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Ex-LAPD detective found guilty of killing romantic rival in 1986

Stephanie Lazarus is emotionless as she is convicted of beating and shooting the wife of a man who had spurned her. LAPD Chief Charlie Beck issues extraordinary apology to the victim's family.

March 09, 2012|By Joel Rubin and Andrew Blankstein, Los Angeles Times
  • Former Los Angeles Police Det. Stephanie Lazarus, with her attorney Mark Overland, left, was convicted of first-degree murder in the brutal beating and shooting of Sherri Rasmussen, 29, on Feb. 24, 1986. Three months before the attack, Rasmussen had married John Ruetten, who had dated Lazarus casually for a few years.
Former Los Angeles Police Det. Stephanie Lazarus, with her attorney Mark… (Brian van der Brug / Los Angeles…)

A jury found former Los Angeles Police Det. Stephanie Lazarus guilty of murdering the wife of a man who had spurned her, bringing an end to a remarkable case in which a new generation of the LAPD redeemed the failures of a past one.

On Thursday, after little more than a day of deliberation, the panel of eight women and four men concluded that Lazarus 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.

The verdict broke a tense silence in a cramped downtown Los Angeles courtroom full of the victim's family, relatives of Lazarus and journalists.

The case drew national attention for its sensational story line of a love-sick cop killing a woman she viewed as a romantic rival and then somehow managing to bury her dark secret.

Beyond that, however, the case was a study of stark contrasts between the best and worst of the Los Angeles Police Department, leading Chief Charlie Beck to issue an extraordinary apology to the victim's family.

"This case was a tragedy on every level," Beck said. "To the family of Sherri Rasmussen, I am truly sorry for the loss of your wife, of your daughter. I am also sorry it took us so long to solve this case and bring a measure of justice to this tragedy.... It shows the tenacity of the detectives on the LAPD who will work tirelessly to bring a case to justice, whether that case takes them around the world or across the hall."

Although any police officer on trial for murder is a rarity, 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 also had to confront awkward questions about why detectives two decades ago did not pursue Lazarus, with her apparently obvious motive, as a suspect. Had they been protecting a fellow cop or was it simply sloppy detective work?

John Taylor, an attorney representing the Rasmussen family, deflected such questions, choosing instead to praise the current LAPD detectives who reopened the case.

"The family is relieved that this 26-year nightmare was concluded with the positive identification of who killed their daughter and sister."

Lazarus, 51, who served more than 25 years in the LAPD and retired while she sat in jail awaiting trial, showed no emotion as the court clerk read the verdict.

Because the jury found her guilty of first-degree murder, state law requires that Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry sentence Lazarus to life in prison with the possibility of parole in about 14 years, a state corrections official said. Perry scheduled sentencing for May 4.

Prosecutors Shannon Presby and Paul Nunez argued during the monthlong trial that Lazarus harbored deep feelings for Ruetten and was driven to kill by the jealousy she felt over his decision to marry someone else.

Through diary entries, a forlorn letter Lazarus wrote to Ruetten's mother, and testimony from Ruetten about Lazarus tearfully pleading with him to reconsider his decision, they presented jurors with a portrait of a heartbroken woman.

It was Ruetten, who attended much of the trial with Rasmussen's parents and sisters, who discovered his wife's body on the living room floor of their Van Nuys town house.

The attacker had smashed a vase over her head and shot her at close range while Rasmussen apparently lay motionless, taking the time to wrap the gun in a thick blanket that lay nearby to muffle the noise of the gunshots. A bite mark on Rasmussen's arm spoke to the struggle she had put up.

At the time of the killing, the lead detective assigned to the case, Lyle Mayer, was convinced that Rasmussen had been killed by two men trying to burglarize her home.

Mayer ignored repeated pleas from Rasmussen's father that he look into whether a woman the family knew only as their son-in-law's "ex-girlfriend, who is an LAPD officer" could have killed their daughter. He told Mayer about a disturbing confrontation his daughter had had with the woman shortly before she was killed.

Mayer's notes from the case show that he had identified Lazarus but, in an interview with The Times, he said he never considered her a suspect.

Rasmussen's father grew so distraught over Mayer's refusal to investigate Lazarus that he wrote a letter to then-Chief Daryl Gates asking him to intervene. That led to nothing, however, and the case went cold after Mayer retired.

Lazarus went on to build a successful career. She worked patrol assignments for years, eventually earning a promotion to detective and becoming a specialist in art fraud and theft cases. She married another LAPD detective and the couple adopted a young girl, now 5.

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