Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Stephanie Lazarus Trial: Opening Statements, Part II (Prosecution)

Stephaine Lazarus, June 2009

This is an unedited draft entry. I will try to clean up my typing and clarity errors as soon as I can. Sprocket.

February 6th, 2012
When I get up on the 9th floor, there’s a huge line waiting for the security station to open up. Most of the mainstream media has arrived before me. Some members of Lazarus’ family are here as well as Rasmussen’s. My friend Katie is here along with her friend Lisa. I’m not worried about getting a seat, I’m just worried about “which” seat. I had a hint on Friday that the media would be in the first row. I am surprised by this because usually, the family sits in the front row.

The station is opened and we file into the hallway. The reports form little groups, chatting with friends or greeting colleagues they haven’t seen in a long time. I hadn’t seen Los Angeles Times reporter Andrew Blankstein since the Robert Blake trial in 2005 when I was still just a member of the general public. I give him a big smile and pointing to my press badge I say, “Can you believe it?”

I try to inconspicuously point out to some members of the press and my friends who various people are on each side of the case. My face lights up when I see Steven Mikulan and I give him a big hug. Steven was with the LA Weekly for 20 years but is now with Los Angeles Magazine. I also met Steven at the Blake trial and he’s been a friend ever since. The Public Information Office (PIO) staff tell the press with passes to start lining up. My name is called fourth and I’m surprised that I will be in the front row. Usually, the victim's family is placed in the front row. In front of me is the sketch artist Mona, another sketch artist and Investigation Discovery’s Pat LaLama. Behind me I meet Ann O’Neill, with CNN. When I introduce myself she tells me she works with Beth Karas and has read my blog. I immediately thank her. It’s still quite a shock to hear that the mainstream media is reading what I write.

Although my seat is in the front row, it’s not a great seat. I’m too near the jury. I think I will forever be affected by that time in Judge Fidler's court room where I was accused of speaking so loud in the gallery (I did receive an apology.) that the jury heard me, so I don't like to be too close to them. For me, my ideal seat is sitting right in line with the witness box but the podium is directly in front of it in this courtroom. That's where legendary writer Dominick Dunne liked to sit.

Dateline produce Robert Dean is here, Matthew McGough, Miram Hernandez, Patrick Healy and AP reporter Linda Deutsch. Linda is such a respected institution herself, she tells the PIO ladies where she’d like to sit: second row on the aisle. When we’re let into the courtroom, Pat and Mona are talking about DDA Shannon Presby. Pat is certain that Presby had a career as a child actor and she wants to ask him about that. I see a few people from the DA’s office in the back row as the courtroom is packed with as many people as the PIO can fill. The victim’s family is sitting right behind me. Lazarus’ family is sitting on the right side of the courtroom, behind the bailiff’s desk. I see Steven Mikulan wrangled a seat even though he wasn’t on the media list.

It’s 8:40 am and counsel finally arrive. The detectives on the case are sitting directly behind the prosecution table. There is a small narrow table in front of them covered with case file materials. I’m trying not to listen in on Pat and Mona’s conversation about restaurants. It’s then I note that Pat is a lefty like me and she has very interesting handwriting. Many of the letters are written in a flamboyant style. I have a hard time pulling my eyes away from her spiral notebook. Nels and Loretta Rasmussen are sitting almost directly behind me, their attorney John Taylor beside them.

8:45 am:
Judge Perry takes the bench and greets the room. I see that Lazarus has her hair pulled back in a ponytail. I cannot tell for certain, but it looks like she doesn’t have any makeup on her face. She still has that pale, jail pallor. I believe she’s wearing the same jacket and pants that she wore during voir dire. It looks like a slinky, stretchy material from where I’m sitting with a touch of a sheen to it.

Judge Perry tells the room they have an issue with two jurors. There was a phone message from Alternate #3. She is too ill to come to court and her children are sick as well. Counsel agree to excuse her from trial. The other juror is late.

