Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Fact Checking Mark Bowden's Curious Vanity Fair Article on Stephanie Lazarus

Complete Series on Fact Checking Mark Bowden's Article HERE.
UPDATE: June 21st, 2012 10:00 AM, for clarity
UPDATE: June 22nd, 2012 1:30 AM, to Factual Error #7 
UPDATE: June 23rd, 2012 7:00 PM
ADDITIONAL Factual Error #8

I confess I’m a long time reader of Vanity Fair. I’ve always considered it a quality magazine with experienced, talented investigative journalists. I would wait with anticipation when the next issue came out just to read Dominick Dunne’s coverage of the latest high profile trial he was attending.  One of the things I learned sitting next to him for many months in the first Phil Spector trial was getting the story right. I remember the disappointed expression Dominick had on his face when he told me he wouldn’t be at court the next day because he had to spend time with his editor and fact checker before his next article went to press. Although he would miss a day of court, Dominick knew how important it was to accurately source his material and get the facts straight.

So when I finally got a copy of the July 2012 issue of Vanity Fair and read Mark Bowden’s lengthy article on the Stephanie Lazarus case -- which I covered -- I was puzzled because it raised a lot of troubling questions.

When I first read Bowden's article something struck me as slightly off.  It had to do with the quoted statements of Lazarus and the detectives.  Initially, I thought it was just a matter of Bowden dropping words or smoothing out the dialogue for readability.  Then I consulted the transcript of the interrogation and compared what was actually said to the dialogue Bowden quotes in his Vanity Fair article. In multiple places, they do not line up. In at least one instance, Bowden actually adds a line of dialogue that does not appear in the video or transcript. Here is the first dialogue quoted in Vanity Fair:

Vanity Fair Article Page 124:

Vanity Fair Article Page 124:
Page 10 of the Official Transcript, Video Time 01:36

Vanity Fair Article Page 125:

Bowden shuffled the sequence of what was actually said. Note the numbers of the transcript pages below.
Page 14 of the Official Transcript, Video Time 04:13

Page 17 of the Official Transcript, Video Time 07:31

Page 16 of the Official Transcript, Video Time 05:57

Page 19 of the Official Transcript, Video Time 08:51

Factual Errors
I am also compelled to set the record straight regarding multiple factual errors I noticed in the article. 

#1.Vanity Fair Article Page 124: 

 When Stephanie Lazarus left her desk to accompany Detective Jaramillo to the interview room in the jail, she did not bring her weapon with her. 

#2. Vanity Fair Article Page 125:

Sherri Rasmussen's sister, Teresa Lane, verified for me that at age 16, Sherri Rasmussen enrolled in a nursing program at Loma Linda University. Years later, she worked as a nurse at U.C.L.A. Medical Center. 

#3. Vanity Fair Article Page 129: 

The sole mention of Stephanie Lazarus in the Rasmussen case file is a chrono entry on November 19th, 1987.  This document was entered into evidence at trial. (Address and phone numbers have been redacted for privacy.) The first entry on that page, dated 11/18, notes the Rasmussen family is flying into Los Angeles on "11/23/87" for a press conference. The press conference was reported on in the Los Angeles Times on November 24th, 1987.  
Rasmussen Case File Chronological Record Document

#4. Vanity Fair Article Page 146:

Sherri Rasmussen’s widower, John Ruetten testified on February 15th, 2012 and February 16th, 2012.  Ruetten said he reconnected with Lazarus in Hawaii in 1989.  Ruetten testified that during the following year and a half, he and Stephanie were sexually intimate on two occasions.

#5. Vanity Fair Article Page 148

There was no evidence presented at trial that proved Lazarus came to Sherri's home that day with the specific intention to kill her. Former FBI profiler and crime scene analyst Mark Safarik testified for the prosecution on February 24, 2012, the 26th anniversary of the murder. I remember that was a very difficult day for the Rasmussen family.  In Safarik's analysis of the case file -- the evidence, the crime scene photographs, and after visiting the scene of the crime -- he testified that it is impossible to know for certain the exact sequence of events that transpired when Sherri Rasmussen was killed.

