Stephanie Lazarus at a previous court hearing. Photo by Nick Ut, Associated Press
UPDATED August 28th, 2012 for accuracy
(The preliminary hearing transcripts and various newspaper reports --LA Times, etc., and TV shows-- were used for the background information, case investigation and arrest portion of this entry. Sprocket.)
The Stephanie Lazarus case will have a jury seated some time late spring or early summer of this year. This is a case I've kept my eye on as to when it would come to trial because I wanted to cover it in depth. The case was recently featured on NBC's DATELINE and in May, 2010 on CBS's 48 Hours Mystery. When the case broke back in 2009, true-crime writer Steve Huff wrote "...sounds like something out of detective fiction."
Stephanie Lazarus, a 25-year veteran detective of the LAPD with a stellar career has been charged with the 1986 cold-case murder of Sherri Rae Rasmussen, a critical care nurse at Glendale Adventist Hospital and the recent bride of Lazarus's ex-boyfriend, John Ruetten. Rasmussen was beaten and shot at her Van Nuys town house. Video equipment was stacked up on the living room floor near Rasmussen's body and her car and wedding certificate were missing. Cash, jewelry and valuable items were left behind. Detectives at the time thought it was an interrupted robbery-gone-bad due to another robbery in the area a few weeks later. Despite repeated attempts by Rasmussen's father that Sherri was being harassed by a female LAPD officer, the "botched robbery" investigation went nowhere and the case quickly went cold. The case was solved by DNA technology and a thorough reinvestigation by LAPD's cold-case squad. Lazarus was arrested after a four-month investigation in June, 2009.
Sherri Rae Rasmussen Ruetten
On the evening of February 24th, 1986, John Ruetten** came home to find his wife of three months on the living room floor, severely beaten, marks on her wrists as if she'd been tied up and shot three times in the chest with a 38-caliber weapon. A few months later, another woman was robbed at gunpoint in the same neighborhood and LAPD detectives thought the two cases were linked.
During the preliminary hearing in December 2009, many facts came to light that indicate this case could have been solved in 1986 if the initial investigating detectives had been willing to look closer at one of their own.
Lazarus and Ruetten were
From his initial interview with police, Sherri's father, Nel Rasmussen repeatedly told detectives about several stalking and threatening incidents Sherri experienced involving an ex-girlfriend of Ruetten's, who was also an LAPD officer. Nel never knew Lazarus's name and detectives continually rebuffed his theories and at one time saying he "...watched too much TV."
In one instance, Rasmussen came home to find Lazarus, in full uniform, standing inside the home she shared with her husband.
In another incident Nel recounted, Lazarus showed up at Glendale Adventist Hospital in uniform and gave Rasmussen a threatening warning about Reutten, "If I can't have John, nobody can."
One of Sherri's coworkers at Glendale Adventist Hosptial, Sylvia Nielsen witnessed a confrontation between her and an 'unknown person' at the time. Detectives were informed about the confrontation in 1988. Nielsen died in 2000.
Days before she died, Rasmussen told her father she believed the same female officer had been following her on the street.
A former roommate of Lazarus, LAPD officer Michael Hargrieves testified about a night in the fall of 1985 where she woke him up, upset and crying that Reutten had broken up with her. Another Lazarus coworker testified that Lazarus was "boning up" on how to use a set of lock picking tools that Lazarus had shown her she recently acquired.
Excerpts from a journal Lazarus kept at the time that were read in court and showed Lazarus said she was "...very depressed, very sad." over her breakup with Ruetten. One entry detailed how after spotting Reuten's car in a restaurant parking lot she waited outside for 30 minutes for him to emerge.
Weeks after the murder, Lazarus reported her vehicle had been broken into and her 38-caliber weapon was stolen from the vehicle to the Santa Monica Police Department. However, that information was never connected to the murder until the investigation was reopened in 2009. If Lazarus had been questioned back in 1986 they would have learned about the reported theft.
