Check out the Patreon! Bloody Podcast Patreon
Aug. 7, 2022

#159: "Lady Cop" Stephanie Lazarus - Case Summary

#159: "Lady Cop" Stephanie Lazarus - Case Summary

Disclaimer: These case summaries are all fairly unedited versions of the script used on Bloody Podcast. As such, some of the language will learn towards to conversational. All sources are either linked here or in the show notes for each episode.

 

Today I bring you the story of Stephanie Lazarus, or rather, her lack of story.

 

Stephanie Lazarus attended UCLA beginning in 1978 and lived her best college life in the dorms, where she did the college thing and dated around some, she even had a quick relationship with a guy named John Ruetten. Stephanie and Lazarus remained good friends through college, and kept in touch after they both graduated.

Stephanie went into the police academy, and John would take go on to purshe jobs in engineering, both remained in Los Angeles.

John was easy to like, he was charming, talkative and smart. Soon after graduation in the summer of 84, John met what he felt was his match. He met the beautiful and brilliant Sherri Rasmussen. Sherri had begun attending Loma Linda University at the age of 16 and graduated with a degree in nursing. She traveled to different universities to give lectures on critical-care nursing and at 27 years old was the director of nursing at the Glendale Adventist Medical Center. The two of them met and immediately fell for each other, they became inseparable and after a while, got engaged. They were set to  marry in November of 1985 and were already moved in together into a condo at Van Nuys. Things, for the most part seemed to be going great, except for one big stain…

 

Sherri had been getting calls. She told her parents and her close friends she had noticed someone following her, and had multiple run-in’s with an ex of John’s who was now a cop, a lady cop, as she referred to her–Stephanie Lazarus.

The harassment seemed to have begun not long after her and John’s engagement, and when Sherri first told John about it, he kind of brushed it off. Stephanie even showed up to their condo unannounced with the pretext that she was dropping off her water skis for John to wax.

Those skis must have caused quite the argument, because Sherri told John:

  1. she didn’t feel comfortable with his ex coming over and 
  2. She did NOT want him to wax those damn skis. 

But John argued that Stephanie meant nothing by it, and that they should let it blow over and eventually Stephanie would go away. This didn’t sit right with Sherri, but there was little she could do at the moment.

Shortly afterwards Sherri felt she couldn’t even go to the grocery store with running into a hostile or territorial Stephanie, and on top of that, there was someone who Sherri described as “dressed like a man” following her from afar. The person, she told her friend Jayne, had crazy eyes that bore into your soul even from afar. 

Stephanie eventually came back for her skis, again unannounced. Despite Sherri’s protests, John had waxed those fucking skis for the bitch. Sherri handed the ski over and told her to leave, making her feelings clear. This only provoked Stephanie more. She showed up at their house again, this time in full police uniform. She’d been on the beat for two years now, a rookie cop doing patrol. Sherri happened to be home, a rarity as she normally takes off for work before John, who had left early that day.

Stirring the pot, Stephanie told Sherri she was just dropping by to see John as she was on patrol in the area. Sherri wondered if this was a regular routine, and she just so happen to be home that day, throwing off their little liaison. Nels Rasmussen almost never saw his daughter cry, but she sobbed on the phone to him about this lady-cop and considered canceling the wedding that was now weeks away. Nels wasn’t a big fan of John in the first place, but the fact that John seemed to outright refuse to do anything about his ex-girlfriend stalking and seemingly threatening his daughter was baffling and frustrating.

They would go through with the wedding, but not without one more hiccup. Stephanie showed up at Glendale Adventist. Clad in tight shorts and a tube top, she stormed past the secretary and into Sherri’s office. There are two accounts of what was said in that room, but Sherri’s account of what she said remains only in the small pieces of information she told her friends and family. Sherri’s bestie Jayne Golberg remembers Sherri told her that “John's ex-girlfriend had come to her office at the hospital - dressed provocatively..." / Her father had another piece of information about that same exchange, according to him Sherri told him that Stephanie"...confronted Sherri about John and said that if she couldn't have John, nobody could," Nels recalled. According to Goldberg, Stephanie drove her point home by telling Sherri “if this marriage doesn't work out, I want you to know that I'll be waiting to pick up the pieces." 

