UPDATED February 16th, 4:33 AM for clarity.
Stephanie Lazarus, June 2009
Now that a majority of the science witnesses are behind us (there are still more to come) we expect "motive" witnesses from the prosecution today. Like I mentioned yesterday, Mike Hargreaves is expected to take the stand. Hargreaves testified at the preliminary hearing, but has recently remembered new information. He will be the first witness up today. John Ruetten, Sherri Rae Rasmussen's husband at the time of her death is also expected to testify today.
I have incorrectly identified DNA analyst Jennifer Francis as Jennifer Flowers. I will make the corrections at the lunch break today.
I can't believe I made that mistake with a witness! At least her name is correct on the witness list! The press has really shown up in force today. Blankstein and Rubin are here from the LA Times, Mona the sketch artist, ABC is here, Steven Mikulan and several more.
Mike Hargreaves testified today he remembered that Stephaine Lazarus told him that a few days prior, she had lost her back-up weapon in a fanny pack and was asking him how to report the loss of the weapon. This is totally new information coming from the witness.
Gail Lopes, older sister to John Ruetten testified about a letter she found amongst her late mother's belongings. It was from Stephanie Lazarus. In it, Lazarus said, "I'm totally in love with John and this past year has really to me up."
John Ruetten is still expected to testify today.
The courtroom was packed this morning, with media and family members all on the edge of their seats waiting to hear John Ruetten on the stand. At moments that became hard for me to watch, Ruetten broke down more than once while testifying about the last months of Sherri Rasmussen's life. When shown a photograph of Sherri, himself and Sherri's mother on the Rasmussen family boat, Ruetten started to choke up and quietly sob. Seeing his former son-in-law become emotional on the stand, Nels Rasmussen leaned forward and began to sob. I believe I saw Loretta start to cry also. It was very hard for me to see this family in pain.
Ruetten testified that as far as he can remember, after he started dating Sherri Rasmussen in the summer of 1984, there was only one other incident where he was in the company of Stephanie Lazarus. That meeting occurred after he became engaged to Rasmussen but before he moved into her Van Nuys condo.
Mike Heargreaves testimony this morning, of Lazarus telling him a few days prior, she lost her off-duty weapon in a fanny pack, contradicts a police report thirteen days after the murder, where the defendant stated she lost her weapon and a gym bag when her car was broken into the city of Santa Monica. Heargreaves testified that she never mentioned her car being broken into to him.
John Ruetten is under cross examination. Overland is questioning him on every aspect of his memory on events over 25 years ago from when he was interviewed by detectives to when he specifically had sex with the defendant.
Let me back up, and talk a little bit about the morning session. This is a short synopsis, until I can get my detailed notes up on this day.
After Gail Lopes testified, out in the hallway on break, Lopes and Loretta Rasmussen hugged each other. Then Lopes hugged Nels Rasmussen. It was an emotional scene between all three. When court resumed, Lopes joined the Rasmussen family in the gallery.
After the break, we had John Ruetten take the stand. Ruetten took the jury through attending UCLA, when he met Lazarus in his sophomore year when they both lived in Dykstra Hall. Lazarus was a year behind him. Ruetten testified about Lazarus' level of fitness and that she played junior varsity basketball at the intercollegiate level. During his time at UCLA Ruetten testified that he did not have a steady girl friend and does not recall Lazarus having a steady boyfriend. He and Lazarus made out a few times, necking, kissing, but did not have sexual intercourse. Ruetten mentioned an incident where he was showering and Lazarus entered the shower and took all his clothes. After he graduated they took a few overnight trips together. At least once a group including Lazarus visited his parents in San Diego. They remained friends after college and Ruetten attended Lazarus' college graduation.
It was the summer of 1981 when he began dating the defendant. Ruetten believes they had sex approximately "twenty to thirty times" between 1981 and 1984. Ruetten testified that during that time they never had an "exclusive" relationship and he never considered her his girlfriend. "We were good friends. We saw each other off and on. Some of those times we had sexual intercourse," Ruetten told the jury. They saw each other approximately two to three times a month and Ruetten can only remember one or two times when Lazarus spent the night. During that time, he was dating other women.
