True Crime: A Cold Case Mystery
Murder, Madness, a Bite Mark, a Shooting, And Betrayal Behind a Blood-Stained Badge Inside LAPD By Clarence Walker
On the evening of February 24, 1986, engineer John Ruetten arrived home around 6:p.m in the Van Nuys section of Los Angeles California and discovered the lifeless, bloody remains of his 29-year-old wife identified as Sherri Ruetten Rasmussen. She was lying on the floor with bullet holes in her body.
Ruetten had married the beautiful, athletic, six-feet tall nurse only three months earlier.
Homicide detectives soon arrived with CSI team to search for evidence. John Ruetten told police he knew something awfully wrong when he notice the garage door open and the silver two-door BMW he bought for his wife as an engagement gift was conspiciously missing. He told detective Lyle Mayer his wife had been home alone after taking off from work due to a strained back muscle while exercising the day before.
It appeared whoever committed the crime had surprisingly attacked the woman that triggered an intense struggle: broken glass was scattered across the floor and a TV entertainment center was smashed into pieces. Assorted documents from a drawer was also dumped on the floor. The dead woman's husband would later tell detectives that his marriage certificate was missing.
Why would someone take a marriage certificate? detectives questioned.
LAPD homicide detective Lyle Mayer hastily concluded: "Burglars made entry into an unlocked front door and while one crook began ripping off the TV, and the other guy apparently went upstairs where Sherri surprised him.
"At the time detectives focused on a theory that two men tried to break into the victim's house and was in the process of robbing the house when Sherri came home," L.A. Times reporter Joel Rubin told an NPR reporter.
A quick canvas of the luxury neighborhood led Detective Mayer to a maid who worked nearby at a condo in the area. Under questioning, the witness said, "I heard loud noises coming from where the Ruetten's lived but I didn't see anyone outside--nor leaving the scene."
Unfortunately the maid never called police. Ten days later the missing BMW was found on Balboa Boulevard with keys in the ignition. No unknown fingerprints were found in the car.
A coroner issued the following report: "Sherri Rasmussen was shot three times with a .38 pistol, once into her heart, her back; another shot struck her in the chest. She'd also been beaten with an unknown object.
An LAPD criminalist made a significant discovery when he swabbed saliva from a bite mark inflicted on the victim's hand apparently during the vicious attack. "I was a shock to everyone in the nursing world," said Althea Kennedy, an ex-vice president of nursing at Glendale Adventist, where she supervised Rasmussen. "I think she would have gone far."
A Whodunit Mystery
Sherri's parents, Mr.Nels and Mrs. Loretta Rasmussen, flew to Los Angeles from Arizona. Both parents were heartbroken and overwhelmed with grief. They wanted serious answers. Detective Mayer calmly told the parents that it appeared Sherri most likely was killed by burglars. Mayer further said he eliminated Sherri's husband John as a suspect.
What clinched Mayer's theory of Sherri Rasmussen being killed by burglars was when two months later two men attempted to burglarize another house where a woman was also killed. She ,too, had been shot to death. Approximate location between both murder scenes were intriguing: From where Sherri was killed the second murder was located less than a mile away. Suspects in the latest murder were ambigously described as two hispanic men. Based on a hunch, Mayer suspected these same guys were good for Sherr's murder.
A $10,000 reward was offered by the Rasmussen family to find the killers of their daughter. Many calls generated but no positive leads. Mr. Rasmussen mentioned a woman that his son-in-law had once dated before he married his daughter, Sherri. He told Mayer that his daughter had told him the woman had came to her job and threaten her about John. Mr. Rasmussen didn't know the woman's name. Mayer documented the information in the report but never followed up on the lead.
Perhaps the reason Mayer never followed up on the lead was because his mindset never wavered from the burglary theory. Veteran homicide detectives say the most dangerous thing an investigator can do is put himself into a preconceived box and collect only the evidence to fit a narrow focus.
Many years passed without LAPD finding the killers of Sherri Rasmussen. Among hundreds of murders committed in Los Angeles, she became another cold case on the books.
LAPD Detectives Reopen Sherri Rasmussen Cold Case Murder
FBI created a nationwide DNA database in 1998 known as "Combined DNA Index Codis System". This unique cutting-edge tool gave detectives the ability to compare DNA samples collected at crime scenes and compare samples with DNA profiles of possible suspects. When unsolved homicides became a hot-topic in police work the LAPD cold-case unit was awarded a $50 million grant in Novemeber 2001 to fund DNA testing of unsolved murders.
During latter part of 2002 after LAPD completed screening unsolved murders committed from 1960-1998, detectives concluded that 1400 cases merited potential for re-investigation using forensic techniques. One of the 1400 included the 1986 murder of Sherri Rasmussen.
