Bite mark, DNA tie LAPD detective to 1986 murder
It has been more than two and a half decades since the Rasmussen's daughter, Sherri, was shot dead. Finally, the woman accused of that murder is going on trial.
Nels Rasmussen says he is 100 percent confident that Stephanie Lazarus killed his daughter.
"Beyond a shadow of a doubt... this girl is guilty," he told Maureen Maher.
Steven Lazarus says people shouldn't be so quick to judge his sister.
"It's a bit mind boggling to me of how many people just think she's guilty," he said. "Just keep an open mind and watch and let the trial take place. She's entitled to her day in court."
The prosecution begins by portraying Stephanie Lazarus as a heartbroken woman driven to kill by jealousy over John Ruetten's decision to marry someone else. The evidence: Her diary saying: "I found out that John is getting married. I was very depressed."
"So prosecutors are saying that and other entries show she's getting progressively more upset about this relationship," said reporter Andrew Blankstein.
To back up their theory, prosecutors call their star witness, the man everyone has been waiting 25 years to hear speak publicly for the first time: John Ruetten. He testifies that Lazarus was so upset she cried and begged him not to get married. They had sex that day, he says, but he still went through with his wedding just weeks later.
So, on February 24, 1986, prosecutors say, Lazarus showed up at the newlywed Sherri's condo armed with a .38 caliber Smith and Wesson revolver.
"There's indications of a prolonged struggle," L.A. Times reporter Joel Rubin explained. "There's indications that Sherri's wrists had been bound.
As for the bite mark, "There's an effort to try to -- wrestle for the control of the gun. And at some point during that struggle, prosecutors believe that the suspect bit Sherri Rae Rasmussen in the left inner forearm," said Blankstein.
Investigators believe, that at some point, Detective Lazarus finally got the upper hand.
"Perhaps she shot her once or twice," Rubin said, " and then dealt the third the fatal shot at point blank range..."
In the end, the prosecution's case all comes down to DNA found in that bite mark. According to their expert testimony, there is a 1.7 sextillion-to-1 chance that it belongs to someone other than Lazarus. And that, prosecutors argue, is proof positive that Stephanie Lazarus is the murderer.
"Stephanie Lazarus is a cold-blooded murderer," said John Taylor, the Rasmussen's attorney. " DNA-profiling technology absolutely nails her as the defendant."
Lazarus seems to be facing insurmountable odds by the time her attorney, Mark Overland, begins his defense. He paints a picture of her as a well-respected police officer who won commendation after commendation. She was a woman who made it in a man's world and certainly was not a woman obsessed with her former boyfriend.
"The defense is trying to say look, Stephanie Lazarus was not as close to John Ruetten as the prosecutors are trying to say. She's not jealous. This isn't as big a deal as they're saying," said Blankstein.
With that motive called into question, Overland focuses on attacking what was the states strongest evidence, the DNA. His argument: The DNA is suspect because of the haphazard way it was handled over the course of more than two decades. He explains that the swabs taken of that bite mark on Sherri Rasmussen's arm were kept in a vial and sealed in an envelope in 1986.
"The whole purpose of the envelope is to preserve the integrity of the specimen," Overland told the court.
Overland says the envelope had been misplaced for a long time, possibly years, but eventually was found in the L.A. County Coroner's Office.
He says that evidence may have been mishandled, or even worse, tampered with.
"This is approximately the way the envelope was found in the coroner's office," Overland told Maher, showing her the vial protruding from the envelope.
Asked if the vial was sealed, Overland said, "No. This DNA evidence is flawed... The bottom line is, because of this tear, you can't say that this is the evidence that was recovered from the scene."
"No ... This DNA evidence is flawed," he replied. "The bottom line is because of this tear, you can't say that this is the evidence that was recovered from the scene."
But prosecutors maintain they have a circumstantial case as well.
"Stephanie Lazarus reported a gun stolen to the Santa Monica police just two weeks after the murder of Sherri Rae Rasmussen," said Rubin.
" The weapon that was reported stolen was a five-shot, snub-nosed Smith & Wesson .38-caliber revolver," added Blankstein.
Ballistics tests and gunshot residue found at the crime scene have led prosecutors to believe that gun was the murder weapon.
"Prosecutors and cops believe that perhaps she reported the gun stolen so as to, obviously, make it untraceable," said Rubin.
"For all they know, it could be at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean," added Blankstein.
The defense disputes this theory.
"It's apparently the exact same type of gun that was -" Maureen Maher noted to Overland.
"Wrong," he replied.
"It's not the same kind of gun?"
"Wrong," Overland insisted. "The exact type of gun that was used in committing the homicide has never been identified."
After more than four weeks and some 60 witnesses, the jury takes little more than a day to reach a verdict:
We the jury in the above entitled action find the defendant Stephanie Eileen Lazarus guilty of the crime of murder of Sherri Rasmussen.
"I am very disappointed," Overland said of the guilty verdict. "I think the speed of the verdict showed we never had a chance."
Twenty-six years after Sherri Rasmussen's death, her family members finally have their chance to speak in court at the sentencing two months after the conviction.
"Because of a selfish brutal act of violence Sherri's family...and friends have endured extreme heartache and pain for which there is no cure," Loretta Rasmussen, Sherri's mother, addressed the court.
"What a waste," Sherri's younger sister, Teresa, said in tears."It was so callous to take Sherri's life because she lived in all of us."
John Ruetten joins the family to speak about the woman he loved.
" Sherri Rasmussen had an impact on so many people (cries) and I was so proud she agreed to be my wife," Ruetten addressed the court. "My heart still races when I look at her pictures, but Sherry was extraordinary more for who she was that the way she looked."
After remembering Sherri, Ruetten stuns the listeners by apologizing to the Rasmussen family: "The Rasmussens have treated me as a son and a brother and contemplating their profound grief that she met her death because she met and married me brings me to my knees."
The victim statements heard, Stephanie Lazarus is sentenced to 27 years to life in the state penitentiary.
She could be paroled after 16 years, but she'll probably spend the rest of her life in prison.
Nels and Loretta Rasmussen fought long and hard seeking justice for their murdered daughter.
"You never get over it. You only learn to live with it," said Loretta.
"We will feel that loss until we leave this earth," said Nels.
The Rasmussens sued the LAPD for covering up a murder committed by one of their own. A judge dismissed the case. The family is appealing that decision.
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