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Cop's Murder Case Like Lurid Fiction; To Victim's Family, Arrest "Overdue"

(AP Photo/Mark Boster, Pool)
Veteran LAPD detective Stephanie Lazarus,49, appears at the Criminal Justice Center in Los Angeles for her arraignment on murder charges on Tuesday, June 9, 2009.

LOS ANGELES (AP) In a case that could be mistaken for lurid fiction, a veteran police detective has appeared in court clad in a jail jumpsuit and charged with killing her ex-boyfriend's wife 23 years ago, in what the victim's family describes as an obsessive crime of passion. It's a case that went cold, and that, because of a family's persistence, an internal LAPD investigation and a DNA hit, is now resurrected from the dead.

"If I can't have John, no one can," John Taylor, a family lawyer,
quoted Stephanie Lazarus as telling her rival, Sherri Rasmussen, in the weeks before Rasmussen was shot.

Outside court Tuesday, Taylor, who represents Rasmussen's parents, said there had been a fierce battle in the condo shared by Rasmussen and her husband, John Ruetten, who had married only three months before she was slain in February 1986.

(AP Photo/Nick Ut)
Parents of shooting victim, Sherri Rasmussen, Neil Rasmussen, and his wife Loretta.

Taylor said evidence in the case file suggests the victim - who was 29, 6 feet tall and athletic - put up a vigorous fight against her killer.

"It was a prolonged struggle," said Taylor. "They had moved through the condo. There was a bite on her arm."

It was the bite that led to the arrest of Lazarus. Deputy Chief Charlie Beck said Monday she was identified as a suspect through a DNA match of saliva taken from the bite marks.

Taylor said Rasmussen was shot three times, including in the heart and spine. There was gunshot residue on her hands, suggesting she had been gripping the gun from the front, he said.

The victim's family is demanding to know why it took so long for Los Angeles police to focus on one of their own as a suspect, despite several angry confrontations between their daughter and the accused veteran investigator. When Rasmussen's father told authorities to investigate Lazarus he was allegedly told he was "watching too much TV."

Police have said Lazarus was not a suspect in 1986 because detectives believed that two robbers who had attacked another woman in the same neighborhood were to blame. Yet Taylor said the only items taken were the couple's marriage license and the victim's car, which was found nearby with the keys in it.

Rasmussen's parents say they want to know why it took so long for the police to focus on one of their own as the possible killer.

Taylor said the parents had told the first officers investigating the case about an ex-girlfriend of their son-in-law who was a police officer, a woman who had confronted their daughter at the hospital where she worked and at the condo she shared with her husband.

Taylor said the hospital is where Lazarus told Rasmussen: "If I can't have John, no one will."

The parents didn't know her name back then. However, the case file did mention Lazarus because she had previously dated Ruetten.

In subsequent months, when the father contacted detectives suggesting they look at the ex-girlfriend as a suspect, Taylor said he was told he had been "watching too much TV."

No one was arrested and the case gathered dust in the cold case files until this year when a new team of detectives took another look.

Lazarus, 49, was arrested by officers who worked across the hall from her.

Since the killing, she had become an expert in cases involving art forgeries and married a fellow officer who knew nothing about the killing, according to police.

Her lawyer, Mark Pachowitz, declined to comment after Lazarus' brief court appearance in which he asked that her arraignment be postponed until July 6.

Lazarus appeared calm in court, chatting with sheriff's deputies guarding her.

Prosecutors charged her with willful, premeditated murder with the special circumstance of murder in commission of a burglary. That makes the death penalty a possibility if she is convicted, but prosecutors have not decided whether they will seek it.