In Plain Sight Crime in L.A. - Los Angeles magazine
 
 

In Plain Sight

Stephanie Lazarus was an exemplary cop. She is also a murderer. How did she evade suspicion for 23 years when she should have been the prime suspect? The story behind the story

Illustration by Sean McCabe

“Her face is just the wrong color," thought John Ruetten as he approached the supine figure of his wife on the night of February 24, 1986.

Moments earlier he had pulled up to the couple’s Van Nuys condominium after returning home from work. The garage door for Unit 205 was open, and Sherri Rasmussen’s 1985 BMW—Ruetten’s engagement gift to her—was gone. Glass fragments glittered on the asphalt. Ruetten’s mind filled with questions, but he figured that his wife was away and perhaps had done something to her car backing out. Nor did he panic when he found the upstairs door ajar. At each step Ruetten seems to have been oblivious to the gathering signs of tragedy.

That Monday morning Rasmussen told him she wasn’t feeling well. A 29-year-old supervising nurse at Glendale Adventist Medical Center, she was going to linger at home a bit—maybe even skip work. Why not? She had been scheduled to deliver one of those motivational HR speeches she hated giving, a pep talk titled “People Difference.” Six feet three and TV handsome, the 27-year-old Ruetten was complemented by his wife, a big-boned light brunet who stood only a few inches shorter. By 7:20 a.m. he had left for his engineering job at Micropolis, a hard drive manufacturing company 20 minutes away; he eventually called home and Rasmussen’s office five times but thought nothing of it when he couldn’t reach her. The couple’s townhouse, located in a gated complex that dominates the 7100 block of Balboa Boulevard, had three levels and a garage below. Their bedrooms, kitchen, and dinette were on the upper floors, with a short staircase leading down to a carpeted living room.

It was on this carpet, in front of the fireplace, that Ruetten discovered Rasmussen, who was wearing her red bathrobe, a camisole, and black panties. “What was Sherri doing lying in the middle of the living room floor?” Ruetten wondered in the split second before comprehending the horror of his wife’s death. When the police arrived to photograph the crime scene, they found the young woman on her back with stiffened limbs raised off the floor like those of a dead animal. The strangers who crowded the couple’s home studied her battered face, its beauty mocked by a bloodied nose and half-closed eyes. One of the lids was swollen shut, and a criminalist from the coroner’s department would later guess it had been struck by the muzzle of a pistol. Three dark holes grouped in a tight constellation about her heart marked the entry of .38-caliber slugs, and a bruise on her left arm indicated where someone had bitten her during a ferocious struggle. Fragments from a heavy ceramic vase lay nearby; a little farther away a trio of roses sat in another vase, marking the couple’s three-month wedding anniversary.

The attack on Sherri Rasmussen did not seem to be a random act of violence but rather one driven by a personal animus. The crime’s lead homicide investigator, Detective Lyle Mayer, told her father she hadn’t been killed—she’d been assassinated. Mayer, however, hypothesized almost right away that two burglars had surprised and murdered Rasmussen before fleeing. Stereo components were piled near the front door, ready to go, and a drawer had been pulled out from a living room table. It was textbook stuff. His theory was only bolstered six weeks later, when a woman on the same street surprised two armed men who were burglarizing her condo.

Still, Mayer followed procedure and asked Ruetten about the people in the couple’s inner circle whom the police might want to interview. Ruetten tried to gather his thoughts: There was Rasmussen’s sister and brother-in-law, who had recently spent time with her. There was a nurse who’d been her roommate before Ruetten moved into the condo. And there was a woman named Stephanie Lazarus, a friend, he said, from his student days at UCLA.

In 1978, Ruetten, a mechanical engineering major from San Diego, was a tanned athlete who played basketball on an intramural squad; Lazarus, who was studying political science, had made it onto the women’s junior varsity basketball team. They both lived in Dykstra Hall, a dorm with a jock reputation. Lazarus would steal Ruetten’s clothes as he showered and photograph him in his underwear as he slept, but things didn’t go beyond what Ruetten later described as “necking and fooling around” until he graduated in 1981. During the next four years the pair would have sex dozens of times, though Ruetten, who didn’t regard Lazarus as a girlfriend, never told her he was seeing other women.