In the summer of 1984 he met his future wife, Sherri, at a party. Soon after they started dating and he was seeing her exclusively. "We were dating steadily from the time we met, about eight to ten times a month," Ruetten testified. He did not feel it was necessary to tell Lazarus about his relationship with Rasmussen. "Stephanie and me, we were just friends, and I can't remember the last time I saw her before I met Sherri," Ruetten said. When Ruetten is asked if he met Rasmussen's parents, that's when he starts to break up on the stand.
Ruetten and Rasmussen got engaged in May 1985 and that weekend purchased the new BMW 318i for Rasmussen. They announced to UCLA friends that they were getting married. Within 30 to 60 days of the engagement, he moved into Rasmussen's Van Nuys town home. He cannot remember the exact month that he received a call from the defendant, sometime in the early evening. She was very upset. He had not experienced anything like this before from Lazarus. She was full blown crying. She wanted him to come over so they could talk. He went over to her condo. Lazarus confessed her deeper feelings for Ruetten, that she loved him. She had never expressed these feelings to him before. It was clear to him that Lazarus was upset about his engagement and that he was "moving on". Lazarus asked Ruetten for sex that night. She asked more than once. She was still very upset.
Ruetten tries to explain why he had sex with Lazarus that night. "She had no closure. I was way over my head and didn't know how to calm her down. Other than being stupid and a young man." Being intimate that night with Lazarus did not change his plans. He was going to marry Rasmussen, and Ruetten testifies he made that clear to the defendant. After that incident, he never saw Lazarus again until sometime after his wife's murder.
Ruetten said that within weeks after his wife's death, lead detective Lyle Mayer informed him that Lazarus had been cleared of any possible involvement in his wife's murder. Several years later after a move back to the Los Angeles area, he had sexual intercourse with Lazarus two more times.
Towards the end of today's testimony, we had a bit of drama in the courtroom. Court ended early for the jurors and on an explosive note between attorney Mark Overland and Judge Perry.
It was around 3:30 PM when Mark Overland was having trouble finding the specific dates of interviews John Ruetten had with law enforcement personnel over the years. About 20 minutes earlier, I observed Judge Perry dropping the tip of his pen directly down onto his desk a few times with the hint of an aggravated expression on his face. Not long after that he interrupted Overland’s questioning of the witness and asked him, “As you sit here today, is it your belief you did not check the door to see if it was locked or not?” Ruetten’s response was, “That’s correct.”
Overland then asked a few more questions, specifically whether or not he would leave the front door open to let their cat back in the condo.
Judge Perry sent the jury out and addressed Mark Overland.
JP: This is taking forever. You’ve got to refer to which interview. Mr. Presby, if you will assist (snip) ...let’s mark the date of the interview so we know what we’re talking about (snip) put dates on them.
SP: (I believe Mr. Overland is) referring to them by bates stamp.
JP: That’s not acceptable. We’re talking about interviews in 1986 and 2009.
Then he says something about not being confusing.
JP: I’m going to send the jury home and have counsel (be prepared?)... (snip) We took 20 minutes and asked two rather unimportant questions, ‘did you leave the front door open at night’ (snip) That’s what I think.
MO: I resent the courts (insinuation?) again! The court has done this before! If the transcript (where he) said before (that he left the door open) I’m entitled to ask that of the witness!
Overland is very upset! Judge Perry gets angry back!
MO: I think it’s unfair! (Overland explains his position more regarding his views on the court’s comments.)
Judge Perry then reads (in a loud, commanding tone), “765 of (Evidence Code? Trial procedure?) The court shall exercise reasonable control of witnesses to make rapid (con?) (snip) and to protect witnesses from undue harassment and embarrassment! I think your cross is not to ascertain the truth! I think you’re taking things out of context, (like we saw several times? earlier?)!!! But lets not take this back and forth, (handing the witness papers) taking the courts time!
Mark Overland is very angry now in his tone.
MO: My concern is my cross examination! I’m calling attention to the court! (The court is not supposed to have? any?) bias!!!! (?) ....any concerns of bias, and that’s all I have to say!!!
There is more to Overland’s comments that I missed. This is the first trial I’ve covered in Judge Perry’s court, but I’ve heard that this is not uncommon for him to get frustrated that things are not moving along as fast as he would like.
STEPHANIE LAZARUS QUICK LINKS