Victim’s father told police of young officer’s threats
Nels Rasmussen says he vividly remembers the calls from his daughter 23 years ago when she confided her fears that a jealous LAPD officer was out to harm her. She told him the young female officer had shown up in uniform at the hospital where she worked and issued a chilling warning about her husband, “If I can’t have John, nobody can.”
He remembers the call when his daughter told him that she had found the officer, again in uniform, standing in the Van Nuys condo she shared with her new husband, John Ruetten. Then there was the call, days before she was beaten and shot to death in 1986, when Sherri Rasmussen said she believed the officer had been following her on city streets.
All of this, Nels Rasmussen says, he told Los Angeles Police Department detectives in the days, months and years after his daughter’s slaying. His information was ignored by police until this year when cold-case detectives reopened the homicide investigation. Last week his suspicions were validated when Det. Stephanie Lazarus was arrested and charged with capital murder. Police say Lazarus, who had dated Ruetten, killed Sherri Rasmussen in a crime of passion.
On Tuesday, as Lazarus made her first court appearance, Nels Rasmussen and his wife held a news conference, calling on the LAPD to investigate their belief that detectives overlooked glaring leads that pointed to Lazarus. Speaking through his attorney, Rasmussen said he was “extremely pleased and relieved” about the arrest. Though the couple praised current detectives, the lawyer said “the investigation of 1986 is a completely different story.”
LAPD spokeswoman Mary Grady said the department has begun the process of figuring out why the original detectives failed to consider Lazarus a suspect.
“We will be working not only on the current case, but will also investigate the original homicide investigation,” Grady said. “We’re going to look at everything we can to bring to some justice to the family.”
Sherri Rasmussen was an accomplished 29-year-old nursing director at Glendale Adventist Hospital. On Feb. 24, 1986, her husband returned to their Van Nuys condominium to discover his wife’s badly beaten body on the living room floor. She had been shot several times. The couple’s marriage license had been stolen from the condo, according to news reports at the time.
Days after the slaying, two men robbed a woman in the area at gunpoint. The lead detective in the case, Lyle Mayer, and his partner Roger Pida pursued the theory that the same men had killed Rasmussen when she came upon them burglarizing her home, according to police and a recent interview with the now-retired Mayer.
Within days of the killing, Rasmussen’s parents drove to Los Angeles to meet with Mayer and Pida, according to their attorneys John C. Taylor and David Ring. In that first interview, Taylor said, Rasmussen told the detectives that Ruetten had previously dated an LAPD officer.
He asked if they had identified her and examined her for scratches or other signs of the vicious struggle that police say preceded the murder, according to Taylor.
Rasmussen had further conversations with the detectives over the next several months. But they rebuffed the father’s claims, once telling him, “You’ve been watching too much TV,” Taylor said.
Rasmussen grew so frustrated that about two years after the killing, he wrote a letter to then-Chief Daryl F. Gates, asking him to intervene. Police familiar with the case have acknowledged the existence of the letter. When the plea to Gates went nowhere, Rasmussen and his wife kept trying, making calls to the Van Nuys police station, their attorneys said.
Often the parents were put on hold for up to 20 minutes or were hung up on, and at one point were told by a detective, “you should do yourselves a favor and move on with your lives,” Taylor said. Eventually, about five years after the killing, they gave up and stopped calling.
Detectives knew that Lazarus was the ex-girlfriend Rasmussen had spoken of. Mayer said in an interview last week that Ruetten identified her as an “acquaintance.” And police sources say there is a passing reference to Lazarus in the case file.
Mayer, however, contradicted Rasmussen’s recollections, saying he never discussed Lazarus with Rasmussen’s parents. The retired detective said he never interviewed Lazarus.
Mayer left the department in 1991 still believing that Sherri Rasmussen had been killed during a burglary, he said. The only things stolen, however, were the marriage license and Rasmussen’s car. When told of the family’s allegations, Mayer declined to comment.
In February, cold-case detectives revisited the case -- one of thousands that remain unsolved. DNA samples from the crime scene thought to have been from the killer suggested that the attacker was a woman, contradicting the detectives’ theory that Rasmussen had been killed by a man.
An undercover officer followed Lazarus to a store, where he secretly recovered a plastic utensil or similar discarded item with her saliva, police say. Her DNA matched the genetic profile extracted from the crime scene evidence, police allege.
Before meeting the phalanx of television cameras and reporters, the Rasmussens sat stoically in the courtroom watching Lazarus as she was led into the courtroom’s dock around 10 a.m. Lazarus, 49, was dressed in an orange jail jumpsuit, with her hands cuffed and secured to a chain around her waist. She spoke quietly with her attorney through a narrow, barred window and, for a moment, turned to take in the packed courtroom.
The judge granted a request by Lazarus’ attorney to postpone her arraignment until July 6. Lazarus, who is being held without bail, could not be reached. Her attorney, Mark R. Pachowicz, declined to comment.
In her 25 years as a patrol officer and detective, Lazarus never had any serious discipline problems, sources with knowledge of her career said. Considered a solid detective, she earned a high-profile assignment in 2006 tracking stolen art and forgeries.
Lazarus could face the death penalty because prosecutors have alleged a special circumstance in the case: that she killed Rasmussen in the course of a robbery. A decision by prosecutors whether to seek death will be made at a later date, said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the L.A. County district attorney’s office.