Sunday, February 12, 2012

Stephanie Lazarus Trial: Day 1, Testimony

February 6th, 2012, Afternoon Session

Lunch is over and the courtroom is packed again. I have my same seat in the front row. DDA Paul Nunez paces in the well. The podium kind of blocks my view. Judge Perry talks scheduling for tomorrow. Tuesday, requesting the jurors have an early lunch and be at court ready to start by 12 Noon where they will hear testimony until 4:00 PM. Overland states he has a problem with a witness the prosecution is going to call, Anastasia Volianitis, a neighbor to the victim. He doesn’t have hard copies (of something).

Anastasia Volianitis walked by the house (actually the garage) with her husband. She retrieved the purse from the gardener. They will hold her until after the break. Judge Perry tells the people to give Mr. Overland notice. Nunez is still pacing in the well. Lazarus leans in to whisper to Overland.

Judge Perry reminds everyone that tomorrow we will start at noon with the trial and take a couple of breaks. Judge Perry tells the jury that from now on, when exiting the courtroom the bailiff will escort all the jurors as a group to a different elevator, a freight elevator. That way they won’t be intermingled with (the press).

The first witness takes the stand.

#1 TERESA LANE: sister to victim Sherri Rae Rasmussen

Lane states that she is nervous after taking the stand. A photo is put up on the overhead screen and Lane identifies Sherri Rae Rasmussen as her sister. She was older by four years. Sherri was living in her Van Nuys town home (at the time of her death). She lived there three or four years. In 1986 at the time of her murder, Sherri was living with her husband John Ruetten. Lane identifies several photos of the exterior and interior of Sherri’s home. The garage and balcony, the alleyway and the guest parking area. “We used to always park on the right hand side when we used to go visit her.” Lane recognizes John Ruetten’s car in the photo of the garage. Another photo of the inside of the house Lane responds, “That’s the way it looked when Sherri lived there.” Lane identifies Sherri’s doorway.

Lane testifies that when she visited Sherri, the garage was the normal way they entered the condo. She identifies the stairs she would use if they went to the front door.

On February 23, 1986, Lane and her husband Brian went and visited Sherri at her home. She and Brian live in Loma Linda and drove a two seater car, a Porche, on the trip. They came to see a new salt water fish aquarium store, that was supposed to be a big place that had just opened. Lane was five months pregnant on the trip to Van Nuys. They left early in the day and drove up to Van Nuys from Loma Linda. They went to Sherri’s early in the day because the aquarium store wasn’t open yet.

When they arrived they greeted her sister and John.

PN: What was your sister’s job?

TL: Head of Glendale Hospital Coronary Care Unit.

PN: Did she take an interest in your pregnancy?

Lane responds that Sherri did. She was a ‘mother hen’ and wanted to make sure she was okay. Sherri was very athletic and wanted Lane to exercise and not gain weight. She bought her a cap and suit to swim in and took her to see her local YMCA.

When they went on the trip to the aquarium and drove by the local YMCA, they took Sherri’s new BMW. Her husband Brian drove because he wanted to drive a brand new car and all of them would not have fit in the Porche.

She doesn’t remember if Brian went to the YMCA with them. They might have driven by past it, to give Brian an opportunity to drive the car. They then picked up John and went to the aquarium. It was a couple of miles away (from downtown LA?).

There was a time that (Sherri?) lived with Connie, their other sister. Connie is seven years older than Lane. Lane is the baby (of the family).

Brian drove the car and they went inside for about 1/2 or so. Her husband Brian was disappointed (in the store). It was not very interesting.

Judge Perry asked counsel to approach. “Where are you going with this?” The sidebar is quickly over.

On that Sunday, February 23rd, 1986, after they visited the aquarium, they went back to the town house. They then walked to an Italian restaurant across the street. It was a sunny day and they walked. They did not eat because the restaurant was closed.

PN: What was their mood?

MO: Objection! (Over ruled.)

