48 Hours Mystery: One of Their Own

Cop Charged with Murder in 23-Year-Old Cold Case

In the winter of 1986, the dramatic spike in street crime was beginning to strain the Los Angeles Police Department as cops were called to investigate yet another killing; this time in a quiet, gated community in Van Nuys, the scene of Sherri Rasmussen's murder.

"There was a terrible struggle. She had been beaten badly about her face and there was blood on the walls. The place was a mess," according to Joel Rubin, a Los Angeles Times police reporter who has been looking into how police investigated this case 24 years ago.

"The presumption," Rubin explains, "is the attacker hit Sherri over the head - perhaps stunning her … which perhaps gave the attacker time enough to pull out the gun and shoot Sherri."

Rubin learned that investigators back then wasted little time theorizing what had happened.

"…the lead detective in the case very quickly hatched on the idea that Sherri Rasmussen had happened upon two men as they were trying to burglarize the house and that they killed her after being discovered. The crime scene includes… two pieces of electronics equipment stacked at the foot of the stairs. And they pointed to that as indication this was a burglary gone bad.

"…a few weeks later, two men tried to commit a similar burglary in the area and it bolstered their theory," explains Rubin.

Police even had sketches drawn of those two men, who they considered suspects in Sherri's murder. But there seemed to be little evidence that could tie anyone specifically to this crime. There were no witnesses and no gun. Even fingerprints they found led nowhere. But the Rasmussen family just wasn't buying any of it.

"...it wasn't a robbery," Nels Rasmussen tells Maureen Maher. "They couldn't convince me of it."

That's because Nels had his own idea about who was responsible for his daughter's killing. At the time, he didn't know her name - just that she was his son-in-law's ex-girlfriend - an L.A. cop.

She was his No. 1 suspect from day one of the murder because of a troubling story Sherri had told her father and some of her closest friends in the weeks leading up to her murder.

"She told me that John's ex-girlfriend had come to her office at the hospital - dressed provocatively…" says Jayne Goldberg.

"…and confronted Sherri about John and said that if she couldn't have John, nobody could," Nels recalls.

"And she said if this marriage doesn't work out, I want you to know that I'll be waiting to pick up the pieces," Goldberg continues. "At the time, I didn't realize how significant it was."

Mark Overland, Stephanie Lazarus' attorney, says that never happened. Overland confirms that a confrontation did occur at the hospital, but he tells a completely different version of what his client said to Sherri.

"…that you should tell John to leave me alone, since you two are now engaged," he says.

"So she went to say your fiancé is pursuing me?" Maher asks. "Yes," Overland replied.

But another one of Sherri's friends, Peggy Crabtree, who had worked in nursing with her, says Sherri told her about some alarming behavior by Stephanie Lazarus, who seemed to be showing up everywhere.

"John's ex-girlfriend kept appearing in places that Sherri would go. She couldn't go out to the store or go to the gym without having this woman show up," Crabtree explains. "Sherri was clearly fearful and unhappy that she just couldn't get this person out of her life."

"To me, it would border on harassment," says Nels.

When asked if Sherri thought there may have been something going on between John and Stephanie, Nels replies, "She had suspicion."

"… clearly the message wasn't getting through that the behavior of his ex-girlfriend wasn't acceptable. And it was creating enough stress and unhappiness for Sherri, that she was considering breaking up with John," says Crabtree.

Even more unsettling, Nels said at one point, Sherri told him she was being followed by someone in disguise.

"…she said the person that was following her was dressed like a boy… That sounds like she thought the person was a woman… but had eyes that could penetrate you and she said would make you think that they could see right through you."

John Taylor, the Rasmussen's attorney, says he has a pretty good idea who Sherri was describing.

"It's very telling. One of the things that Sherri told her father is she believed she was being followed by somebody who had either crazy or wild looking eyes," Taylor tells Maher. "Look at some of the photographs now of Stephanie Lazarus and maybe it's not that far off."

"What's the timing on when the stalking incidents began for Sherri with Stephanie?" Maher asks.

"I think immediately before they were married, and then after they were married," says Taylor.

Lazarus' attorney calls the stalking charges nonsense and says that it never happened. More importantly, he claims it's highly unlikely that any of the so-called stalking behavior that Sherri told her friends and father about can be used by prosecutors against this decorated cop.

"Evidence of any prior contacts is not gonna come in at trial," Overland says. "That's all hearsay. It's unreliable. That's why it's inadmissible."

"And you will be able to keep it out? Are you confident of that?" asks Maher.

"Unless the judge makes an error," he replies.

"Do you believe that Stephanie was obsessed with John?"

"Absolutely not," Overland says. "Infatuated? Yes. Obsessed? No."

For more than two decades, Nels Rasmussen has been on a frustrating quest to uncover the truth about his daughter's murder. But in 1986, he says he got nowhere trying to talk about it with Sherri's husband, John.

"I was unable to get much outta John," he tells Maher.

"Do you think he was holding back on information?"

"I have no idea what's going on in that boy's mind."

In fact, he was holding back. Years later, John would finally admit he had sex with Stephanie after he became engaged to Sherri.

"Did you think he was involved in Sherri's death in some way?" Maher asks Nels. "I do not believe that John had any involvement whatsoever."

Apparently, neither do the police, who reportedly eliminated John as a suspect early on. But Nels says he tried - unsuccessfully - to get the lead detective to focus on John's ex-girlfriend.

"That first week, the first five days, I mentioned it so many times that… he kind of lost his cool with me saying that there was no need to go there because there was nothing there," Nels recalls.

Says Taylor, "He kept pressing them to follow up on what was a very obvious lead to him - eventually to the point where the investigating detective told him, 'You're watching too much TV.' It's sloppy police work. It's negligent police work. It's incompetent police work."

"Is it possible it was a cover up?" Maher asks Taylor "Yes!" he replies.