Stephanie Lazarus, a decorated detective in the LAPD Art Crimes Unit, was sentenced today to a 27-year prison term for the first-degree murder of Sherri Rae Rasmussen more than 25 years ago.
Lazarus, then a beat cop just two years into a police career that would last over two decades, confronted the 29-year-old Rasmussen at the Van Nuys apartment she shared with her new husband John Ruetten. Lazarus and Ruetten had a romantic relationship while at UCLA together. Rasmussen was found dead after taking three bullets to the chest.
Originally thought to be a robbery gone bad, the case went cold for decades. Lazarus continued her successful career as a police officer until 2009, when the Cold Case squad matched her DNA to saliva left in a bite mark on the victim. In a coolly-run sting, detectives set up a meeting with Lazarus in a secure area in LAPD headquarters where she would have to relinquish her gun before entering. Having lured her by saying they needed her expertise in a case they were investigating, the investigators proceeded to question her about the Rasmussen killing before ultimately arresting her.
In March 2012, a jury found the 52-year-old Lazarus guilty of Rasmussen’s murder leading up to today’s sentencing. Judge Robert Perry heard from Rasmussen’s family before passing down his sentence. John Ruetten, Rasmussen’s widower and Lazarus’ former lover, said: “The fact that Sherri’s death occurred because she met and married me brings me to my knees.”
In a pre-sentence filing, prosecutors said: “Lazarus misused her police training in the most profound way imaginable by utilizing that training and experience to commit murder and to cover up her crime. Lazarus betrayed the trust placed in her by the Los Angeles Police Department and by people of Los Angeles in order to pursue her own murderous ends.” The State asked Judge Perry to sentence Lazarus to the maximum of 27 years behind bars.
Lazarus’ defense attorney Mark Overland responded by emphasizing the stellar police record his client had achieved over her 26 years of public service, and highlighting weaknesses in the State’s case – including the reliance on DNA evidence the defense maintains had not been properly stored. The defense plans to appeal the conviction.
In the end, Judge Perry agreed with the prosecution’s recommendation, although he did give her credit for the time she had served before trial – Stephanie Lazarus will not be eligible for parole for at least 22 years.