Ex-detective found guilty in cold-case murder
LOS ANGELES (AP) — A quarter century after a woman's murder, jurors took little more than a day to decide Thursday the killer was a former Los Angeles police detective who was finally unmasked by her DNA and history of obsessive love for her victim's husband.
Stephanie Lazarus was impassive as she heard the first-degree murder verdict. Her long-ago lover, John Ruetten, watched grimly in the courtroom with the family of his slain wife.
Lazarus, 51, was linked to the case by a cold case team examining DNA swabs taken from a bite mark on the arm of victim Sherri Rasmussen.
Police Chief Charlie Beck, who had worked closely with Lazarus in the LAPD, apologized to the Rasmussen family for the long delay in closing the case.
"I am truly sorry for the loss of your wife, of your daughter. I am also sorry it took us so long to solve this case and bring a measure of justice to this tragedy," he said in a written statement.
"This case was a tragedy on every level," he added. "The LAPD family felt a sense of betrayal to have an officer commit such a terrible crime."
Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley was in court for the verdict and said later the case demonstrated the importance of DNA as an investigative tool.
"Had it not been for DNA the case might never have been solved," he said.
The police officer's union issued a statement saying it hoped the case would not tarnish the reputation of thousands of dedicated police officers.
The conviction came after a three-week trial that included testimony from a forensic expert who said the DNA found in the bite mark was a match to Lazarus.
Her defense attorney countered that the DNA was packaged improperly and deteriorated while stored in a coroner's freezer for two decades. He also suggested there might have been evidence tampering.
Prosecutors Shannon Presby and Paul Nunez suggested during the trial that Lazarus, a trained police officer, knew to avoid leaving other evidence such as fingerprints and may have worn gloves.
The idea that saliva from a bite mark could be her undoing was inconceivable in 1986 when DNA had not yet entered the justice system as a forensic tool.
Among those present at the verdict was Superior Court Judge Lance Ito, who presided over the first famous DNA case in the building — the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995. Ito, whose court is down the hall from that of Superior Court Judge Robert Perry, had occasionally stopped in to listen to DNA testimony during the Lazarus trial.
The family of Rasmussen cried softly after the verdict was delivered in the courtroom ringed by 10 sheriff's deputies.
"The family is relieved that this 26-year nightmare has concluded with the positive identification of the person who killed their daughter," said John Taylor, an attorney for the Rasmussen family.
Lazarus' family also was present.
"I'm just devastated," said Steven Lazarus, her brother. "It's been a difficult thing for our whole family. I have very strong feelings about how the trial played out. It is very sad."
Lazarus, who smiled at her family as she was led into the courtroom, could face 27 years to life in prison with the possibility of parole when she is sentenced on May 4 for the murder and a gun enhancement imposed by the jury. Her defense team immediately announced there would be an appeal.
Luis Patino, a spokesman for the California Board of Prison Terms, said Lazarus would be eligible for parole consideration after serving 16 years and 8 months. She has been in jail since 2009.
The Rasmussen family has filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the LAPD and the city of Los Angeles.
The case was submitted to jurors on Tuesday after intense closing arguments by both sides.
Earlier Thursday, jurors asked if they could convict Lazarus of second-degree murder. The judge said they could, but the panel apparently discarded the idea quickly and decided on first-degree murder, which requires premeditation.
Lazarus' lawyer, Mark Overland, said outside court, "The speed shows we never had a chance."
Rasmussen was bludgeoned and shot to death in 1986 in the condo she shared with her husband of three months.
Detectives initially believed two robbers who had attacked another woman in the area were to blame. But two decades later, a cold case team using DNA analysis concluded the killer was a woman and authorities began looking at Lazarus as a suspect.
During the trial, prosecutors focused on the relationship of Lazarus and Ruetten, who became her lover after they graduated from college.
He testified that he never intended to marry Lazarus, although they were intimate for about a year. He also said she enticed him into having sex with her shortly before his wedding.
"Here's the deal," he testified. "It was clear she was very upset that I was getting married and moving on."
Overland, ridiculed the claim of a fatal attraction between Lazarus and Ruetten, saying she never tried to reunite with her former lover after his wife was gone.
"So this obsessing with John must have fizzled out I guess," he said.
Lazarus went on to marry another policeman and adopt a daughter. She rose in the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department, becoming a detective in charge of art forgeries and thefts.
Overland also pointed to the lack of physical evidence against her. No blood, fingerprints, hair or fibers connected her to the scene.
But prosecutor Presby told jurors the case was based on more than just DNA. At the outset of the trial, he said it featured "a bite, a bullet, a gun barrel and a broken heart."
Lazarus' gun was never found, but Presby called experts to testify that bullets fired into Rasmussen's body matched those issued to police officers in 1986.
Lazarus' husband attended most of the trial along with other family members. Ruetten sat across the courtroom with Rasmussen's family.
The deathly pale defendant and her white-haired former boyfriend never looked at each other. But their past moved before them on a movie screen as both sides showed pictures of them as a young couple.
Among the trial's most dramatic moments came when Ruetten testified tearfully about finding his wife slain. He said it never entered his mind that Lazarus might be responsible.