Written By: Naomi
Sherri Rasmussen was born February 7th, 1957 in California to Nels and Lorretta Rasmussen. Sherri was a bright woman who went into Loma Linda University at the age of 16 for critical care nursing, by the time she was in her 20’s Sherri was the director of nursing at Glendale Adventist Medical Center and would educate other nurses internationally. It was the summer of 1984 when Sherri was 27 that she met 25 year old John Ruetten who was a mechanical engineering graduate of UCLA. John is noted saying that the strength and confidence with which Sherri carried herself is how he wanted to be or how he saw himself at his best. Their romance was strong and they were married a year later in November of 1985.
On February 24th of the following year after the holidays Sherri was normally the first to rise and go to work but the couple had gone out the night before and Sherri wanted to stay home since she did not want to teach the class she had that morning. She told John she was considering calling in sick and just staying home, but she was still undecided when John left for work at 7:20am. When he arrived at work he did not immediately call home to check up on her in case she had decided to sleep in but when he called their home phone around 9:45am and received no answer, he assumed she had decided to go to work anyway. Sherri’s sister also called their home and received no answer. When John called into Sherri’s office the secretary told John that she had not seen Sherri that day, but that did not mean she had not come to work since Sherri did not always go to the office before class. John continued his day and was in no rush to get home, stopping to do errands on his way.
Even when he arrived at their home and found the garage open, that Sherri’s BMW he had gotten her as an engagement gift was gone, and broken glass in the driveway, he was still not alarmed. The week prior, Sherri had ran into something backing out of the garage and broken something on her car so John could only wonder what she had done this time. But when he entered the home, the alarm would overcome him quickly. The door into their home was also left open, the glass sliding doors to the balcony above their driveway were shattered explaining the glass John had found, in the living room there was a broken vase, toppled furniture, a bloody hand print next to the alarm system’s panic button all showing signs of a struggle and in the living room laid Sherri.
Sherri was in her robe from that morning, she had been shot three times, her face was bloody and battered, she had a bite mark on her arm, and she was cold and stiff to the touch.
Around the time that John placed the first call to the home, a neighbor in the complex had noticed the garage door was left open. Around noon gardeners at the complex found Sherri’s purse outside and a maid that was cleaning a nearby unit 30 minutes later heard what she thought was a fight and then something hitting the ground, however, she thought it had been a domestic dispute so she did not call the police. It was likely that Sherri had been hit over the head with the vase and there were signs that whoever had done this to her tried to tie her up at one point. Some of the bruises on her face were caused by the muzzle of a gun and when she had been shot her attacker shot her through a quilt in an attempt to muffle the sound. The bullet wounds to her chest had contact burns telling investigators she had been shot point blank, any of the three shots alone would have been fatal.
Lead Detective Lyle Mayer began his investigation by looking into John but he was quickly ruled out, when the detective saw how distraught he was.
Detectives hypothesized that Sherri had been caught unaware by a burglar who had been trying to steal electronics but fled the scene when it had turned to murder, explaining why jewelry had been left behind and they had used Sherri’s car as a get away vehicle which was found abandoned a week later. This seemed like the most likely case for police as another burglary was later reported in the area and the two suspects had a .38 caliber handgun, the same caliber as the weapon used in Sherri’s murder.
However, theories fell apart when further evidence was taken into account, in the home nothing was missing other than the couple's marriage license. And the bite mark on Sherri’s arm stood out since bites are usually inflicted by women in fights while most burglars are men. But since some men have been known to leave bite marks in fights, the burglar theory was not entirely dismissed. A cast was made of the bite for tooth comparisons and a swab had been taken of the bite mark but there was not enough DNA to create a profile of the killer. A $10,000 reward was offered for more information on the case by Sherri’s family but nothing came of this. The case lost traction with LAPD since their focus had shifted to dealing with warring gangs, the crack epidemic, and other violence in the city. Sherri’s family felt the police were unhelpful and when they would call the department for updates on their daughter’s case, they would be dismissed, hung up on, or placed on hold for extended periods of time. John moved on, shortly after the murder of his wife he quit his job and moved out of LA before eventually remarrying. He did not pressure police to solve his late-wife’s case like his in-laws did.
