48 Hours Mystery: One of Their Own

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

It was about 6 p.m. when Sherri Rasmussen's husband, John Ruetten, returned home from work.

Los Angeles Times reporter Joel Rubin explains what happened next.

"He drives up to the townhouse. Her car is not there… He sees broken glass that's shattered from the sliding door. He comes up the stairway, opens the door…and finds his wife's body on the floor. Sherri's found with three bullet wounds - two in the upper torso area… and then a third one to the abdomen area."

Alan Tarsky, Sherri's neighbor in 1986, spoke to John Ruetten just moments after he discovered Sherri's dead body.

"When he came in from the garage, her body was the very first thing that he saw," Tarsky tells Maureen Maher. "His face was gaunt. He simply said, 'Sherri's dead. She's dead."

Shocked and curious, Tarsky became an eyewitness.

"I actually kind of snuck in while the police were still running in and out at the time… I saw the results of this disaster," he says. "There were signs that obviously there had been a struggle because chairs were turned over... The pool of blood that was in the living room was at probably three feet across at least."

Although he was a close neighbor, living about 20 feet away, not a single detective ever questioned Tarsky, never knocked on his door to ask if he saw anything. "In all these years, I've never been contacted by police," he says.

Police also never interviewed Sherri's sister, Teresa, who was among the last to see her alive.

"I saw her the day before she died. They didn't even talk to me," says Teresa.

Detectives also failed to contact close friend Jayne Goldberg.

"The police never came to me. They never questioned me," she says. "Why aren't the police coming to me, and saying, 'Do you know anybody who Sherri had a problem with?'"

Sherri had confided in Goldberg about all the problems she was having with John's ex-girlfriend.

"You know, that somebody recently came to her office and discussed her husband with her," Goldberg continues. "And then Sherri's murdered? It was the first thing I thought of."

But investigators still continued down the road of a botched burglary, even though the only missing items from Sherri's home were her car, which was a gift from John and, according to Goldberg, her marriage certificate.

"And I thought, 'Hmm…her marriage license and her car that she got when she was engaged?' Those two things are gone. It's just so symbolic," says Goldberg.

"When detectives did their walkthrough, there's nothing else in the house that's disturbed. So it raises questions about whether this was, in fact, a burglary," says Los Angeles Times police reporter Andrew Blankstein.

Detectives stuck to that botched burglary theory even as the trail went cold for more than two decades.

"You have to look back into the investigation to see if there's anything you missed. And in this case it was Stephanie Lazarus," says Burt Luper, a retired detective who spent 27 years working for the Los Angeles Police Department.

Now an investigator on Stephanie Lazarus' defense team, even he believes she was an obvious suspect.

"She should've been looked at right away," Luper says. "Who knows what would've come of that? We don't know. We'll never know because nobody did it."

"As a result of not looking at her, we've lost valuable evidence that may have exonerated her…" says defense attorney Mark Overland.

But Stephanie Lazarus was an unlikely suspect. She was just a beat cop at the time, but would go on to be a star detective in her department. The UCLA graduate eventually married another detective. She had survived thyroid cancer and even raised money to start a daycare program for members of the L.A.P.D. And eventually, she adopted her own little girl.

Steven Lazarus, Stephanie's younger brother, says there is absolutely no way his sister committed this brutal crime.

"When you know Stephanie and you know her devotion to law enforcement and to her family and humanity, it doesn't make sense, nor do I believe it," he says.

"To the best of anyone's knowledge, was Stephanie ever looked at? Was she ever questioned?" Maher asks reporter Joel Rubin. "No," he says. "The lead investigator at the time told me he never considered her a suspect."

That detective, Lyle Mayer, spoke to reporters in 1986 about the burglars he suspected of the crime. He's retired now and reluctantly spoke to "48 Hours" about that original investigation.

Mayer emphatically denies nearly every point made by Sherri Rasmussen's family and friends. He refused to go on camera, but told Maher that Nels Rasmussen never told him that Sherri was having a problem with John Reutten's ex-girlfriend. He also denies that John Ruetten ever told L.A.P.D. to check into Stephanie Lazarus and flat out denies any accusation of a cover-up.

Rasmussen family attorney John Taylor says, "Lyle Mayer's got a lot of explaining to do."

"He absolutely claims John never brought up the name Stephanie Lazarus, to L.A.P.D. ever… never mentioned any of the altercations," Maher says to Taylor.

"Within two days of the murder, there was a crime scene walk-through and John Reutten gave Lyle Mayer - at least told him - you should look at my ex-girlfriend… and he identified her as being a Los Angeles police officer."

"So is Lyle Mayer lying?"

"He has a selective memory."

Mayer does admit Stephanie's name came up during his investigation, but he says it was months after Sherri's murder and he felt there was no sufficient reason to question her. As for Mayer's failure to interview critical witnesses, he firmly denies those accusations.

"He says he spoke to hundreds, hundred of witnesses and that he absolutely canvassed the neighborhood. Do you think that's true?" Maher asks John Taylor.

"I think that there would have been a paper trail that would reflect the hundreds of interviews," Taylor replies. "I think he's fabricating that."

The Los Angeles Police Department would not comment on any portion of this case. Whatever the shortcomings of the original investigation, forensic investigators did manage to collect one crucial piece of evidence: a saliva sample taken from a tiny bite mark on Sherri's arm.

"When they re-open the case, the saliva sample is sent out to a DNA lab for testing," Rubin says, "and the DNA testing comes back as belonging to a woman."

The DNA belonged to a woman. The results were mind blowing and totally destroyed the theory that Sherri was killed by two male burglars.

Rubin says, "It led police to suspect one of their own… Stephanie Lazarus."