Ex-LAPD Det. Stephanie Lazarus to be sentenced in woman's slaying
Former Los Angeles Police Det. Stephanie Lazarus is due in court Friday morning to be sentenced to life with the possibility of parole in the slaying of her ex-boyfriend's wife 26 years ago, an act authorities said was motivated by jealously and heartbreak.
Prosecutors are asking Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry to sentence Lazarus to at least 27 years behind bars before she is eligible for parole. But state corrections officials told The Times in March that an inmate convicted of a similar crime with the sentencing guidelines of that era could be parole eligible in 14 years.
Lazarus was convicted in March of killing Sherri Rae Rasmussen, who was shot three times in the chest in her Van Nuys town home on Feb. 24, 1986. Three months before the attack, Rasmussen, a 29-year-old hospital nursing director, had married John Ruetten, who had dated Lazarus casually for a few years before the wedding.
The case garnered national attention for its sensational story line of a love-lorn cop killing a woman she viewed as a romantic rival and then for decades, harboring the dark secret. Adding to the drama, detectives ignored pleas by Rasmussen's father at the time of the killing to look at Lazarus as a possible suspect.
Instead, investigators stuck to their early theory that Rasmussen must have been killed by unidentified Latino male suspects during a botched burglary. That theory eventually would be proven wrong by DNA in a saliva sample gathered from a bite mark on the victim’s left forearm. But it would take a generation, a revolution in forensics technology and a second LAPD investigation before Lazarus, who had become a respected art theft detective, emerged as the prime suspect in the case.
Rasmussen family attorney John C. Taylor, who praised the work of current LAPD detectives, said in March that the family would address the handling of the original police investigation. Before Lazarus is sentenced, Rasmussen’s mother, at least one of the sisters and a family friend are expected to address the court.
The case against Lazarus came down to "A bite, a bullet, a gun barrel and a broken heart,” Deputy District Attorney Shannon Presby said in his opening statement. Presby and co-counsel Paul Nunez sought to hammer home those points throughout the five-week trial, which collectively included more than 60 witnesses and 400 exhibits from the state and the defense.
Defense attorney Mark Overland countered prosecutors by repeatedly questioning the integrity of the DNA bite mark evidence--arguing its vial was not properly sealed and the envelope containing the sample was ripped.
He also noted that a blood smear from an unidentified male was analyzed for DNA and did not match either the blood of Lazarus or Rasmussen, suggesting the possibility of another suspect.
In cross examination, Overland tried to show his client was not the obsessed, jilted lover, portrayed by prosecutors. In fact, Overland said, her former boyfriend Ruetten continued to pursue Lazarus after becoming engaged.
In the end, the DNA evidence proved too difficult to overcome. After little more than a day of deliberation, the panel of eight women and four men found Lazarus guilty of first-degree murder.
-- Andrew Blankstein (Twitter.com/anblanx)