TL: She was in good mood. Fine. John and Sherri were fine, walking, holding hands. Everything seemed normal.

Judge Perry tells Nunez to move along with his questioning.

PN: Did she have a lot of things, nicknacks, artwork, belonging to your Mom and Dad?

TL: Yes.

A new exhibit is put up on the overhead. It’s a photo of John in a read sweat shirt, a niece Rachelle (sp?) and her sister Connie, taken right before the wedding. Nunez has Lane identify a vase in the photo.

TL: It was a graduation gift from our parents. I recognize it since (my?) sisters both had one.

PN: Was it kept at the house in that location.

TL: I don’t remember if that’s where she always had it.

More photos are presented where the vase is in a photo. These photos were taken on the same day that the first photo was taken.

PN: Did your sister have any injuries?

TL: I saw no injuries on Sherri the Sunday before.

Nunez asks her about her sisters arms, hands, face and head, if she observed any injuries. She did not see any injuries.

She states she is familiar with the home, and Nunez goes over several photos with her. A photo of the pulled out drawer is shown to Lane and asked if that was the way Sherri kept her house. Lane states, “No, she was a very neat person.” Nunez asks if the flowers on the table in the photo were there on the 23rd. Yes, the vase was on the table. Lane is shown more photos of the town home, the kitchen area the upstairs bedrooms. Lane states all the rooms look exactly like Sherri kept them.

Judge Perry interrupts. “We have to stop this or the court reporter is going to kill me.” He reminds the witness and Nunez not to talk over each other. To wait until the other has stopped speaking.

A photo of a brown purse is shown to Lane who identifies it as Sherri’s purse. A photo of A BMW is up on the screen and Lane states it looks like her sister’s car. A photo of a patchwork blanket (identified in documents as “multicolored”) and Lane states Sherri used to have it in the living room.

After they tried to go to the restaurant, her and her husband did not stay much longer. Brian had to get back for (studies? work?).

Lane worked at Deutsch Manufacturing Company in Banning, California. Lane was an accounts receivable clerk. She was on the phone a lot. On Monday, February 24th, 1986, she tried to call Sherri. She called her at work and spoke to her secretary about 10 AM. She was only allowed to use the phone (for personal calls) on her breaks. Sherri’s secretary told her she had stayed home. Lane called Sherri at home and left a message on her machine. Lane starts to cry on the stand. Lane tried calling her sister around lunch. She didn’t reach her then either and she became concerned.

At that time, because of her pregnancy, Lane used to talk to her frequently and that was unique that she couldn’t get a hold of her sister. When she got home from work she called her mother. The next day, she got a phone call about the murder. At some time she left home. The following day, she went to LAX to meet her parents. It was that night (early morning of Feb. 25th) at 2 AM when she received the call about Sherri.

Her sister Connie lived in Seattle, Washington, and they all met at the airport. They went to the police station. She saw John (a the police station). He was a wreck. “Sort of like, a deer, stunned with the headlights,” Lane states.

He was a wreck. He was stunned. Judge Perry questions the witness and asks her to use her own words. “He was emotionally distressed and worn out. He was having a hard time dealing with what happened,” Lane adds.

Lane states Sherri had no issues or problems with John. Sherri didn’t say she had any. When she went to the police station, she was not interviewed then, not that she remembers. She did meet the detectives, Mayer and Hooks but that’s all.

Direct ends and cross examination begins.

Overland asks her if she’s still nervous, and states he knows that he is going to be asking her to remember painful things. Overland asks her about the purse she identified and how many other purses Sherri had. “She wasn’t someone who use a lot of purses," Lane replies.

MO: More than ten?

TL: No.

MO: More than five?

TL: Maybe. She didn’t have a slew of them.

MO: Was your sister protective of you during your pregnancy?

(TL: Not particularly.)

MO: Did she ever share with you problems she had at work?

TL: No. (snip) She would internalize.

MO: So, going back to Sunday, you were with her two to three hours. During that time, you were with her the entire two to three hours?

TL: Correct.