The defense has an issue with some of the photos in the prosecution’s PowerPoint presentation. It’s photos of Sherri Rasmussen during various stages of her marriage. The prosecution argues that they deserve to show Sherri in her life and there’s an objection. DDA Paul Nunez offers to show them to the court. Judge Perry looks over the photos. Nunez explains they are not all in one slide. They are in different moments in the presentation to show different moments in the marriage and potential discord. The prosecution argues that they are there to point out the loving nature of their relationship.

Overland argues there’s no issue as to when that (discord?) arose. The photos are there strictly to render sympathy for the victim. The court has no (?) to admit this evidence.

Judge Perry responds, “I don’t think that’s good law.” Just because you are willing to stipulate to that she was living and now dead.

Overland argues that there’s no case law that says that’s not good law.

Judge Perry asks the people what’s the relevance of the photos with other people. Nunez responds that the photos are from a wedding that ultimately ended her her death. It’s the motive to commit the crime. Judge Perry rules that he will allow the photographs.

Overland has one more issue for the court. He’s requesting the court have the prosecution provide the defense the order of witnesses they plan to call. “They have not done it.” We are still waiting for one juror. Judge Perry comments that handing over the upcoming witnesses is common courtesy. Nunez responds that they did receive an E-mail from Overland yesterday, on Sunday and that they are getting the list to Overland right now.

Judge Perry tells the room that we’ll wait the arrival of the tardy juror and then proceed with opening statements. I glance over at Mona because I can hear her sketching, her colored pencils (or whatever it is she’s using) are making a slight scratching noise.) The missing juror finally arrives and Judge Perry retakes the bench at 8:57 am. The jury comes out of the jury room. As they file out, I notice that Judge Perry is sitting with his elbows on the arms of this chair and his fingertips of each hand are touching, the fingers spread apart from each other.

Judge Perry greets the jurors. He talks to them about the notepads that are on their chairs for them to take notes. They are to remain on their chairs when they leave the jury box. I look over to my right into the courtroom and I see Aphrodite Jones in the ante chamber. She arrived late and her reserved seat was given to someone else. Judge Perry tells the jurors that we will have two Monday’s off, February 13th and February 20th.

Judge Perry tells the jurors about opening statement and why they are presented. “Opening statements give the jurors an idea of what the attorney’s expect the evidence will show (snip) so that you can better follow as the case unfolds. Mark Overland asks to ensure that all the potential prosecution witnesses are out of the courtroom. Sherri’s sister, Teresa gets up from her seat and leaves the courtroom and Presby begins the opening statement.

“A bite, a bullet, a gun barrel and a broken heart. That’s the evidence that will prove that Stephanie Lazarus murdered Sherri Rasmussen. Lazarus murdered Sherri Rasmussen because Sherri married the man that Lazarus loved.”

February 24, 1986. That’s a long time ago. Ronald Reagan was president. Commodore, Atari and Pong were big. Cosby was the number one show on television. In February 1986, Sherri Rasmussen and John Ruetten were newlyweds married only four months. They looked forward to a lifetime together. February 24th, 1986 was a work day, a Monday. A workday for both John and Sherri. On February 24th, 1986, the defendant was a police officer. She had been a police officer for about two years.

John Ruetten was an engineer. Sherri was the head nurse in charge of the Cardiac Care Unit at Glendale Adventist Hospital. John woke at 6:30 am and got ready for work. Sherri stayed in bed not feeling well. John planned to call her later, but he never got the chance. Lazarus beat her in the face bit her in the arm and shot her in the chest. The defendant was a police officer when the crime occurred. This is not a case of Lazarus acting in the line of duty or to protect the public. This case was personal.

John called Sherri at 9:30 am. There was no answer. Sherri had a lecture that she was scheduled to give. He called her at work but couldn’t reach her. He wasn’t upset or worried because he knew she was not at her regular workplace. He assumed she went into work.

