Background: Sherri Rasmussen was born on February 7, 1957, in California. She was a successful and talented individual, rising quickly in her career to become the director of nursing at Glendale Adventist Medical Center. Sherri married John Ruetten, an engineer, in November 1985. Their marriage, however, would soon be overshadowed by a tragic event.
The Murder: On February 24, 1986, Rasmussen was murdered in the condominium she shared with her husband in Van Nuys, Los Angeles. She was found by her husband when he returned from work, beaten and shot three times in the chest. Initially, the scene appeared to be a botched burglary; the living room was ransacked, and the couple’s marriage license was missing.
Initial Investigation: The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) initially focused on the theory of a burglary gone wrong. There were reports of burglaries in the area, and two men had been seen near the condo. This theory, however, was inconsistent with some of the evidence, including the fact that Rasmussen had defensive wounds, suggesting a personal attack.
A Potential Suspect Overlooked: One crucial piece of information not pursued adequately at the time was the connection between Rasmussen and Stephanie Lazarus, a fellow UCLA graduate and an LAPD officer. Lazarus had previously dated John Ruetten, and their relationship had continued sporadically even after his marriage to Rasmussen. Despite some suggestions of Lazarus as a potential suspect and the existence of a bite mark on Rasmussen’s body, the investigation did not focus on her initially.
Case Goes Cold: The case eventually went cold, with no significant leads or arrests. The unresolved nature of Rasmussen’s murder was a source of continual distress for her family.
Reopening of the Case: In 2009, the case was reopened as part of a cold case review. Advances in DNA technology provided a new opportunity to analyze evidence from the crime scene. The critical piece of evidence was the saliva from the bite mark on Rasmussen’s body. The DNA extracted did not match Rasmussen or her husband but was consistent with a female assailant.
Arrest of Stephanie Lazarus: Investigative work led to the suspicion of Stephanie Lazarus. By this time, Lazarus was a respected art theft detective with the LAPD. In a covert operation, detectives obtained a DNA sample from Lazarus, which matched the DNA from the bite mark. On June 5, 2009, Lazarus was arrested at the LAPD’s Parker Center headquarters.
Trial and Conviction: The trial of Stephanie Lazarus commenced in early 2012. The prosecution presented the DNA evidence and also pointed to Lazarus’s motive, rooted in jealousy and obsession over John Ruetten. The defense argued that the DNA evidence was contaminated and questioned the handling of the evidence. However, on March 8, 2012, Lazarus was found guilty of first-degree murder. She was later sentenced to 27 years to life in prison.
Aftermath and Reflection: The conviction of Stephanie Lazarus brought some closure to Rasmussen’s family, but it also raised serious questions about the initial investigation. It highlighted potential issues of police bias, especially when an officer is involved, and underscored the importance of objectively pursuing all leads in a criminal investigation. The case also demonstrated the evolving nature of forensic science and its critical role in solving cold cases.
The murder of Sherri Rasmussen remains a notable case in the annals of American crime, not only for its shocking nature and the long-delayed resolution but also for the lessons it imparts about the criminal justice system. The tragic loss of Rasmussen, a promising and vibrant individual, and the subsequent revelation of the perpetrator hidden within law enforcement, continue to resonate as a sobering reminder of the complexities and imperfections in the pursuit of justice.