Years passed and detective Mayer retired. The case had gone cold and no one felt that any new leads would come up despite the attempts by Sherri’s family to keep the case in the forefront of people’s minds through press conferences and speaking on different shows. Not taking no for an answer, Sherri’s father offered to pay for another DNA test to be done in 1993 since technology had been advancing rapidly and the department claimed to not have enough money to test the DNA before. The police denied the request saying it would be pointless to do the testing without a suspect. Though the LAPD had formed a cold case unit in the 1990’s, the DNA collected in Sherri’s case was not analyzed until 2004.
The swab was mentioned in some case notes but was never checked in as evidence, it was found in the back of a coroner’s fridge after a week of searching by hand by a team. The DNA was processed and did not match known DNA of criminals in the CODIS database but did point to a female. With no leads, the DNA and evidence were put back into the files to be untouched for another 5 years.
In 2009 crime rates were down in LA so more focus was put on solving cold cases to raise the department’s clearance rates. Finally, Van Nuys, Jim Nuttall, and Pete Barba looked at the case and found the female DNA to be interesting enough for them to toss out the burglar idea for good and finally try to pin down who had killed Sherri Rasmussen 23 years earlier.
They started the investigation over from the very beginning and could see early on that the burglar theory was improbable and likely staged to throw detectives off. The crime had taken place during the day and Sherri’s jewelry box that had been in plain sight on the dresser was left untouched. The original theory also claimed that the altercation between Sherri and her attacker began on the second floor of their home when Sherri walked in on the burglars and led downstairs to where her body had been found. At the top of the stairs was stereo equipment that had been stacked up by the “robbers” that likely would have been knocked over had this theory been true and a robber would flee the scene quickly after a murder, not stayed to stack the equipment back up like it had been in this case. Supporting this was a smudge of Sherri’s blood that looked to be fingerprint size but the assailant had been wearing gloves so no fingerprint could be collected. This showed the equipment had been stacked after Sherri had been killed to make the scene appear more like a burglary.
The front door showed no signs of damage and the alarm of the home had been turned off so the team theorized that Sherri had likely been upstairs in her room and been surprised by someone who stealthily came into her home. This person began shooting at her immediately, two bullets hitting the sliding glass doors and shattering them, this told the group the person had the intent to kill Sherri. She fled her room and likely went to hit the panic button but the attacker got to her first, they struggled and Sherri might have gotten the intruder into a headlock, causing them to bite her forearm thus leaving the mark. Sherri let go of the person and they grabbed a large vase nearby, hitting Sherri in the head, stunning her and sending her to the floor where the attacker shot Sherri once before grabbing a blanket to muffle the sound and shooting her two more times to ensure her death. Sifting through the four volumes that the case now comprised of, they were able to find 4 female suspects that had never been investigated - shocking them all, one was an LAPD Detective.
For years, Sherri’s family felt they had a good idea of who had killed her. The fact the shots had been muffled with a blanket and the killer had fired three shots directly into her chest supported this was a planned murder. Sherri’s father Nels believed from the beginning that his daughter had been killed by Stephanie Lazarus.
Lazarus had gone to school with Sherri’s husband John and studied political science. She and John reportedly had casual relationship but never officially dated. After John graduated Lazarus applied for the city’s police academy and would join the LAPD in 1983. Lazarus was not aware during her affair with John that he was also seeing other women, John reported that he had only slept with Lazarus once after he graduated but Lazarus claims they slept together 20 - 30 times the three years they had this relationship. She would also steal John’s clothing when he showered and take nude photos of him while he slept. Lazarus fell into a depression when she found out John was in a serious relationship with Sherri and that they would be getting married. She visited John at the condo he shared with Sherri multiple times during their engagement, in order to bring things for him to fix or have the excuse she was picking up something to show up armed and in uniform to intimidate Sherri who told John on multiple occasions that she was uncomfortable with Lazarus. Sherri was visited by Lazarus at their condo one day when normally she was at work and John would be home, leading her to worry that John and Lazarus would spend time together while she was at work. Lazarus wrote in her journal that when she was visiting the condo she and John had sex so she could receive closure from the situation. Sherri confirmed with John that the relationship between he and Lazarus had ended but Lazarus appeared at Sherri’s office to inform her that the relationship between her and John was still ongoing, Lazarus then told Sherri that if she could not have John, then no one could. Sherri told her father that she felt Lazarus had been stalking her. When police asked John after the murder if it was a possibility, he claimed that he and Sherri had never even discussed Lazarus. In 1989 John called detective Mayer to ensure that the police had no evidence connecting Lazarus to the murder of his wife and it was later shown that this was because he was meeting with her for a scuba diving trip in Hawaii shortly after and the implication that she had killed his wife was still weighing heavily on his mind even though he originally was adamant she had nothing to do with the murder.
