The case of

Sherri Rasmussen

Victim

Sherri Rasmussen

Victim Race

Caucasian

Victim Date of Birth

1960-05-04

Victim Age
Date Reported
Date of Death

1986-02-24

Case Status

Closed

Incident Location

Van Nuys, California

Body Location

Van Nuys, California

Date of Conviction

June 2009

Body Discovered Date
Murderer

Sherri Rassmussen

Who is Stephanie Lazarus?

In 1978 Stephanie Ilene Lazarus was attending UCLA. While at a party, Stephanie met John Reutten. John lived in the same dormitory as Stephanie, and his room was on the same floor as hers. Since Stephanie was a member of UCLA’s junior varsity basketball team, her health and fitness were important. Because John felt the same way about exercising, the new friends would spend time together at the gym.

Stephanie and John were very into fitness, and the new friends would spend time together working out and exercising. Soon their friendship escalated into a friends-with-benefits situation. The couple’s relationship stayed open and casual after Stephanie and John graduated from UCLA.

Much to the surprise of Stephanie’s friends and family, she joined the Los Angeles Police Department. John accepted a job as a hard-drive manufacturer. Later, John testified despite his and Stephanie’s sexual relationships; he never considered her a girlfriend. Stephanie felt somewhat differently, as her journal would show after her arrest. She was in love with John and truly believed the two of them would end up together.

Sherri Rae Rasmussen was the woman who would destroy all of Stephanie’s hopes and dreams. In the mid-1980s, John fell in love with Sherri, a Loma Linda University graduate. An intellectual woman, Sherri enrolled in college at only sixteen. After graduation, Sherri pursued a career in nursing. At the time of Sherri Rasmussen’s murder, she worked as a mentor and teacher to nursing students.

Within a year, Sherri and John were engaged. When Stephanie heard about their engagement, she did not take the news well. She also was a frequent unwelcome guest at the home Sherri and John shared. Dressed in tight-fitting workout clothes, Stephanie once brought her skis over for John to wax.

One night before Sherri and John’s wedding, Stephanie showed up at the home of her former lover. Stephanie begged John not to marry Sherri, but John reiterated to Stephanie that the relationship was over. Still, John and Stephanie did have sex that night after Stephanie asked if they could be together one more time.

Later Stephanie, scantily dressed, went to the hospital where Sherri worked. Spitefully Stephanie told Sherri that two nights previously, she had slept with John. Despite the infidelity and harassment, Sherri and John married in November 1985. Sherri only had four more months to live.

Murders

On February 24, 1986, Sherri called in sick to work. Sherri was feeling fine, but on that day, she was scheduled to give a motivational speech, and honestly, she didn’t think they were effective. The day before, Sherri had pulled a muscle in her back during an aerobics workout and told John she would use the injury as an excuse to stay home.

While John was at work that day, Stephanie picked the lock on the door to his and Sherri’s house and broke in. Sensing someone in the house, Sherri came out from a back room to see Stephanie standing in her entryway. Stephanie fired her .38 caliber pistol at Sherri hitting a window. Sherri ran, and Stephanie darted after her.

Like Stephanie, Sherri was into fitness; the two women began a fight to the death on the living room floor. Sherri held Stephanie in a sleeper hold, who bit Sherri’s arm to release her grasp. Unknowingly leaving a DNA sample behind. With her arms free, the police officer picked up a vase and bashed Sherri over the head. Since Sherri was dizzy from the hit, Stephanie whacked her over the head with the butt of her revolver.

The final whack knocked Sherri out, and she collapsed to the floor. Methodically, Stephanie searched the room for a blanket and wrapped it around the gun barrel when she found one. With the blanket acting as a silencer, Stephanie fired three shots into Sherri’s heart and one into her face.

With her romantic rival out of the way, Stephanie worked to make the crime scene look like a home invasion gone wrong. She ran around the house, knocking over furniture and breaking glass. Stephanie placed electronics by the front door to make it look like the burglars left their loot behind after killing Sherri.

For twenty-three years, Sherri’s case would remain cold. Investigators found very little DNA evidence at the home of Sherri and John. Mostly anything found was circumstantial evidence. They had no idea where to start when looking into the suspects. But, they didn’t think the crime scene was staged and thought the robbery was the motive. The bite mark on Sherri’s arm indicated to the crime scene analyst this was a crime of passion.

