On the evening of Feb. 24, 1986, LAPD homicide detectives found Sherri Rae Rasmussen’s badly beaten body on the living room floor of her Van Nuys town house with wounds from three .38-caliber bullets to her chest.
Weeks later, Stephanie Lazarus, a young Los Angeles police officer, called the Santa Monica Police Department to report that someone had broken into her car on 2nd Street, blocks from the pier. A gym bag had been stolen, she said. In it were clothes, some cassettes, a few dollars and her personal .38-caliber snub-nosed revolver, according to several LAPD and Santa Monica police sources familiar with the investigation.
The slaying and the lost gun remained unconnected for more than 20 years until February, when LAPD detectives reopened the investigation into Rasmussen’s killing and turned their attention on Lazarus, herself a respected LAPD detective.
Now, with Lazarus in custody, investigators believe the missing gun is the weapon used to kill the 29-year-old nurse. Lazarus, they believe, threw the weapon away -- possibly tossing it into the Pacific -- and made up the story of the break-in to cover her tracks, sources said.
The overlooked theft report represents another missed opportunity by the original detectives who failed to link Lazarus to the crime 23 years ago. Lazarus had had a romantic relationship with Rasmussen’s husband before their marriage and allegedly had threatened the victim shortly before the killing.
Lazarus, 49, was charged this week with premeditated murder. Prosecutors said they would decide later whether to seek the death penalty. Her arrest stunned LAPD colleagues who have found it hard to accept that one among them could have harbored such a secret for so long.
Lazarus’ attorney, Mark Pachowicz, said he had not yet received any information from prosecutors regarding the allegedly stolen gun and expressed frustration over learning about it from reporters. He declined to comment further.
On the day she was killed, Rasmussen stayed home from her job as nursing director at Glendale Adventist Hospital after straining her back in an aerobics workout, family and police have said. Her husband, John Ruetten, left for work that morning. A maid working in a nearby condo heard loud screams and noises coming from Rasmussen’s unit around noon but did not call police, according to multiple police sources who requested anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the case.
Ruetten discovered his wife’s body when he returned home early that evening. It was a gruesome scene that told of a desperate struggle, sources said: Rasmussen’s head had been bludgeoned. Wounds on her wrist and cords on the floor indicated she had been tied up. A thick robe with bullet holes in it was close by, which police suspect the killer used to muffle the sound of gunshots.
Sometime in mid-March of 1986, sources say, Lazarus contacted Santa Monica police to report the theft. A report was taken, but the weapon was never found. A Santa Monica police official acknowledged the existence of the report and confirmed its contents, but declined to provide a copy, citing the ongoing investigation.
Though modern computer databases that track gun registration and stolen weapons made the search easier for detectives this year, police said investigators at the time would have been able to learn about the theft report had they been focused on Lazarus as a possible suspect. Since her arrest, LAPD officials have been at a loss to explain why she was overlooked at the time, despite seemingly strong circumstantial evidence that pointed to her.
Rasmussen’s father came forward this week with claims that, though he never knew Lazarus’ name, he had told detectives repeatedly his daughter had been threatened several times in the months leading up to the killing by “an ex-girlfriend of [Ruetten’s] who is an LAPD officer.” In one of those confrontations, according to the father, Lazarus allegedly showed up in uniform at the hospital where Rasmussen worked and told her, “If I can’t have John, nobody can.”
The detectives learned Lazarus’ identity from Ruetten but pursued another theory of how Rasmussen had been killed. Stereo equipment had been found stacked near Rasmussen’s body and her car had been stolen from the garage, giving the appearance that she had interrupted burglars, according to police sources. When two armed men attempted a burglary in the area soon after, the detectives believed that the same men had killed Rasmussen, Lyle Mayer, the lead detective in the original case, said in a recent interview with The Times. Mayer acknowledged to The Times that he never interviewed Lazarus and still believed the burglary theory when he retired from the LAPD in 1991.
Ruetten has repeatedly declined to comment.
The trail leading to Lazarus was a long one. In 2003, the case was transferred to a newly formed unit responsible for investigating many of the 9,000 unsolved homicides that occurred in the city from the 1960s onward. Blood or saliva samples collected at the crime scene and thought to be from the killer were sent to a laboratory for DNA testing.
In 2005, after delays caused by large laboratory backlogs, the cold case unit received results showing that the fluids belonged to a woman. Detectives at the time failed to realize that the results disproved the theory that men had killed Rasmussen, and the case remained dormant until it was sent back to Van Nuys from the cold case unit. Early this year, as part of a regular review process, a detective was asked to re-examine the case. With the DNA results, and new interviews with Ruetten and Rasmussen’s parents, suspicion fell quickly on Lazarus.
A highly secretive four-month investigation ensued in which an undercover officer followed Lazarus as she did errands and collected a utensil or cup she had discarded. Lazarus’ DNA profile extracted from the saliva on the object matched DNA evidence from the crime scene, police allege.
On the day of her arrest, Lazarus was lured from her third-floor desk to the jail at LAPD’s downtown headquarters under the ruse that a suspect had information to share with her. She is being held without bail.