Monday, February 6, 2012

Stephanie Lazarus Trial: Opening Statements


Stephanie Lazarus, 2009

Opening statements are scheduled to begin today in the Stephanie Lazarus case. For those of you just dropping into T&T for the first time, I've been covering this case for the past year. You can find all my stories on this case as well as some from the mainstream media (MSM) at my Lazarus Case Quick Links.

Stephanie Lazarus, a 25-year veteran detective of the LAPD with a stellar career is 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. A violent struggle erupted in Sherri's home where she was beaten, tied up and shot three times. The prosecution alleges the case was solved 23 years later with a DNA match.

Judge Perry has described the case as a "who done it." DDA Shannon Presby has said that the preliminary hearing was the "bare bones" of the case and at trial we will see "more meat". Lazarus' defense attorney Mark Overland has indicated to the MSM that he will point the jury to a different suspect.

I will have a short update at the lunch break on opening statements and hopefully a full report up later tonight.

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UPDATE 2:34 pm:
It's the afternoon break. Opening statements were finished by noon. We've had two witnesses this morning. I came out in the hallway without my notes to get the correct spelling but I will tell you briefly the first witness was Sherri's younger sister Teresa Lane, who spent part of Sunday with Sherri the day before she died. The second witness was a paramedic who was called to the scene and pronounced Sherri dead. I will post more much later tonight.

UPDATE 12:02 am, Feb. 7th:
Mr. Sprocket picked me up at the Orange Line Station and we did some much needed shopping. Consequently, I didn't get to start writing until after 9:00 pm so I'm already way behind and it's only the first day.

DDA Presby outlined in great detail the series of events of February 24th, 1986 until 2009 when Lazarus was arrested. After that, he talked about the circumstantial evidence against Lazarus. The DNA from the bite mark swab. The report of Lazarus' gun disappearing 13 days after the murder. The tool marks on the bullets that Sherri were killed with that were fired from a 38 Smith & Wesson snub nosed revolver, the same type of gun that Lazarus had purchased from the LAPD for her personal weapon; not department issued. Those same bullets being the only ones allowed that were LAPD issued back in 1986. The BMW found intact with the keys still in the iginition and not stripped. They looked at the robe (?) used to muffle the gun, only made by a revolver. The stolen marriage certificate. The writings in Lazarus' journal. Lazarus showing up at Sherri's work.

Mark Overland began his opening statement by going over a detailed review of Lazarus' life from the time she graduated from UCLA to her work assignments with the LAPD. He mentioned the positive statements from supervisors in her personnel file. Overland said he would go out on a limb here and state there were no eye witnesses to this murder.

He said that Lazarus was not obsessed with John Ruetten and the relationship was more than what the prosecution has presented. Ruetten and Lazarus had sex twenty or thirty times, so it was not a one sided relationship. He painted a different picture of that last meeting between Lazarus and Ruetten before Ruetten married Sherri. He spent some time explaining the 1986 investigation and why Lyle Mayer thought this was a botched burglary, because the situation was virtually identical to another burglary several weeks later.

He then went onto challenge the scientific evidence, claiming that it cannot be relied on because it was not properly stored, nor is the chain of custody clear. He questioned the work performed by coroner's investigator Lloyd Mahanay, who sometimes said "swabs" verses "swab." (Which is it?) Overland then went into an overly detailed explanation of DNA, what it is, how it's coiled up in the cell, what is a chromesome (sp?), what an allele is as well as what is a tandem repeat.

Five witnesses took the stand in the afternoon session. We are still with the fifth witness.

1. Teresa Lane - Sister of Sherri; testified about their day on Sunday. Did not see any injuries on Sherri on Sunday.
2. Gregory Telian - Paramedic who responded to the scene and pronounced Sherri deceased.
3. Rodney Forrest - Retired LAPD officer responded to the scene and secured it.
4. Anastasia Volanaitas - Neighbor who observed the Sherri's garage door open and no car inside.
5. Steve Hooks - Retired LAPD Detective who investigated the case in 1986 with Lyle Mayer.
I'll try to post part of my detailed notes tomorrow morning, before court. Court resumes at 12 noon, tomorrow. A juror has a doctor's appointment.


Marcie said...

Thank you for your excellent coverage. I feel like I'm right there with you!

Anonymous said...

Are there seats for the public, as well as the media, to attend the trial? If so, it's Department 104 on floor 9? How does one find out the start time if not able to attend every day? Thanks!

lucy said...

