-buddy,” said Presby. “For Lazarus it was different. It was unrequited love … They dated for a while, but she was not for him. She was not the one. He found the one in Sherri.”

Presby said that shortly after Lazarus learned of the engagement she contacted Ruetten and “begged him to see her.”

“She was emotionally distraught,” he said. “She told him she loved him. She wanted a future with Ruetten. They had sex. At the end he said I care for you, but I am going forward with my marriage to Sherri.”

Thirteen days after the murder, Lazarus reported to the Santa Monica Police Department that her car had been broken into and her .38-caliber weapon was stolen from the trunk. “To this day it has never been found,” said Presby. “She knew a comparison between a firearm and bullets could be conclusive. So it disappeared.”

With the DNA results and new interviews with Rasmussen’s parents and Ruetten, detectives suspected that Lazarus was most likely the killer. Undercover officers began to tail her and followed her to a Costco, where they saw her drinking from a cup. She dropped the cup in the trash and officers picked it up. Presby said the saliva from the bite mark matched the detective’s to the possibility of one in 1.17 sextillion.

For her part, Lazarus has denied any role in the killing. Her defense attorney Mark Overland painted a remarkably different profile of the former cop. He rejected the theory that Lazarus was a tormented lover and argued that Ruetten was the pursuer of Lazarus before and after he got married.

“It was not just an obsession, a one-sided romance of unrequited love,” said Overland. “They had sex 20 or 30 times during their relationship. She wasn’t obsessed with him.” Overland said that at one point Lazarus approached Rasmussen and asked her to tell her husband to “stop bothering me.”

After Rasmussen’s death, Lazarus did “zero, nothing to pursue Ruetten. She never contacted him or called him. It was he who initiated each and every contact between them,” the lawyer said.

Overland believes Lazarus is a victim of mishandled DNA evidence and that an unidentified fingerprint and palm print on the wall near a blood print of Rasmussen’s as well as hair evidence found at the crime scene point to another killer.