Sherri Rasmussen – Stephanie Lazarus the cop who killed her ex-boyfriend’s wife
For years it looked like a burglary gone wrong. Sherri Rasmussen was an immensely talented young critical care nurse, who had enrolled at university when she was only sixteen-years-old. By the age of just twenty-seven was already the director of nursing at Glendale Adventist Medical Center.
She was well-liked, athletic and had recently got married.
Her husband, John Ruetten, was a handsome, UCLA graduate employed in an engineering firm. By all accounts the young couple were utterly besotted with each other.
On February 24th 1986, Ruetten had left for work while Rasmussen had chosen to call in sick that morning. Although Ruetten had attempted to contact his wife during the day, his phone calls went unanswered and the answerphone had not been turned on.
Despite this Ruetten had no reason to suspect his wife had met with any foul play, until he arrived home later that night and found the house in disarray.
Rasmussen was lying on her back on the living room floor, still in her pyjamas. She had been savagely beaten and shot in the chest. Stereo equipment had been stacked up on the floor nearby, but seemingly nothing had been stolen except for the couple’s marriage certificate.
While police were able to rule out Ruetten as a suspect in his wife’s killing, they were unable to come up with any other likely perpetrators. Their theory was that it was a random attack – burglars has broken into the house, expecting to find it empty and had murdered Rasmussen when she surprised them in the middle of the robbery.
Despite the best efforts of her family to keep police interested, the case went cold.
But while police might have had their theory, her father, Nels Rasmussen, had his own suspicions.
Before meeting Sherri, John Ruetten had been involved with another woman, Stephanie Lazarus. That relationship had fizzled out, but Ruetten’s ex-girlfriend had been a source of tension for the couple shortly before their marriage.
Sherri had good reason to believe that Lazarus was still trying to insert herself into her husband’s life and there had been an altercation between the two women some months previously, when Lazarus had burst into Sherri’s office at the medical centre unannounced, looking to start a confrontation.
Shaken she had told her parents about the incident at the time, but when her father passed the information on to police after her murder, they dismissed his suspicions about Ruetten’s volatile ex-girlfriend out of hand.
Stephanie Lazarus also happened to be a cop. In what was to be a pattern of disappearing evidence, the recording and transcript of Nels Rasmussen’s interview with detectives, in which he names Lazarus as a possible suspect, mysteriously vanished from the case file.
Twenty years passed and though her loved ones grieved, it appeared that the murderer of this brilliant young woman would never be brought to justice.
But in 2005, a review of cold-case evidence brought to light something very interesting about Rasmussen’s then-unknown assailant. DNA analysis of a swab taken from a bite mark left on Rasmussen’s corpse, revealed that Sherri’s attacker was female.
It was immensely good luck, as the sample itself had been gone missing. Although the crime report mentioned that a swab had been taken, it was not listed in evidence nor was it catalogued with other forensic samples. It most likely would never have been found, were it not for the persistence of Jennifer Francis, a criminologist with the LAPD’s Cold Case Homicide Unit, who had hand-searched the freezers of the coroner’s office in search of the sample.
But while this put the case in a new light, there were no female suspects mentioned in the case file and so the lead went cold.
Another five years would pass before the case was taken up again.
This time detectives looked more closely the initial crime reports and realised that chillingly the burglary theory didn’t add up. Rasmussen had not disturbed burglars downstairs, her killer had snuck up on her upstairs and had pursued her down into the living room, where Sherri had ferociously fought for her life before the fatal shot was fired. A bloody fingerprint on the CD player, suggested that the audio equipment had been placed around the body after the crime.
As they looked into the crime it became clearer that murder, not robbery had been the motive.
Whoever had killed Sherri Rasmussen had been savvy enough to stage the crime scene convincingly enough that it had fooled detectives at the time.
Meanwhile John Ruetten’s ex-girlfriend had remained in the LAPD. Driven, ambitious and highly intelligent, Stephanie Lazarus had flourished as she had risen up police ranks to become a prominent detective within the department’s prestigious art theft division.
Although she had briefly rekindled her relationship with Ruetten when the two met on a diving holiday in the early 1990s, both had gone on to marry other people and start families.
And yet, it looked increasingly likely that this 25-year veteran of the police force was the same woman who had viciously murdered Sherri Rasmussen in 1986.
Due to the sensitive nature of investigating a fellow officer for such a serious crime, detectives had to tread very carefully. If word got out that this prominent and well-liked member of the force was under investigation for the cold-blooded murder of a love rival, then the investigation could be over before it had started.
After all, evidence had a way of going missing in the Sherri Rasmussen case.
But also, were Lazarus innocent her brilliant career would be tainted by the salacious nature of the allegation. To protect the investigation and to spare her the ignominy of suspicion if DNA analysis were to clear her, it was decided to collect Lazarus’s DNA sample surreptitiously.
A special-operations team surveilled Lazarus and were able to retrieve a DNA sample from a cup she discarded, on a trip to Costco with her daughter.
The DNA sample was found to match the DNA from the swab of the bite mark.
At first Lazarus remained cool when questioned, but became flustered when detectives revealed the extent of the evidence they had on her.
Lazarus was arrested and stood trial for the murder in 2012.
She was found guilty and is currently serving 27 years to life in prison.
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