Trial Begins in Case of LAPD Vet Accused of Murder

DNA testing, which was not widely used in crime labs two decades ago, may convict a decorated veteran Los Angeles police detective of what prosecutors say was a murder brought on by a broken heart and jealous rage.

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Mark Boster-Pool / Getty Images

Veteran LAPD detective Stephanie Lazarus, 49, appears at the Criminal Justice Center for her arraignment on murder charges June 9, 2009 in Los Angeles, California.

The case of a Los Angeles-area murder that went decades without so much as a suspect has come to an ironic full circle that could result in a life sentence for a decorated, veteran LAPD detective.

L.A. prosecutors have started the trial of Stephanie Lazarus, a former member of the city’s police force who worked her way up from street patrols to its elite art theft unit, for the 1986 murder of Sherri Rasmussen, 29, a Van Nuys, Calif., nurse who had married Lazarus’ ex-boyfriend John Ruetten.

In February 1986, Ruetten, an engineer, returned home from work to find his new bride shot to death in their home, which had been ransacked. At the time, homicide detectives believed Rasmussen had been killed after walking in on a home invasion, basing their assumption on stereo equipment that was moved around in the apartment. The incident happened much in the same way as another recent unsuccessful robbery in the neighborhood.

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Rasmussen had complained to relatives that she was being stalked and harassed by Lazarus, then a 29-year-old LAPD patrol officer. She was even suspicious that the two former lovers had not completely ended their relationship.  Although Rasmussen’s father, Nels, pleaded with police to question Lazarus, they never did and she was never named as a suspect in the case, which went cold. That is, until 2009.

That’s when detectives, who had more time on their hands since homicides in Los Angeles had declined sharply,  returned to the case and tested blood and saliva samples thought to be from the killer — which were taken from a bite found on Rasmussen’s arm.  Looking through the original case file, they found a reference to Lazarus, now boasting a stellar career in the LAPD. An undercover cop was dispatched to trail Lazarus to get an object that would have her saliva on it. A DNA test matched the object and evidence found at the scene of the murder.

In June 2009, Lazarus was summoned by her colleagues to what she thought was police business in LAPD headquarters. It turned out, however, she was being led to questioning. Disarming herself to go through security in the building’s basement jail, she met detectives who really took her to an interrogation room. After an hour of questioning, she became irate. “You’re accusing me of this,” she said walking out of the room. “Am I on Candid Camera or something? This is insane.” But she didn’t get far before she was placed in handcuffs, under arrest for the murder, with $10 million bail set.

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As prosecutors and defense attorneys prepare for the high-profile trial, Lazarus, now retired from the LAPD, has entered a not-guilty plea. If convicted, she faces life in prison. She has remained in custody since her arrest. Her attorney, Mark Overland, said that the evidence at the scene was mishandled, and it does not point to Lazarus as a suspect. “You have to be able to show that what was analyzed is what was collected at the scene,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “The prosecution has to prove that, and they have real problems.”

But in opening arguments to the jury, prosecutors tell a different tale: “A bite, a bullet, a gun barrel and a broken heart,” said Deputy District Attorney Shannon Presby. “That’s the evidence that will prove to you that defendant Stephanie Lazarus murdered Sherri Rasmussen.”