One of those women was Sherri Rasmussen, whom Ruetten fell for as soon as they met in June 1984. They were engaged within a year. Lazarus, by then a patrol officer with the Los Angeles Police Department, came unglued when she discovered the relationship. She pleaded with Ruetten over the phone to come to her Woodland Hills condo. Once he arrived, she declared her love for him, swearing that she had deeper feelings for him than Rasmussen ever could. The couple ended their meeting by having intercourse. Rasmussen only learned of the visit after Lazarus showed up at Glendale Adventist before the couple’s November 1985 wedding and aggressively confronted the nurse, telling her that she’d been Ruetten’s girlfriend and was still in contact with him.

Ruetten kept much of this from Detective Mayer, describing Lazarus merely as a former girlfriend who’d become an LAPD officer. Her name appears just once in the investigators’ notes, entered nearly 21 months after Rasmussen’s murder. Lazarus’s unwillingness to end their relationship, her confrontation with Rasmussen, the violence of the crime scene—nothing seemed to stir suspicions in Ruetten. They did in the dead woman’s parents, however. Nels and Loretta Rasmussen pressed Mayer in vain to look into a woman their daughter had said harassed her. Ruetten wouldn’t reveal her name to them, but they knew two things about her: She was their son-in-law’s ex-girlfriend, and she was a cop.

It would take 23 years for the LAPD to home in on Stephanie Lazarus as a suspect in the Rasmussen murder. She would hardly be the first Los Angeles cop to be accused of homicide. Two officers, Robert Von Villas and Richard Ford, were convicted in 1988 of murder in a case involving a contract killing. More recently Dan DeJarnette, a retired LAPD detective from the Van Nuys Division, was arrested in Hawaii and charged with murdering his wife there in 2006. In 2007, John Racz, a retired sergeant from the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, was convicted of murdering his estranged wife, who disappeared in 1991. Like Von Villas and Ford, Lazarus was charged with committing murder while serving on the force, and for nearly a quarter-century was never on anyone’s radar except Nels and Loretta Rasmussen’s.

In late 1985, the parents had grown alarmed by phone calls they were getting from their daughter, calls describing unwanted visits from Ruetten’s ex. “She had been to the house at least three times,” says Nels, referring to the Balboa Boulevard condo. “Sherri described one time when Stephanie brought over her snow skis to have John wax them. Sherri left and went into another room while Stephanie and John talked. Later, when Stephanie returned to get the skis, Sherri told her she didn’t want her to come back to the house.” Suddenly Rasmussen was spotting Lazarus whenever she’d go shopping or to the gym. Her parents knew about the clash at Glendale Adventist, yet their daughter never told them the name of John’s old girlfriend.

Stephanie Lazarus had been in elementary school when her family moved from Inglewood to Simi Valley at the start of the 1970s. Their new town of 57,000 was in the middle of an epic population boom, having grown more than 600 percent since 1960. Still, compared with Inglewood, it offered wide-open spaces and the presence of a horse culture that was vanishing elsewhere in Southern California. “It’s probably safe to say we were middle class, maybe below middle class,” says Steven Lazarus, Stephanie’s younger brother. “I don’t recall any of us being deprived of anything, ever.” He remembers the Lazarus kids playing with other children well past midnight on summer evenings in the serene new neighborhoods of the Santa Susana Pass. Those were the days when they were devotees of The Partridge Family and when, before Stephanie left home for college, a Bobby Sherman poster hung on her bedroom wall.

Kathleen Blakistone had just entered UCLA when she met Lazarus, by then a sophomore, in Dykstra. Lazarus had immersed herself in the campus’s sports subculture, befriending football players, swimmers, and people who worked out in the weight rooms. She passed along tips to her new friend about jobs and parties. “Stephanie was very gregarious and a wonderful ambassador in the dorm,” Blakistone tells me. “She created a community around herself and had a lightness about her.”