The confrontation passed and the couple continued to settle into married life, it seems they got a couple of weeks of peace. On Sunday, February 23rd the couple went to a movie, the next day the work week started and Sherri was seriously ocnsidering calling in sick to play hookie at home. The next morning, as John left for work, Sherri was still in bed, undecided. 

John called Sherri around noon to see if she had gone in, but there was no answer. Not that weird, except the answering machine wasn’t on. Not that weird for Sherri to forget to turn it on, though, especially since she was normally first to leave in the mornings. Maybe she did go to work, so John called the hospital, but her secretary hadn’t seen her yet. Not unusual, sometimes Sherri went straight home without going to her office after she taught class. He called home 3-4 more times, but still no answer.

 

On his way home, John picked up some of their laundry, dropped by the UPS store, and then made his way home. He rolled into their garage, Sherri’s car was gone, so clearly, she had just gone out. But as John got closer in to his house, he noticed broken glass by a front window and the living room door ajar. A few more steps in and he saw his bride’s body splayed out on the living room floor. Still, in her camisole and bathrobe, Sherri’s face and body had been beaten, and three feet of blood pooled around her. Ripped into the silk pink of her nightgown here two small dark bulletholes.  Against hope, john reached over and touched her wrist, desperate to find a pulse but he only touched cold, unreactive skin.

John called the police and ran outside, who showed up and took over the scene. Homicide Detective Lyle Mayer took on the case. The crime scene showed signs of a long struggle. Chairs, drawers, and shelves were turned over, and wires from electronics were pulled out. A blanket was shown to have been used to muffle the sound of the gunshots, which turned out to be 3. At the base of the stairs, a CD and VCR had been stacked at the base of the stairs with blood smeared on them, as if someone were about to haul them out but changed their mind. Upstairs the balcony’s sliding glass door had been shattered, the glass John had noticed on his way in. Forensics gathered evidence samples, pieces of a concrete vase that had been shattered over her head, as well as casts and swabs from a bite Sherri had received on her arm by her attacker. At first glance, the only item that seemed to be missing was Sherri’s Silver BMW. Based on what he saw, Detective Mayer was convinced that he had a botched robbery on his hands. Sherri must have surprised the thieves and they had taken her down in a panicked, prolonged struggle before taking off with her car.

John was inconsolable, he told the police he couldn’t think of a single problem they were having, they had just gotten married and everything was going great. John’s grief quickly cleared him as a suspect with Mayer, eliminating the only other theory that fit beside a robbery.

John’s father called Sherri’s parents the next day to break the terrible news. Nels and Loretta lived in Tucson, Arizona, and had a phone call with Detective Mayer where one of the first things Nels asked was if he had checked out John’s ex, the lady cop, as a suspect. Myer was not wavering from his botched robbery theory. He quickly became annoyed every time Nels tried to give him more information about why he should check out this lady-cop, until he told the grieving father he watched too many cop shows and to move on. 

Besides, John denied the stories that Nels told the detective. If anything so wild as an ex confronted Sherri at her worksite, there’s no way she would not have told him about it. She had told him about the hospital incident, but not in a way that she conveyed feeling threatened. 

A couple of days after the murder it was discovered that their marriage license was missing from the home. Sherri’s car was found a week later, abandoned in another part of Van Nuys with the keys still in the ignition. The police recovered fingerprints, hair, and a spot of blood. Building on his theft theory, Mayer questioned the neighbors and checked other reports of crime in the area. He felt he had a lead by following 2 robberies that had happened recently in the area, in both cases a woman was held at gunpoint.

Myer estimated from the crime scene that a struggle took an hour and a half, and Nels questioned how his daughter could have fought off two men with a gun for so long. Even Myer’s partner, Hooks, contended that the bite mark pointed to a woman, as women are biters, but Myer dismissed the motion. Lazarus was eventually questioned on the phone, a quick call with Myers, but no record of the interview exists. Myer was too busy trying to find the thieves who had clearly committed the crime.  The suspects were two unidentified Latino men, despite his efforts, Mayer was never able to catch the two brown bandits.