Solving The Case
In 2003 the case was transferred to a newly formed "cold case" unit. This case held promise for solving because blood and saliva samples were collected at the scene and off the victim's body. But first, detectives had to "find" the saliva sample collected from a small bite mark left on Rasmussen's left arm. A month later it was discovered in a refrigeration unit at the Coroner's office. The evidence envelope was crumpled and the evidence number partially torn off.
Because of a large case backlog test results were not obtained until 2005. The DNA came back belonging to a woman. At the time, detectives failed to notice that the results disproved the robbery-gone-bad by male assailants, so the case languished and eventually was sent back to Van Nuys. In early 2009, the case came under a standard review process where a detective was assigned to re-examine the case file.
With the DNA results and new interviews with Rasmussen's parents and Ruetten, detectives set about obtaining DNA from every female associated with the case and Lazarus became a potential suspect.
Lazarus was tailed for about a week by detectives until they were able to secretly recover a DNA sample from her. It matched the saliva collected from the bite mark back in 1986. The odds that the DNA belongs to someone other than Stephanie Lazarus are one in 400 quadrillion.
Detectives used a ruse to get Lazarus in a situation where she would not have her weapon and they could ask her questions, all the while video taping the interview. Early in the morning of June 5th, 2009, two detectives Lazarus did not know from the Robbery/Homicide division approached her at her desk and told her there was a suspect in the basement jail that had information on one of her cases. Stolen art was detective Lazarus' specialty but when she reached the interview room, she quickly realized there was no suspect to interview. She was the one being asked the questions.
After about an hour of intense questioning Lazarus realizes what's going down and asks, "You're accusing me of this? Is that what you're--is that what you're saying?" Detectives has just implied that evidence linked her to the killing. Lazarus went on, "Am I on 'Candid Camera' or something? This is insane. This is absolutely crazy. This is insane." Lazarus informs detectives that if this is the way things are going, she needs to consult with someone and gets up to leave. As soon as she steps outside she's arrested and placed in handcuffs. The arrest sent shock waves through the LAPD because Lazarus wasn't a rogue cop; she was a highly respected and honored detective; a "cops cop."
The Case Moves Forward
Lazarus pled not guilty at her initial arraignment. The preliminary hearing concluded in December, 2009 where Judge Robert J. Perry rules there was sufficient evidence presented for Lazarus to be held over for trial. Lazarus is being held on 10-million bail. The unusually high amount was more than double what prosecutors had requested but Perry defended his ruling saying it was a "near certainty" that Lazarus would flee if the amount were lowered.
In July of 2010, Nel and Loretta Rasmussen, Sherri's parents filed a wrongful death suit in L.A. County Superior Court against Lazarus and the LAPD. The suit accuses the LAPD officers and supervisors investigating their daughter's murder of deliberately ignoring clues that pointed to Lazarus. The law firm of Taylor & Ring is representing the family in the civil suit. Taylor & Ring are also representing Donna Clarkson in her wrongful death suit against Phil Spector.
Since then, there have been various pretrial hearings as the case moves closer to trial. I attended my first hearing in the case on Monday, February 14th, 2011.
Pretrial Hearing February 14th, 2011
I knew about a month ago I was going to attend this hearing, but I almost didn't make it. I'm still getting over catching my husband's (Mr. Sprocket) flu. I didn't take the train because I knew I would only be in downtown for about an hour, if that, so I drove. But as things usually go in the morning at the Sprocket house, I got behind and didn't get inside Judge Perry's courtroom until about a minute after the hearing started. I grabbed a seat on the back row wood bench and started scribbling. It was going to be a chore getting back into writing hand notes and I was grateful that these benches had cushions.
I quickly identified Nel and Loretta Rasmussen in the front row because I'd seen them in the 48 Hours and Dateline episodes covering the case. There were several other people in the gallery, but I didn't see the two LA Times reporters, Joel Rubin and Andrew Blankstein who've extensively covered the case when it first broke.
I later determined that Lazarus's family was sitting in the row in front of me.