Soon after graduating from UCLA in 1982, Lazarus entered the LAPD academy in Elysian Park. Friends were surprised, but the decision made sense. She was good with people, and she was athletic. She was intelligent, too. “She had a very perceptive mind,” says Blakistone. “I believe that the idea of being a detective was something she really wanted. I remember watching movies with her, and she would be able to figure out the ending, and I’d say, ‘Oh, my God, how did you do that?’ ”

Over the years Lazarus worked in the anti-drug DARE program, followed by a stint in the department’s Internal Affairs office. In 1993, she made detective, when she was also serving as treasurer of the Los Angeles Women Police Officers and Associates. During that time, Lazarus began competing in various athletic contests; 18 months after Rasmussen’s murder, at the World Police and Fire Games in San Diego, she won a gold medal in the 1,600-meter relay, and silver medals for the 400-meter relay and women’s basketball. Eventually she became an instructor at the academy, specializing in research techniques and computer skills. But in those early years as a patrol officer, her life revolved around Ruetten. “She didn’t date anyone but John,” Michael Hargreaves, an officer who roomed with Lazarus at her condo, would later recall. “She told me she was in love with him.”

Late one night he was awakened by Lazarus, who had just come home distraught. She told Hargreaves that she had been dumped by Ruetten. “We talked some,” he would recall, “and she suggested we do buddy sit-ups to burn energy.” In her journal in June 1985, she wrote, “I really don’t feel like working. I found out that John is getting married. I was very depressed, very sad. My concentration was negative 10.” Over the next few months she would frequently become despondent about the man she had lost. “She had a ‘John standard’ and was very picky—any man she went out with had to be tall, athletic, handsome. Like John,” according to Hargreaves. Then Lazarus told Hargreaves about visiting Ruetten’s fiancée at Glendale Adventist, offering that “she wasn’t that good-looking.” Hargreaves moved out of Lazarus’s condo on Valentine’s Day of 1986, two weeks before Rasmussen’s murder.

Ruetten and Lazarus would have sex twice more following Rasmussen’s death, but nothing resembling the relationship Lazarus wanted came of it. After their last tryst, she fell out of contact with him. In 1996, she married LAPD officer Scott Young. The couple adopted an infant daughter and lived in Simi Valley, which had become a suburb popular with law enforcement officers. Young was stationed in the San Fernando Valley before being promoted to detective, while Lazarus continued on as an instructor until 2006, when, at 45, she took a position with the LAPD’s two-detective Art Theft Detail, the only full-time unit of its kind in the country.

Lazarus’s investigative skills and her record of recovering stolen property put her “head and shoulders” above other applicants, says Detective Don Hrycyk, who has run the unit for 18 years. To better understand what she was looking for, Lazarus learned how to paint, building an art library and visiting galleries, where she asked artists how they worked. “I’ve had a dozen different partners,” Hrycyk tells me, “and Steph was probably the very best. Although lots of guys her age are counting the days to when they pull the pin and retire, she looked forward to coming in to work every day.”

In early 2008, Lazarus’s name popped up in a story about the theft of a bronze statue that had stood in Carthay Circle Park since 1925. The seven-foot figure of a gold prospector had been pulled off its pedestal by metal scavengers, who took it to a scrap yard. Lazarus and Hrycyk set up surveillance cameras to track the suspects, and two weeks later Lazarus was announcing their arrest to the media. Shortly after, Sherri Rasmussen’s cold case file was shipped to Van Nuys from Parker Center, where it had been kicked around for nearly five years. It was one of thousands of unsolved murders dating from 1970 that the department had been looking into since the Cold Case Homicide Unit was formed in 2001. A promising lead emerged in December 2004, when the bite-mark DNA sample—which had been forgotten once it had been stored at the coroner’s department and not, as assumed, at the LAPD’s Scientific Investigation Division—was located and sent to SID. This was 11 years after an offer from Rasmussen’s parents to pay for DNA testing had been rebuffed by the LAPD. (The couple had also offered a $10,000 reward.) The trail vanished again when the saliva sample failed to produce a match to any criminals in the FBI’s database. But the SID analysis did bring out one interesting new fact: The attacker had been a woman. 

