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Court allows prosecutors to take dental impressions from LAPD detective accused of murder

July 21, 2009 | 12:00 pm

A Los Angeles Court commissioner signed an order today that will allow police to seek photographs and dental impressions from an LAPD detective accused in the 1986 killing of her ex-boyfriend's wife.

LAPD Detective Stephanie Lazarus was linked to the decades-old slaying of nursing director Sherri Rae Rasmussen through DNA taken from a bite mark on the victim's left forearm. Rasumussen was found beaten and fatally shot in her Van Nuys condominium.

Court Commissioner Henry J. Hall agreed with prosecutors who argued that allowing Lazarus to submit to testing for bite impressions was "minimally intrusive" and could potentially provide strong exculpatory evidence.

The order allows prosecutors to seek a dental exam in which they would collect photographs, impressions and a bite exemplar for testing and comparison. The bite mark on the victim's left inner forearm was photographed, swabbed and cast at the time of her murder.

The tooth impressions would be compared to the cast, prosecutors said.

Defense Attorney Mark Overland unsuccessfully argued that seeking a bite mark was invasive and that the evidence was not reliable due to physiological changes in Lazarus' teeth. Hall said the strength of the evidence would be determined by "the triers of fact."

"It may be tremendously valuable or it may not," Hall said. "It's one of those things if you ask for, you may not be happy with the results."

Lazarus, 49, could face the death penalty because prosecutors alleged a special circumstance in the case: that she killed Rasmussen during a burglary. A decision by prosecutors to seek the death penalty would be made at a later date.

Sherri Rasmussen was an accomplished nursing director at Glendale Adventist Hospital. On Feb. 24, 1986, her husband, John Ruetten, returned to their Van Nuys condominium to discover his wife's badly beaten body on the living room floor. She had been shot several times and her car had been stolen. The couple  had been married for three months.

Days after the slaying, two men robbed a woman in the area at gunpoint. LAPD detectives pursued the theory that the same men had killed Rasmussen when she came upon them burglarizing her home. The lead detective in the case said that he never questioned Lazarus during the investigation and that when he retired in 1991 he still believed the victim had been killed during a burglary.

As part of an ongoing effort to solve thousands of old homicides, detectives revisited the case in February, testing blood or saliva samples from the crime scene thought to have been from the killer. DNA tests suggested that the attacker was a woman, contradicting the detectives' theory that she had been killed by a man.

An undercover officer followed Lazarus to a store, where he secretly recovered a plastic utensil or similar discarded item with her saliva, police sources say. The DNA extracted from the saliva matched the DNA evidence from the murder scene, police say.

-- Andrew Blankstein at L.A. Superior Court

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