#6. Vanity Fair Article Page 148:
Van Nuys Homicide Detectives confirmed to me that John Ruetten informed them in 2009 that his former girlfriend Stephanie Lazarus was an LAPD officer.  When the detectives ran Lazarus’ name through Groupwise, the LAPD's E-mail directory, they saw that she was still on the job and worked downtown in Commercial Crimes. Not a single member of the Van Nuys Homicide Unit recognized her name or in any way considered her an "esteemed colleague." 

#7. Vanity Fair Article Page 148:

UPDATE: June 22nd, 2012 1:30 AM
Clip #7 from Vanity Fair, (above) has been updated to include a few more lines of text.

On February 9th, 2012,  undercover Detective Roberto Morales, testified that Lazarus was sitting outside in the Costco food court when he observed her drinking from a cup with a lid and straw.   After she threw the cup in the trash and walked away Morales retrieved the discarded cup.

In Matthew McGough's article on the Lazarus investigation, published in the June 2011 issue of  The Atlantic magazine, he reported that the cup and straw with Lazarus's DNA were collected on May 27th, 2009, and the crime lab completed its DNA analysis two days later on May 29th, 2009.

On February 9th, 2012, Sergeant James Hensley confirmed on the witness stand that he delivered the cup and straw to the crime lab on May 27th, 2009.  Later in the trial, Detective Greg Stearns testified that he was assigned the case on May 29th, 2009. This was the same day that the DNA results were confirmed. A special thank you to T&T reader and commenter "EvictObama" for drawing my attention to this additional factual error in Mark Bowden's Vanity Fair article.

UPDATE: June 23rd, 2012 7:00 PM
Additional Factual Error

#8. Vanity Fair Article Page 126:

Bowden appears to be talking about the 1986 investigation, yet the "saliva swab" was not tested in 1986.  The "saliva swab" was not located until December 2004 after a search of the Los Angeles County Coroner's freezers. The swab was never tested for blood type. It was tested for DNA in February 2005. 

Continued in Part II.... 


Anonymous said...

looks like Mark Bowden and Vanity Fair owe their readers an explanation... seriously, WTF?

ritanita said...

Hey, Sprocket!

Mr. Bowden sure took a lot of dramatic license in his article! When I read the article, I knew something was off. I had viewed the video a couple of times and it was never as concine and dramatic as what appeared in the article.

As for the factual errors, I am sure we will see more in Part2! That is unforgivable.

I know I made factual errors while literally typing hearings, jury selection, and trial of you-all-know-who-whose-name-I-do-not-write.

If I missed a date or name, it was back to the video-tape to verify. That was during lunch time and after the end of the day.

Facts I mis-typed or mis-heard, well, our good readers here pointed them out and I would thank the reader, check the video-tape and correct in the article.

I expect Mr. Bowden to thank you for pointing out his errors.

Maddie said...

I miss Dominick Dunne. How very cool that you had the opportunity to meet that great man.

Perhaps you ought to have a gig with Vanity Fair?! They really should consider hiring you. More than consider -- they should just hire you!

Thank you, once again, for your excellent reporting. I wonder if John Ruetten has stopped throwing up, knowing that he (unknowingly, after the fact) slept with his wife's murderer.

Anonymous said...

regardless..this was still a great riveting article....

EvictObama said...

God,how pretentious.Have some people nothing better to do than dissect a video & magazine article to petty nit-pick.I wouldn't care but the discrepancies are so trivial.Take #5. Vanity Fair Article Page 148.Who could really disagree with Bowden's contention here?"Whoever had come looking for Sherri had come to kill her".Just because there was no evidence relating to intent,anyone with a pair of neurones to rub together knows damn well Lazarus wasn't coming for a cup of tea & a biscuit!Get a life!What are you going to do next?Grab a dozen true crime books & tear them apart for trivial authorship discrepancies?
At the end of the day Lazarus,murdered,went to trial,justice was served & was weighed off.To rip a mag article apart that is 99.9% fact just comes across to me as sheer childish arrogance.

Anonymous said...

According to Wikipedia, Mark Bowden was inspired to become a journalist by Tom Wolfe. This was around 1970 when Bowden was in college.

Wolfe was considered the originator of what was then called "The New Journalism." Bowden's VF article on the Lazarus case is presumably an example.

