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Jury to decide if LAPD detective killed romantic rival

January 30, 2012 |  7:40 am

Stephanie Lazarus

The murder trial of LAPD Det. Stephanie Lazarus is set to begin this week as jury selection gets underway in what is expected to be a monthlong trial.

The body of Sherri Rasmussen was discovered beaten and bloodied 26 years ago on the floor of the Van Nuys town house she shared with her new husband. Three bullets fired at close range were lodged in the young woman's chest, and there was a human bite mark on her arm.

From the bite, investigators gathered a saliva sample on a cotton swab and sealed it in a plastic tube. At the time, it told them nothing about the killer. But, more than two decades later, it was the piece of evidence that led cold case detectives from the Los Angeles Police Department to one of their own.

FULL COVERAGE: Trial of Stephanie Lazarus

The saliva, along with broken fingernails collected at the crime scene, promise to play a central, contentious role in the case, as Lazarus' attorney tries to cast doubt on prosecutors' allegation that the evidence contains Lazarus' DNA and proves her guilt.

Rasmussen, a 29-year-old hospital nursing director, was killed Feb. 24, 1986, a few months after her marriage to John Ruetten. Ruetten returned from work that evening to find his wife dead in the living room.

Overturned furniture and blood on the walls were evidence that a brutal struggle had occurred. Rasmussen's head had been bludgeoned. Wounds on her wrist and cords on the floor indicated that she had been tied up.

A thick robe with bullet holes in it lay nearby. Police suspect the killer used it to muffle the sound of gunshots.

A few years before the killing, Lazarus had graduated from UCLA and promptly joined the LAPD. At school she had become close with Ruetten, an engineering student, and the two dated off and on for a few years after graduating.

As an officer, she worked various assignments, was promoted to detective, and eventually landed a specialized post as one of the LAPD's two art theft investigators. Along the way Lazarus married a colleague, and the couple adopted a young girl.

Her life took an abrupt turn one morning in June 2009, when she was summoned from her desk on the third floor of the LAPD's headquarters to the jail downstairs.

As she removed her handgun and passed through the security gate, detectives intercepted Lazarus and led her into an interrogation room. "You're accusing me of this?" Lazarus asked near the end of the roughly hour-long interview, after one of the detectives alluded to evidence that implicated her in the killing.

Since then, Lazarus, who retired from the department and pleaded not guilty, has remained in custody in lieu of $10-million bail.

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-- Joel Rubin

Photo: Veteran LAPD Det. Stephanie Lazarus is accused of killing the wife of her ex-boyfriend in Van Nuys in 1986. She has pleaded not guilty. Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times

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