Ex-LAPD detective found guilty of killing romantic rival
A jury on Thursday found former Los Angeles Police Det. Stephanie Lazarus guilty of murdering the wife of a man she loved, bringing an end to a remarkable case in which a new generation of the LAPD redeemed the failures of a past one.
After 1 1/2 days of deliberation, the panel of eight women and four men delivered its decision in a cramped downtown courtroom filled with the victim's family members, relatives of Lazarus, and journalists. Dist. Atty. Steve Cooley was also in court to hear the verdict.
Lazarus had served more than 25 years in the LAPD and retired while sitting in jail awaiting trial. 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.
In reaching the guilty verdict, jurors concluded it was Lazarus who 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. It is the first time in memory that an active-duty LAPD officer was arrested on a murder charge and later convicted.
Prosecutors argued persuasively during the monthlong trial that Lazarus secretly harbored far deeper feelings for Ruetten and was driven to kill by the jealousy she felt over his decision to marry someone else.
Deputy Dist. Atty. Shannon Presby drove home the idea in his closing argument with a familiar line from poet William Congreve: "Heaven has no rage like love to hatred turned, nor hell a fury like a woman scorned."
At the time of the killing, detectives were convinced Rasmussen had been killed by two men trying to burglarize her home and police ignored pleas from Rasmussen's father to investigate Lazarus. The case went cold for years as Lazarus built a successful career as an art fraud and theft specialist. She married another LAPD detective and the couple adopted a young girl.
The case was reopened in 2009 and the advances in DNA testing helped lead back to Lazarus after a saliva sample taken from a bite mark on Rasmussen pointed to a woman.
Undercover officers spent weeks following Lazarus in an effort to collect a sample of her DNA surreptitiously. They eventually snatched a cup she discarded in a garbage can and rushed it to the lab. Jurors heard from DNA experts who testified that the test results were unambiguous: It had been Lazarus' saliva in the bite mark.
Mark Overland, Lazarus' hired attorney, tried to undermine the credibility of the saliva swab by raising questions about the way it had been handled and stored over the years. He failed, however, to give jurors an alternate, viable theory of how else the killing may have unfolded and how such a complicated frame-job could have been pulled off.
Lazarus, who remained in custody in lieu of $10-million bail since her arrest in 2009, did not take the stand in her own defense.
While any police officer put on trial for murder was bound to draw attention, 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’s current leadership also had to confront awkward questions about why detectives had not pursued Lazarus, with her apparently obvious motive, as a suspect.
-- Joel Rubin and Andrew Blankstein
Left photo: Sherri Rasmussen. Credit: Rasmussen family
Right photo: Stephanie Lazarus was found guilty of killing Sherri Rasmussen. Credit: Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles Times