David In TN

Robert said...

Journalism is not fiction writing, regardless of Mr. Bowden's attempts. It's primary goal is to get the facts right, the names right and correctly spelled and to get it done in a timely manner. It appears that Vanity Fair got a lot of their facts wrong, misquoted people or made up quotes and inverted the order of discussion. Sorry, but the entire article goes in the trash bin because all of its claims are now suspect.

The author's claim that items in the original folder that pointed to Lazarus had disappeared and items booked into evidence and which had DNA possibilities had been signed out by another detective and subsequently disappeared. If either of those claims are true, then that detective and/or others should be brought up on charges.

I'm waiting to hear what Sprocket discovers about those specific allegations. Considering the shoddy treatment that the rest of the evidence received from the VF author I now doubt those statements are true... but I'll wait to see what Sprocket discovers.

I for one, give a hearty thumbs up to Betsy Ross and encourage Vanity Fair to hire someone who has a nice clean style, and always gets the facts right. They certainly don't have such an author in their employ right now.

Maddie said...

Hopefully "EvictObama" will stop reading this blog if he/she is so perturbed by it. And, sorry to sound petty, but "anyone with a pair of neuronEs" -- that's neurons (minus the e).... Well, nothing more need said about that. Guess I'm just one of those pretentious/nit-picky types, too.

Thank you, Robert, for setting the journalism record straight.

tina from sphilly said...

I must say I agree with EvictObama..i HIGHLY respect Sprocket forw hat she does..and she does it GREAT! and i can understand giving her opinion about the VF article. BUT COME ON. i read her dissetion and it seems to me they didnt write anythibg that DID NOT come out of SL mouht, they just groped it differnet..WHO CARES!! THYE TOLD THE STORY ..ALL TRUTH..i mean, why spend all this time butchering someone else's article....

EvictObama said...

Quote: but "anyone with a pair of neuronEs" -- that's neurons (minus the e)
Crap!Check your online dictionary,it can be spelt either with an e or without.You're right,you are pretentious & nit-picky & just like the author.
@Tina...exactly why spend ages butchering a largely accurate & well written account.So sad on behalf of the author.Jesus wept you'd think Bowden had said Lazarus was framed or something.Laughable.Looking forward to the second instalment.Probably hours in the making just so Bowden doesn't overshadow those who actually attended the trial & their rule of law.

Ellen said...

Thank you for fact checking the VF article. I am also a long time VF reader and felt the same way about Dominic D.'s articles.

Maddie said...

Thank you so much, OE -- I stand corrected.

Sprocket, you really are too kind to allow posters who spew such vitriol.

Anonymous said...

EvictObama, many people don't think Lazarus went to the condo with murderous intent. She may have just been on one of her obsessive snooping expeditions. However, Sherri was unexpectedly home from work that day, and the situation became deadly. I think if Lazarus went to the condo intending to kill Sherri, she wouldn't have used her LAPD approved weapon and ammo. That gun along with those bullets could've been easily traced to her (if she was investigated in a timely manner!).

Sprocket, Bowden mentions that Nels and Loretta cooperated with the TV show Murder One, which did a segment on Sherri's murder. Was this back in the 80's? I am not familiar with that show. Was it similar to the 48 Hours series?

EvictObama said...

Maddie said...
Thank you so much, OE -- I stand corrected.

Sprocket, you really are too kind to allow posters who spew such vitriol.

a)Thanks for accepting the correction.b)It's not vitriol,it's called having an opposing opinion & not being afraid to say it!I creep to nobody.I've folowed & read this blog on Lazarus' murder case avidly but I really feel the petty dissection of another's in such detail is totally unnecessary & serves more to illustrate the bloggers antagonism at being 'overshadowed.'
Best line from MB:Three days later the lab confirmed that the mouth on that straw was the mouth that had bitten Sherri Rasmussen’s forearm in a violent struggle 23 years ago.
Any ordinary reporter/journalist/blogger would've just said the DNA matched.
That is the originality & class of Bowden.

Maddie said...

OE -- I liked that Bowden line, too.