Did you get the impression from the defence that they are going to blame the murder on the husband, and the gun evidence was nbew to me, not the fact that she had filed a report saying it was stolen but the evidence that it may be of a similar type that matches to evidence from the scene, and may I also say thankyou for your blogging,

Natalie said...

Thank you for your reporting! On the edge of my seat waiting for updates!

Kathy said...

Judge Perry is moving right along. I am glad he kept the cameras out of the courtroom. He's my kind of judge.

Anonymous said...

This cop allegedly stalked the victim in the days before the killing, once allegedly showing up in the victim's hospital office to confront the victim about the victim's husband. The cop allegedly wore nothing but lingerie (which she flashed) under a trench coat during this confrontation.

The family of the victim, having been informed by the victim of this bizzare behavior on the part of the cop, repeatedly entreated the THEN-lead detective on the case to consider this cop as a suspect and the ****ing buffoon refused to do so.

This case is not just about the murder of an innocent woman, but also about the most egregious example of police incompetence, indifference, or cover-up since the Martha Moxley case.

There should be a follow up story confronting this retired, incompetent, pension-collecting idiot on his door step, asking WHY he rufused to pursue this obvious-to-anyone suspect.

Git'er done media.

Kathy said...

Sprocket, thank you for burning the midnight oil.

I did not know that the bullets used to kill Sherri were only LAPD issue. That narrows it down even further.

Also that the gun Lazarus purchased from LAPD was for her personal use, and not one that she would have used in the line of duty. Therefore, no bullets fired from her service revolver, while on duty, that had been kept as evidence in other crime cases could compared ballistically.

Can't wait to see what comes up next.

ritanita said...

Following this case with a lot of interest. Thanks for keeping us updated. I hope you get a chance to catch up, it sure isn't easy!

That gun evidence should be very compelling. How often does such a gun "go missing" just after a murder with the same sort of crime?

Sprocket said...


About the bullets. I did not write that very well about the bullets. They were not made exclusively for the LAPD. The bullets that killed Sherri Rae Rasmussen were the only type that the LAPD were allowed to carry in their guns on the day she died. Those bullets were also available for purchase by the general public.

Thank you ritanita! You know how hard it is to cover a case in such detail.

CatToy said...

Bets! Just wanted to say a huge thank you; I'm so excited for you.

Excellent write up on the Opening Statements, I really can't thank you enough.

I'm really proud of you!
Hugs and Love
My Friend!
CatToy aka Kat

Anonymous said...

This is a very interesting, albeit sad case. I graduated college with a degree in criminal justice in 1980 and back then it was DRILLED into our heads that there must be a solid chain of custody for the evidence or the case is lost. In other words, if there was a lapse in the chain of custody, that negated the evidence. This was at the same time that cases were thrown out because Miranda rights were not read upon arrest. While we studied cases that were deeply troubling in that an error(s) by law enforcement allowed suspected criminals to walk, the rules for protecting and documenting evidence not only hold law enforcement to a standard, but protect the rights of citizens. I think the evidence that is being presented, in this case, is compelling in so far as showing Lazarus as having the opportunity, motive, capacity, etc. to commit this crime. I do however ponder why the judge and prosecution are so willing to pursue a case against Lazarus, when clearly they cannot account for where that vial, containing the bite swab, was located for some years. The argument can definitely be laid out that who would have had the means and/or the motive to collect and place Lazarus's saliva on the victim's neck or to have tampered with stored evidence and who would have known to use LAPD issued ammo and known that Lazarus's gun was in her gym bag, in Santa Monica, ready to steal and incriminate her further with her missing gun??? It seems like the prosecution is saying that we got our murderer, overlook how the evidence was treated and documented. In this case the coroner kept the vial and the remaining physical evidence was held by LAPD, however in criminal cases, for the purpose of prosecution, it is the responsibility of law enforcement to ensure that their office and the coroner's office properly maintain the evidence for trial. I'm not saying Lazarus should get off, this is a horrible murder of a young woman. I am saying that evidence should be handled and accounted for by law enforcement and that is a right that we should all have when standing trial and that as a society, we need to maintain.

Sprocket said...

It has not been proven that there was a loss in the chain of custody of the bite mark swab evidence.

The envelope that was found in the coroner's freezers was well worn and torn, but there has been no evidence presented that the envelope ever left the coroner's office, or that it was ever lost (out of the coroner's control).