Van Nuys Division homicide detective Rob Bub had the day off when he got the call from the crime lab. “Not really good news,” the voice at the lab said. Bub didn’t have to hear the rest. He knew: Stephanie Lazarus’s DNA, secretly obtained the week before, matched the saliva sample from the bite on Sherri Rasmussen’s arm. That meant the only suspect in the cold case was another LAPD detective. It was May 2009, four months after Bub and the trio of detectives he supervises—Jim Nuttall, Pete Barba, and Marc Martinez—had picked the Rasmussen file back up. Because of the velocity with which news and rumor travel in the LAPD, the team had kept its work hermetically sealed off from the rest of the department when it began digging. Not even Bub’s immediate superior knew of the investigation during its first 60 days.

Bub, a congenial man, has been on the force 30 years. The detail he leads at the Van Nuys Division headquarters shares an office on the third floor, whose open, modular layout resembles that of an insurance company, except here everyone carries a gun. “Our main concern was keeping it within a small group of people,” he says, sitting in a soundproof interrogation room. “We could’ve been dead in the water if it got out.” The news could have given Lazarus time to think up plausible answers to the questions she would be asked or caused her to flee; if she were innocent, on the other hand, a leak could have tarnished an impeccable reputation. There was something else: Her husband worked on the same floor in the Commercial Crimes Division.

So the detectives pursued the case only behind closed doors or after hours. They came up with cover stories to explain why they were curious about the old DNA evidence and the actions of a fellow officer more than two decades ago. The team encrypted its notes and made sure “Lazarus” was never mentioned in its communications—she was given the code name “No. 5,” and all information related to her was kept in a separate binder. “We had an LAPD officer accused of murder, and so the investigation took on an entirely different tone from any other,” says Nuttall, a 17-year veteran. “Department resources that were available to us in all our other murders would not be available to us.”

In February Nuttall had been looking over the Rasmussen file when he spotted the line in the SID report identifying the likely killer’s DNA as being that of a woman, which narrowed down the list of potential suspects considerably. He notified Bub. Then the team discovered the lone mention of a “Stephanie Lazarus” and that she was an LAPD officer. (Of all the detail members, only Bub would have recognized Lazarus’s face from working at Parker Center, but even he could not recall her name.) When Nuttall contacted Ruetten one week later, Ruetten confirmed Lazarus had been a girlfriend. But what made throats turn dry was a report in her LAPD record revealing that 14 days after Rasmussen was shot dead, Lazarus reported her backup pistol—a .38 caliber—had been stolen in Santa Monica. That she filed the theft report in Santa Monica and not to her own department only whetted suspicions. The more the detectives studied the findings about the murder scene, the more it seemed like a textbook study—but not from Lyle Mayer’s textbook. “It became apparent that it was a staged crime scene,” Bub says.

Why would the thieves, for example, commit a weekday, daylight burglary unless they knew with certainty nobody was home? Especially at a property surrounded by other units in a gated complex. There were other reasons to doubt the scenario in the original police report. The couple’s front door bore a placard announcing that it had an alarm system and betrayed no signs of being forced open. Only Rasmussen’s purse and car were stolen, and police found the intact BMW not far away, its key in the ignition. What really gnawed were the CD player and a VCR left at the foot of the stairs: If a mortal struggle had begun at the top of those steps, as bullet holes in an upstairs sliding-glass door suggested, wouldn’t the equipment have been knocked over when victim and thief fought their way down to the living room? “Common sense tells you that after a murder happens, the burglar just wants to get out—they’re not taking any property,” says Bub. His detail had begun its investigation in early February 2009 with a list of five women who had ties to Sherri Rasmussen at the time of her death, yet it didn’t take long for the detectives to eliminate all but Lazarus from suspicion.

In April Jim Nuttall picked up the phone and called the Rasmussens, who lived in Tucson. “Nels,” Nuttall began, “I want you to walk me through a history of this case. I want to know if there were any women involved who may have had an issue with your daughter or John or was troubling [her] life.” Nels instantly keyed in on the police officer who had once been John’s girlfriend. By then the only way to prove Lazarus’s guilt or innocence would be to obtain a sample of her DNA and compare it with what SID had downtown.