The case began to go cold. Sherri’s parents continued to call the LAPD and insist they look into the lady cop, they continued to be dismissed. They put out an award of $10K for any information leading to an arrest and worked with a tv show to do a segment on Sherri’s case. When DNA testing was made available Nels even tried offering to pay for the tests and found a lab that would do it, but the LAPD refused. It wouldn’t do him any good without a suspect anyway, they said, despite Nels’ protest that the main suspect was probably in their very office.

Still, nothing happened, a year and a half after the murder an update was made to the file: John called to verify that he and Stephanie used to be a couple, that’s all. Two years after that in 89, John contacted Mayer again to confirm Stephanie was not a suspect. He was going on a trip to Hawaii with Stephanie and just wanted to be sure. Myer soothed the widower, the lady cop had never been a real suspect.

A few years after that, John re-married and started a family. Stephanie married too, a fellow cop. From the second Stephanie stepped out of the police academy and onto her beat, she began making a name for herself at the LAPD. She forged an admirable path within the force. She moved up from street patrol to detective, on the way serving as part of the DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) unit, moved to homicide and Internal Affairs, or as Law and Order refers to it: IA. She also put together the department’s first-ever child-care program, and initiated a child safety/ID Program, in her personal life she and her husband adopted a child and raised the girl in a loving and safe environment. Stephanie eventually landed a coveted position as a detective in the Art-Theft division. A job that came with a lot of networking opportunities, and connections with some of the wealthiest and most notable victims of theft. Stephanie took up oil painting, inspired by her work. As all of Stephanie’s hard work paid off and she achieved all of her dreams, Sherri Rasmussen’s unsolved murder case collected eighteen years' worth of dust.

 In 2004, Jennifer Francis, a criminalist with LA’s Cold Case Homicide Unit had the file land on her desk. Fun fact- The cold case unit was fairly new, having only been around a few years after being founded in 2001.

As she went through the file, she noticed the trail of evidence had become just as baffling as the crime itself. The crime report listed the swab taken from the bite mark, but it wasn’t in her files. In 1993 a detective named Phil Moritt and signed out all the forensic samples that might have contained a suspect’s DNA. The reporter for the VF piece points out this was not long after Sherri’s father had requested DNA testing.

It’s normal for an officer to sign out evidence from multiple case files, the implication with that being that Moritt, who has no recollection of signing out the evidence could have done so as part of a routine round up at the archives. Either way, the samples were signed out and disappeared. Hm, so weird, it’s almost like the evidence archiving system should have more policing and security…

Anyway, for Jennifer, there was still the matter of the swab. If Morritt hadn’t signed it out but it wasn’t in the box she had, did it ever leave the freezer where it was first stored? An unlikely scenario, it had after all been 18 years, but she went to the coroner’s office and searched the freezers by hand. Unbelievably, they found the swab. It was in a manila envelope, freezer burned from its time up against the frozen wall. It still reads “Rasmussen” on the front, but the evidence is stored by number, not by name. The file number had worn away from moisture and in 18 years anyone who noticed it avoided the extra effort it would take to get it properly filed, so there it stayed. The envelope had 2 small swabs inside of capped tubs, Jennifer sent them off for testing in January of 2005. The results didn’t give her a hit on CODIS, but they did show that the bite had been by a woman. The original suspects were two unidentified Latino males, but she and the other officers in her department came to the conclusion that since neither had been caught, it could have as easily been a female thief. None of the notes or interviews in the case file pointed to a female suspect, so they filed the unsolved homicide away again, they just didn't have enough to pursue it.

 

In another point for the police, when homicide numbers were falling off in LA, detectives were assigned cold cases for a final review. They call these thick binders “Murder Books,” and they contain detailed documentation of each case. Detective Jim Nuttall went through the evidence like Jennifer did six years before, and noticed the same thing she did. Mayer was wrong. He and 2 other detectives went through and recreated the day of the crime. Through physical evidence they deduced that Sherri had been attacked and surprised upstairs, thus the broken glass, there was no evidence of forced entry on the first floor. She ran downstairs, trying to reach the panic button on the alarm but the killer got to her first They fought, and Sherri was able to get the assailant in a headlock and take her gun. The person then bit Sherri’s forearm to break free and picked up the vase, crashed it into Sherri's forehead, who was now dazed, and hit the floor. The killer shot her once, then used the blanket to muffle the sound of two more gunshots into her chest. 

