Case So Cold

Sherri Rasmussen's murder went unsolved for 23 years until a detective re-opened the case only to discover clues that placed another LAPD detective as a suspect.

  Written by Joel Rubin and Andrew Blankstein and Originally Published in the LA Times on June 9th, 2009

After Sherri Rae Rasmussen was beaten and shot to death in 1986, her father urged Los Angeles police to investigate a fellow officer who had had confrontations with his daughter in the months leading up to her death, according to attorneys for the victim's family.

But Nel Rasmussen's pleas, which he said he made during several interviews with police and in a letter to then-Chief Daryl F. Gates, apparently were ignored by detectives as they pursued a different theory of how his daughter had been killed.

It was only this year, after LAPD cold-case detectives reopened the investigation and interviewed Rasmussen, that Det. Stephanie Lazarus became a suspect. The father's suspicions were bolstered Friday when police arrested Lazarus in connection with the slaying. On Monday, prosecutors charged Lazarus with capital murder, leaving open the possibility that they may seek the death penalty.

The failure to consider Lazarus a suspect for more than two decades infuriated Rasmussen, who is now calling for a separate investigation into how the department originally handled the case. He and his wife have scheduled a news conference following Lazarus' arraignment today in which they plan to raise "serious questions" about the LAPD's investigation of the slaying, their attorneys said.

Rasmussen's allegations added a troubling new dimension to a dramatic case in which the LAPD has had to confront the possibility that one of its own is a killer.

After the arrest, Rasmussen praised the efforts of current LAPD detectives but declined to comment on his earlier contacts with the department. However, one of his attorneys, John C. Taylor, said that "Mr. Rasmussen told the LAPD [Lazarus] was a suspect from his initial interview." Rasmussen reiterated his concerns in several more interviews in the months after the killing, according to Taylor and David Ring, his law partner.

Rasmussen did not know Lazarus' name, according to Taylor, but had described her to detectives as the "ex-girlfriend, who is an LAPD officer."

Rasmussen also told police that Lazarus had had "multiple confrontations" with and had "threatened" his daughter in the months leading up to her killing, Taylor said.

At the time of the slaying, Lazarus had been with the department for two years. She went on to become a well-regarded detective, assigned to a high-profile detail investigating thefts of high-priced art and forgeries.

The detectives originally assigned to the case, Lyle Mayer and Roger Pida, were "dismissive" of Rasmussen's claims, Taylor said.

Exasperated, Rasmussen wrote a letter to Chief Gates about two years after the killing, asking him to intervene and explore the possibility that Lazarus was involved.

Rasmussen, now a retired dentist living in Arizona, does not have a copy of the letter, Taylor said. However, police sources close to the investigation confirmed its existence, indicating that police have a copy.

One source familiar with the letter said it referred to Lazarus, but also included other people Rasmussen thought might be suspects.

Sherri Rasmussen was an accomplished nursing director at Glendale Adventist Hospital. On Feb. 24, 1986, her husband, John Ruetten, 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 and her car had been stolen. They had been married for three months.

Days after the slaying, two men robbed a woman in the area at gunpoint. Detectives Mayer and Pida pursued the theory that the same men had killed Rasmussen when she came upon them burglarizing her home, according to a recent interview with Mayer and news reports from the time.

In the case file there was a passing reference to Lazarus, sources said. In an interview with The Times last week, Mayer said that shortly after the killing, Ruetten mentioned Lazarus by name and described her as an "acquaintance."

Mayer said that he never questioned Lazarus during the investigation and that when he retired in 1991 he still believed the victim had been killed during a burglary.

On Monday, Mayer declined to comment on Nel Rasmussen's allegations; Pida could not be reached. Ruetten also declined to comment Monday.

Lazarus, 49, could face the death penalty because prosecutors alleged a special circumstance in the case: that she killed Sherri Rae Rasmussen during a burglary. A decision by prosecutors to seek the death penalty would be made at a later date, said Jane Robison, a spokeswoman for the Los Angeles County district attorney's office.

As part of an ongoing effort to solve thousands of old homicides, detectives revisited the case in February, testing blood or saliva samples from the crime scene thought to have been from the killer. DNA tests suggested that the attacker was a woman, contradicting the detectives' theory that she had been killed by a man. The cold-case detectives contacted Rasmussen and asked if he knew of any women with whom his daughter might have clashed. Rasmussen once again voiced his theory about Lazarus. This time detectives looked into it.

An undercover officer followed Lazarus to a store, where he secretly recovered a plastic utensil or similar discarded item with her saliva, police sources say.

The DNA extracted from the saliva matched the DNA evidence from the murder scene, police say.

Deputy Chief Charlie Beck said detectives are looking into what happened in the initial investigation, but cautioned that little could be done if oversights or mistakes were found.

"In hindsight, 20/20, we wish the investigation had gone in other directions," Beck said. "There will be justice in this case, but it might not come at all levels."

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