The defendant was a police officer. She had special skills. She knew how crimes were committed. She trained as a locksmith. She knew about fingerprints. She left no prints behind. And she knew a gun makes a very distinct sound. She wrapped the gun in a blanket, pointed the gun at Sherri’s chest as she laid her on the floor. That first bullet was fatal. It was enough to kill her. She wrapped the gun in the blanket a second time (and fired). She wrapped the gun in the blanket a third time and she laid the gun against Sheri’s chest and fired again.

Lazarus knew about investigations. She knew how crimes are solved. She pulled a drawer out of an end table (the contents spilling on the floor). She stacked evidence (the stereo equipment) by the door (photo up on the overhead screen). John called her. He couldn’t reach her at home. He called her at work. The garage door was open. There was a front and back door. They almost always entered the home through the garage entrance and walked up the steps. When John came home he noticed that there was glass in the driveway. He thought something happened with the car and Sherri went to get it fixed. Sherri drove a brand new BMW. It was purchased six months earlier as an engagement present.

John parked his car, walked up the stairs and opened the door and saw his bride of four months on the living room floor. When he saw her he went over and touched her and saw that she was cold. He saw his bride lying on the living room floor. He was devastated. In shock. There are photos of Sherri up on the overhead lying there in the living room.

I turn slightly to look behind me and see that Nels is leaning forward. I believe he’s sobbing. When police arrived they saw a man (Ruetten) catatonic. He was alternating between crying and barely able to speak.

The lead investigator showed up. Lyle Mayer took one look at the crime scene, and before any testing was done, before a single interview, he knew what had happened. He told John, “Your wife surprised some burglars and she fought with them. (snip) He knew from the first time he looked at the crime scene he knew what happened. And for twenty years, the defendant got away with it.

One thing Lyle Mayer didn’t know, one thing the defendant (didn’t?) know, a tiny Stephanie Lazarus was hiding in the bite mark on Sherri Rasmussen’s arm. The defendant (and only?) the defendant was hiding in the bite mark.

Judge Perry interjects, “I think that’s argument.”

The coroner’s investigator swabbed that bite mark and sealed it in a plastic tube. For twenty years (that evidence) remained in the coroner’s freezers until 2005.

Presby talks about things that are gone... Atari, Pong, and modern techniques.

DNA had replaced older technology like blood typing. LAPD had created the cold case unit, the purpose and goal to locate (evidence?) to see if killers were hiding on the shelves of the coroner’s freezers.

They (detectives?) knew that the prime source for DNA, the place they use to collect samples (today) is inside the mouth. So investigators looked for the bite mark. The evidence envelope, after 20 years was wrinkled and torn. The tube inside was intact; pristine, so they got a profile of Sherri’s killer. A complete and exact profile. The first thing they noticed when the testing came back was that the gender of the profile was XX, female. Sherri Rasmussen was killed by a woman. But they could not put aside their first impressions of the crime, so they started looking for female burglars.

The case went cold again until 2009 when Jim Nuttall picked up the case file. Nuttall also looked at the crime scene photos. He looked at that pulled out drawer and noticed that no other drawer in the house was pulled out. Nothing else was pulled out. The jewelry box in the master bedroom was untouched. He also looked at the car. The BMW was recovered with the keys still in the ignition. It was not stripped or salvaged for parts. It was pristine. He then looked at the bite mark and saw that it was a woman. He put aside his assumptions and looked at the case fresh.

Nuttall called Nels and Loretta Rasmussen. He called John Ruetten who (spoke about Stephanie Lazarus). He created a list of women who were in Sherri’s life at the time of the murder. The last name on that list was Stephanie Lazarus. And because she was a police officer, he did not put her name in the file, he called her “number five”. People numbered one through three, he eliminated rather quickly; they were Sherri’s sisters and mother and were eliminated rather quickly. Sherri’s mother lived in Arizona. He looked at number four on the list. It was a nurse who had been disciplined by Sherri at her work place. At 29, Sherri was already a (director? of nursing) at Glendale Adventist Hospital. Number four had got into trouble. Nuttall asked her if she would give him a DNA sample. She said, “Sure.” They compared her DNA to the sample collected off of Sherri Rasmussen. There was no match. That left just one person on the list.