MO: Did she ever complain she was sick?

TL: No.

MO: And were you with her in the evening playing golf?

TL: I could not remember if we played golf or went to the restaurant (that day).

MO: But you did not see her that night?

TL: No.

MO: She never once complained about feeling ill?

TL: No, she did not.

MO: How tall was your sister? About 5’10” and weighed about 150 lbs?

TL: I don’t remember.

MO: She was very athletic?

TL: Yes.

MO: Strong person?

TL: Yes.

MO: Very fit?

TL: Yes.

Overland asks her if the answering machine in one of the evidence photos was the only answering machine in the condo. She thinks she left two or three messages on her answering machine.

MO: Did you ever call John Ruetten?

TL: No, it’s the same number.

Overland asks her if she called John at work.

TL: I didn’t have his work number. (snip) I didn’t know where he worked.

Cross ends and redirect begins.

Nunez asks her when Sherri got married and Lane states November 23rd, 1985. “Five years after I got married. We were married on the same day.”

Examination is finished and Lane goes back to the gallery to sit with her family.

#2 GREGORY TELIAN: retired LAPD firefighter paramedic

Telian walks to the stand using crutches. After being sworn in, he states that he medically retired from the LAPD in 1998. On February 24th, 1986, he was working out of Fire Station #93 in the San Fernando Valley. Around 6:00 PM, he received a call out to Van Nuys. He does not remember who his partner was at the time. He is asked if he remembers paramedic Carr, and Telian does.

Telian believes where he was called out on that date were town homes. He believes it was a trauma call, trauma of some kind. He went to the unit. It was blunt force trauma to the victim’s head. He pronounced Rasmussen dead at the scene.

We now see for the first time, photos of Sherri Rae Rasmussen lying on the floor of her living room. She is on her back, slightly on her side. Her knees are bent up, at 90 degrees. The photos make it clear she is in full rigor since her legs are suspended upwards at that bent angle. Her right arm is bent up towards her chest and it appears her left arm is bent out. Her eyes appear to be open. It’s difficult to look at the photos. They make me sad.

There is a white towel in the photos. Telian states it was not on the floor or the victim when he arrived. He checked Rasmussen for vitals to see if she was alive. Nunez goes over the six different criteria paramedics look for to pronounce a victim dead. No pulse, no respiration, post mortem lividity, etc. Telian saw some of those indicators. Telian recalls that he went in and checked her and there we no signs of life so he pronounced her.

Now we see close up photos of Sherri’s face. (As I type this a week later, the memory of her face beaten and bloody brings a strong wave of sadness over me.) Telian did not give the victim any treatment.

GT: I saw what appeared to be blunt force trauma to the head.

Telian did not check the body for other wounds, gun shots.

Telian and his partner secured the location until the police department showed up, then turned the scene over to them. He and his partner attempted not to disturb anything.

PN: Once you determine you can’t treat, you back away?

GT: That’s correct.

Telian doesn’t remember how much later is was when police arrived. He and his partner leave so the investigation can continue. Telian is asked if he noticed anything out of place. He did; the stereo.

PN: What do you recall?

GT: It had been yanked from the wall and thrown down.

PN: Anything else?

GT: And just the flower vase.

Telian is shown the stereo equipment stacked on the steps. He’s asked if there was anyone else there. The husband was there. He remembers the husband saying something to the effect of, “I didn’t think it could happen here.”

PN: Was he crying?

GT: I believe so.

PN: After you made the determination the victim was deceased, how long did you stay at the location?

GT: Thirty to forty-five minutes or so.

PN: Did anyone (disturb?) anything while you were there?

GT: No. No one was allowed in there.

PN: You kept people away?

GT: Yes.

Direct is finished and cross examination begins.

Overland asks him, that he was talking about events that happened in 1986.

MO: You remember pretty well?

GT: Yes.

Overland asks when he was interviewed. “About two or three months ago.” That was the only time. Overland asks if he was interviewed on February 9th, 2011 and if he remembered then what happened.