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DURING THE Van Nuys homicide team’s four-month investigation, Lazarus was winding down a cold case of her own. “We had recovered stolen property from a receiver—odds and ends,” says Don Hrycyk. “One of the pieces was a painting with a name on the back. We hunted down the home where this elderly woman lived in the Wilshire District. The place was padlocked, though.” The detectives learned that the woman, Tamara Guinkh, had been suspiciously spirited away to a nursing home and her property removed by an unknown man. “This case got into elder abuse and real estate fraud,” Hrycyk says. “Steph dived into it for three years and put together a great case.”

Guinkh, a Shanghai-born White Russian, had been a concert pianist before becoming a patron of the Los Angeles Philharmonic. She died in 2007 during Lazarus’s investigation, and her unclaimed body lay warehoused in a hospital morgue. Lazarus arranged a funeral service for the forgotten woman at Hollywood’s Beth Olam cemetery and even rounded up detectives to attend the burial.

As Lazarus was finishing the case, a special LAPD surveillance team began following her, waiting for the detective to discard something with her DNA on it in a public place. After nearly two weeks, at a Simi Valley Costco in May, Lazarus tossed a soda cup and straw into a trash can. Days later Bub got the call from the SID lab. After hanging up, he notified his crew and prepared to begin briefing the chain of command, a climb that would conclude downtown at the district attorney’s office. However long the meetings would last that day, Bub knew his team’s role was over. By nightfall the cold case had been handed to the Robbery Homicide Division. No. 5 had become Stephanie Lazarus.

For the next week the team that would handle her arrest was quietly assembled and vetted against any possibility that the officers knew Lazarus. Then, at about 4 a.m. (“o-dark-thirty” in police slang) on June 5, 2009, dozens of LAPD members gathered for an operational briefing in an auditorium at the police academy in Elysian Park. They were told only that some of them would be participating in an operation involving search warrant service outside the city limits. Teams were to go from the academy to prearranged locations, where, upon receiving phone calls, they would open sealed envelopes containing instructions about their target searches.

Soon detectives were in place at the Simi Valley police headquarters and the town’s Metrolink station. The moment Lazarus boarded her L.A.-bound commuter train, a detective also boarded. It was drizzling, and when the train arrived at Union Station, the detective tailed Lazarus to Parker Center. Back in Simi Valley the LAPD plainclothes officers who’d been instructed to assemble at the local police station awaited word to proceed to Lazarus’s home and seize her computers and private journals. Another team at the train depot’s parking lot would begin searching her car.

By about 6:30 a.m., once Lazarus had settled in at her desk, detective Daniel Jaramillo from Robbery Homicide dropped by. He’d been working on a case with an art theft angle, he told her, and needed her to question a suspect. Lazarus was hungry. After surviving a bout of thyroid cancer some years earlier, she was required to take a synthetic hormone each morning on an empty stomach. But she skipped the yogurt she normally ate around now in order to help out. If Jaramillo’s choice of an interrogation room near the center’s jail seemed an odd venue, she didn’t mention it. In fact, he led her there because it was among the few places in Parker Center where an officer could not carry a firearm. The last thing Jaramillo wanted was to be talking to an armed murder suspect before arresting her. Once inside the interrogation room, she was greeted by Detective Greg Stearns, and the two men got down to their real subject: Sherri Rasmussen’s murder. The conversation, captured by a hidden camera, eventually made it on TV—and on YouTube. As it begins, the detectives tell Lazarus they’ve called her in because her name came up in a case they’ve been reviewing. They explain they’re solely after information about Rasmussen and Ruetten but then throw in questions about hostility Lazarus might have felt toward the nurse as a romantic rival. Lazarus is clearly startled by the initial questions but settles into a strategy of acting as though Ruetten was just some guy she knew at UCLA in the last century.

“What year is it now, 2009? I mean, I graduated in ’82?” she asks, shrugging and shaking her head “no,” her eyes wide in disbelief. “Eighty-two, yeah. Um, you know, we dated, um—I dated other guys. I’m sure he dated other girls.”