I'll just say this about the Vanity Fair piece -- Dominick Dunne was a hard act to follow. I know *I* wouldn't want to do it. Perhaps MB's article would have had a better fit in People. (And I don't mean that as a slight -- I have a friend who writes for that mag.)

tina from sphilly said...

Once Again, I agree with EvictObama. i understand that Sprocket has every right to comment ont he VF article, and she is probably correct in her opinion. but i just thoguht it was a bit much, sorta "bashing" it. anywho, thank you for letting ALL OF US write on here. I would hope sprocket would agree that the beauty of having a blog is not to just have people totally agree with everything you say or write, but to criticize constructively, which i feel we all have done. thanks again.. oh and pardon my spelling...

Robert said...

As has been said many times, you are entitled to your own opinion, but you are not entitled to your own facts. If a journalist conflates a quote, and/or changes the order of questions and answers when they have the tape to refer to is plainly and simply wrong. It is a distortion. If they withhold facts or put words in people's mouths it is wrong. It is a distortion.

If that journalist goes on to make other statements that are untrue and quite easily fact checked it puts everything in the piece at question. The claim that the article was 99.9% true is the question at hand. I don't want to read an article and have to guess which statement out of 100 was a lie. Or to feel comfortable that this time Mr. Bowden got it 86% right but next time he will be in the low nineties.

It's either all right or it is shoddy journalism worthy of lining the cat's box and nothing more. If one does not fight for the truth, the whole truth and nothing but, then we settle for lies and spend the rest of our days trying to figure out what was true and what was not. Eventually half truths take on a life of their own and eventually they substitute for the truth.

I applaud Sprocket for pointing out half truths in the Vanity Fair article and I hope she blisters his behind with the second posting. You act as if she should be ashamed because Mr. Bowden's article is largely a work of fiction.

I'd love to see you swear in witnesses.... "Do you swear to mostly tell the truth for at least 99.9% of the time so help you God?

ritanita said...

Evict Obama, you have said what you believe and that's okay with me. Personally, I like to read something written with style and flair AND with all the facts correct.

IMHO, the section of dialogue taken out of order and put together to make a more compelling article robs it of veracity.

His dialogue would make a decent screenplay, perhaps.

Anonymous said...

In my opinion, Betsy Ross' good efforts are unpaid and by some, under appreciated. Mr. Evict Obama's angry accusations have no place here. His "handle" says it all, don't you think? Very likely a narrow minded Fox News, Bill O'Reily, Rush Limbaugh addict with issues. Once again, Betsy. Thank you so very much for taking us all into the courtroom, behind the scenes and sharing your valuable and knowledgeable contacts and information. BJ in SV

EvictObama said...

@ Tina
Your spelling's fine with me & moreso the content.Just glad someone else can see the unnecessary 'bashing' too!
At the end of the day the purpose of MB's article is to reach the general public in an interesting & vivid manner.The average reader aint going to give a monkeys if a few of the questions are a little out of order or if she was sat inside or outside a Costco.The details highlighted are so trivial i'm frankly astonished.If Bowden had've said Rassmussen had been knifed,yes.There probably isn't a true crime book or journal on the planet that is 100% written on fact.
I'm really sure the average VF reader discussing the Lazarus case with a friend is going to say,"hey you know what,Jim, Lazarus was sat inside the Costco!Fancy that eh!"
Far more likely to say the murdering bitch got what she deserved,a long time in the slammer!

Anonymous said...

I'm really surprised at the intense reactions to Sprocket's blog comparisons with the VF author. Yes, perhaps the errors she pointed out thus far were primarily in the details, but for those of us who regularly read Sprocket's blog, we know that she prides herself on "getting it right" and that's what we appreciate about her reportage. It's why we come here. For someone of Bowden's reputation to toy with those details does not seem appropriate or even necessary. The story itself lacks nothing in drama and does not need rearranging or mis-quotes, however small, to make it more dramatic. It must be offensive to one who attended every day of the trial and has access to evidence and transcripts to see facts, small or large, reported inaccurately. As was long ago said, "The devil is in the details" and if the details are not accurate, then every other part of the story is open to suspicion - rightly or wrongly.