The major players identify themselves and I miss a few names.
Lazarus is at the defense table with her back to me. She's in an orange jumpsuit. To her left is Mark Overland, her lead counsel. On her right is a dark haired, very attractive woman in a black suit.
There's a Mr. Gross sitting at the prosecution table next to a female Sheriff who is identified as Stacey Lee (spelling unknown) from the LA County women's detention facility. Another gentleman is sitting next to Gross and a Latino looking man in a nice suit is standing, leaning against the wall of the jury box. There are not enough seats for him at the prosecution table. Gross looks familiar to me and as I'm trying to take notes I remember where I first saw him. It was back in 2008 at one of the first pretrial hearings in the Cameron Brown case. Mr. Gross is counsel for the L.A. County Sheriff's Office.
Judge Perry states for the record that the case is 0/60. Overland tells Perry that it looks like April 1st will be the earliest he will be released for his part in a big (litigation?) trial currently ongoing. It appears the hearing was called regarding prior procedures that were put in place regarding the computer laptop that Lazarus had access to in preparing for her defense.
From what I'm barely gathering, it appears that previously, the Judge ruled that Lazarus could have a computer or access to a computer at the jail and guidelines were put in place for the use of this computer. It appears the defense violated part of the court order and downloaded (programs?) onto this laptop.
There is some discussion regarding what is and isn't allowed by defendants in the County Jail system, and apparently a computer violates a section of the penal code.
Overland tells the judge that they would like to provide their client with a "stand alone" computer and have on the computer all the appropriate audio and video files for Lazarus to view.
Apparently, the computer was agreed to by the judge so she could review some audio and video/photo files to help prepare for her defense. Lazarus is in a high-security area of the jail.
I believe it's Mr. Gross who interjects that having anyone bring a computer laptop is a "security access concern." I'm not sure which side says it, but the issue of only having access to the computer in "attorney rooms" is discussed.
As both sides are educating Perry on the procedures in place for the computer, I see John Taylor enter the courtroom and take a seat in the second row. I got to speak to Taylor several times during the second Spector trial.
The attorneys are discussing how the computer is kept in a safe area until the defendant has access to it and the procedures in place to ensure safety.
Overland tells Perry, "There comes a time when enough is enough and I've reached that point in this case. I hope the court has reached that point also."
"Every time we go there, the people there (jail staff) interpret things differently (the Judge's order). Every time we talk to someone the rules changed."
I'm not sure if I have this right, but apparently either counsel is supposed to have four hours of access to their client every day from 7 until 11, or, the defendant is supposed to have access to her computer from 7 until 11. My notes are a scrawled mess.
Mr. Gross interjects that if they have CD's or DVD's the defendant can play them on the computer. Overland starts talking about "pages on CD." I'm not sure if it's Overland or Gross who goes onto say, "anything that can be printed should be printed, so that it's limited what she can utilize the computer for." It appears the defense would like Lazarus to be able to take notes on the laptop the defense provides to "save time."
Perry appears confused. "To me, it's a straight forward case."
At this time the man sitting to Mr. Gross's left stands up and explains to Judge Perry about the "many pages on CD." It's about the early investigation, 351 page "murder book." That was all scanned and placed on a CD. Now with the digital age, a physical and digital copy was given to the defense. (Now this is starting to make sense.)
All this time Lazarus has had her back to me. She's wearing a white, long sleeved knit shirt underneath her orange jumpsuit.
Perry states, "I don't understand this note business."
Overland: You switch over to word. She would bring down her laptop and create her notes.
Then the notes could be transferred to the defense investigator's computer to save time.
It's then that Mr. Gross informs the court the danger of what the defense is asking. "Anytime you transfer data between computers you run the risk of information getting onto the computer (that the defendant is using). There's all kinds of stuff that can be transferred between computers.
There's further discussion about how the Sheriff's have to determine each and every time that the Internet access has been completely disabled when it enters the jail facility.
Perry interjects, "They could print out her notes on the laptop...." But it appears he's still not understanding the problem fully as the Sheriff's Office sees it.