On September 19, 2003, DNA analysis was requested on evidence from the 1986 murder of Sherri Rasmussen. For reasons unknown the request never bored fruit.
In December 2004, LAPD criminalist Jennifer Butterworth finally tested the Rasmussen evidence. Evidence from the crime scene such as a broken fingernail and a bloodstained towel belonging to Rasmussen's DNA profile was tested.
Next, Butterworth noticed on the property sheet that a swabbed bite mark had been retrieved.
Searching desperately for this critical evidence, Butterworth couldn't find it. There was no sign of the swab containing the saliva.
Apparently it was lost.
As Butterworth contacted personnel in charge of handling the evidence she was told the swab could not be found.
Guided by instinct, Butterworth contacted the coroner's office. She held her breath. Miraculously, a worker found it!
A thorough analysis of the swab proved two conclusions:
(1) a mixture of two DNA profiles were recovered; one profile matched Rasmussen's genetic makeup---while the second unknown profile most likely belonged to Rasmussen's killer
But another twist hampered the investigation: the unidentified profile failed to get a "hit" once the specimen was entered into CODIS which proved the suspect was not listed in the FBI's DNA database.
What captivated Butterworth's expertise was the fact that DNA profiles developed since the late 1990s' often identified the gender of the profile. Example: murders involving violence, the suspect's gender usually showed up as XY, or male. Yet the DNA she obtained from the profile were XX--which indicated the killer who bit Sherri Rasmussen was a woman.
Without solid evidence to connect possible suspects, Butterworth typed up her investigative report explaining the findings of two different DNA profiles found on the bite swab and she sent the report to homicide detectives. Although Butterworth's forensic evidence pointed to a woman's involvement with Rasmussen's murder but the negative "cold hit" on the DNA specimen submitted to FBI CODIS database only complicated the matter.
With no killer identified the case stalled.
Around February 2009 the trail heated up again when LAPD Detectives Pete Barba and Jim Nutall renewed the investigation. They immediately zeroed in on forensic evidence and possible suspects.
Nutall told Atlantic Magazine Writer Matt McGough: "It was four books deep when it reached me. They kept a pretty good chronlogical record of everything that was done for 23 years." Mcgough is a former script writer for the popular TV show "Law & Order".
While poring through assorted notes and documents Nutall pulled out the 2003 DNA-Analysis report. He immediately spotted a valuable clue: the gender marker did not compare with the initial theory of the case of two male burglars responsible for the murder alleged by the previous detective.
Nutall further said, "That jumps off the page at you because when you know you have that---and you're aware the case is based on two male burglars---well, that alters the entire course of the investigation. You have to go back to square one."
Armed with the fact that a critical piece of evidence connected a woman to the slaying, both detectives now realized they needed to find a homicidal woman. After reading the entire file they assembled a list of women as suspects including the name of a Stephanie Lazarus. Lazarus was previously mentioned at the beginning of the investigation as John Ruetten's ex-lover. Ruetten was the husband of the murdered woman who once dated Lazarus.
Eliminating four of the women as suspects that previously associated with the victim and her husband the detectives went back to Lazarus. This is when they noticed something odd: the abbreviated word "PO" was written next to Lazarus name.
What did the really meant?
Detective Nutall contacted Nel Rasmussen, the dead woman's father, to inquire what he had told detectives about this particular woman that his son-in-law had dated before Sherri was murdered. Speaking in an excited voice, Mr. Ruettrn assured Nutall that Lazarus had been a LAPD officer.
Detectives would later say they were "shocked" out of their wits at the mere thought of a police officer possibly murdering someone and got away with it.
"It was extremely difficult to process the possibility," Nutall said during the interview with the Atlantic Monthly writer.
Adrenalin ran high as the detectives wondered if the female officer still remained on LAPD force. Nutall hurriedly typed the officer's name into LAPD's employee directory. When Nutall pressed "search" he exhaled his breath as the screen lit up with the name---Sergeant-Detective Stephanie Lazarus!
Nutall and his fellow officers were stunned. They looked at each other with the kind of look that a nasty scandal would hit the department hard if this officer was a murderer still working on the force.
Could this woman, one of their own, be the killer of Sherri Rasmussen? Lazarus was assigned to the Art Theft Detail.
Finally Nutall contacted Sgt. "Bub" and told him that an LAPD officer identified as Stephanie Lazarus had been the ex-lover of the dead woman's husband, a tantalizing fact that the victim's father had previously told detectives many years before when at one point, a detective had told the grieving father that his suspicioun of the female officer was the result of "watching too much TV."
