The (Almost) Perfect Murder
An LAPD Detective murdered a romantic rival and almost got away with it.
“Have you checked out John’s ex-girlfriend, the lady cop?” Nels Rasmussen would ask the cops time after time about his daughter's murderer. Those investigating the death blew him off as a kook, a grieving father who would blame anyone for the death of his beloved daughter. As time would prove though, he was on the right track, and because (or perhaps in spite) of his persistence, Stephanie Lazarus was finally brought to justice, despite an alleged attempt by the LAPD to cover up the crime for one of their own.
Sherri Rasmussen's murder seems like a Lifetime movie in the making. When she married John Ruetten, life was perfect. Or so she thought. The newlyweds bought a house, but there was a tension that remained from when they were dating. A tension by the name of Stephanie Lazarus. An ex-girlfriend or ex-lover, depending on who's story is found to be more believable. Lazarus kept coming around, insinuating that she and Ruetten were still involved. After every encounter, Ruetten would assure his wife that nothing was further from the truth and insisted they should ignore the other woman.
Lazarus was hard to ignore though. Especially when began showing up to Sherri's work and threatening her. Their last encounter ended with a thinly veiled threat, “If I can’t have John, nobody can.” It was a very Fatal Attraction moment and one that friends of Sherri would recall for years to come, too bad police didn't ask about it until decades after the murder.
On the morning of February 24, 1986, Sherri and Ruetten had a conversation that many married couples have; Sherri didn't want to go into work, and Ruetten encouraged his new bride to take the day off. Throughout the day, Ruetten tried to call her but couldn't get ahold of her. A secretary at her work informed him that she hadn't seen his wife but that it wasn't abnormal for her to go directly to the new nurses before coming to the office. In essence, nobody had a reason to worry.
Until Ruetten got home that night and found glass on the driveway, and his wife's car gone. He was convinced that she had broken the mirror on the car again, as he made his way into the condo. He walked in and found Sherri's corpse laying on the floor, blood pooled around her body. It looked as if someone had tried to break into the house and she surprised the robbers.
The police came out, and while they did briefly look into John as a suspect, they cleared him. There were no issues in the marriage, and everyone seemed to believe that this was a couple that would stand the test of time. Detectives shrugged and blamed the alleged Latin men who had been rumored to be breaking into houses around the neighborhood. It made more sense than actually looking into the case and expending the energy to find a killer.
Especially a killer who would turn out to be one of their own. Nels Rasmussen would keep hounding police and the media to check into Lazarus as a suspect, but no one took him seriously. It was the Latin men who were robbing houses, the case was closed.
Though someone forgot to actually close the case. In 2004, with murder down in LA, detectives started looking at cold cases. Sherri's came up, and they poked at it with a stick. Metaphorically speaking. Detective Jennifer Francis looked at the case and discovered that another detective, Phil Moritt had checked most of the evidence out of the lab and never brought it back. However, there was a piece of evidence that nagged at Francis, a bite mark on Sherri. They had taken DNA swabs but had never run the tests, and the swabs were not part of the evidence that had been taken out of the evidence lab.
Francis went to the freezer where the swabs had been stored and searched for the DNA by the case number, but nothing came up. She went in and personally searched the freezer and found an envelope with "Rasmussen" written on it. After getting the results back from the lab, she ran the DNA through CODIS (a national database for law-enforcement personnel). There were no results, but she did find out that despite the earlier theory that it was two Latin men, the DNA belonged to a woman.
The plot thickens. Not really, the old theory just got a bit of an update. Instead of two men, it was not a man and woman who robbed and surprised Sherri. Nels once again if they looked into "the lady cop." They did not.
Nor would they until February of 2009, 13 years after Sherri was savagely murdered. Homicide Detective Jim Nuttall would be assigned the case and finally, start thinking that maybe this wasn't a robbery after all. He talked to his boss, who appointed two other detectives to help with the case. As they began to investigate in earnest, it became clear that Stephanie Lazarus might know something about what had happened. They began to build a case against their colleague, albeit covertly, so as not to tip her off.
Ruetten was asked if he had ever had a relationship with Lazarus, he denied a relationship but did admit to sleeping with her in college. This flagged suspicion even more, and the detectives went to their superior, who in turn told them to go to Internal Affairs-Special Operations. They were able to get a sample of Lazarus's DNA by grabbing a cup and straw she used after getting lunch at Costco with her daughter. Maybe murderers should stop eating in public with their daughters if they don't want to get caught. Once they compared the DNA samples, they found a match. It was more than likely that Lazarus had killed Sherri, yet her coworkers still did not want to believe it. Maybe it was all a misunderstanding, and she hadn't meant to kill her rival. Who among us hasn't gone to someone's house and accidentally killed them?
Nuttall and Detective Dan Jaramillo decided to talk to Lazarus. During the course of the interview, her story went from never having met Sherri to being in a love triangle with her, in less time than it takes Shonda Rhimes to twist a storyline into a pretzel to keep viewers on the edge of their seats. Lazarus told them that sometime after Sherri died, she and Ruetten went to Hawaii, though she doesn't indicate if they went together or if they happened to be there at the same time. Maybe she decided to stalk the widower? Her words flowed freely until she realized that she was a suspect in the murder. A picture emerged of what happened the day she killed Sherri. But what they didn't know was how she had gotten away with it for so long.
Stephanie Lazarus was a good cop, she knew the rules inside and out. She also knew how criminals got caught. After waiting for Ruetten to leave for work, she snuck into the garage and entered the condo. Carefully, she crept up the stairs and surprised her rival, who was getting ready for work. A fight ensued, and Sherri tried to get downstairs to press the panic button on the home security system they had recently bought. Lazarus couldn't have that, so she shot her rival. Once would have been enough to kill her, but she fired two more rounds into the body. What is it with murderers and shooting three times? As the blood poured out of her rival's body, Lazarus made sure that she smeared some on the stereo and other valuable items, so it looked like Sherri had stopped a robbery.
She even had the foresight to not use her duty gun. Most murderers want to get rid of the murder weapon right after, and losing a duty gun would have caused quite a stir in the department. Lazarus went out and bought a .38 caliber gun, and then a few weeks after the murder, the gun was reported missing. Her tracks were covered.
And those that she hadn't thought to cover were covered by her brothers in blue. Whether intentionally or not, the LAPD helped to hide evidence that could have been used to solve the case sooner. Since Lazarus was a popular and dedicated cop, many people have theorized that her coworkers may have purposely covered up for her and kept with the theory of a robbery with the Latin men to protect one of their own. Something that the LAPD denies.
What cannot be denied is that a vicious love triangle came to a horrific conclusion. Stephanie Lazarus was convicted of the murder in March of 2012, 26 years after Sherri was killed. Nels has to feel vindicated that he was right to suspect "the lady cop" after all.