Retired L.A. detective found guilty in 1986 murder of romantic rival

Veteran LAPD detective Stephanie Lazarus appears at an arraignment in 2009.

Story highlights

  • Police feel "betrayal" for officer committing "such a terrible crime," chief says
  • Retired detective Stephanie Ilene Lazarus, 51, will appeal murder conviction
  • Lazarus is convicting of beating, biting and shooting to death Sherri Rasmussen
  • Rasmussen, then 29, was the bride of Lazarus' college sweetheart
A Los Angeles County jury found a retired police detective guilty of first-degree murder Thursday in the 1986 death of an alleged romantic rival who married the detective's college sweetheart.
Stephanie Ilene Lazarus, now 51 and retired after rising through the ranks of the Los Angeles Police Department, was accused of beating, biting and shooting to death Sherri Rasmussen, 29, in her townhouse in the suburban San Fernando Valley.
The judge scheduled sentencing for May 4. Lazarus faces 27 years to life in prison, prosecutors said.
Lazarus' attorney said she will appeal the conviction.
The attorney for the Rasmussen family said the murder investigation "covered the arc of a generation" for 26 years.
"Today's verdict absolutely confirms the identify of the person who murdered their daughter and the intent to which she committed the crime," said John Taylor, the Rasmussen family lawyer.
"This trial has been a roller coaster for her husband and her family. The family is relieved of this verdict," Taylor told reporters.
The Rasmussen family will pursue civil action against the police department and the city of Los Angeles, Taylor said. The family has sued the police for failing to investigate one of their own officers, but a judge tossed out the case. The family is appealing.
Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said the case was "a tragedy on every level."
"Not only did the family of Sherri Rasmussen lose a wife and a daughter, a life that can never be returned, but also the LAPD family felt a sense of betrayal to have an officer commit such a terrible crime," Beck said in a statement.
"I am also sorry it took us so long to solve this case and bring a measure of justice to this tragedy," Beck said.
The 1986 case went cold for years. Then it was reopened in 2004 and again in 2009. When Lazarus became a suspect, homicide detectives faced "special challenges as Lazarus' office was located next door to the detectives who were now investigating her," a police department statement said Thursday.
As the jury verdict was read convicting her of murder with a firearm, Lazarus showed no emotion, and she wasn't handcuffed as authorities escorted her from the courtroom.
Lazarus's husband, with whom she has a daughter, walked out of the courtroom immediately after the verdict. Some of Lazarus' relatives were crying as they exited. Her family was escorted by a plainclothes security detail.
Rasmussen's parents didn't express emotion at the verdict, either.
Lazarus was charged with staging the crime scene to look like a burglary gone bad. Rasmussen, a hospital nursing supervisor, was the new bride of John Ruetten, who had been Lazarus' college sweetheart.
Ruetten was in the courtroom Thursday to hear the verdict, but he was emotionless.
In their investigation of an officer within their own ranks, Los Angeles detectives solved the 23-year-old cold case after DNA testing in 2009 revealed a bite mark on the murder victim's left forearm came from Lazarus, authorities said.
Rasmussen, director of nursing at Glendale Adventist Medical Center, was shot three times in the chest on February 24, 1986, prosecutors said. Her husband of three months, Ruetten, discovered her body upon returning from work that evening, prosecutors said.
Prosecutors argued that Lazarus was in love with Ruetten and distraught when she learned he was marrying someone else.
"The family of Sherri Rasmussen never gave up their quest for justice for their daughter," District Attorney Steve Cooley said in a statement. He added that "justice was served today."
Ruetten testified he casually dated Lazarus after college, but he never considered her a girlfriend and dated other women while seeing her, prosecutors said.
Police had long believed Rasmussen was the victim of two male burglars, and the case was unsolved until 2009.
Lazarus, who was a veteran art theft detective, has remained in custody since her June 5, 2009, arrest at LAPD headquarters.
Lazarus' attorney, John Overland, argued in court that the crime scene evidence from 1986 was mishandled and tainted years ago and couldn't be trusted.
In speaking with reporters after the verdict, Overland stated: "Clearly, because of the speed of deliberations, we never had a chance in this case."
When asked about the DNA evidence, Overland said: "Clearly, it was the only piece of evidence linking her."