A background check showed Lazarus joined LAPD as a patrol officer in 1983. Next they made connections between Lazarus, the dead woman and her husband, John.
Lazarus and John Ruetten first met at UCLA college during early 1980s' and thereafter began dating. Once they graduated from college Lazarus and John continue to date periodically. Around 1985, Ruetten met Sherri Rasmussen and the couple married before Christmas that same year. A few months later, Sherri was brutally murdered.
During same period, Lazarus was a rookie LAPD officer who patroled the San Fernando Valley area. In 1993, she promoted to detective rank and in 1996 she married a fellow LAPD officer. They had no biological children together but they adopted a little cute girl.
Stolen Gun Report
Detectives soon discovered another clue. Shortly after the murder, officer Lazarus reported to Santa Monica PD that her .38 caliber pistol had been stolen out of her vehicle. Autopsy report showed Sherri Rasmussen was shot to death with a 38.
Had detectives questioned Lazarus back in 1986 when the victim's father told them about his daughter's fear of an LAPD officer that his son-in-law had dated, police could have made a direct connection between Lazarus reportedly stolen .38 weapon and the fact Sherri was murdered with the same caliber of weapon.
At this point in the game, secrecy was important. Detectives treaded lightly. They didn't want anyone to warn Lazarus about what they already knew. "This was not a random act of violence toward toward Sherri Rasmussen," Nutall was quoted as saying in the Atlantic Magazine.
LAPD detectvives agreed to follow the evidence wherever it led them. The momentum pressed on. Investigators had sufficient evidence to obtain a warrant to force the officer to provide a DNA sample to compare with the saliva retrieved from the bite mark but they elected to follow Lazarus in hope she would dispose of a drinking cup or soda container. These items usually leave saliva smears. And saliva can be tested for DNA.
On May 27 2004, Detectives went deep undercover and trailed Sgt. Lazarus during off-duty hours as she ran typical errands. On one trip she finally disposed of a cup she'd been sipping soda from. Like soldiers on a battlefield the surveillance team quickly retrieved the container from the trash and placed it in a plastic bag.
Having the cup would prove if the officers scored a grand slam.
The cup was submitted for DNA testing.
On May 29th, homicide Sgt. Robert Bub was enjoying a day off when his cell phone sound off a loud ring. The call was from the crime lab. Bub speaks fondly of this celebrated moment.
"It was one of those gut-wrenching moments when the lab person, said, 'Yes, it's a match!"
Following stunning results which nailed a fellow officer the detectives conferred with the District Attorney Office to brief them on a 23-year-old murder mystery committed by one of their own.
The next game plan hinged on confronting Sgt. Lazarus. "Chief Bratton didn't want anybody approaching her when she had a gun or access to a gun," Nutall explained. Overall, the veteran detectives mentally prepared themselves to face a strange but tough challenge: Could they coax a confession or an incriminating statement from a fellow police officer suspected of murder--whom herself knew the tricks-of-the trade and well-versed of her miranda rights to remain silence.
Bottom line: Sgt. Stephanie Lazarus was no ordinary suspect. Perhaps maybe she would break under pressure of knowing she'd been finally trapped in the worst sin she could have ever committed.
Detectives decided to interview Lazarus at Parker Center Jail Division. They figured the best tactic was to request the officer's help to interview a suspect with information on an art theft case. Lazarus was an expert in this field of investigation. Detectives Greg Stearns and Dan Jaramillo were chosen to question the officer. The Art Detail where Lazarus worked was located across the hall from Robbery-Homicide Division where Stearns and Jaramillo worked.
Stearns and Jaramillo's game plan was to keep Sgt. Lazarus talking, while convincing her in a sly way she was free to leave. Unknown to Lazarus the end result would result in her arrest.
The interview went down on Friday, June 5th 2009. Around 6: a.m., Det. Jaramillo, strapped with a wire, visited Sgt. Lazarus at her desk in the Art Detail. He approached her gently and introduced himself. "I'm working on a case and I have a suspect in jail talking about stolen Art."
"I don't know a lot about this stuff," he told Lazarus. "Hopefully you can talk to him and see if he's for real."
"Sure", she said.
When Lazarus walked into the interrogation room, Stearns and Jaramillo dismissed the stolen art story. They explained that her honorable name came up in a case involving an ex-boyfreind named John Ruetten.
ABC News released a transcribed report of the lengthy interview between the fellow detectives. Portions of the interview was omitted and taken out of chronological order for dramatic effect:
Jaramillo: "Was there ever any relationship or anything that developed between you and (Ruetten)?"
Lazarus: "Yeah, I mean, we dated."
