Former LAPD detective found guilty in murder of romantic rival
A jury Thursday found former Los Angeles Police Det. Stephanie Lazarus guilty of murdering the wife of a man who spurned her, bringing an end to a remarkable case in which a new generation of the LAPD redeemed the failures of a past one.
After little more than a day of deliberation, the panel of eight women and four men concluded that Lazarus brutally beat and then shot Sherri Rasmussen three times in the chest on Feb. 24, 1986.
Three months before the attack, Rasmussen, a 29-year-old hospital nursing director, had married John Ruetten, who dated Lazarus casually for a few years leading up to the wedding.
The verdict broke a tense silence in a cramped downtown courtroom full with the victim’s family, relatives of Lazarus and journalists. The case drew national attention for its sensational story line of a love-sick cop killing a woman she viewed as a romantic rival, and then somehow managing to bury her dark secret.
“This case was a tragedy on every level,” Beck said. “To the family of Sherri Rasmussen, I am truly sorry for the loss of your wife, of your daughter. I am also sorry it took us so long to solve this case and bring a measure of justice to this tragedy.… It shows the tenacity of the detectives on the LAPD who will work tirelessly to bring a case to justice, whether that case takes them around the world or across the hall.”
While any police officer on trial for murder is a rarity, the Lazarus case was particularly compelling. It pitted the LAPD against one of its own, forcing homicide detectives to push aside the strong familial bonds officers feel for each other and treat Lazarus as they would any other murder suspect. The department also had to confront awkward questions about why detectives two decades ago did not pursue Lazarus, with her apparently obvious motive, as a suspect. Had they been protecting a fellow cop or was it simply sloppy detective work?
John Taylor, an attorney representing the Rasmussens, deflected such questions, choosing instead to praise the current LAPD detectives who reopened the case. “The family is relieved that this 26-year nightmare was concluded with the positive identification of who killed their daughter and sister.”
Lazarus, who served more than 25 years in the LAPD and retired while she sat in jail awaiting trial, showed no emotion as the court clerk read the verdict. Because the jury found her guilty of first-degree murder, state law requires that Judge Robert J. Perry sentence Lazarus to life in prison with the possibility of parole. It was not immediately known when she could be eligible for parole. Perry scheduled the sentencing for May 4.
Prosecutors Shannon Presby and Paul Nunez argued during the monthlong trial that Lazarus harbored deep feelings for Ruetten and was driven to kill by the jealousy she felt over his decision to marry someone else. Through diary entries, a forlorn letter Lazarus wrote to Ruetten’s mother, and testimony from Ruetten about Lazarus tearfully pleading with him to reconsider his decision, they presented jurors with a portrait of a heartbroken woman.
It was Ruetten, who attended much of the trial with Rasmussen’s parents and sisters, who discovered his wife’s body on the living room floor of their Van Nuys town house. The attacker had smashed a vase over her head and shot her at close range while Rasmussen apparently lay motionless, taking the time to wrap the gun in a thick blanket that lay nearby to muffle the noise of the gunshots. A bite mark on Rasmussen’s arm spoke to the struggle she had put up.
At the time of the killing, the detective assigned to the case, Lyle Mayer, was convinced Rasmussen had been killed by two men trying to burglarize her home. Mayer ignored repeated pleas from Rasmussen’s father that he look into whether a woman the family knew only as an “ex-girlfriend, who is an LAPD officer” could have killed their daughter.
He told Mayer about a disturbing confrontation his daughter had had with the woman shortly before she was killed. Mayer’s notes from the case show he had identified Lazarus but, in an interview with The Times, he said he never considered her a suspect. Rasmussen’s father grew so distraught over Mayer’s refusal to investigate Lazarus that he wrote a letter to then-Chief Daryl Gates asking him to intervene. That led to nothing, however, and the case went cold after Mayer retired.
-- Joel Rubin and Andrew Blankstein
Left photo: Sherri Rasmussen Credit: Rasmussen family.
Right photo: Stephanie Lazarus Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times