Asked about Rasmussen, she allows that she “may have talked to her” but when pressed about a possible physical fight between the two, answers, “I don’t recall…It just doesn’t sound familiar.” Stearns and Jaramillo’s patient questions and Lazarus’s dissembling lasts for more than an hour. Then Jaramillo asks whether she wouldn’t mind submitting a DNA sample. Moments later Lazarus has had enough and walks out into the hall, where other detectives are waiting for her. With hands manacled behind her, Lazarus is returned to the interrogation room and placed under arrest by Jaramillo.

Stearns would later call Lazarus’s interview and arrest “surreal,” a description that’s hard to dispute. Although the official video ends with her arrest, an audio transcript captures the awkward moments of small talk that ensue as she is searched and Stearns instructs an officer to remove the suspect’s ring and necklace. Apparently the ring won’t budge. “Oh jeez,” Lazarus says. “See if I can get it off.” Stearns, however, relents: “Just wait on the ring.” At some point a knee bandage is discovered on Lazarus, and an officer asks her about it. “I tore my ACL playing basketball,” Lazarus says. “Didn’t get fixed right.” She is finally sent on her way to the women’s jail at the sheriff’s Century Regional Detention Facility in Lynwood. The next day the attorney general’s office would drop the case Lazarus had built in the Tamara Guinkh matter. There was no way prosecutors could win it now.

Jim Nuttall was on the hook for one more assignment in the case. “Chief Bratton wanted the Rasmussen family notified in person the moment Stephanie Lazarus was arrested,” Nuttall says. This wasn’t standard procedure, but Bill Bratton didn’t want the media to find out about the bust before Sherri Rasmussen’s family did. So Nuttall and a Robbery Homicide detective were dispatched to Tucson and checked into a Marriott, awaiting the call from Los Angeles. “If anything went wrong,” Nuttall says, “we didn’t want to be standing in the Rasmussen home explaining that we don’t have her in police custody.” He passed the early morning of June 5 drinking coffee and practicing his speech to the Rasmussens in front of a mirror. “ ‘On behalf of the Los Angeles Police Department,’ ” he remembers reciting, “ ‘you have our condolences and the condolences of Chief Bratton,’ yada yada yada.”

When they got the call and arrived at the Rasmussens’ two-acre spread in Tucson’s foothills, Nuttall was nervous. The family had been right about their daughter’s murderer all along, and it was his predecessors who had blown the investigation, partly by spurning the Rasmussens’ pleas and suggestions. “I walked in there and drew a blank—the entire family was there,” Nuttall says. “I just stood there until Loretta Rasmussen walked through this crowd of people and gave me a hug. It sent chills up my spine. We didn’t have to say a word. The magnitude of what we just did hit me—two decades of missed opportunities by our department, two decades of frustration for the Rasmussens. And then I explained everything. I realized everything was OK. They were going to let me go out that door.”

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Lazarus’s story was media crack—a love triangle, a cold case, a homicidal cop, a woman scorned. And there would be the transformation, through trial testimony, of Stephanie Lazarus from cop to “murderess” at the very moment when true-crime TV shows had been elevating that noir trope to new heights in such programs as Snapped, Scorned, and Deadly Women. But underlying it all was the disturbing notion that Lazarus’s role in a murder might have been concealed by her colleagues. This charge lay at the heart of a civil suit filed by Nels and Loretta Rasmussen against Lazarus, the LAPD, and the City of Los Angeles.

“Beyond a shadow of a doubt there was a cover-up,” Nels Rasmussen tells me. “It’s so evident—if this wasn’t a cover-up, what was it? Any detective in his right mind wouldn’t solve a crime of this magnitude in four hours.” Besides raising the cover-up charge, the Rasmussens’ complaint claims that investigators had allowed Lazarus to look at the case notes—some of which, Nels says, subsequently disappeared. (“I’ve never heard that allegation,” says Bub when I ask about Lazarus’s access to the case material.) In addition, the Rasmussens accuse the original LAPD detectives of trying to mentally and physically intimidate them from pressing the case—by sarcastically dismissing their questions, throwing papers around their office when talking to them, bumping into Nels and leaning over him in a menacing manner during some meetings.

