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Slaying suspect Stephanie Lazarus: An investigator one minute, and under interrogation the next

A transcript of Det. Stephanie Lazarus' interrogation shows that LAPD colleagues used a ruse to get her to discuss a 1986 killing in which she was a suspect. Lazarus admitted to having confronted the victim but denied killing her. 'This is insane,' Lazarus said when arrested.

November 23, 2010|By Joel Rubin and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times

Stephanie Lazarus, the Los Angeles police detective charged in the 1986 murder of an ex-boyfriend's wife, admitted to investigators the morning of her arrest that she had confronted the victim on multiple occasions, but denied having a role in the killing, according to the transcript of her interrogation.

The interview transcript, which became public during a hearing in Los Angeles County Superior Court, offers a detailed account of how LAPD homicide detectives duped their unsuspecting colleague into talking about the case, and of Lazarus' disbelief and panic as she realized she was the target of the investigation.

"You're accusing me of this? Is that what you're -- is that what you're saying?" Lazarus asked near the end of the roughly hourlong interview last year, after one of the detectives alluded to evidence that implicated her in the killing.

"Am I on 'Candid Camera' or something? This is insane. This is absolutely crazy. This is insane," Lazarus said minutes later after she walked out of the interview, only to be stopped, handcuffed and told she was under arrest in the murder of Sherri Rae Rasmussen.

Lazarus has pleaded not guilty. She remains in custody on $10-million bail awaiting trial, which is expected to start in the spring. At the hearing Friday, Judge Robert J. Perry denied a request by her attorney, Mark Overland, to keep the transcript out of the case.

On Monday, Overland downplayed the significance of the questioning. "There's nothing in the interview from which any reasonable juror could conclude that she committed this crime," he said.

A lawyer representing the Rasmussen family disagreed. "That's the interview that LAPD should have conducted in 1986. It would have led to answers for the Rasmussens rather than letting them hang in wind," said attorney John C. Taylor.

The killing of Rasmussen, a 29-year-old hospital nursing director, was one of thousands of homicides from the 1980s that went unsolved. She was found bludgeoned and shot multiple times in the Van Nuys townhouse she shared with John Ruetten, whom she had recently married.

Lazarus was a childhood friend of Ruetten's. The two had begun a romantic relationship while attending UCLA but broke up around the time Ruetten struck up a relationship with Rasmussen. Nels Rasmussen, the victim's father, has said he repeatedly told detectives that his daughter had several confrontations with Lazarus in the months before her death and had been frightened by Lazarus' hostility.

But the lead detective in the case was convinced Rasmussen had been killed during a botched burglary by a man who had committed a robbery in the area. The detective never seriously pursued Lazarus, who had recently joined the LAPD.

Two decades later, DNA analysis of saliva collected from a bite mark on Rasmussen's arm indicated that the killer was a woman, disproving the theory of a male robber. Cold-case detectives reopened the investigation and learned of Lazarus' relationship with Ruetten. Police began tailing their colleague and eventually collected a plastic utensil or other object with her saliva on it. Police and prosecutors say DNA from that object matched the crime scene evidence.

After the match was made, LAPD officials devised a plan to arrest Lazarus. Around 6:40 on the morning on June 5, 2009, Det. Daniel Jaramillo from the LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division approached Lazarus at her desk in the department's headquarters and asked her to accompany him downstairs to the department's jail facility, where she would not be able to bring her gun. He told Lazarus he needed her help interrogating a man who claimed to have information on stolen art, which was Lazarus' specialty.

Jaramillo brought Lazarus into a private room in the jail facility where Jaramillo's partner, Det. Greg Stearns, was waiting. After a few minutes of small talk, Jaramillo told Lazarus she was not there to question a suspect about art.

"We've been assigned a case that we've been looking at," he said. "Do you know John Ruetten?"

For roughly the next hour, the detectives pressed Lazarus for information about her relationship with Ruetten and any encounters she had with Rasmussen.

Initially, Lazarus said she couldn't recall whether she had ever met Rasmussen, but soon acknowledged they had met. "Now that you're bringing it up, I think she worked at a hospital somewhere. And, yeah, I may have met her at a hospital. I may have talked to her once or twice, or more," she said.

The detectives pushed ahead, questioning Lazarus on whether she ever had gone to Rasmussen's home. Lazarus did not give a definitive answer, repeatedly saying she could not recall. Jaramillo grew more pointed in his questions, asking Lazarus if she ever had fought with Rasmussen and harping on her when she insisted, "If it happened, I honestly don't remember it. That's all I can tell you."

"You'd remember that, right? That would be pretty specific and, you know, traumatic," Jaramillo pushed back.

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