Prosecution presents last witness in Lazarus murder trial

By Alex A. Alonso
Streetgangs.com Staff Writer
February 26, 2012 | 10:53 p.m. PST

Suspects that the LAPD thought killed Sherri Rasmussen in 1986

Suspects that the LAPD thought killed Sherri Rasmussen in 1986

LOS ANGELES — The case of the People of the State of California v. Stephanie Lazarus has looked like the Los Angeles Police versus one of their own. Of the 53 witnesses that the prosecution presented over the course of 13 days, 29 (55 percent) of them are current or retired LAPD or Los Angeles County Coroner’s office employees.

Deputy District Attorneys Paul Nuñez and Shannon Presby presented their last witnesses on Friday in their quest to prove that Lazarus, an LAPD officer, went to Sherri Rasmussen’s home on Balboa Avenue in Van Nuys on the morning of February 22, 1986 and committed first degree murder. The motive, according to several of the prosecution witnesses, was that Lazarus was distraught and depressed that her ex-boyfriend, John Ruetten, broke up with her in 1984 when he met Rasmussen. They eventually married in November 1985, and according to the State, three months later Lazarus killed her at home.

Monday morning the people will formally close their case in front of the jury and defense attorney Mark Overland will begin his case.

 

Witness Type No. percent
LAPD officer / detective 13 26
LAPD officer / detective (retired) 5 9
LAPD Criminalists 8 15
LAPD Criminalists (retired) 1 2
Los Angeles County Coroner 7 13
Los Angeles County Coroner (retired) 3 6
Private experts 6 11
Family & Friends 6 11
Other government employees 4 8
TOTAL 53 100 %

The people presented no eye witnesses against Lazarus and the murder weapon was never recovered. Most of the evidence against her is circumstantial, and alone would most likely not convict a police officer of murder, but the physical evidence that this case stands on is DNA related, and according to the people, places Lazarus at the scene of the crime on that morning in 1986.

Rasmussen was bit on her right arm as she struggled with her killer who eventually over powered her, struck her in the face multiple times on her right side, with a gun and a vase, then cluster shot her three times in the torso as she lay on the floor of her living room. By looking at the crime scene photos of Rasmussen’s injuries to her face, the most unexpected type of suspect one would expect to assault a person so brutally would be a woman.

Lead detective Lyle Mayor in 1986 never suspected a woman either or one of their own, and concluded at the end of his investigation that two male illegal immigrants murdered Rasmussen during an interrupted burglary. The prosecution is claiming that the LAPD had it wrong in 1986, but they never called Det. Mayor.

The jury did hear from his then partner, Det. Steven Hooks, who told the jury that he believed a woman could have been the perpetrator because of the bite, but that information never appeared in any of the reports he prepared in 1986.

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On Tuesday, the people called LAPD det. Brian McCartin, who was in the academy with Lazarus in 1983. He testified that he trained with her doing gun retention drills and combat wrestling where one person acted as a suspect and the other as a cop. McCartin told the jury that Lazarus was by far the strongest and most aggressive woman he had ever fought.

Lazarus is 5’7” and 145 lbs with Rasmussen nearly 6 feet tall and about 150 lbs. according to the coroner’s report. Although extremely rare, a woman of Lazarus’ experience and training could have over powered Rasmussen, who worked as a nurse. Rasmussen was home that morning feeling ill, so she was at a disadvantage from any attacker that morning including a woman, and being dressed in panties and a robe while getting struck with blunt force objects is difficult to combat from a surprise attacker.

We never learned how Lazarus gained entry to the home because there were no signs of force and the jury never heard from a witness that was to testify that Lazarus had recently learned how to pick locks. The husband, Ruetten, testified that the door may possibly been left unlocked since they rarely used the front door.

Overland’s defense is going to focus on the theory that the original detectives formulated in 1986, that Rasmussen was killed during an interrupted burglary. This defense suffered a setback on Tuesday when Judge Robert Perry ruled that evidence of another robbery that occurred near Rasmussen’s home did not meet the standard of third party culpability or guilt.

On April 11, 1986, just a few blocks from Rasmussen’s home, two armed suspects committed a burglary with similarities to what was believed to be a burglary of Rasmussen. That burglary occurred in the day, involved stereo equipment, and a weapon, but those similarities did not move Judge Perry, as he mentioned in his ruling, the dissimilarities such as jewelry being stolen, front door being forced and the burglars not expressing intent to kill did not meet the standards of third party guilt in People v. Edelbacher.

Overland’s real main challenge with his defense will be dealing with the DNA evidence that according to prosecutors puts Lazarus at the scene of the crime in 1986. Setting aside the DNA evidence for a moment, Overland may have been successful at attacking most if not all of the circumstantial evidence that the people presented.

The Circumstantial Evidence against Stephanie Lazarus
The Letter
After Rasmussen and Ruetten had been dating for just over a year, Lazarus sent a letter to Ruetten’s mother, postmarked Aug. 6, 1985, indicating that she was still in love with John. The prosecution presented this evidence to establish a motive, a scorn woman who wanted her man back, but this letter does not reveal any intent to kill. The prosecution is hoping that the totality of circumstances will be convincing enough to prove murder.

Stalking

We heard from husband Ruetten that testified he was aware that Lazarus has went to Rasmussen’s job on more than one occasion in a confrontational manner. The jury was not able to hear from Rasmussen’s co-workers about the details of these confrontations because that is all hear-say evidence, but after the murder, Ruetten had told Lazarus, that he told investigators about her visits to his wife’s job.