A black and white booking photo of Lazarus is up on the overhead screen. It has an eerie cast to it.

How do you ask for a DNA sample from a detective? You don’t. Undercover cops began to follow the defendant, waiting for her to drop something. They watched her go to Costco, sip on a soda cup with a straw and drop the cup in the trash. They collected the cup and gave it to the DNA experts. That sample was compared to the DNA of Sherri’s killer, (and it matched perfectly).

When Lazarus was arrested in June of 2009, they took an oral swab sample from her directly. The defendant’s genetic blueprint was compared to the swab taken off of Sherri and they matched at every location. They matched to one in 402 quadrillion.

They didn’t stop there. The DNA was sent to an outside lab (SERI), who did a more sensitive matching test. The samples now matched to one in 1.7 sextillion. That’s the number 17 followed by twenty zeros.

They didn’t stop there. The looked at the bullets; weighed them, measured the caliber. 38 caliber. They looked at the tool marks, as the bullet passed down the barrel and found a very unique feature. There was a hoof shaped feature where the jacked comes into contact with the lead core. The expert said, “I’ve seen this hoof shape before. 38SP bullet. Those were LAPD bullets issue. The only ones they were allowed to carry in their guns on the day Sherri Rasmussen died.

They looked at the robe used to muffle the gun. They saw there was a unique gunshot pattern on the robe that was only made by a revolver. They analyzed the robe and measured the distance (of the gunshot residue pattern). It was two inches from the pattern to the bullet hole. It meant that the barrel was two inches long The defendant owned such a gun. The didn’t stop there. They obtained the same make of gun that Lazarus had owned and compared that firearm to the patterns on the robe. They matched.

Lazarus had purchased from the gun store at the LAPD Academy, days before she ever went on duty (as an officer). There was a photo of the gun on the defendant’s computer. It was not a gun given to new recruits. This was the defendant’s personal gun. A Smith & Wesson, two-inch revolver. That gun disappeared thirteen days after Sherri Rasmussen was killed and it’s never been found. The defendant knew that a comparison between the bullets and the gun could be conclusive. That gun disappeared.

The police looked at a motive. They talked to friends of the defendant when they (John and Stephanie) were in college. They were friends. And a picture emerged. For John, the relationship was buddies. Someone to play basketball with, hang out with. But for Lazarus, it was an unrequited love. John Ruetten talked to detectives. (Back then?) their relationship was close, but they were not boyfriend and girlfriend. They remained friends after college. He even dated her for a while, but she was not for him. He had found the one. He knew from almost the moment he met her.

Shortly after their engagement, the defendant called. she begged John to see her and she agreed. The defendant was emotional, distraught and crying. She confessed to him what she had barely kept hidden. That she loved him and wanted to have a future with him. The defendant and John had sex at at that meeting. He told her, “I care for you but i’m going forward with my marriage with Sherri.”

John Ruetten told detectives he thought it would be (inconceivable?) for the defendant to have committed this crime. John Ruetten spoke to detectives in 2009. “I told Lyle Mayer about the defendant back in 1986.” He was told, “She’s been cleared. She’s not involved.”

The detectives also looked at the defendant’s journals where she wrote about police work and her feelings for John. (The found among Lazarus’ thing a photo, up on the overhead screen.) The photo is of John Ruetten at Dykstra Hall, back in 1979. (He’s lying on a sofa, asleep.) She snuck in and took the photo of him lying on the sofa. Presby reads excerpts from Lazarus’ journal.

June 4th, 1985.
"We really didn't do much. I really don't feel like working. I found out that John is getting married. I was very depressed, very sad. My concentration was negative 10."

June 16th, 1985.
I really didn't feel like working. Too stressed out about John. I've had a real hard time concentrating these days, so I called up and said I didn't feel well and could I have - - could I have a T.O. They gave it to me."