MO: You told detectives in that interview what you could remember?

GT: Yes.

Overland goes over several questions Telian was asked during that interview.

MO: You were asked (and you told detectives?) you walked in with your partner and you said, you said that the husband walked in on you while you were there?

GT: Yes.

I believe cross is finished and there is no redirect.

We take the afternoon break and I leave the courtroom to post an update. When I get back inside the courtroom, Lazarus is at the defense table during the break. She is not taken back into the jail area. When the break is over, we have a new witness.

#3 RODNEY FORREST: retired LAPD officer, first officer on the scene

DDA Shannon Presby examines the witness.

On February 24th, 1986, he worked out of the Van Nuys Station. He received a radio call and arrived at the scene at 6:15 PM. He was met by paramedics who informed him of a possible homicide.

Judge Perry asks, “You knew you had someone dead?”

RF: Yes.

He entered the residence from the front door. He saw Rasmussen deceased. Another photo of Sherri on the floor. He and his partner cleared the apartment and sealed it off. They went through the room looking for more possible suspects. Aside from emergency personnel, he found a male who appeared to be the husband. He believes John was sitting at the kitchen table.

RF: He looked distraught to me. His head in his hands.

Forrest had everyone exit the apartment through the front, the emergency personnel and the husband. Forrest cannot remember how many other medical personnel were there. He remembers meeting one paramedic and one inside. He doesn’t recall if he cleared anyone else from the apartment. He did not see any other law enforcement personnel. He doesn’t remember where the husband went. Other officers arrive; detectives, a supervisor.

Forrest was a training officer at the time. When the supervisor arrived his duties were to seal off the apartment, which meant to let no one in. Subsequently, he was asked to go out to the back area. He doesn’t recall who put up the crime scene tape across the garage. He was posted at the rear to keep people out/away from the scene. Forrest is asked if he noticed anything on the face of the woman.

RF: Yes. She had a towel on her face.

Looking at an evidence photo, Forrest states it looks like the item he saw covering Rasmussen’s face. He was at the scene about twenty minutes. He remembers a supervisor telling him to get the license plate numbers of all the cars in the immediate vicinity of the complex, but doesn’t remember other officers being involved in that task. He did not take note of cars on Balboa Blvd.

At the time they kept a Crime Scene Log. It’s a chronological notation of events. It keeps track of individuals who came in and out, the paramedics. At some time that log was started. He assigned his partner to take note of all personnel who arrived.

Direct ends and cross begins.

Overland asks if he was interviewed before his testimony by members of the prosecution (on March 11th, 2011)? He doesn’t remember the exact date. Forrest is asked if he remembers the individuals who were there during his interview. Mr. Presby? Investigator Jamarillo? There was a female, but he doesn’t remember her title. He was questioned about what happened bu Jamarillo. He doesn’t remember the first time he communicated with Detective Jamarillo.

MO: (...the first time, you) told him you didn’t remember a thing? Then he sent you a copy of your notes... you read you notes? Do you remember what happened or what was just on the report?

RF: I remember some and (some from) on the report.

Overland questions him about his observations on his report. He asks Forrest if he remembers the situation, and how the apartment was situated. Forrest states he can’t remember now.

MO: Mr. Ruetten appeared to you to be distraught?

RF: Yes.

Overland has him look in his report where he noted that John Ruetten was “distraught”. One alternate looks out into the gallery. Forrest reads the report. He doesn’t see that in the report.

Cross ends and redirect begins.

SP: When you wrote that report, did you think it was important to put that in your report that the husband was distraught?

RF: No.

SP: Did you put in your report that you took John Ruetten outside?

RF: No.

SP: As you sit here today, do you remember the husband was distraught?

RF: Yes.

Redirect ends and the witness is finished.

#4 ANASTASIA VOLIANITIS: neighbor to Rasmussen

DDA Shannon Presby examines the witness.