A civil exchange of ideas is what Sprocket has always encouraged on her blog and hopefully, the tone of those espressions will reflect that civility whether one agrees or disagrees with the author/poster's opinion.


tina from sphilly said...

@ Anonymous "senior moments" i couldnt agree more, being an avid sprocket fan (I read this blog every day 10 x a day) and followed the SL file inside and i can understand where you are coming from in that Sprocket would be critiquing the VF Article i cannot speak for "evict obama" but my comments are striclty meant to be constructive in a very respectful way. Im sure evictobama feels the same way. i guess we just are so anxious to hear about SL herself, that we didnt understadnt what the big deal was. ALL MY RESPECTS TO SPROCKET AND ALL OF THE READERS ON HERE...

Anonymous said...

I think the editors should be apprised of what you found.

The practice of patching and re-arranging quotes and pieces of conversation is more akin to the style of reporting---if you can call it that----of the National Enquirer. In fact, the LA Times covered it as part of the lawsuits by Carol Burnett and Carroll O'Connor in their respective lawsuits many years ago. I remember it well.
-Wes J.

Anonymous said...

I have listened to the Lazarus interview I don't know how many times. It was fascinating to me so I never tired of it. Fascinating and satisfying. When I read the VF piece I was so surprised at the errors. And I wondered why?? I still do. Now I do not trust for accurate truth any of what the author has written. Thank you, Sproket for keeping the record straight.

Caroleanne19 said...

Sprocket: I for one am thankful for your respect of truth and facts. I have not read the VF article yet, I plan on doing that next, but was interested in the above responses. It is only because I have read your blog, that when reading other articles re: this case I realize at once when facts are wrong. Thank you for your effort and I applaud your search for the truth in reporting.

debbiescalisi said...

I read the Vanity Fair article standing in the drug store waiting for a prescription to be filled so I did not take the time to fine-line it and things that seemed different I attributed to my own oversight. We are all spoiled by Sprocket's diligent & thorough reporting. I am not a writer so I cannot say if Mark Bowden was being sloppy or just trying to jazz up some things in the article. BTW, I loved Maddie's two comments: (1) John Ruetten still throwing up over the Hawaii encounter with SL. That is one of the worse details of this case; AND (2) about Dominick Dunne: my mom loved his writings and was hooked on his trial reporting back in 1994 with his Nicole Simpson murder/O.J. Simpson coverage.

Maddie said...

Thanks, debbiescalisi! I loved your comment in the booking photo post "I am a betting woman...." It goes without saying that I hope Scott is surrounded by caring family and friends, and that he's able to go on and have a happy life with his daughter. Oh, and that he'll one day remarry. SL deserves the same emotional torture she's inflicted on countless others. Make that *more* emotional torture.

Sprocket, have any of the jury members spoken about their deliberations/experiences? Perhaps these will be addressed in Matthew's book.

Anonymous said...

As Joe Friday used to say...Just the Facts, Mam...

Don’t you give a single worry or thought to the little narrow minded critics. You were our witness, our internet voice and you have countless grateful fans. You were there! You catalogued a myriad of documents. You lived this case! Your Mark Bowden critique was appropriate.
Just the Facts Mam!

Mark Bowden’s writing is talented and immensely readable. The guy can certainly turn a phrase. For the large percentage of VF readers who knew nothing of this story beforehand, his reporting is truly informative. But I agree investigative reporting needs to be if nothing, factual. It’s what we are all about as Americans. The truth!

On behalf of your countless admirers...Good Job! BJ in SV

Cam said...

A small quibble regards #6: the detectives didn't need to know Lazarus for her to be an 'esteemed colleague'. She was still a colleague, and apparently esteemed by some.

katfish said...

Sprocket, Thank you for your efforts to always present a detailed and accurate account of the court cases you attend and report.

Unfortunately, I wasn't able to follow the Lazarus case as closely as I wanted because of everyday life,so I won't comment on the specifics or whether the errors in the article were significant(To each their own); however, there certainly seems to be a good deal of creative license taken for an article presented as investigative journalism. What I DO know is you're an honorable and kind person, so I trust if you felt the critique was worthy of your time it was important.

Kitty said...

Betsey his reporting was not as good and accurate as your...

Kathy said...

Dominick Dunne would be very proud of you.