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Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Stephanie Lazarus Murder Case

     In the early 1980s, Stephanie Lazarus, a student at UCLA, fell in love with John  Ruetten who also attended the university. After college, Lazarus and Ruetten continued to see each other, and even took trips together. But for Ruetten, it wasn't a serious relationship. In 1984, Stephanie joined the Los Angeles Police Department as a patrol officer. A year later, Ruetten shocked her with the news that he was marrying a woman named Sherri Rasmussen. Lazarus responded to the revelation by becoming hysterical. At the hospital where Rasmussen worked as a nursing supervisor, the jilted, distraught cop confronted her rival. At one point Lazarus threatened that if she couldn't have John Ruetten, nobody could  have him. Notwithstanding Lazarus' smoldering objection, Ruetten and Rasmussen were married in November 1985.

     On the morning of February 24, 1986, Sherri Ruetten (nee Rasmussen), still employed at the hospital, called in sick. Stephanie Lazarus also took a day off from the LAPD. At six that evening, John Ruetten returned to his townhouse in the San Fernando Valley to find his wife of three months sprawled on her back on the living room carpet. Dressed in a red robe and a pink T-shirt, Sherri Ruetten  had been struck over the head with a heavy vase, tied-up, beaten, bitten, and shot to death. The Los Angeles County coroner estimated that the 29-year-old victim had been murdered around noon.

     A crime scene investigator, in the era before DNA identification, had the presence of mind to swab the victim's bite mark with cotton and place the sealed evidence in the coroner's freezer. (From saliva, a forensic serologist could determine the donor's blood type.) Detectives on the case, thinking that Sherri Ruetten had interrupted a burglar, did not suspect officer Stephanie Lazarus. The investigation went nowhere.

     In 1993, the LAPD promoted Lazarus to detective. That year she married a fellow police officer, and shortly thereafter the couple had a daughter. In 2005, the LAPD formed a squad of cold-case investigators who re-opened hundreds of old, unsolved murders that featured biological evidence capable of being DNA tested. The 1986 Sherri Ruetten case fell into that category. In 2005, a DNA analysis of the saliva traces swabbed from the victim's bite wound revealed that the killer was a woman. While members of Sherri's family suspected that Stephanie Lazarus had killed Sherri, the LAPD, perhaps unwilling to investigate one of their own, stayed with the intruder theory. (Female burglars are extremely rare.)

     In 2009, after Stephanie Lazarus retired from the force as a highly decorated detective specializing in art theft, the cold-case investigators turned their attention to her. That year, a detective who had followed the suspect to a Costco store, retrieved a soda can she had thrown into a trash container. A DNA analyst compared saliva traces from the soda can to the Rasmussen bite mark residue. The comparison resulted in a partial DNA match. This linkage to the murder scene provided detectives with probable cause to take Lazarus into custody.

     With Lazarus in custody, an investigator had the opportunity to swab the inside of her mouth for a higher quality saliva sample. According to DNA expert Jennifer Francis, the sample from the suspect's mouth matched the crime scene saliva. This meant that Stephanie Lazarus was the only person in the world who could have bitten Sherri Ruetten. The district attorney's office charged the retired police officer with first-degree murder. A judge set her bail at $10 million. Lazarus would await her trial in the Los Angeles County Jail.

     The Lazarus trial got underway on February 6, 2012. Deputy District Attorney Paul Nunez, after showing the jury of six men and six women the murder scene photographs, spent the first week establishing the integrity of the DNA evidence. He also emphasized how it proved beyond a reasonable doubt that the defendant had murdered Sherri Ruetten. Defense attorney Mark Overland aggressively cross-examined the prosecution's DNA experts in an effort to plant seeds of doubt regarding the reliability of physical evidence this old.

     On February 14, the prosecutor put John Ruetten on the stand. The 53-year-old witness described how the defendant had reacted to the news he was marrying Sherri Rasmussen. To calm her down, he agreed to have sex with her. After the murder, the idea that Lazarus had killed his wife never crossed Ruetten's mind. Detectives had told him that Sherri had been murdered when she interrupted a burglar.

     Prosecutor Nunez, on February 16, 2012, put his last witness on the stand, a FBI criminal profiler who testified that the killer had staged part of the murder scene to throw off investigators. According to this witness, the victim's townhouse, with its alarm company sign on the door and its location in plain view of other houses, was an unlikely target for a burglar.

     Mark Overland, in his two-day defense presentation, attacked the DNA evidence. He tried to convince jurors that the 1986 bite mark saliva had degraded and had been contaminated. The defense attorney also put a fingerprint examiner on the stand who testified that none of the murder scene latents belonged to the defendant. Overland rested his case without putting the defendant on the stand. (I believe, in a case involving prosecution DNA evidence, that was a mistake.)

     In his closing remarks to the jury, Deputy District Attorney Nunez said the DNA evidence against the defendant was "overwhelming." The prosecutor identified the motive in the murder as jealousy. The defense attorney asked the jurors to disregard the DNA evidence which he characterized as "compromised." During the closing arguments, the defendant looked on without outward signs of emotion.

     On March 8, 2012, after deliberating a little more than a day, the jury found Lazarus guilty of first-degree murder. Not long after the verdict, the Rasmussen family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the LAPD and the city.

     On May 10, 2012, the judge sentenced the 51-year-old Lazarus to 27 years in prison. A civil judge, in 2013, dismissed the Rasmussen wrongful death suit against the police department.  

2 comments:

  1. Stephanie Lazarus was not a highly decorated detective. She also did not retire until after she was arrested and charged with the crime of murder. She was arrested at Parker Center while she was on duty. She was asked by the homicide detectives to assist in an interview of an arrestee in the jail. There was nothing the original detectives could do in regards to the Rasmussen family telling them the ex girlfriend was a cop. There was no evidence and Lazarus certainly wouldn't agree to be interviewed without the presence of an attorney. Needless to say an attorney would advised her to decline being interviewed.

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    1. Yes, I was thinking about the same errors when I read the blog. At this point, I'm also wondering about evidence that came up missing from the police files. Who might have done that? Did Stephanie's husband have access to that material?

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