Volianitis states she has never testified before. She lived in the Balboa town homes for about six years. She knew other people that had lived there. She met a woman who lived in Unit 205. Knew her name as Sherri. She identifies a photo of Sherri. She didn’t know Sherri well, but did meet her at a common area, where the mail boxes were. She didn’t hear loud parties from Unit 205, nothing like that.

In 1986, she was retired and her and her husband had a habit of going around the golf course to walk to get exercise. They got there by driving to the golf course. A diagram of the Balboa Town Home complex is shown to her and she identifies her unit in relation to Rasmussen’s unit. The back entrances of their units shared the garage driveway, slightly across from each other.

Volianitis states there was an automatic gate to get out of the complex. To get in you needed a remote opener. The morning of February 24th, 1986, her and her husband left between 8:00 to 8:30 AM to go exercise. Her and her husband drove past the garage unit for 205.

SP: Did you notice the door open?

AV: No.

Most people who lived in the complex worked and it would be unusual to see a garage door open during the day. About 45 minutes later, they came back from exercise and entered the complex the same way, about 9:30 AM. On her way back, she performed a favor for a neighbor who was out of town. She stopped by the neighbor’s front door to pick up their newspaper. She picked up the newspaper at the front door of Unit 203. Her husband Gus dropped her off at the steps to pick up the newspaper. Then she walked home.

SP: At any time that morning did you hear anything coming from Unit 205?

AV: No.

Around 12 noon, men came up to her door. They were gardeners. They spoke Spanish. It was two men.

SP: Did they have anything in their hands?

AV: The purse.

The photo of the purse is back on the overhead screen.

SP: Does it look like the purse?

AV: It looks familiar.

SP: Same color?

AV: Yes.

SP: Same shape?

AV: Yes.

SP Did you look inside?

AV: Yes.

SP: Did you see a driver’s license inside? Whose purse was it?

AV: Sherri’s.

SP: Did you direct the gardener’s to go to Unit 205?

Five to six minutes later, the gardener’s came back to her unit. They still had the purse. She then took the purse. Then she saw the police later. Her husband Gus, took the purse with him. When he came back he didn’t have the purse with him.

Direct is finished and cross begins. Lazarus is looking down at the defense table.

MO: Do you remember back then better than you remember (to)day.... (snip)....after, much better?

AV: Yes.

MO: The garage door was open about 9:30 - 9:45 AM? (snip) (Do you remember) your original statement to police on February 24th (25th?)? Did you tell police it was 11:30 AM back then?

AV: I might have.

MO: The day after....

SP: Objection! What she told police verses remembering actual facts...

JP: Over ruled!

Her original statement is given to her to read.

AV: I’m sorry. This is not correct. It says, “He saw the door open.” And I was the one who saw the door open.

Overland questions her on the ‘time’ the two individuals brought her the purse.

MO: Were you outside washing windows?

AV: No.

The interview she gave on February 26th, 1986 has a time of 11:45 AM, and Overland asks her if that is her signature on the statement. She replies, “Yes.”

MO: You verified that is your statement?

AV: Well, let me read it. (reads statement) Well, yes that’s my signature. I don’t recall that statement.

MO: (Your) statement says gardeners brought the purse at 4:30 PM?

The two people she saw were male, Latin. She’s not sure if they were gardeners.

Cross ends and redirect begins.

Presby asks her if she wrote out that statement. She states she did not. She is trying to testify to the best of her memory now.

Overland recrosses the witness.

MO: That’s your best, of your memory but that was the best of your memory then?

AV: Yes.

Presby redirects the witness.

SP: But you don’t know (if there were errors in the statement)?

Ms. Volianitis asks if she can speak.

AV: It’s wrong.

The witness is excused.

#5 STEVEN WOODBY HOOKS: retired LAPD Detective, secondary on the case in 1986

Hooks is a retired LAPD officer from the self defense unit in downtown LA. The witness opened a folder and Overland immediately wanted to know what he opened. I believe he’s asked to close the document folder.

