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Heartbreak, jealousy led LAPD detective to kill, prosecutor says

 

Stephanie Lazarus, the Los Angeles police detective accused of murdering her ex-boyfriend's wife nearly 26 years ago, was driven to kill by the jealousy and heartbreak she felt, Deputy Dist. Atty. Shannon Presby said Monday in his opening statement at Lazarus' trial.

"A bite, a bullet, a gun barrel and a broken heart -- that is the evidence that will prove that the defendant murdered Sherri Rae Rasmussen," Presby told jurors.

Lazarus' attorney, Mark Overland, followed Presby's approximately 45-minute opening with a starkly different portrayal of his client and the evidence against her. Rejecting the notion that she was an obsessed, jilted lover, Overland said her former boyfriend, John Ruetten, doggedly pursued Lazarus even after becoming engaged.

FULL COVERAGE: Trial of Stephanie Lazarus

Fingerprints, hairs and other evidence collected at the scene did not come from Lazarus and point to some other killer, he said.

Reporters, family members of the victim and the accused, and curious onlookers packed into Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert Perry's downtown courtroom to watch the attorneys' opening gambits in a trial that has garnered national attention for its mix of "CSI"-like investigation, soap opera drama and, of course, the notion that a respected LAPD detective carried on with a successful career and family for decades while harboring a terrible, violent secret in her past.

On Feb. 24, 1986, the body of Sherri Rasmussen was discovered beaten and bloodied on the floor of the Van Nuys town house she shared with Ruetten. She had been shot in the chest three times at close range, and there was a human bite mark on her arm.

Out of the bite, investigators gathered a saliva sample on a cotton swab. At the time, it told them nothing about the presumed killer. But almost a quarter of a century later, it was the piece of evidence that led LAPD detectives to suspect one of their own.

Lazarus, a 20-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, was arrested 2½ years ago. She pleaded not guilty and, in lieu of $10 million bail, has remained in custody throughout the long run-up to her trial. Lazarus retired from the department in 2010.

She has struggled with health issues while in jail, and on Monday appeared drawn and tired.

The saliva, along with other evidence collected at the crime scene, promises to play a contentious role in the case, as Overland will attempt to cast doubt on prosecutors' assertion that the saliva and broken fingernails found on the floor contain Lazarus' DNA and prove her guilt.

In court filings, Overland argued unsuccessfully that the DNA evidence should be thrown out because of uncertainty in the way it was stored and handled in the more than two decades between the murder and the arrest.

He hammered on the same idea in his opening statement, telling jurors that when Rasmussen's unsolved murder case was reopened, the plastic tube that police say held the cotton swab with the saliva sample was found jutting through a hole in the evidence envelope in which it had been packaged.

Also, Overland said, hairs, a bloody palm print on the wall and fingerprints found at the murder scene do not match those of Lazarus.

Presby did not attempt to preempt Overland, making no mention of the alleged problems with the DNA evidence. To the contrary, he told jurors there was no doubt about whose saliva was extracted from the bite mark.

"A tiny Stephanie Lazarus was hiding in the bite on Sherri Rasmussen’s arm," he said. Rasmussen, a 29-year-old hospital nursing director, was killed a few months after her wedding.

Ruetten told police he 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, police said.

Authorities said Rasmussen's head had been bludgeoned and that wounds on her wrist and cords on the floor indicated that she had been tied up. A thick robe or blanket with bullet holes in it lay nearby.

Police said they suspect that the killer used it to muffle the sound of gunshots, and Presby told jurors that the "unique" patterns of tearing on the fabric could have been created only by bullets that were issued to LAPD officers at the time.

He added that the gunshot markings showed a snub-nosed .38-caliber gun had been used in the killing. Weeks after Rasmussen was killed, Lazarus reported to Santa Monica police that someone had broken into her car and stolen such a gun.

Overland countered that the gunshot analysis proves nothing conclusively because any number of similar gun models could have been used and that the bullets were not used exclusively by LAPD officers.

At the time, Lazarus was not considered a suspect, despite repeated pleas from Rasmussen's father that detectives look into the possibility.

That uncomfortable truth has been awkward for current-day LAPD officials who have had to acknowledge that one of their own was either intentionally overlooked as a suspect or that sub-par detective work allowed her to go unnoticed.

Instead, seeing that Rasmussen's BMW had been taken and that electronic equipment was stacked at the foot of stairs in the house, 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, prosecutors said, she had become close with Ruetten, an engineering student, and the two dated one and off for a few years after graduation.

Presby portrayed Lazarus as anguished over Ruetten's decision to marry Rasmussen. He read an excerpt from a letter Lazarus wrote to Ruetten's mother after he proposed.

"I'm truly in love with John," she wrote. "This year has torn me up. ... I don't think I'll ever understand." By contrast, Overland said it was Ruetten, not Lazarus, who refused to let the relationship go.

Even after becoming engaged, he called Lazarus repeatedly and continued to have sex with her, Overland said. In regards to a confrontation that occurred between the two women shortly before the murder, Overland said that Lazarus had gone to see Rasmussen to warn her about Ruetten's behavior.

Although he did not say it explicitly, Overland appeared to be foreshadowing an alternate theory of the killing: that news of the ongoing romance may have infuriated Rasmussen and led to a confrontation between her and Ruetten, who Overland said "is going to play a pivotal role in this case."

Police said they never suspected Ruetten of having any involvement in the killing.

As a cop, Lazarus 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, she married another LAPD officer 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, according to recordings, 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.

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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-- Andrew Blankstein at Los Angeles County Superior Court and Joel Rubin

 
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