Lazarus: "What's this all about?"
Jaramillo: "It's relating to his wife."
Stearns: "Had you ever met his wife?"
Lazarus: "I may have. I don't understand. Why you talking about some guy I dated a million years ago?"
Stearns: "Well, do you know what happened to his wife?"
Lazarus: "Yeah, I know she got killed!"
Stearns: "Did you have a fight with her?"
Lazarus: "You mean like we fought."
Stearns: "Yeah, did you ever duke it out with her?"
Lazarus: "No, I don't think so... I mean this doesn't sound familiar. I wish I'd been recording this because now it sounds like you're trying to pin something on me."
"I don't have anything to do with it."
When asked about the burglary of her car a few weeks later after the murder and that Lazarus reported to Santa Monica police that her snub-nosed .38 caliber was stolen she admitted the occurrence in fact happened. Further Lazarus admitted she knew the dead woman once worked at a hospital and that she may have talked with the woman after she broke up with John Ruetten, the man who at one time had dated both women.
After an hour of intense questions surrounding the murder of Sherri Rasmussen, Sgt. Lazarus asked the detectives again, "You're accusing me of this? Is that what you're saying?"
"Am I on candid camera or something?" This is insane, absolutely crazy. I can't believe this."
Visibly agitated Lazarus informed both detectives, "if this is the way things are going, I need to consult with someone."
"You're starting to make me feel uncomfortable. Do I need a lawyer?"
Jaramillo and Stearns spoke simultaneously. "You're free to leave."
Once Sgt. Lazarus politely left the room the detectives waited until she walked out into the hallway, then they followed behind her, then grabbed and twisted her arm around-- and slapped the cuffs on the officer.
"You are under arrest for the murder of Sherrie Rae Rasmussen," Detective Stearns told Sgt. Lazarus.
On the video tape Stearns could be heard, "too tight? ....which one, left or right?"
Lazarus: "You know it's the left, it's hitting my watch."
Lazarus: "Can I call my husband?"
Stearns: "They have your property over there. If you want to take your ring off....saliva works wonderful."
When Lazarus licked her finger the ring came off.
The irony of this eventful moment is this: The bite mark left on the dead woman's hand in 1986 contained saliva, saliva that CSI technicians retrieved from the bite mark, a bite mark that was tested by DNA which led to Sgt. Lazarus arrest 23 years later for the murder.
Scandalous Headline News
Sgt. Lazarus arrest for murder sent "shock" waves throughout LAPD. Local news media highly publicized the arrest with sensational headlines:
"DNA Leads Cops in Murder Case to One of their Own."
And: "LAPD Detective Stephanie Lazarus busted in Cold Case Murder."
True-crime writer Steve Huff wrote..."Sounds like something out of detective fiction."
During a press conference with ABC News LAPD Chief Charlie Beck characterized the officer.
"She had a good reputation, a hard-worker, and very energetic." Beck added, "Nothing in Lazarus job performance raised a red flag."
"People ought to recognize there are people that can hold very, very dark secrets, and hold 'em very well." "We were very shocked, obviously. But, you know, our belief here is that we follow these cases where they take us."
Johnny Bonds, a retired ( HPD; Houston Texas police department) homicide detective who also retired as a Lieutnant investigator with Harris County District Attorney Office(Special Crimes Unit), the highly decorated cop weighed in on the embarrassement of police officers charged with unjustifiable murder.
Bonds tenacity as a homicide officer solved one of Houston's most bizarre murder-mysteries that inspired a terrific book titled: "The Cop Who Wouldn't Quit"
Bonds told this journalist: "When an officer is charged with murder(or any other crime) it is like having a family member who is a criminal except you cannot defend them."
"And when a cop is charged with murder you know the investigation was exceptionally thorough. The criminal actions of one officer are often an indictment of all officers, much like the Catholic church being blamed for the actions of a few pedophile priests."
Bonds continued: "I remember a time in the late 1970s' while working as a HPD detective I was embarrased to tell people I worked for HPD after other officers in the department were charged in the deaths of Joe Campos Torres and Randy Webster. Torres death at the hands of HPD officers in 1977 garnered national media attention. A riot broke out at Moody's Park in Houston after the accused officers were only convicted of negligent homicide and given aone year in prison.
In Webster's death HPD officers shot and killed the 17-year-old auto thief suspect after a high speed chase.The officers then planted a "throwdown" gun at the scene that eventually traced back to the police station.
Following these scandalous murders by HPD officers the department chosed Detective Bonds as one of the first few officers to join the first Internal Affairs division in the department's history to investigate corrupt cops.
Bonds fellow officers convicted in the deaths of Torres and Webster had far-reaching implications in his personal life. The horrible scandal impacted his young children.