As I listen to more of the conversation back and forth, it appears that the computer was originally provided so that Lazarus could easily listen to audio interviews from the initial 1986 investigation as well as some video files and photographs. It's around this time that Lazarus turns around in her seat and looks toward the back of the room. At first, I think she is looking directly at me, but it quickly dawns on me she is staring at the three people in the third row in front of me. She smiles at them. Her face looks gaunt to me, different. She no longer has the wide puffy cheeks she had in the first photos taken at the time of her arrest and I wonder if she's lost weight.*
Mr. Nunez (the sharply dressed, slender young Latino looking man) speaks up.
Nunez: This was not supposed to be her 'home office' where she could work and print out (documents).
JP: That was the impression I had (when he first signed the order); (it was not) for her to take notes. This is something new. I understand the Sheriff's Office concern. (This is) a special case and they could then have other defendants ask for the same thing. It's a real concern.
Apparently, the Sheriff's Office wants to be the one to provide the computer for the defendant. They don't want any material loaded onto the computer. It will be given to her during the times she's allowed to use it. She won't be able to have it in her cell, but given access to it at certain times during the day.
The man sitting next to Mr. Gross tells Perry, "There are over 100 computer discs that are primarily witness interviews. Many of them are totally irrelevant to their case. .... They are mostly audio interviews. Three dozen of them, maybe, have something to say (relevant to the case), those have already been transcribed."
Mr. Nunez position is this (the computer) was "a way to view these things," the interviews. It was a reasonable accommodation to provide that.
Overland's concern is that the CD's could be lost and/or viewed by the Sheriff's Office and possibly shared with the media.
Perry agrees that the risk (of the CD's) to (the) media is "ever present," but he's willing to take the risk of the CD's being lost because they can be copied and replaced.
Overland still wants his client to be able to use the computer during their 'face to face' meetings at the jail. Perry asks, "If she's using the computer to just view witness interviews and photographs, what would be the need to bring the computer to the 'face to face' visits? ... She can discuss what she had seen without the need to have the computer present."
Perry rules the information will be kept on the CD's and not loaded onto the computer. She will not be able to use word to take notes. She will have access to the computer from 7 to 9 every day. (I don't hear if that's 7am or 7pm.) I think it's Perry who states in his ruling that it's burdensome on the Sheriff's to have her get 2 hours everyday (on the computer). He doesn't think it's necessary for her to bring the computer to the 'face to face' meetings.
Overland still thinks it's an issue of "time" and will create more delays for the defense to prepare. Perry states that he will issue a new order today, but to ensure there is no confusion between the parties, he will circulate it for comment before he signs it. He recommends that the defense ensure they have a copy of the order each time they go to the jail to show the detention center staff. The Sheriff's office will provide the computer. Nothing will be downloaded onto it. The defendant will have access to the CD's. The CD's will be secured with the watch commander. She will not have access to the computer during her 'face to face' meetings. I'm not positive but I think it's Perry who states he doesn't see a problem with written notes.
Mr. Gross then brings up another issue, and that's "where" in the jail these 'face to face' meetings will take place. Apparently, they've been in a room that's not the norm for most defendants. He would like the visits to take place in 'an attorney room' and not an "investigator room." In an 'investigator room' stuff can get passed to a defendant easily. These 'contact rooms' were designed for defendant evaluations (by a health care professional). I'm starting to see there is a difference between a "contact room" and an "attorney room."
Overland is now upset because this is a reversal of a situation that they've been enjoying so far with their client. Up to now, they could meet with their client 'face to face.' Their investigator could bring in their laptop without having to go through the regular area.
Overland explains to the judge that in the "lawyer rooms" the defendant is behind glass. They will have to hold a document up to the glass for their client to see it. It will now take even more time to consult with his client, point certain things out on documents, making it more difficult to prepare her defense. Overland wants to still be able to visit her without her being behind a glass partition. In exasperation he says, "If we're going to be regulated to 'attorney room' visits, this case won't go to trial for two, two-and-a-half years!" The three people sitting in the row in front of me appear to be visibly upset by Overland's statement to the Judge.