Nels Rasmussen recalls his frustration with hearing about the phantom burglars, who the LAPD was convinced had murdered his daughter. “When I tried,” Nels says, “to point out to Lyle Mayer that the odds were greater that the person who killed Sherri was someone closer to her, he said, ‘You know, you’ve been watching too much TV.’ And when I brought up Stephanie, he told me, ‘Don’t go there, there’s nothing there.’ ”

Although these charges will be decided at a future proceeding, they hung in the air at Stephanie Lazarus’s murder trial and in some people’s minds made the LAPD her unindicted coconspirator. Lazarus wore widow black to court the first day of the trial on February 6 of this year—a change from her pretrial appearances during the previous 32 months, when she was shackled and dressed in an orange prison jumpsuit. The early photos of Lazarus, following her arrest, showed a moon-faced, middle-aged woman confronting the world with a wild, cross-eyed stare that seemed to belong to a cornered animal. Yet when the trial began, the 51-year-old defendant was calm and focused. She was also much thinner, her phosphorescent pallor bearing testimony to the three years she’d been incarcerated under the crush of a $10 million bond.

The case, prosecutor Shannon Presby announced in his opening statement, was about “a bite, a bullet, a gun barrel, and a broken heart,” words that sent reporters’ pens arcing across steno pads. A middle-aged man who puckishly smiles with a downturned mouth, Presby had been a film and TV actor in his youth, and he hit all his marks that morning. The bite on Rasmussen’s left arm, he said, contained a tiny Stephanie Lazarus—a DNA match that confirmed Lazarus’s guilt.

Defense attorney Mark Overland was the anti-Presby. Seventyish and unexpressive, Overland spoke in a dry, detached voice. Because retinitis pigmentosa has left him legally blind, his attorney daughter, Courtney, guided him nearly everywhere in court. Defending Stephanie Lazarus would be his most difficult and exhausting case. It cost Overland even before the trial began, by provoking a billing dispute among the partners of his downtown law firm when he agreed to handle the case almost pro bono. “Partly as a result, I left the firm,” he says.

Lazarus, who denied the charges, did not testify, although John Ruetten, who has remarried, appeared as a prosecution witness. With a shock of ash gray hair and still athletically trim at 53, he choked up several times and reached for a Kleenex box when reconstructing the day of his wife’s murder. Presby tried to get Ruetten’s sexual visits with Lazarus out of the way early in his direct examination. “Um...basically she’d had no closure” was how Ruetten explained his decision to have intercourse with Lazarus after their stormy meeting in 1985. “She was upset—I felt bad. I was a stupid and young man.” Ruetten seemed to shrink a little as he also acknowledged the sex they’d had after his wife’s murder as well as his decision in 1989 to join Lazarus (albeit chastely) in Hawaii after he learned that she and some friends were vacationing there.

He was asked by the prosecutor to explain why he hadn’t forcefully brought Lazarus to the attention of the LAPD in 1986. “It never crossed my mind that Stephanie had anything to do with it,” he answered, glancing furtively at the defendant. He said that Lyle Mayer (who along with Ruetten declined to speak for this article) had told him shortly after Rasmussen’s murder that he’d cleared Lazarus of any suspicions, but Nels Rasmussen has another opinion. “I think John wanted to save his own ass,” he told me after the trial. “I never thought John had anything to do with it, but he knows more than he’s said or admitted to. That bothered me, and it bothers me today. John could’ve helped more than he did, but he wouldn’t talk. If John would’ve backed me just a little when I was saying they needed to talk to Stephanie, I think the story would’ve been different.” Nels and Loretta attended the trial every day, spending their nights in a 37-foot motor home they’d left in an RV park in Loma Linda; on weekends they’d drive their car back to Tucson.

