Jealous cop murders love rival – and nearly gets away with it

When newlywed John Ruetten returned from work to his Van Nuys home on 24 February 1986, he was greeted by a smear of blood on the door that was indicative of the scene inside. His once blushing bride, 29-year-old Sherri Rasmussen, lay cold in the living room with three bullet wounds in her chest. Her right eyelid was swollen from a forceful strike and there was a bite mark on the inner side of her left forearm. A glass balcony door upstairs was smashed, there were shards of glass strewn across the driveway and Rasmussen’s silver BMW was gone. The LAPD would later say this was a burglary gone wrong.

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Sherri and John weren’t long married when she was murdered

Two .38-calibre bullets were recovered from the body and DNA samples were taken from the bite mark. A pink and green blanket was discovered at the scene by Homicide Detective Lyle Mayer – the killer had used the blanket to muffle the sound of two shots fired at the victim at point-blank range. Interviews conducted later determined that two Latin men who had burgled other houses in the neighbourhood as well as assaulted a woman were the likely killers. However, Rasmussen’s father insisted the police question his son-in-law’s college girlfriend, Stephanie Lazarus, an art theft detective with the LAPD. His daughter had told him the details of several odd visits from Lazarus including one at the medical centre where she worked. Supervising the investigation, Detective Mayer dismissed Mr Rasmussen’s suggestion, as did Sherri’s husband – he and Lazarus were old friends, nothing more, and his wife had never mentioned these impromptu visits.

A week later, the BMW was found parked in a nearby street. A spot of blood, a strand of brown hair and fingerprints were discovered in the vehicle. Rasmussen’s father begged officers to conduct DNA testing on the samples, but he was told the tests were both expensive and, in order to do so, there must be a suspect. As there wasn’t one, the case went cold.

TURNING POINT

Rasmussen’s case caught the attention of criminalist Jennifer Francis three years after the opening of the Cold Case Homicide Unit by the LAPD in 2001. The coroner’s freezer was searched by hand when swabs of DNA from the bite mark that had been detailed in the report were found to be missing. There, a moisture-soiled envelope was found marked ‘Rasmussen’, as opposed to a file number as evidence normally was. Inside was a screw cap tube containing two swabs. Tests finally determined the gender of the killer as female. Mayer had retired some years earlier and details of the interviews with Rasmussen’s father urging officers to look at Detective Lazarus hadn’t been recorded, nor had any other interviews that mentioned her. Detectives speculated about the possibility that one of the two burglars was female. However, again with no concrete suspects, the evidence was returned to storage.

In 2009, Van Nuys Homicide Detective Jim Nuttall pulled a progress report on the case. Francis’s contradiction of Mayer’s original theory that the suspected killers were male caused him to show it to his supervisor Detective Robert Bub, who assigned detectives Marc Martinez and Pete Barba to rework the case. A re-enactment of the attack suggested that an armed intruder had targeted Rasmussen. They had fired a shot and missed, shattering the glass upstairs. Rasmussen had run downstairs to activate the panic alarm and the killer had tried to stop her, resulting in a violent struggle. When Rasmussen wrestled the gun from her attacker and placed her in a headlock, the assailant bit her, hit her over the head with a vase and fired a fatal shot. The final two shots were muffled, delivered through the blanket.

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Lazarus’s career progressed from beat cop to art theft detective despite the skeleton in her closet

A note in the progress report showed that in 1987, a statement from John confirmed Lazarus was a former girlfriend, the initials ‘PO’ scribbled next to her name. Guessing that this stood for ‘police officer’, the name was put into the department database. When her details emerged, detectives phoned Rasmussen’s father who explained his suspicions of Lazarus once again. Investigations determined that the officer had been off duty on the day of the murder almost 23 years ago. She had reported her back-up .38-calibre Smith and Wesson gun as stolen just weeks later. Undercover police acquired DNA from a discarded drinks straw belonging to Lazarus. Tests confirmed that the mouth on that straw had bitten Rasmussen 23 years ago.

AFTERMATH

In March 2012, 56-year-old Stephanie Lazarus was found guilty of first-degree murder. She received 27 years to life imprisonment as well as an additional two years for the personal use of a firearm. Lazarus’s defence attorney filed an appeal arguing an unfair trial and that evidence in some cases was circumstantial, such as the similarities between the murder weapon and the defendant’s replacement .38-calibre gun. However, California’s Second District Court of Appeal denied this appeal in July 2015.

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