Mr. Gross states the defendant can bring material from her cell.
Overland interjects, "This is not a case with three to four documents!
Perry states he is going to object to the present use of the 'contact room.'
Mr. Gross interjects that this (the attorney rooms) is how all defendants meet their counsel in the jail.
Overland tells the judge that they are not the "only" attorneys who get 'face to face' meetings with their client. With the 'attorney rooms' they will have to talk to their client through microphones. That's why they were using the booking room. They are not the only attorneys. There have been times where they've had to wait because other counsel were using the room to meet with their clients.
Mr. Gross still asks Perry to shift the defendant's meeting with their attorney's to the designated 'attorney rooms.' They have plenty of these rooms.
Perry tells the defense, "I'm not convinced that you need face to face meetings."
Overland still tries to plead with Perry about this issue. "We've talked about this before, that it's inadequate for preparation for this case." He goes onto explain that at 11 they're meetings with their client are ended. They are not going beyond a certain time.
Perry counters that the Sheriff's Office tells him that they will let you stay beyond 11:30. (I still don't know if this is am or pm.) "It's the best we can do at this point."
I don't have in my notes who makes the request, but it's asked that the members of the defense team (who are allowed to stay past the regular jail cut-off time) are named in the order. Overland is asked to name the members of his legal team who will be visiting his client at the women's detention center. Overland, not sounding too happy at this change of events, mentions some names and I'm not positive I get them correct.
Mr. Later (spelling?)
Courtney Overland (my notes say "Overton;" I'm not sure which is correct.)
Mr. Bert Luper (spelling?)
Perry puts the case calendar at 0/60 as of today. He states for the record that Overland is engaged in a trial in Federal court. Overtland states for the record that he would like to come back in one month to talk about conditions at the jail again. A calendar date of Monday, March 14th is set for all parties to return. Perry indicates to Mr. Gross that he will not have to appear unless there are issues at the jail again. March 14th would put the calendar at 28 of 60.
My notes have something about Nunez asking to be heard on an issue but it goes by me so quickly. I have in my notes that Lazarus doesn't agree to that, but I'm lost as to what that could be. Maybe it's another matter for the Judge in chambers?
As Lazarus gets up to be taken back to the court holding cell, she turns to her family, gives them a big smile and winks. Her family stands while she is taken out of the courtroom.
As we all slowly filter out of the courtroom, I wait in the hallway to speak to John Taylor. In the hallway, Stephanie's family is waiting also, and I'm guessing it's to speak to her attorney. I make a guess that the older looking woman with almost white hair is her mother. A tall, slender man looks similar to the photos of her husband at their wedding in the Dateline episode.
As soon as Taylor is free, he introduces me to Sherri's parents, Nel and Loretta Rasmussen who have traveled from their home in Arizona for the hearing. With them is Peggy, who tells me she was a colleague of Sherri's at Glendale Adventist Hospital. Taylor is kind enough to tell me the names of the current prosecutors on the case, Shannon Presby (the silver haired man sitting next to Mr. Gross) and Paul Nunez, (the young man standing during the hearing). The previous DDA assigned to the case, Shelly Torrealba, was appointed to the bench by the former governor in December, 2010.
* (It's later, while I'm researching this case, that I read an LA Times news report from March, 2010. Although almost a year old, it's possible Lazarus is ill.
** I'm not certain the type of work Ruetten did. Newspaper reports say he was an engineer. Former Lazarus roommate Hargrieves, during the preliminary hearing thought Ruetten worked at the hospital with Sherri, possibly as an E.M.T. or other position.
Steven Lazarus also said his sister has not been receiving adequate treatment in jail for cancer that requires testing and adjustments to medicine every few months. He declined to specify the type of cancer or whether her condition has deteriorated in custody.Stephanie Lazarus Case Quick Links