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Jury selection to start in LAPD detective’s slaying case

It was 26 years ago, almost to the day, that the body of Sherri Rasmussen was discovered beaten and bloodied on the floor of the Van Nuys town house she shared with her new husband. Three bullets fired at close range were lodged in the young woman’s chest, and there was a human bite mark on her arm.

From the bite, investigators gathered a saliva sample on a cotton swab and sealed it in a plastic tube. At the time, it told them nothing about the killer. But, more than two decades later, it was the piece of evidence that led cold case detectives from the Los Angeles Police Department to one of their own.

Now, 2 1/2 years after her arrest, the murder trial of Det. Stephanie Lazarus is set to begin. Jury selection gets underway this week, and opening arguments in what is expected to be a monthlong trial are scheduled for next Monday.

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The saliva, along with broken fingernails collected at the crime scene, promise to play a central, contentious role in the case, as Lazarus’ attorney tries to cast doubt on prosecutors’ allegation that the evidence contains Lazarus’ DNA and proves her guilt.

Rasmussen, a 29-year-old hospital nursing director, was killed Feb. 24, 1986, a few months after her marriage to John Ruetten. Ruetten returned from work that evening to find his wife dead in the living room.

Overturned furniture and blood on the walls were evidence that a brutal struggle had occurred. Rasmussen’s head had been bludgeoned. Wounds on her wrist and cords on the floor indicated that she had been tied up. A thick robe with bullet holes in it lay nearby. Police suspect the killer used it to muffle the sound of gunshots.

Seeing that her BMW had been taken and electronic equipment was stacked at the foot of the stairs, the lead detective in the case, Lyle Mayer, theorized that thieves had killed Rasmussen when she found them attempting to rob the home. When a pair of armed burglars broke into a nearby house a short time later, Mayer focused on them as suspects and worked to identify and find them. That investigation went nowhere.

A few years before the killing, Lazarus had graduated from UCLA and promptly joined the LAPD. At school she had become close with Ruetten, an engineering student, and the two dated off and on for a few years after graduating. As a cop, she worked varied assignments, was promoted to detective, and eventually landed a specialized post as one of the LAPD’s two art theft investigators. Along the way Lazarus married a colleague, and the couple adopted a young daughter.

Her life took an abrupt turn one morning in June 2009, when she was summoned from her desk on the third floor of the LAPD’s headquarters to the jail located downstairs with a ruse about an inmate who had information he wanted to share about one of her cases. As she removed her handgun and passed through the security gate, detectives intercepted Lazarus and led her into an interrogation room.

“You’re accusing me of this?” Lazarus asked near the end of the roughly hourlong interview, after one of the detectives alluded to evidence that implicated her in the killing.

“Am I on ‘Candid Camera’ or something? This is insane,” she said before walking out of the room, where she was handcuffed and arrested. Since then, Lazarus, who retired from the department and pleaded not guilty, has remained in custody in lieu of $10-million bail — an amount her attorney, Mark Overland, unsuccessfully appealed on the grounds that it was excessive.

The path that led detectives to suspect Lazarus began when DNA testing, which had come into use in the years after the slaying, was done on the saliva sample collected from the bite mark. The tests showed it had come from a woman, upending the initial theory that two male burglars had killed her.

In 2009, when a homicide detective reopened the case and realized the significance of the new information, he and others started the investigation from scratch. After re-interviewing Ruetten and Rasmussen’s parents, suspicion fell on Lazarus. A highly secretive four-month investigation ensued and culminated with an undercover officer following Lazarus as she did errands. The officer snatched a cup from which Lazarus had been drinking after she threw it away. According to prosecutors, DNA tests on saliva taken from the cup matched the saliva from the bite mark on Rasmussen.

Her arrest landed like a bombshell in the tight-knit circles of the LAPD, especially among officers who knew Lazarus and were left to wonder whether she had harbored such a dark secret for so long. It also raised uncomfortable questions for current LAPD officials about why Lazarus had not been considered a suspect at the time. Rasmussen’s father publicly and angrily denounced Det. Mayer’s failure to do so, saying that he had told the detective that Ruetten had been involved with an LAPD officer who had repeatedly confronted his daughter in a threatening way. Investigators do not suspect Ruetten of having been involved.

In the long run-up to trial, Overland has tried unsuccessfully to persuade L.A. County Superior Court Judge Robert J. Perry to toss out the saliva evidence. In a recent motion that Perry denied, Overland argued the DNA tests on the saliva swab and a fingernail that, according to court filings, shows it belongs to Lazarus, should not be admitted because prosecutors had failed to establish the chain of custody of the evidence — that is, who had handled it since it was collected and how it had been preserved.

Overland indicated in a brief interview that he wouldn’t back away from this line of argument at trial, saying, “You have to be able to show that what was analyzed is what was collected at the scene. The prosecution has to prove that, and they have real problems.” He added that he would introduce blood and other physical evidence that implicates another person in the killing, although he declined to elaborate.

Through a spokesperson, prosecutors in the case declined to comment but emphasized Perry had rejected Overland’s evidence custody claims. Along with the DNA evidence, they are expected to portray Lazarus as a woman who was desperately in love with Ruetten and killed Rasmussen in a jealous rage. At a pretrial hearing, an old friend of Lazarus’ testified about a time she woke him up crying and upset that Ruetten had broken up with her and had gotten engaged to Rasmussen. And excerpts from a journal Lazarus kept at the time were read aloud in court. In one entry, she wrote about waiting for 30 minutes for Ruetten to emerge from a restaurant after spotting his car in a parking lot.

joel.rubin@latimes.com

Times staff writer Andrew Blankstein contributed to this report.


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