Despite the allegations, Lazarus continued to work for LAPD, opened her own private investigation firm, and was promoted to detective for the LAPD in 1993. She moved on to become an instructor at the police academy and marry a fellow police officer. In 2004 when the criminalist that had processed the DNA and determined the attacker was female she by happenstance had access to the full case file and saw reports of a female harassing Sherri at work, figuring the DNA might belong to this individual she asked if this woman had been investigated to the supervising detective to which he said, “Oh, the LAPD detective…she's not a part of this” and insisted that it was a burglary despite the female DNA which led to the evidence being shelved. By 2009 when the new team was looking into Sherri’s murder Lazarus was working on art theft cases. They determined they would need to move forward carefully as Lazarus was still an active officer but still they listed her as the least likely suspect in Sherri’s case since the files reflected interviews with John where he confirmed the relationship with Lazarus had ended the summer before the murder.
The team was able to eliminate all but one other suspect who had been a coworker of Sherri’s and even she was cleared through collected DNA, leaving Lazarus as the only suspect. The investigation was kept secret as to not tip her, her husband, or friends off that she was being looked into and on the chance she did not commit the crime they did not want to slander their fellow officer’s name since she had a clean record with the department. Lazarus was referred to as “No. 5” and the case was worked on after hours to ensure they were not detected. Sherri’s father worked with the new team and told them about Lazarus’ continued harassment of Sherri since it had not been included in the case files despite him speaking to multiple detective about it in the past, this shifted Lazarus to their prime suspect. Lazarus had been off duty the day of the crime and one person on the team discovered that most off-duty officers would carry a .38 caliber handgun on their person or as their backup weapon, the same type of weapon used in Sherri’s murder and the type of ammunition that was used is the same type that officers were required to use. State records showed that Lazarus did in fact own a Smith &Wesson Model 49 .38 at the time of the murder, thirteen days after the attack, Lazarus reported the weapon stolen to Santa Monica police but not to her own department. If Lazarus had committed the crime she would know enough to cover up the crime so she manipulated the crime scene to make it look like a burglary and used her off-duty weapon in the crime as the punishment for losing or the theft of their on-duty weapon was severe. They determined that Lazarus had likely thrown the off-duty gun off one of the piers in Santa Monica so without the weapon, they turned to the DNA to connect Lazarus to the crime. Years later it came out that the criminalist that had identified the DNA as female heard about the new investigation into the case and did not tell the team her suspicions that it belonged to Lazarus out of fear of retaliation, she felt that Lazarus was being protected by higher ups in the department. The team knew they could not risk getting a warrant to collect DNA from her which would inform her that she was investigation, they set out to collect a voluntarily discarded DNA sample which came in the form of a cup she had been drinking from while off-duty. The DNA was compared to the sample from the bite on Sherri’s arm which was a match.
Arresting Lazarus needed to be carefully orchestrated as they did not want to risk her resistance. On June 5th, 2009 a team of officers who were selected for their minimal interactions with Detective Lazarus were given few details about the arrest and surrounded areas around her home and the metro station she went to normally to commute to work. A lockup where she would need to surrender her weapon was selected to call Lazarus and tell her that there was a suspect who had been arrested and wanted to speak to her about an art theft.