At that time, Ruetten did not believe that Lazarus was involved in his wife’s murder. He even continued a sexual relationship with her again, about three years after his wife was murdered.

The Interview / Interrogation

In June 2009 when LAPD detectives decided to arrest Lazarus, they first planned to question her at first to see how much information that they can gather from her regarding her relationship with Ruetten and Rasmussen’s death. The interview was recorded and clearly shows that she was caught off guard and very nervous about the tenor of the interrogation with was slowing pointing towards her.

Although she appears awkward and tense early on, she does not say anything incriminating. In the video she actually admits to talking with Rasmussen at work, but she did not characterize it as an argument or confrontational. She explained her actions for the purpose of informing Rasmussen that her boyfriend / fiancé (Ruetten) keeps calling her and to have him leave her alone. Ruetten did admit to having sex with Lazarus in 1985 while he was engaged to Rasmussen, but Ruetten described that as a mistake he made when Lazarus came to him and begged for sex.

Lazarus answered the detective’s questions very carefully never admitting any guilt or wrong doing, and in the second half of the interview she appears more relaxed. The detectives interrogated in a manner as to not make her feel like a suspect immediately but near the end of the interview Det. Daniel Jaramillo continuously asks her as to the nature her visits with Rasmussen at her job to see if she will admit to any physical confrontation, dispute or argument with her, but she never bites.

Then they ask her about the gun she reported stolen, the gun that prosecutors believed she used to kill Rasmussen. Det. Jaramillo tells Lazarus that the notes on the case state that she had heated words with Rasmussen. Lazarus responds, “now it sounds like your trying to pin something on me,” which will be central in the defense case to explain the DNA.

Bullets Used

Rasmussen was shot by three .38 caliber Plus P semi jacketed 125 grain bullets. These were the same type of bullets that the LAPD allowed for use with the .38 Smith & Wesson revolvers, including the one that Lazarus owned. Testimony from LAPD firearms expert Richard Smith and Daniel Rubin confirmed this, but on cross examination, Overland was able to show that there were many of these bullets in use during the 1980s, and there were dozens of other weapons that the bullets could have been shot from.

The stolen gun

The strongest circumstantial evidence against Lazarus is associated with the .38 caliber Smith & Wesson two-inch revolver she owned. Investigators believe that Lazarus used her .38, which she purchased on February 29, 1984 to kill Rasmussen and just 13-days later on March 9, 1986, Lazarus reported her weapon stolen. This certainly looks very suspicious, and furthermore she reported the gun stolen in another jurisdiction, Santa Monica, never informing the LAPD about the stolen weapon. This weapon has never been recovered.

DNA evidence

All the circumstantial evidence combined will not be enough to convict Lazarus of first degree murder but the prosecution’s case rests on one critical piece of physical evidence and that is DNA. In 1986, investigators swabbed a bite mark on Rasmussen’s left arm that the killer left during the struggle, and a complete DNA profile was extracted from it in January 2005. The profile was of an unknown female and by May of 2009, after secretly acquiring a sample from Lazarus, the LAPD crime lab told detectives that the two samples matched, promptubg the June 2009 arrest of Lazarus.

The DNA, according to prosecutors is the evidence that makes this murder case a slam dunk, but defense attorney Overland has attempted to characterize this DNA as not reliable. There is no doubt that the swab has Lazarus’ DNA on it, but Overland has suggested that there is no way to know how her DNA got there. The first issue with the evidence is how the LA Coroner’s office stored it. Apparently the bite swab went missing when investigators began looking for it in either 2003 or 2004.

The tube was supposed to be in an envelope stored in a freezer but it was not found until late December 2004 and the chain of custody for this item is unknown. It is not known who moved the evidence, where was the evidence was taken and for how long this crucial evidence not in its proper location. The log records for this item is missing the information about the chain of custody of the most important evidence against Lazarus.

Secondly, when the evidence was found, the condition of the envelope that was so tattered that Overland was able to get several prosecution witnesses to admit that it is very important for the envelope to be secure in order to maintain the integrity of the evidence. This envelope was tattered with a large hole and one could reach in the hole to pull out the tube of evidence. One of the DNA experts for the prosecution, Jennifer Francis, told the jury under cross examination that she had several conversations with investigators that said the envelope might be a “problem.”

This case will boil down to whether the jury accepts the DNA evidence and believes that it is reliable and has not been tainted. If they reject that evidence, then the are suggesting that someone possibly manipulated the evidence to possible frame Lazarus, and she stated in her June 2009 interview with detectives.

On Friday, retired FBI profiler, Mark Safarik and LA County Coroner criminalist Steven Dowell completed the prosecution’s case. Overland will open his case on Monday morning.

——————————-
Alex Alonso is an author, film maker and founder of Streetgangs.com. He is also a contributing author in the 2010 book entitled Black Los Angeles: American Dreams Racial Realities (New York University Press). He can be reached via email, toll free at 800-249-1324 or on Twitter.

alexalonso Posted by on Feb 26 2012. Filed under Features, People of CA v. Stephanie Lazarus. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

2 Comments for “Prosecution presents last witness in Lazarus murder trial”

  1. […] Perry sentenced her to the 1986 guidelines, 25 years for the murder and an additional 2 years for using a firearm during the commission of a murder. If she was sentenced to today’s sentencing rules she would […]

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