Hooks was a police officer for 20 years. He retired at Detective II, second rank. In 1986 he was a Detective I. In 1986, he had been a police officer for eight years. On the evening of February 24th, 1986 he was notified of a homicide in Van Nuys. The lead detective was Lyle Mayer, Detective II. He was more senior to Hooks.

In preparation to testify he reviewed documents (from 1986). The crime was murder. The victim was Sherri Rae Rasmussen. He took notes upon his arrival at the crime scene. He describes what a “walk through” is.

SH: It’s looking at various aspects of a scene and taking notes during the walk through.

He noted objects and things he was seeing at the crime scene and he reviewed these notes (before his testimony). Hooks describes what a Crime Scene Log is. It’s a log that documents individuals, officers, criminalists, (etc.) who arrive and leave a crime scene. It’s a log where people sign in and sign out. It is a normal practice to keep one and he reviewed the Crime Scene Log for this case in preparation for his testimony.

At 7:45 PM he arrived at the crime scene and physically secured the scene. Uniformed officers were posted at the entryway (and noted in the) Crime Scene Log.

People had to sign in before they would be admitted.

SP: Did you testify at a previous hearing in this case?

SH: Yes.

I believe there is a question about when was the last time he worked at that crime scene. Hooks is asked what type of place was the crime scene and Presby shows him a floor plan layout of the complex.

SP: Was it a walled complex?

SH: I don’t recall.

SP: Ws it the kind of complex where a visitor needed to gain access by buzzing in?

SH: Yes, I believe so.

A photo we’ve seen before of Rasmussen’s front door is shown to Hooks and he identifies it as the front of the unit and he is the individual standing in the doorway.

Another diagram, the first floor of Unit 205 is put up on the overhead and I try to sketch it to get an understanding of the tri-level unit. The first floor was a split floor. There were steps between the living room and the upper kitchen floor. (Underneath the kitchen area would be the garage at a lower level than the living room.) Hooks identifies the kitchen area on the floor plan and the sliding glass door off of the kitchen onto a patio.

Hooks states that Rasmussen was found lying on her back on the living room floor. Her head was by the fireplace. Her physical condition was deceased. She was wearing a red robe, a pink top and black panties. Another photo of Rasmussen, close up of her face where you can see the cuts and blood all over her face. Her left eye is slightly open. Her right eye is very bruised and appears closed.

SP: Did you observe any trauma to her face?

SH: Yes.

SP: Did you see any trauma to her torso?

SH: There appeared to be two bullet wounds on the left portion of her chest.

SP: At some point, did a representative from the coroner’s office arrive?

SH: Yes. One was Lloyd Mahaney.....

Hooks refreshes his memory from the Crime Scene Log for the other investigator. Overland asks that the photo of Rasmussen on the overhead screen be taken down. The other coroner’s investigator was ‘Rainey’.

SP: Did he see them begin to touch Ms. Rasmussen’s body?

(SH: Yes.)

It’s 3:53 PM and Judge Perry recesses for the day. Overland is speaking to Presby. Judge Perry comes back out for a moment. Lazarus is still at the defense table.

The PIO tells the media to be here tomorrow at 11:30 AM for check-in.


Becky said...

First, thank you for your amazing contribution! Second, I have a question--why didn't the marriage certificate come up in the opening statement? the fact that it was the only thing stolen seems to me to make this a slamdunk case. A robber who didn't know the victim wouldn't care.... Thanks!!!

Anonymous said...

Thanks again Sprocket.

Your report is better than any detective novels.

It´s an interesting case and one of the most interesting players is John Ruetten.

I just can´t wait for the cross by MO or the prosecution.

Something hits me; did he (john)want to eat the cake and keep the cake as well?

Good luck and I do not ask for a reply, because I know you are really busy.

Waiting for your new reports.

Wkr. Christina

Sophie said...

I truly appreciate your ability to report what you see and not editorialize.
Thank you for your fine work,

Crickit said...

Thank you so much for your outstanding coverage on this case. I wait eagerly for each post.