When Lazarus arrived they gained her trust, explaining they had actually called her there about the Rasmussen case, and that her name had simply come up in connection with her old boyfriend John and since she was now married they were trying to make this meeting private so that it would not become office gossip. They knew she knew her rights and questioning techniques they used so they worked slowly, talking about various topics and unrelated police business to make the questioning casual. Lazarus confirmed that she had known John, correcting the detective when he mis-pronounced John’s last name even, but when asked if she knew John’s wife, she claimed to have never met her, she had only known that John had gotten married but didn't know his wife’s name. She feigned ignorance and claimed it had been too long since she had thought about or had interactions with John that she could not answer the questions they were asking her, she only clearly knew that Sherri had been killed. But as questioning went on, Lazarus’ story changed, she had visited Sherri at work a few times, and she had gone there to tell her that John was annoying her and was still talking to her despite the two’s relationship. All she could continue saying was, “It was a million years ago, how could I remember?”. After an hour of playing dumb, she confronted detectives, asking if she was a suspect. They had to confirm at this point and mentioned they had DNA from the crime scene, and if she would submit a sample of her own for comparison. Lazarus declined and left the room where she was promptly arrested and charged for the murder of Sherri Rasmussen.
The police teams that had been stationed near her home and the metro station searched her car and home for evidence, they found a journal from the 1980’s where she was clear about her love for John and dejection over his engagement, there was never any mention of her weapon being stolen. Computer records showed that Lazarus had looked up Sherri’s name multiple times in the 1990’s looking for updates on the case.
Coworkers and those who knew Lazarus were shocked that she was being looked into for murder, but noted when she was angry that she would behave erratically. After her arrest Lazarus was allowed to retire early from the LAPD but her bail was set to $10 million cash only, surprising many as this was much higher than suggested. The judge did so knowing that if Lazarus did bail, she would likely flee the country to escape trial since the case against her was so strong. The defense tried to argue that this amount was uncalled for and that the judge simply did not understand the case, Lazarus’ brother tried to claim she was not receiving proper care while in custody since she was not receiving treatment for an unspecified cancer.
Lazarus’ lawyer tried to have the case overturned since the investigators could have named Lazarus as a suspect in the original investigation but didn’t so there was no reason for her to be named now. They also attempted to have various pieces of evidence excluded from the case but thankfully all were allowed. Much of the evidence that would incriminate Lazarus such as interviews with John or Nels from around the time of the crime were lost leading many to believe the original detectives on the case were covering for Lazarus. In fact, her name had never been specifically brought up in the case and she had always just been referred to as a female officer despite both John and Nels remembering naming her specifically in the recorded interviews that had been conveniently lost. Nels also recounted that he had been shown two sketches of Latino suspects who were burglars by detectives at the time of the murder despite the fact that there was no way for him to know what Sherri’s attackers looked like. And despite his daughter’s athletic build, there was no way she could fight off two attackers for an hour and a half, the time Detective Mayer said the fight took with his original burglar theory. When Nels offered to pay for a DNA test several years after the murder it was shown that forensic materials were shortly after checked out by a detective named Phil Moritt, the forensic samples included blood and hair that was found at the scene that was thought to belong to a suspect, these materials were missing when the second investigative team began their investigation, it was by pure luck that the saliva had been forgotten and found later by the criminalist in 2004. Normally when materials are checked out, it is at the request of an investigator but no such request for this evidence was found and the materials disappeared. Moritt does not recall ever checking out this evidence. The trial took place in 2012 and at the age of 52, 26 years after the murder of Sherri Rasmussen, Stephanie Lazarus was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced 27 years to life in prison. She is currently serving her sentence and is available for parole in 2034.
Sherri’s family is suing Lazarus and the LAPD, there is an appeal taking place that is reviewing the first ruling that the LAPD is immune to lawsuits. Initial investigations are ruling that the LAPD have not had any part in a cover up but many feel that there is too much evidence from the beginning that was willfully ignored for it to not be a cover up and that the police were protecting one of their own.
Sources: Vanity Fair: A Case So Cold it was Blue, The Lazarus Files by Matthew McGough, MelMagazine