crimesider

48 Hours: Behind the murder case against LAPD detective Stephanie Lazarus

Sherri Rae Rasmussen CBS

Sherri Rae Rasmussen
Sherri Rae Rasmussen
CBS
(CBS) The murder of 29-year-old hospital nursing supervisor Sherri Rae Rasmussen in 1986 is one of the most tumultuous cases ever to confront the Los Angeles Police Department.

The Sherri Rasmussen-Stephanie Lazarus case airs on 48 Hours: "One of the Their Own," Saturday, May 26, 10 p.m. ET/PT

Watch a sneak peek

Los Angeles Times reporter Andrew Blankstein, and his colleague Joel Rubin, broke the story that after 23 years the LAPD was pointing the finger at one of their own - veteran detective Stephanie Lazarus - in a case Blankstein says meant walking a very fine line.

Los Angeles Times coverage of the case

Having covered the LAPD for some 20 years, he told Crimesider that when the reporters got a tip about "something big" involving a police officer, he knew it would be "above and beyond" the routine.

"It's very rare for a cop to be arrested"...let alone "arrested for murder." Blankstein said it was a challenge not to "jump the gun" on the story. We "didn't want to impact the case," he said.

Still, Blankstein says he was "supremely confident" he was on the right track, because his information was "so good."

Los Angeles police detective Stephanie Lazarus is arraigned at the Criminal Justice Center in Los Angeles on murder charges, Tuesday, June 9, 2009. Lazarus, 49, is accused of killing Sherri Rasmussen, who was bitten, beaten and shot in her condominium in
Los Angeles police detective Stephanie Lazarus is arraigned at the Criminal Justice Center in Los Angeles on murder charges, Tuesday, June 9, 2009.
AP Photo/Mark Boster, Pool
Ultimately, the much-decorated det. Lazarus was arrested for murder in an elaborate sting by her LAPD colleagues in June 2009. Blankstein recalls being struck by the fact that Lazarus was called away from her office by police - the same office where he had sometimes spoken with her in her capacity as an art crimes investigator.

Back in 1986, Sherri Rasmussen was a newlywed, and Lazarus, already a cop, was an ex-girlfriend of Rasmussen's husband, John Ruetten.

The case raised tough questions about whether the LAPD intentionally looked the other way, and ultimately, covered up Lazarus' involvement in the killing.

Blankstein sees a case of "tunnel vision" by the police, in their long-held belief that Rasmussen was killed in a robbery. He says aspects of the original LAPD investigation may be "problematic," and there are still unanswered questions as to why Lazarus wasn't looked at more closely to begin with.

But the LA Times reporter says the dramatic developments that took decades later hinge mainly on a revolution in DNA technology, which enabled investigators to zero in on the source of a bite mark on the arm of the murder victim, Rasmussen.

To underscore his point, Blankstein noted that in the early days of the case, the LAPD wasn't even using cell phones, let alone high-tech forensics.

Loretta Rasmussen, the mother of murder victim, Sherri Rasmussen, gives her victim impact statement during the sentencing of former LAPD Det.  Stephanie Lazarus
Loretta Rasmussen, the mother of murder victim Sherri Rasmussen, gives her victim impact statement during the sentencing of Stephanie Lazarus, on Friday, May 11, 2012, in Los Angeles.
Pool, AP Photo/Los Angeles Times, Gary Friedman
"Should it have happened faster?," said Blankstein, regarding the arrest of Lazarus. "On the surface yes...(but there) are there things that explain why it didn't happen as quickly."

Blankstein said the murder trial of Stephanie Lazarus left a powerful imprint about the family of victim Sherri Rasmussen, who had to relive their loss yet again, after 25 years.

"I couldn't help but have...deep admiration for the people who have to go through this special kind of hell."

The reporter especially praised Rasmussen's mother, Loretta.

"For the mom to...say they have prayers for Stephanie Lazarus's family...it takes somebody incredibly classy."

As to getting to the bottom of the initial LAPD investigation of the case, Blankstein told Crimesider that while there is "nothing indicating a deeper conspiracy" at this point, sometimes "issues come out post-trial," when people feel more at ease to speak. He says if that happens in this case, he and his LA Times colleague Joel Rubin will explore it.

The Sherri Rasmussen-Stephanie Lazarus case airs on 48 Hours: "One of the Their Own," Saturday, May 26, 10 p.m. ET/PT

  • Barry Leibowitz

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