Jennifer Francis was a new DNA analyst in the Los Angeles Police Department’s crime lab in 2004 when she took on an old murder case. She tracked down a swab of cells lifted from a bite mark on the victim and began her analysis.
The results were curious: The DNA belonged to a woman.
The revelation debunked a nearly two decade-old theory that the brutal killing of Sherri Rasmussen in 1986 was the result of a botched burglary by an unidentified two-man team.
She called the detective handling the cold case. Was he sure it was a burglary? Could it have been a workplace problem? A love triangle?
“This is a male-female burglary,” he told her, she testified. He said the LAPD officer mentioned in the file, a former girlfriend of the victim’s husband, was not involved.
So she dropped it.
Four years went by before that officer — Det. Stephanie Lazarus — was arrested in the slaying.
Francis gave her account in a downtown courtroom Tuesday, testifying in a retaliation lawsuit she filed against the LAPD in 2013. She alleged that after she raised concerns of a cover-up, she was forced to undergo a mental health evaluation on a bogus claim that she slept with a gun, was labeled a problematic witness by a deputy district attorney and blocked from testifying in the high-profile Grim Sleeper trial.
“I feel like a complete pariah in the department. I feel isolated and I feel like I’m all by myself,” she said, tearing up on the stand. “You’re up against this terribly powerful institution and you are its collateral damage.”
The city argued in court filings that Francis did not report a crime, so her disclosures did not amount to blowing the whistle.
It also argued that the mental health referral didn’t hurt her career — she was not demoted or denied pay, but was recognized for her work in the case. She and several others received a Police Meritorious Service Medal, the highest award for a civilian employee. She remains a criminalist in the LAPD.
“Not only did (Francis’) work on the investigation not harm her, it raised her professional profile and burnished her reputation,” attorneys representing the city argued in court papers. “This element is where Francis’s already-very-weak case is weakest.”
A supervisor testified this week that he violated department policy by ordering Francis to the psychological evaluation because he wasn’t her commanding officer, but that he made the referral to help her through sleep and concentration problems.
Rasmussen, the murder victim, was found by her newlywed husband bludgeoned and shot in their Van Nuys townhouse, where overturned furniture and blood on the walls showed there had been an intense struggle.
Wounds on her wrist and cords on the floor indicated that she had been tied up. A blanket with bullet holes was nearby. Police suspected the killer used it to muffle the sound of the three gunshots fired at close range into Rasmussen’s chest. Her stolen car was found a week later, the key in the ignition.
About two months after the killing, two men burglarized a home in the area. Detectives developed a theory that they were behind Rasmussen’s slaying, releasing sketches and publicizing a reward for information. The men were not caught and the homicide investigation went cold.
Francis said she took her findings to Det. Cliff Shepard, the cold case investigator in the elite Robbery Homicide Division, early in 2005.
The case stalled until February 2009. That’s when Det. James Nuttall took it on, six months after a storage box filled with the murder files mysteriously showed up at his station in Van Nuys.
“I didn’t trust them,” Nuttall testified last week. “I didn’t trust anybody, sir. How could I? Look what happened over 30 years.”
Over the years, he said, Rasmussen’s parents and husband told detectives to look into Lazarus.
“He had been telling us quite often, sir, through the years,” Nuttall said of Rasmussen’s father. “He eventually, sadly, gave up.”
After Nuttall took over the case, he brought Francis into his small circle of trusted investigators. She told him she didn’t think the slaying stemmed from a botched burglary.
Nuttall agreed. He drew up a list of five women who were possible suspects and, within months, zeroed in on No. 5: Lazarus.
Investigators followed Lazarus to Costco and surreptitiously picked up a straw she had used and discarded, Nuttall said.
The DNA from the straw was consistent with that of the bite mark swab. Lazarus was arrested about a week later in June 2009. She was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole.
Shepard, who is now retired, has denied the allegations to The Times, saying in the past that he never discussed with Francis the possibility of a female officer being involved. He couldn’t have, he has said, because he was unaware that Lazarus or any female officer had any ties to Rasmussen.
But in an email congratulating Francis on a promotion in 2009, he alluded to Lazarus’ recent arrest in saying he owes her a toast.
“Also, obviously, to admit that you were on the right track with the love triangle theory,” he wrote.
Francis testified that she had an “ethical obligation” to come forward because she might be questioned in open court about why the murder wasn’t solved earlier. As time went on, she brought her concerns to more and more supervisors within the department.
“I feel like I’m seen by the department as a problematic employee,” she testified. “People will quietly support me, but it’s never out loud.”