They also saw that the blood on the VCR and CD player that had been stacked belonged to Sherry and was applied using a glove, so it had happened after Sherri died. Why would a thief do that? The robbery now seemed staged, and why would anyone do that? 

The other noteworthy update- “John Ruetten called. Verified Stephanie Lazarus, PO, was former girlfriend - Nov 19 1987” To the detectives PO written by another PO normally means Police Officer. So they went and asked John about it, who told them they already know about Nels’ theory about the lady cop. So Nuttall and his team contacted Nels. 

The ensuing investigation into Stephanie had to be covert, after all, she worked directly across the hall in the same DTLA police building Nutall was working from.

The detectives discovered that Stephanie had purchased a gun shortly after graduating the academy. Most police officers did so, possessing both an on-duty weapon and an off-duty weapon. The gun was a .38, the same type that killed Sherri. Stephanie had reported the gun missing, due to a car break-in March 1986 to Santa Monica police, a few weeks after the murder. They obtained Stephanie’s DNA covertly, but followed her to a Costco and grabbed the cup and straw she discarded while they followed her. In two days, they had a match. The DNA belonged to Stephanie. 

Police then had to figure out how to get her under custody and under arrest. On the following Monday, officers went to Sherri and told her they caught a suspect over the weekend who claimed to have information on one of her art theft investigations. They led her down to interrogation, where every police officer has to check their weapon before entering. Just in case, after all Stephanie was known for her happy demeanor, but also her tendency to be hot-tempered and turn on a dime. Lazarus assumed nothing wrong, just another follow-up on a case of hers. Why would anything be wrong? In her long career, she had never once had so much as a disciplinary hearing.

Once in the interrogation room, the detectives sat across from her, leaving the chair normally reserved for the interrogatee. The detectives started by asking Stephanie if she knew John Ruetten, which they pronounced Rude-en at first. What followed was a two hour dance between her and the detectives. The detectives explained that they had come across Sherri’s file as part of a routine follow up and her name had appeared in some notes.

They wanted to know if she knew John at all, and his wife. Stephanie began by claiming she couldn’t remember John’s wife's name, if she had ever met her, assuring the police that she and John dated loosely but were just friends, if that, it had been so long since college. The police kept pushing and pushing, Stephanie would switch between cop buddy talk and getting back to her defense about how she barely had any idea who Sherri was. They pushed, and she admitted that she had talked to Sherri a couple of times. Notably, to tell Sherri that John had been calling her, and that if they were together she needed to tell her fiance to stop calling her. So now, she not only knows her name, she knows how to contact her. When they asked if someone had ever questioned her about the murder, she at first said no. Then remembered there might be record of it, and said she recalls being asked about it briefly. 

They asked if she had ever fought with her, she said no, of course not, she doesn’t remember anything like that. Getting just a tad more defensive, she said “it just doesn’t sound familiar, what are they saying? So I fought with her, so…I must have killed her? I mean come on.” The police again said they were just identifying and clearing suspects, but Stephanie had had it. She had a problem with being accused of killing her, and said she had to get a lawyer. She wasn’t under arrest, so she stood to leave. She refused to give a DNA sample on the basis that she needed a lawyer first. She left, and was arrested in the hallway, brought back into the room and read her Miranda Rights.

 

At trial, the prosecution presented their physical and DNA evidence in the case. When he testified, John had to admit that he had slept with Stephanie at least once after being with Sherri, the last time being right after he got engaged. John testified that Stephanie was sad, but did not ever think her capable of murdering Sherri, until the trial John could not believe Stephanie capable of such a thing. Eyewitnesses put her at the hospital for the confrontation.

Stephanie’s defense tried to paint the whole theory as ludicrous, why would Stephanie, a successful, independent woman, be obsessed with John to the point of killing his wife? She wasn’t even still in contact with him, she had raised a family, and won numerous accolades, all on her own. 

The jury took just over one day to reach a verdict: Guilty of the murder of Sherri Rasmussen. She was sentenced to 27 years to Life at the state penitentiary. She currently resides at the California Institution for Women and will be eligible for parole in October 2023. If she gets out on parole then, she would have served 11 years, nearly half the time that Sherri’s file went unnoticed on a shelf.