"Both of my kids were in elementary school and their classmates were giving them a hard time about my profession, they actually didn't want anyone to know I worked for HPD and my wife hated my job even more."
Defense attorney Mark Overland downplayed the prosecution's evidence against Stephanie Lazarus as flawed. "When you have a police department that says, "trust me now...I got it right. But don't trust what we did 23 years ago because we got it wrong---that should cause concern," Overland told ABC News.
Clad in a orange prisoner jumpsuit the now disgraced police officer appeared in court to face a brutal murder that went down two-decades ago, a murder she committed as a rookie patrolman in 1986, a murder that she almost got away with. Sherri Rasmussen's parents watched silently as Lazarus stood motionless to hear the judge read the charges.
Mixed emotions engulfed the parents as they stared intently at the killer of their daughter. Flanked by her attorney, Lazarus pled not guility. Judge Robert Perry set her bond at $10 million.
During a preliminary hearing in December, 2009, more incriminating evidence came to light indicating the murder of Sherri Rasmussen may have been solved in 1986---if LAPD detectives had been willing to look closer at their fellow officer Stephanie Lazarus. Based on initial interviews with detectives, Nel Rasmussen, Sherri's father, warned detectives about repeated stalking and threatening incidents that Sherri endured from an ex-girlfreind of her husband, John Reutten.
Mr. Rasmussen didn't know the woman's name but Sherri told him the stalker was an LAPD officer and the ex-girlfreind of her husband, John. In one frightening episode, Sherri told her parents she came home and found LAPD officer Lazarus, fully decked in uniform, standing inside the home that Sherri shared with her husband. It still remain unclear what happened during this disturbing incident and even more unclear how Lazarus got into the house.
Another incident occurred at Glendale Adventist Hospital where Sherri worked when a co-worker identified as Sylvia Nielsen witnessed Lazarus confronting Sherri about John Ruetten who had broken up with Lazaurus and married Sherri. Nielsen told detectives that Lazarus warned Sherri, "If I can't have John, nobody can."
Attorney John Taylor who represent the Rasmussen family in a civil suit filed against LAPD also told ABC News.
"There's a lot of questions the family still has. There was an inordinate amount of information given to LAPD back in 1986---which would have led them to look at Stephanie Lazarus before the time they did."
Detectives never acted on the critical information they had despite several letters written by the victim's family to LAPD Chief Daryl Gates. They refused to look beyond the burglary theory.
"Whenever (the father) would bring up the ex-girlfreind and ask, 'What's the status of the investigation about her?' One detective told the elderly man that he'd been watching too much TV, said civil attorney Taylor.
Hearing Held to Lower Bail
During a court hearing on July 14, 2010, attorney Overland tried to sway the judge to lower the officer's bond. He told news media reporters that the $10 million bond was outrageous when compared to rich celebrities like Phil Spector and Robert Blake, both who was released on $1 million bond until their murder case went to trial.
"It's ridiculous Phil Specter gets $1 million bail and Robert Blake get's $1 million bail. "Who has $10 million cash? It is basically preventive detention."
Judge Perry countered with the argument that if Lazarus were to be freed on bail, she would have access to weapons and could be a risk to herself and others."
Witnesses testified at the hearing indicating Lazarus was desperately in love with John Ruetten, the man she dated for many years before he married the victim Sherri Rasmussen.
Introduced during the hearing were the contents of Lazarus diary:
"This is very bad. My concentration is negative-10," Lazarus wrote in 1985 when she learned that John Ruetten was going to marry Sherri. Lazarus later wrote that she asked for time off work because she "was too stressed out about John," according to a journal entry read in court.
Former LAPD Sgt. Mike Hargreaves, Lazarus former roommate, added impetus to the hearing by testifying Lazarus once woke him up "crying" in the fall of 1985 because Ruetten had broke off the relationship with her. He further said the accused officer had once told him Ruetten was "her idea of a perfect guy."
A former forensic criminalist with Los Angeles Coroner Office testified at length about finding the bite mark on the body of Sherri Rasmussen when she was found murdered in 1986. A DNA expert confirmed the saliva collected from the bite wound matched the DNA profile of no other than Stephanie Lazarus.
Judge Perry denied the attorney's request to lower Lazarus bail.
Stephanie Lazarus is scheduled to go on trial for first-degree murder in February 2012. Only a jury would have the power to free Lazarus from a nightmarish past that still haunt her fellow officers at LAPD. Or the jury could send the once decorated officer to prison for the rest of her life.
Clarence Walker is a Houston Texas-based Journalist, investigator and criminal justice researcher. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
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