Editor’s note: Beth Karas is a correspondent for In Session on TruTV. Karas compiled the following from a transcript from a preliminary hearing, Stephanie Lazarus’ interrogation transcript, police reports and the autopsy report.
Opening statements began Monday in the murder case against Stephanie Lazarus. The 51-year-old former LAPD detective is accused of murdering Sherri Rae Rasmussen, 29, the new wife of her ex-boyfriend, in February 1986. Police say the case was unsolved until DNA from a bite mark on the victim’s left arm provided key evidence nearly two decades after the murder.
Lazarus, who joined the LAPD in 1983, was an uniformed patrol officer when Rasmussen was murdered. Rasmussen’s family believed Lazarus should have been a suspect, but the LAPD apparently didn’t take a serious look at their colleague at that time.
Rasmussen’s parents told police that in the weeks before the murder, their daughter complained about being stalked by a police officer. The Rasmussens reported to police that they believed the officer was Ruetten’s ex-girlfriend. One detective told them they were “watching too much TV.”
Lazarus and Ruetten
Lazarus met John Ruetten at UCLA where they were both students in the early ‘80s. Lazarus told detectives that they dated during and after college but that they were not together when Ruetten started dating Rasmussen. Lazarus said that Ruetten continued to call her even after he was involved with Rasmussen even though Lazarus never admitted dating or having sexual contact with him at that time.
During the execution of a search warrant, detectives found Lazarus’s journal from 1985. Entries about Ruetten and his then-girlfriend, Sherri Rasmussen, reveal an emotionally distraught Lazarus when she learned the two were engaged. Her June 4, 1985 entry:
“We really didn’t do much. I really don’t feel like working. I found out that John is getting married. I was very depressed, very sad. My concentration was negative 10.”
On June 16, 1985, she wrote:
“I really didn’t feel like working. Too stressed out about John. I’ve had a real hard time concentrating these days…”
Ruetten and Sherri Rasmussen were married on November 23, 1985.
Just three months later, Rasmussen was killed in her home.
Rasmussen was a nursing director at Glendale Adventist Hospital in Los Angeles, but stayed home from work on Monday, February 24, 1986. She had called in sick because she hurt her back doing aerobics.
Around noon, a neighbor heard screams. Investigators say that is when Rasmussen was viciously attacked and murdered.
John Ruetten, Rasmussen’s husband, got home from work at about 6 p.m. The autopsy report says his wife of three months was dead on the living room floor. She was wearing a T-shirt, underpants, and a robe and had been shot through the heart and through her spine. Her head and body showed signs of bludgeoning. There were marks on her wrists that suggested she had been restrained. A multicolored robe lay on the floor. Three shots had been fired through it, leading investigators to conclude that it had been wrapped around, or draped over, the murder weapon to muffle the sound of the shots.
The police report says the first floor of the townhouse was a mess. It was clear that Rasmussen had fought for her life. Electronic equipment was stacked nearby, drawers appeared to be searched, a vase was broken, and blood was smeared. It looked as though this was a burglary that may have been interrupted, causing the assailant (or assailants) to flee before removing all the property.
There was no sign of forced entry. The front door had three locks and the home had a security system that apparently was not activated. Ruetten would later say that the front door may have been unlocked that morning.
Initially, police say they believed this was a botched burglary. That belief was bolstered a few months later when police learned about an attempted burglary by two unidentified men just a few blocks from Rasmussen’s townhouse; one of the assailants had displayed a gun. Ruetten told the police, at the time, to take a look at his ex-girlfriend, Lazarus. It’s unclear how much investigation, if any, went into eliminating Lazarus in 1986.
The trail went cold and the case lay dormant for almost two decades.
The LAPD’s Cold Case Homicide Unit was created in late 2001, and detectives took a fresh look a many dusty files. In 2002, the unsolved murder of Sherri Rasmussen was one of those resurrected cases. Since her death, new forensic testing -- particularly DNA typing -- proved critical in solving cases.
Investigators saw that Rasmussen’s file indicated bite-mark swabs were taken from her left arm and they knew that if biological evidence still existed, it could be key to solving the case.
During a preliminary hearing, prosecutors said the bite-mark swabs were found in a freezer at the coroner’s office in December 2004.
Testing revealed a DNA mixture of two people: Rasmussen and another female. The file was shelved for a few more years, but in 2009 detectives looked at it again. Realizing that the DNA results did not support the original theory, investigators focused on five women who were potential suspects. Lazarus was one of those women.
Detectives surreptitiously tailed Lazarus for a week and obtained a DNA sample from a straw that she had thrown away. In late May 2009, testing revealed that DNA from the bite mark matched Lazarus. Prosecutors say the likelihood that the source of the bite mark is someone other than Lazarus is one in 400 quadrillion, according to testimony at a preliminary hearing in December 2010.
But the evidence isn’t a slam dunk.
During a preliminary hearing, a possible problem with the vial of Lazarus’ DNA was revealed. Unfortunately for investigators, when the bite-mark swabs were recovered in December 2004, the packaging was torn and the cap on the vial containing the two swabs was sticking out of the paper evidence envelope. This breach could allow the defense to argue a break in the chain of custody of the evidence. The judge has ruled that the swabs are admissible at trial but jurors will decide whether the condition of the envelope makes the evidence unreliable.
At the time of her arrest, Lazarus was an LAPD detective with expertise in art theft. She had been with the LAPD for more than 25 years and had married a fellow officer in 1996.
Armed with the DNA match -- along with other compelling circumstantial evidence -- detectives used a ruse to lure Lazarus to a private area at work where they could interrogate her.
On June 5, 2009, believing she was assisting two detectives in talking to a suspect about an art theft, Lazarus accompanied them to the jail division of police headquarters. In an interrogation room with a video camera rolling, two detectives quickly got to the point. They asked Lazarus about her relationship with John Ruetten and any contact she had had with his wife, Sherri Rae Rasmussen.
After an hour of struggling to recollect details from 1985 and 1986 -- or being intentionally evasive -- Lazarus was arrested and charged with Rasmussen’s murder. In her statement to police, Lazarus denies having anything to do with Rasmussen’s murder.
Lazarus has been in jail since her arrest and is being held on $10 million bail. Friday, a jury of eight women and four men was chosen. If they convict her of premeditated murder, she could spend life in prison.
The trial is expected to last at least three weeks.
Check back with HLNtv.com for updates on the trial as it develops.