On Lazarus’ computer, they found a portrait (of Lazarus and John Ruetten, put up on the overhead screen) from a dance attended by the defendant and Ruetten. Lazarus wanted a future with John. A future that Sherri Rasmussen made impossible. Those feelings were in a letter to John Ruetten’s mother. “I’m totally in love with John and this (?) has really torn me up.” (There’s more, but I can’t copy it all before the text is taken off the overhead screen.) Three months after the letter was written John Ruetten married Sherri Rasmussen. Sherri wore the white dress that Lazarus felt the future was hers.

Mark Overland is leaning way back in his chair, almost like he would be watching TV. The photo of Sherri Rasmussen lying on her living room floor is back up on the overhead screen.

Her beauty was disfigured, blotted by three close range gunshots to the chest. A bite, a bullet, a gun barrel and an broken heart. That’s the evidence that will prove the defendant killed Sherri Rasmussen. Because Sherri Rasmussen married the man that Stephanie Lazarus loved.

At the end of the trial, I’m going to explain the evidence to support the single of charge of murder. You must use your logic, use your senses and ask for you to bring a charge of guilty. Judge Perry asks for a morning recess of 15 minutes.

Judge Perry is still on the bench. Lazarus’ mug shot is up on the overhead screen. After the jury leaves the court room, counsel is arguing about (calling?) a witness, the roommate who lived at the condo with Rasmussen before John moved in with her. During the break, Sherri’s family comfort one another. During opening statements, I barely had a chance to look at the images up on the overhead screen, I was concentrating so intently on transcribing the opening statement. The image of Rasmussen on her living room floor. She was on her back, partially on her side. Her legs were drawn up, bent. Her hands were up by her shoulders. The description that came to mind was fetal position (for her legs). Nels and Loretta point out to me their grandaughter beside them in the gallery. They tell me that at Sherri’s wedding, there was a photo taken of Sherri holding her. Ann O’Neill and the Rasmussen’s talk about Tombstone, Arizona where Ann had recently been covering a fire for her network.

Lazarus is brought back out from the jail area. She has a big smile on her face for her family supporters, and gives them a wave. We’re back on the record and now Mark Overland will give his opening statement.

I’ll get Overland’s opening statement up as soon as I can. Sprocket.


Starbright said...

You are doing such a good job. Thank you so much for your excellent reporting. I really feel almost as if I am there in the courtroom.

I truly hope that justice is served in this case. I have followed this case ever since Lazarus's arrest. Amazing cold case work by the detectives.

Looking forward to next update.


Chris said...

Sprocket . . . I've missed your writing so very much. Thanks for transporting me to the Courthouse! I wait, not so patiently, for the next installments!

lisa said...

I got the impression that her defence was going to blame somebody else for the murder, but from reading your blog seems that is not there argument, so from openings is the defence just going to do the idea that state has not met its burden of proof

and thanks again for blogging, you realy bring a trial to life

Katprint said...

Hi Sprocket!

Do you know if Sherri had a younger sister named Susan? Because if she did, I went with my older sister to Sherri's wedding reception.

Charlie N. said...

I feel like I'm in the courtroom as I read your blog. I wish I could be there. Does Lazarus seem nervous or worried or is it to hard to tell? Can't wait for the next installment.

Charlie N.

Anonymous said...

Dear Sprocket,

Thanks again! Now the time here is about 23:40.

Have got some problems with my sleeping, because I wait more than half of the night for your reporting.

As for Judge Perry, he seems to be a very disciplinated and a good judge. (Me telling wih my non-experience!)

Take your time, but I rush to my computer, many times a day.


PS. You must be a very nice cat-person. I also have a cat, black and big boy, Freddie Mercury.

Good luck and thanks.

Utah Chris said...

Yikes - I too have been checking several times a day for an update and on the edge of my seat. LA times is noticably lacking in coverage.