Overland, the defense attorney, wasn’t so forgiving. Ruetten resumed dabbing his eyes as soon as the lawyer began grilling him. Lest any jurors feel sympathy for the man, Overland turned to that night during his wedding engagement when Ruetten had sex with Lazarus. “Did you take a shower before leaving Miss Lazarus’s place?” he asked. All the shattered Ruetten could do was look down and weakly answer, “I don’t recall that.”

The high card played by Presby and his coprosecutor, Paul Nuñez, was the DNA evidence from a crime scene that otherwise bore no hair, fiber, blood, or fingerprint traces of Stephanie Lazarus. A forensic serologist told the jury that the chances the saliva DNA found on the victim came from someone besides Lazarus were 1 in 1.7 sextillion. The defense’s main counterargument was that the 26-year-old envelope containing the tube of DNA had a small tear that looked as if it had been made by somebody in order to remove the tube. Plus, the coroner’s department had held on to the envelope 18 years after it should have given it to the LAPD, raising the possibility of tainted evidence. Overland summoned these facts, hoping to cause jurors to entertain the possibility that someone, somehow, could have planted a swab of Lazarus’s DNA in the tube.

It wasn’t enough to convince the jury. On March 8 the four men and eight women on the panel, who had taken three days to resolve a case that had gone unsolved for so long, found Lazarus guilty of first-degree murder. Lazarus’s husband and mother immediately left the courtroom. Nels and Loretta Rasmussen sat in their second-row seats, motionless except for the sobs that racked their bodies. On May 11 Judge Robert Perry handed down Lazarus’s sentence: 27 years to life.

Later that afternoon Presby sat down with me in his office, the sound of rush hour traffic barely penetrating the fortresslike Criminal Courts Building. “I don’t see murder trials as occasions for joy,” Presby said of the win. “They are always tales of loss. There’s satisfaction if you feel the right result was reached, but not joy.” He had just finished supervising the video recording of the victim impact statements Loretta and others had read in court that morning.

They were being preserved for future parole hearings when Lazarus will apply for release. “I won’t be around to harass anybody,” Nels says about those hearings in the years to come. “With the luck I’d had before with the LAPD… ” But when he looks back on his efforts to keep his daughter’s case alive, he sees the paradox: Had the police listened to him in 1986, before the advent of DNA evidence, he and his wife may never have had the chance to read their statements. “If they had arrested her with the evidence they had back then,” Nels says, “she could’ve squeaked out of it.”        

Steven Mikulan is a writer-at-large for Los Angeles. "Left Behind," his last piece for the magazine, on the life and death of B-actress Yvette Vickers, appeared in the February issue.

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  1. Avraam J. Dectis posted on 09/08/2012 12:10 PM
    It is good to see that eventually quality police work can occur. The certainly vindicates the LAPD as a quality force.

    I hope someday to also be the beneficiary of such quality police work. Here on the USA East Coast, I have spent the last 15 years being poisoned by gang stalkers and have been unable to interest the police or elected officials.

    Please do a web search on "gang stalking" if this phenomenon is unknown to you.

    Hopefully someday I will be able to retain quality investors who can put together a decent case.

    Thank you.

    Avraam J. Dectis
  2. Red posted on 10/28/2012 12:35 PM
    This whole case is tragic. I am not sure why the case wasn't solved at the time of the murder other than maybe there was not enough evidence to convict Stephanie. It would be an awkward situation to possibly ruin a friend's career if you could not be 100% certain you could get a conviction. (The investigator already knew she no longer had the weapon most likely used in the crime). The investigator appears to distance himself from Stephanie after the murder, so I think he had a very strong feeling about her being a suspect. I also think there may have been some question about John's involvement. There is obviously more to his relationship with Stephanie than he is willing to admit. There are hundreds of cold cases that investigators "know" who did it, but it takes evidence to convict. The use of DNA finally gave them the evidence they needed to get a conviction in this case. God bless both families and the Investigator that carried this in his heart for so long.
  3. george posted on 09/27/2013 01:42 PM
    The defense wanted the jury to believe that the DNA was planted. Note that the DNA tested had both Lazerous and Rasmussen DNA. Any planting would have to include both parties DNA -- which is impossible.
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