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Love triangle detailed in ex-LAPD officer's murder trial

Stephanie Lazarus' ex-boyfriend says she tearfully confronted him after learning he was engaged. Three months after his wedding, she is accused of beating and shooting his wife to death.

February 16, 2012|By Joel Rubin and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times

Stephanie Lazarus, the Los Angeles police officer on trial for allegedly murdering the wife of an ex-boyfriend, tearfully confronted the man after learning he had become engaged, according to testimony Wednesday.

"She was basically trying to tell me … she was in love with me," said John Ruetten, whose testimony marked the first time he has publicly discussed his wife's killing. "It was clear that I was moving on and getting married."

Lazarus, who served in the Los Angeles Police Department for more than 25 years before retiring last year as a detective, was arrested in 2009 when LAPD cold-case detectives linked her to the 1986 beating and shooting death of Sherri Rasmussen, 29.

Prosecutors allege that Lazarus, a patrol officer at the time of the killing, was infatuated with Ruetten, an engineer who she had dated before he became engaged to Rasmussen.

Lazarus, 51, has pleaded not guilty to murder charges and has remained in custody throughout the long run-up to her trial in lieu of $10-million bail.

The outcome of the trial is expected to hinge in large part on a saliva sample extracted from a bite mark that investigators found on Rasmussen's arm.

Prosecutors have presented evidence that the DNA in the saliva matches Lazarus', while her attorney is trying to cast doubt on that idea by questioning whether there were lapses in how the saliva sample was stored and handled in the many years between the killing and Lazarus' arrest.

The first several days of testimony have focused largely on the DNA and handling of evidence as jurors listened to lawyers pursue detailed questions about genetic testing and lab protocols with staffers from the Los Angeles County coroner's office and LAPD laboratory.

The arrival of Ruetten in Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert Perry's downtown courtroom Wednesday changed the tenor of the trial noticeably. A jury of eight women and four men is hearing the case.

Ruetten, 53, calmly answered questions from Deputy Dist. Atty. Shannon Presby about how he and Lazarus met while students at UCLA and dated casually for a few years after graduating from college.

Although they took trips together, went on dates and had sex many times, Ruetten said, he never considered Lazarus his girlfriend and was dating other people at the time.

Ruetten's steady demeanor cracked when the questioning turned to him meeting Rasmussen, a director of nursing at an area hospital. His voice broke with emotion as he identified Rasmussen in a photograph — the first of several times that he broke down in tears during his testimony.

Within a year of their meeting, Ruetten said, he and Rasmussen were engaged.

A few weeks later, Ruetten said he received a phone call from Lazarus, who was crying and asking him to come to her apartment. He did so and said he found her distraught over his decision to marry another woman, which struck him as odd since he had not spoken with Lazarus for more than a year and believed they were "friends, just friends."

Lazarus, he said, asked repeatedly that night to have sex with him and he agreed. Calling the decision "stupid," Ruetten told the jury, "I was over my head. I didn't know what to do, how to calm her down."

Not long after, Ruetten recalled, Rasmussen arrived home from work and angrily confronted him about Lazarus, who prosecutors have alleged went to the hospital where Rasmussen worked and told her about the sexual encounter. Ruetten said he confessed to Rasmussen and begged her not to break off their engagement.

Ruetten said he had no more contact with Lazarus and went on to marry Rasmussen in late 1985. He recounted returning home from work on Feb. 24, 1986, three months after the wedding, to find his wife's body on the living room floor of their Van Nuys town house. She had been shot three times at close range in the chest and beaten badly.

He recalled speaking that night with Lyle Mayer, the lead homicide detective assigned to the case, who told Ruetten that he believed from evidence at the scene that Rasmussen had been killed by intruders who were trying to rob the house. "It never crossed my mind that Stephanie was involved," Ruetten said Wednesday.

Before the end of the day, Lazarus' attorney Mark Overland began his cross-examination, pressing Ruetten on the seriousness of his relationship with Lazarus.

Ruetten acknowledged that it was unusual for him to introduce a woman to his family — something he did with Lazarus, who apparently joined Ruetten's family on a trip and at family events. Overland appeared to be trying to poke holes in Ruetten's description of his relationship with Lazarus and imply that it was more serious than he let on.

Mike Hargreaves, a retired LAPD officer who was roommates with Lazarus, also testified Wednesday.

He recalled that Lazarus told him repeatedly that she was reluctant to date men unless they were "tall, athletic and like John … handsome like John."

joel.rubin@latimes.com

andrew.blankstein@latimes.com

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