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LAPD detective accused of 1986 slaying seeks dismissal of case

October 20, 2009 | 10:10 am

Lazarusi An L.A. police detective accused of murdering her ex-boyfriend's wife was deprived of her constitutional rights, her lawyer said today, and the case against her should be dismissed.

In a 20-page motion filed this morning, defense attorney Mark E. Overland argued that police investigators who handled the 1986 murder missed obvious clues and evidence that should have identified his client, Stephanie Lazarus, as a suspect. 

That oversight, Overland said in the novel legal gambit, deprived Lazarus of her due process rights since she must now defend herself against the charges 23 years after the crime, when much of the evidence has been damaged or lost and many of the witnesses' memories have faded.

Overland inventoried several crucial elements of the case file that he said authorities cannot locate today, including audio-taped witness interviews, tapes of 911 calls and other police communications, gun-residue analysis and the victim's toxicology report. 

Also unaccounted for were audiotapes and reports detailing a polygraph test that was allegedly taken -- and failed -- by the victim's husband, John Ruetten, according to Overland's motion to dismiss the case. The attorney said a second lie-detector test was not administered.

On Feb. 24, 1986, Ruetten said he came home from work to discover his wife of three months dead in their Van Nuys town home. Sherrie Rae Rasmussen, an accomplished hospital administrator, had been badly beaten and shot several times. Her car had been stolen.

Shortly after the slaying, two men robbed a woman in the area at gunpoint. LAPD detectives theorized that the same men had killed Rasmussen when she came upon them burglarizing her home. The lead detective in the case said he never questioned Lazarus during the investigation and that when he retired in 1991, he still believed the victim had been killed during a burglary.

But in his court filing, Overland sought to highlight flaws in the original police investigation, saying essentially that if Lazarus was going to be charged, it should have been at the time of the killing. He called LAPD  detectives "either negligent or reckless" for overlooking  his client as a possible suspect in the first place and seeming to ignore suggestions -- or failing to interview altogether -- Rasmussen's friends and relatives.

A few weeks after Rasmussen's slaying, for example, Ruetten mentioned Lazarus to LAPD detectives as a possible suspect, according to the court documents. Months later, in November,  Ruetten contacted LAPD homicide investigators to verify that Lazarus, an LAPD officer, was his former girlfriend, the defense alleges.

The victim's father, Nels Rasmussen, went further, according to the defense motion. The day after his daughter died, Nels Rasmussen asked detectives if they had "checked out John Ruetten's ex-girlfriend, an LAPD officer," according to the filing. In December 1986, Rasmussen allegedly told the lead detective in the case that his daughter had been threatened by an ex-girlfriend who was an LAPD officer. 

Rasmussen's roommate, who was not identified in the court filing, verified Ruetten's ex-girlfriend was an LAPD officer who confronted Rasmussen, dressed "provocatively and said she would be there to pick up the pieces if Sherrie Rasmussen did not keep her husband happy."  She was not interviewed until this year, the filing notes.

And Rasmussen's secretary at Glendale Adventist Hospital, Sylvia Nielsen, witnessed a confrontation between Rasmussen and an unknown person before the slaying. Police were told about the confrontation in 1988. Nielsen died in 2000. Detectives also failed to interview any of Lazarus' police colleagues around the time of the killing to see if they had seen signs of violent struggle.

After laying dormant for years, LAPD detectives revisited the Rasmussen case in February as part of an ongoing effort to solve thousands of old homicides, testing blood or saliva samples from the crime scene thought to have been left behind by the killer. Genetic testing indicated the attacker was a woman, contradicting detectives' earlier theory of a male killer.

Additional interviews led them to Lazarus, who was followed to a store by an undercover officer who secretly recovered a plastic discarded item with her saliva on it, police sources said. The DNA extracted from the saliva matched the DNA evidence collected from a bite mark at the murder scene, authorities said. That DNA will be the center of the prosecution's case against Lazarus, authorities have said.

Prosecutors said they had no immediate comment on the motion.

-- Andrew Blankstein and Joel Rubin

Photo: Stephanie Lazarus appears in L.A. court in June. Credit: Mark Boster / Los Angeles Times

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