Sunday, November 28, 2010


The captivating video of the interrogation of Stephanie Lazarus [above] reminded me that I wanted to write about this 17 months ago.

Back in June 2009 a story broke in Los Angeles that I wanted to write about but never did. Recently the story was back in the news and reminded me - 17 months later - that I wanted to write about this tale. It deals with a 1986 murder and a well-regarded Los Angeles Police Department [LAPD] detective; a lover scorned; and a murder solved 23 later.

In June 2009, Stephanie Lazarus was an LAPD investigator. For nearly 30 years on the force she had a distinguished career, one that specialized in solving cases involving stolen art. With the exception of a very, very brief issue - long forgotten and early in her career back in 1986 - her work had been exemplary.

That issue took place in February 1986. As a child, Lazarus had been friends with a boy named John Ruetten. The two reconnected while students at UCLA and began a romantic relationship. The two broke up around the time Ruetten struck up a relationship with Sherri Rae Rasmussen - whom he would marry in 1985. Three months later, John Ruetten returned home on the evening of February 24, 1986, to find his wife's lifeless body on the floor in the living room in their Van Nuys condominium.

The case was botched from the start. At first, Ruetten himself was a suspect. Then he mentioned that - while engaged to Rasmussen - he had a fling with his old flame, Lazarus, by then an LAPD officer. That was the first time Lazarus came to the forefront of the investigation, albeit only briefly, despite the fact that Rasmussen's parents were both convinced that Lazarus had been involved [after Rasmussen's death, Reutten admitted to his in-laws of the fling with Lazarus while engaged to their daughter].

The lead homicide detectives on the case, however, were convinced that Rasmussen had been killed by a pair of burglars, as there had been a series of robberies in homes in the area at the time. They briefly interviewed Lazarus and immediately eliminated her as a suspect. There the case remained cold for two decades, like thousands of other homicides from the 1980s [remember, the vast majority of homicides go unsolved. Ever.] The case collected dust on storage shelves for more than two decades.

As part of a regular review of old cases, detectives returned to the Rasmussen killing in February 2009. It turned out that there was a saliva sample taken from Rasmussen's arm at the crime scene. 1986 was just before great advances in DNA research. As routine procedure, in 2009 the saliva sample was tested. The DNA tests showed the attacker was a woman, shocking detectives and obviously disproving the theory that Rasmussen had been killed by a man or men.

The investigation was reopened.

Detectives retraced the blueprint of the 1986 investigation, once again interviewing Rasmussen’s parents and John Ruetten. As they had at the time of the killing, Rasmussen's parents told investigators about Lazarus. Doubting the idea that a veteran LAPD detective was their perpetrator, nonetheless the 2009 investigators did their due diligence and dispatched an undercover officer to surreptitiously trail Lazarus as she did errands, looking to quietly collect a DNA sample to quickly eliminate her as as a suspect. The undercover officer waited until Lazarus discarded a plastic utensil with her saliva on it. With that in hand, the saliva was tested. Investigators were stunned when the DNA in Lazarus' saliva was compared with the DNA evidence collected from the murder scene in 1986 and the genetic code in the samples matched conclusively. Indeed, the odds that the DNA found in Rasmussen's wound belonged to anyone other than Lazarus are one in 400 quadrillion.

It was after Lazarus' June 5, 2009 arrest that I wanted to write a post. I think Michael Jackson died or something and I got off-track. Or maybe the Yankees went on a winning streak and I stopped writing. Who knows?

Anyroad, the Lazarus story came to the forefront recently when the LAPD released the captivating video of how investigators confronted Lazarus with their evidence in June 2009, on the day they arrested her.

After the DNA match was made, LAPD officials devised a plan to arrest Lazarus. Around 6:40 on the morning on June 5, 2009, Det. Daniel Jaramillo from the LAPD's Robbery-Homicide Division approached Lazarus at her desk in the department's headquarters and asked her to accompany him downstairs to the department's jail facility - where he knew Lazarus would not be able to bring her gun. Jaramillo told Lazarus he needed her help interrogating a man who claimed to have information on stolen art, which was Lazarus' specialty.

Jaramillo brought Lazarus into a private room in the jail facility where Jaramillo's partner, Det. Greg Stearns, was waiting. After a few minutes of small talk, Jaramillo told Lazarus she was not there to question a suspect about art. "We've been assigned a case that we've been looking at," he said. "Do you know John Ruetten?"

For roughly the next hour, the detectives pressed Lazarus for information about her relationship with Ruetten and any encounters she had with Rasmussen. Initially, Lazarus said she couldn't recall whether she had ever met Rasmussen, but soon acknowledged they had met. "Now that you're bringing it up, I think she worked at a hospital somewhere. And, yeah, I may have met her at a hospital. I may have talked to her once or twice, or more," she said. After some additional prodding, Lazarus admitted to investigators something she had kept to herself in 1986 - she had, in fact, confronted Rasmussen on multiple occasions after Lazarus and Reutten had their post-engagement fling. Immediately, though, Lazarus denied having a role in the killing.

The detectives pushed ahead, questioning Lazarus on whether she ever had gone to Rasmussen's home. Lazarus did not give a definitive answer, repeatedly saying she could not recall. Jaramillo grew more pointed in his questions, asking Lazarus if she ever had fought with Rasmussen and harping on her when she insisted, "If it happened, I honestly don't remember it. That's all I can tell you." "You'd remember that, right? That would be pretty specific and, you know, traumatic," Jaramillo pushed back.

On several occasions, Lazarus asked the detectives the reason for the questioning. They repeatedly assuaged her concern by telling her they were just doing their jobs and saying that they had brought her down to the jail to spare her the embarrassment of being questioned in the office.

When it became obvious to her that she was a suspect, Lazarus told Stearns and Jaramillo that they were "starting to make me uncomfortable" and asked whether she needed a lawyer. They told her she was free to leave if she wanted. "You're accusing me of this? Is that what you're -- is that what you're saying?" Lazarus asked near the end of the roughly hour-long interview. "Am I on 'Candid Camera' or something? This is insane. This is absolutely crazy. This is insane," Lazarus said

Shortly thereafter, Lazarus rose to leave. Seconds after she went through the door, however, she was intercepted by other detectives waiting in the hallway. As Lazarus sat handcuffed, one detective loosened her handcuffs and Stearns told her they would put her jacket over the handcuffs to conceal her arrest.

Lazarus has pleaded not guilty and remains in custody on $10-million bail awaiting trial, which is expected to start in the spring.

As she was waiting to be booked, Lazarus struggled to remove her wedding band. An unidentified person offered her advice:

"Saliva works wonders."

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