Stephanie Lazarus, a Los Angeles Police Department veteran was accused of the February 24, 1986, beating and murder of Sherri Rasmussen, a nurse who had married Lazarus’ old boyfriend. The facts of the case resembled a soap opera mixed in with Law and Order episode where the twenty-six year old love triangle has faced the Downtown Los Angeles in Judge Robert Perry’s courtroom. Trial began on Monday, February 6, 2012, and closing arguments were not given until Monday, March 5. On Thursday, March 8, the jury returned a returned a guilty verdict for first degree murder. Lazarus now faces life imprisonment with the possibility of parole after about fourteen years. Sentencing is scheduled for May 4, 2012.
Rasmussen had recently married John Ruetten, Lazarus’ college boyfriend, when she was found dead in her home. Homicide detectives had thought that Rasmussen had been killed after coming home to a burglary since furniture and other possessions had been displaced. The incident matched another recent burglary in her neighborhood thought to have been committed by a male. There had been reports about Lazarus threatening the new bride at work by Rasmussen’s family members, but the case still went cold.
In 2009 police officers revisited the case testing the DNA taken from a bite on Rasmussen’s arm. The DNA tested indicated that her murderer was a woman and went against the original theory of neighborhood burglaries. The original case file had indicated Lazarus as a reference to the murder and an undercover cop was sent to obtain an object which had Lazarus’ DNA to test the comparison. Lazarus’ DNA was tested and found to be a match to the DNA taken from Rasmussen’s arm.
Although the DNA evidence was a strong match—“one in 1.7 sextillion” that the killer could be anyone else—it faced the scrutiny about whether the original evidence had been tampered with. The envelope seal had been torn and the top of the vial showed that it was poking through.
Lazarus chose not take the stand in her trial, yet the prosecution introduced the videotape of her interview with law enforcement. Lazarus had gone in to speak with law enforcement believing she was being consulted on an art case before she knew she was a suspect. Before she was arrested she had been asked about her relationship with Ruetten and if she was familiar with Rasmussen. Lazarus immediately became nervous and agitated while she was questioned about her knowledge of how Rasmussen died and her interactions with her beforehand. Lazarus even changed her story and grew increasingly tense throughout the conversation.
During jury deliberations, the jurors heard testimony read back to them about the neighbor and housekeeper working next door on the day of the killing. It only took them a little over one day to deliberate on the trial that took about a month to present to present and twenty-six years to come forward. At opening statements, Deputy District Attorney, Shannon Presby stated, “a bite, a bullet, a gun barrel, and a broken heart, that is the evidence that will prove to you that defendant Stephanie Lazarus murdered Sherri Rasmussen,” which is exactly what did prove this case.
“This case is a tragedy on every level. The LAPD family felt a sense of betrayal to have an officer commit such a terrible crime,” apologized Police Chief Charlie Beck to the Rasmussen family after the verdict. It is a shame it took this long and that the facts included a police veteran as the defendant. Although, it took so long to bring this dramatic and tragic love-triangle to trial, it finally got justice for Rasmussen and her family.
Editor-in-Chief, Criminal Law Brief