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Bite mark key in trial of detective in romantic rival’s death

February 6, 2012 |  8:17 am

 

Opening arguments are set to begin Monday in the case of Los Angeles Police Department Det. Stephanie Lazarus, who is accused of killing a romantic rival more than two decades ago. A bite mark, saliva and DNA evidence are expected to play central roles in the trial.

Lazarus was arrested 2½ years ago. Opening arguments begin today, and the case is expected to last a month. 

Twenty-six years ago, the body of Sherri Rasmussen was discovered beaten and bloodied 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.

FULL COVERAGE: Trial of Stephanie Lazarus

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, almost a quarter-century later, it was the piece of evidence that led "cold case" LAPD detectives to suspect one of their own.

The saliva, along with broken fingernails collected at the crime scene, promises to play a contentious role in the case, as Lazarus' attorney tries to cast doubt on prosecutors' assertion 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 wedding. Her husband, John Ruetten, returned from work that evening to find Rasmussen 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.

Seeing that her BMW had been taken and electronic equipment was stacked at the foot of the stairs, the lead detective in the case, Lyle Mayer, theorized that thieves had killed Rasmussen when she found them attempting to rob the home. When a pair of armed burglars broke into a nearby house a short time later, Mayer focused on them as the possible killers and worked to identify and locate them. That investigation went nowhere.

Lazarus joined the LAPD right after graduating from UCLA a few years before the killing. At school she had become close with Ruetten, an engineering student, and the two dated off and on for a few years after graduation. As a cop, she worked varied 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 daughter.

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 located downstairs with a ruse about an inmate who had information he wanted to share about one of her cases. 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 hourlong interview, after one of the detectives alluded to evidence that implicated her in the killing.

"Am I on 'Candid Camera' or something? This is insane," she said before walking out of the room, where she was handcuffed and arrested. Since then, Lazarus, who retired from the department and pleaded not guilty, has remained in custody in lieu of $10-million bail — an amount her attorney, Mark Overland, unsuccessfully appealed on the grounds that it was excessive.

The path that led detectives to suspect Lazarus began when DNA testing, which had come into use in the years after the slaying, was done on the saliva sample collected from the bite mark. The tests showed it had come from a woman, upending the theory that two male burglars had killed her.

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--Joel Rubin


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