The case of

Sherri Rae Rasmussen

Victim

Sherri Rae Rasmussen

Victim Race

Caucasian

Victim Date of Birth

1957-02-07

Victim Age

29

Date Reported

1984-02-24

Date of Death

1984-02-24

Case Status

Closed

Incident Location

Balboa Blvd, Van Nuys, LA

Body Location

Balboa Blvd, Van Nuys, LA

Date of Conviction

2012-03-

Body Discovered Date

1984-02-24

Murderer

Sherri Rasmussen was beaten, bitten and finally shot three times in the chest. It would take more than 20 years to find her killer.

Who was Sherri Rasmussen?

Sherri Rasmussen was born on February 7th, 1957. Her parents were Nels Rasmussen and Loretta Rasmussen. She was always known for being a person full of compassion; it’s because of this that at age 16, Sherri Rasmussen decided to study to be a nurse in Loma Linda University. After years of studying very hard, at 29years old, she would become Director of the Critical Care Unit at the Glendale Adventist Medical Center.  But it was in 1984 where Sherri would meet her husband to be, John Ruetten who was born in Oregon on September, 1958. John was a really good basketball player; this would pay out getting him into UCLA university where he studied to be an engineer. He graduated in 1982 and eventually got a job in a factory. Sherri and John met in a spring party and continued dating after. The relationship got very serious so John decided to take the next step.

Sherri and John got engaged in 1985 and, as a commitment gift, John gave Sherri Rasmussen a BMW. They would move together to Balboa Boulevard, in Van Nuys, LA, and finally got married on November 23rd, 1985. Everybody described them as a happy and stable couple and so they would continue to be until the horrible events of February 26th, 1986.

An everyday morning

The morning of February 24th was like any other morning in the Reutten couple’s condo. John woke up early to go to work and Sherri was staying home because she was feeling a bit sick. John Reutten called Sherri Rasmussen on the phone at least three times from work that day, he wanted to know if she was feeling any better, but Sherri didn’t pick up. He tried to leave messages for her but the answering machine seemed to be disconnected. John also called her office in case she felt better and had decided to go to work but her secretary told him she hasn’t seen Sherri that day. He thought it was a bit weird but decided to just wait until he was back home. Around 6.pm, when John gets home, he saw the garage door open, broken glass all over the garage entrance floor and Sherri’s BMW was gone. With a bad feeling he goes in the living room just to find his wife’s body on the floor. Sherri had been killed.

A botched burglary theory stopped them from seeing the suspect had been under their noses all along

When Los Angeles police officers and some fire men arrived to the scene, they found that Sherri Rasmussen had been shot three times in her chest with a 38 calibre gun. Apart from the bullet wounds, Sherri also had several bruises all over her swollen face and over her body. She even had a very distinctive bite-mark on her left inner forearm.  CSI people used a rape kit and took some samples from Sherri’s body including a saliva sample from the bite-mark.

Since there had been some robberies around that area and the crime scene was such a mess with things thrown around, detective Lyle Mayer’s theory of what had happened was a robbery gone wrong. He said the killers were probably a couple of Latin American men known in the area. Part of his theory was that Sherri Rasmussen fought back and tried to take the attackers’ gun, there’s when one of them bit her. He even said that, to avoid making noise, the killer had put a blanket around his gun before shooting Sherri. What was weird about this theory is that nothing else but Sherri’s BMW and the couple’s Marriage certificate was stolen. There was a jewellery box and other things of value but whoever killed Sherri decided to leave those things behind and take her Marriage License instead.

Sherri’s BMW was found some blocks away. The car was in perfect conditions it even had the keys in. Police officers started interviewing Sherri’s husband, family and friends to see if they could think of somebody who would want to hurt Sherri Rasmussen. John couldn’t think of anyone and he himself wasn’t a suspect because they had been married for just three months, so not enough time to build grudges, they had a short but happy married life. There wasn’t any insurance under Sherri’s name that could raise any red flag against John either. When they asked Sherri’s family and friends, they all mentioned a woman named Stephanie, who was John’s ex-girlfriend. They told police detective that Stephanie would stalk and harrass Sherri all the time because she couldn’t get over the fact that John had chosen her as his wife, she blamed Sherri for her broken heart. They also said that Sherri did not mention this to John because she thought she could fix it on her own.  But Stephanie was not going to let it go and was convinced that Sherri was her Romantic rival, and wanted her to know that If she couldn’t have John then nobody would. You would assume all these things were reason enough to investigate this person or have her as the main suspect at least but It seems like Los Angeles police didn’t find anything strange in this stories whatsoever. Detective Lyle Meyer decided to keep his line of thinking; there wasn’t a real reason to look into Stephanie Lazarus.

Back in 1986, DNA testing wasn’t at its best. So, even when the police had a saliva sample as forensic evidence from the bite-mark on Sherri´s arm, they couldn’t really use it. Years went by and the case would remain cold. Sherri Rasmussen’s parents Nels Rasmussen and Loretta Rasmussen kept asking the authorities to look into Sherri’s stalker Stephanie without positive answers. On 2001, the Cold Case Homocide Unit was created but it would be three years later that Criminalist Jeniffer Francis took a look into Sherri’s forensic evidence case. DNA evidence testing was better at that time and they were able to test the sample found on Sherri’s arm. Francis was surprised when the results of the test confirmed the bite on Sherri’s arm was made by a woman. According to the first theory, Sherri’s possible killer was supposed to be a man. So she knew they had been looking in the wrong direction all along. This seemed to be great news but even when they knew DNA belonged to a female; it didn’t have a match when running it through CODIS, the national law-enforcement database. So the case was left unsolved again.

Many years after, in 2009, and after crime rate in Los Angeles had gone lower, the police had more time to dedicate to cold cases. This is when Detectives Jim Nuttall and Peter Barba take Sherri’s case and start their investigation. After realizing the DNA sample belonged to a female suspect and looking into the list of five women who were named during the case first period, Nuttall and Barba recognized one name: Stephanie Lazarus; who at the moment was a decorated officer in the Commercial Crimes Division, she had been a part of the force since the early 1980’s. The two detectives also remembered that back in the 80’s most LAPD officers chose a 38 calibre as their off duty gun. This was interesting because Sherri Rasmussen had been killed with a .38 gun. Jim Nuttall and Peter Barba still needed to compare Lazarus’ DNA to the sample from the bite swab in the system.

Seeing that both Stephanie and her husband, Scott Young, were a part of LAPD, detectives Nuttall and Barba decided to keep the investigation as a secret, referring to Stephanie as ¨suspect number five¨, and started shadowing her to try and get a DNA sample from her. They finally succeeded when, after having lunch with her daughter, Stephanie dropped the soda cup and straw she had been zipping from to the garbage. The police picked it up and immediately took it to be tested for DNA. ¨We’ve got a match!¨ Yes, Stephanie DNA sample was the same as the one found on Sherri’s left arm bite-mark.

Stephanie Lazarus

Stephanie Lazarus attended UCLA in 1978, there’s where she would meet John Ruetten. They both loved being in shape and practicing basketball so became friends and eventually friends with benefits. Even though this on and off relationship lasted for a good amount of years, they never made it formal. They were never boyfriend and girlfriend.

After graduating from UCLA, Stephanie applied to the police academy and would eventually join the LAPD and John got a job with a hard drive manufacturer. The relationship with John continued somehow but they would see each other less often every time. Stephanie missed John so in 1984, she threw him a surprise party for his 25th birthday. Stephanie’s heart would be broken when she learned John was in a pretty serious relationship with another woman; Sherri Rasmussen and that he planned on marrying her.

Stephanie Lazarus, part of the LAPD at that moment, decided to start stalking and harassing Sherri Rasmussen. She would call her, follow her, even visit her at home. In Stephanie’s head she was in a love triangle but nothing further from reality.

Investigation Details

After making sure the DNA test from bite swab was Stephanie Lazarus’ detectives Nutall and Barba had to create an arrest scenario that wouldn’t alert Lazarus for she was always, as a detective, carrying a gun with her. It occurred to them the best thing to do would be to have somebody from the force that didn’t really have a personal connection with Stephanie to tell her they had information about a case she was currently investigating and that she could question the suspect. Nuttall and Barba knew that to do this, she needed to leave her gun out of the room. Greg Sterns and Dan Jaramillo from the RDH division were the ones chosen to take this task. They managed to take Stephanie to the interrogation room but once in there, Stephanie noticed there was nobody to be interrogated but her. This is when detectives mention John Reutten and Sherri Rasmussen to her; Stephanie made it sounds like she barely remembered Sherri, she even expressed how offended and uncomfortable they were making her feel with all their questions. Stephanie said she had zero implications on Sherri’s murder. She was asked to leave a DNA sample but she denied and left the room. Lazarus was arrested right outside and charged with the murder of Sherri Rasmussen.

Trial

The murder trial began in early 2012 in Los Angeles County Superios Court, with Stephanie Lazarus accused of First-degree murder. Prosecutors argued Stephanie’s motive for the murder was pure jealousy.

Even though Stephanie’s defence claimed that evidence against her was circumstantial and that probably the DNA sample found on Sherri’s arm bite mark was deteriorated, the jury wouldn’t bite those allegations. Your bite mark just doesn’t appear on somebody else’s body out of the blue. It was also proved that it was her off duty gun the one that killed

Verdict

Stephanie would be found guilty of First-degree murder and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison in March 2012. And after almost 26 years, the case of Sherri Rasmussen was finally closed.

Frequently asked questions

Was Stephanie Lazarus a police officer when she killed Sherri Rasmussen? 

Yes, Stephanie Lazarus was a fellow officer part of the LAPD who was, at that time, being promoted to detective.

Who is Steven Lazarus? 

Steven Lazarus is Stephanie Lazaru’s younger brother.

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