Initial Investigation, DNA Swabs, and Arrest

John and Stephanie didn’t end up together, and eventually, she married an LAPD detective. Stephanie and her husband would also adopt a little girl. In 2006 Stephanie received a promotion to detective within the LAPD. From now on, Detective Lazarus would be in charge of the art fraud department. Under the impression she had committed the perfect crime, Stephanie relaxed and thought she had nothing to fear.

Sherri and John’s neighbor noticed the couple’s garage door was open at 9:45 AM on February 24, 1986. The neighbor noted there was no vehicle inside the garage at this time. At 10:00 AM, John called his wife, but Sherri didn’t answer the phone. Throughout the day, John called his house several times, but Sherri never picked up. When Sherri’s sister called her that day, no one answered. All phone calls went straight to the answering machine.

When John returned home that evening, he found broken glass in his driveway. The garage door was still open, and the BMW he purchased for Sherri as a wedding gift was missing. John discovered Sherri’s bullet-ridden body on the living room floor inside his house.

The living room showed apparent signs of a struggle. In addition to the broken vase and upturned furniture, a bloody hand print was on the wall. Due to a bloody smudge the fingerprints weren’t usable. When the crime scene analyst arrived on the scene, they had the foresight to take a swab from the bite mark tissue sample on Sherri’s arm. Although in 1986, DNA was in its infancy, the bite mark swab from the bite mark tissue sample would be what helped bring Stephanie to justice twenty-three years later.

In 2005 DNA technology had advanced far enough to test the saliva found on the bite mark swab. The DNA major profile wasn’t that of a male but a female. This revelation shocked those investigating Sherri’s case. They always assumed it had to be a male who overpowered the strong woman. Nels Rasmussen, Sherri’s father, always had a feeling his daughter’s death wasn’t a result of a botched robbery. When Nels Rasmussen heard the major profile found on the bite mark swab was from a female, he knew Stephanie killed his daughter.

Due to the escalating crime in Los Angeles in the 1980s, detectives couldn’t devote the time needed to Sherri’s criminal investigation. By 2009 though, drugs and gang activity in the area had slowed down, and investigators could take a look at some of the cold cases sitting on their shelves.

Cold case detectives started by giving Sherri’s criminal investigation a fresh look. Since they knew the perpetrator was a female, detectives looked at the female suspects from 1986. Investigators compiled a list of five female suspects who could have murdered Sherri.

When looking into the suspect’s background, the cold case detectives were shocked when they discovered Stephanie Lazarus was a high-ranking LAPD detective. Eventually, the detectives narrowed their search down to two suspects—a former co-worker of Sherri’s who she had exchanged words with and Stephanie Lazarus. DNA taken from Sherri’s co-worker during a covert operation did not match the DNA from the bite mark tissue sample. That meant the murderer the detectives were looking for was Detective Stephanie Lazarus.

Both Stephanie and her husband held prominent positions within the LAPD, so cold case investigators had to keep their criminal  investigation into Stephanie top secret. They didn’t know who was connected to the couple and didn’t want any information getting back to their prime suspect. It now turned into an internal investigation in addition to a criminal investigation. When referring to Stephanie regarding the case, the detectives would call her Number Five.

At the time, Stephanie owned a Smith and Wesson 49 .38 caliber pistol. Two weeks after Sherri’s murder, Stephanie reported her Smith and Wesson as missing. Stephanie said the weapon went missing from a pier, and investigators assumed she tossed it into the ocean.

Using DNA from a cup thrown away by Stephanie, investigators matched the DNA found on Sherri’s body to the DNA on the cup. Finally, in 2009, after twenty-three years, Sherri’s murderer was going to be brought to justice. Investigators had their meeting with Stephanie at their police headquarters. The police headquarters building requires everyone to check their gun, and if Stephanie didn’t take the news of her arrest well, then she shouldn’t have her gun on her.

Stephanie went to the headquarters that day, assuming someone wanted to speak with her about a suspect in an art robbery. Once Stephanie surrounded her weapon, she was told she was there about Sherri’s murder, not an art theft. The investigators began questioning her by telling Stephanie they wanted the private location because she was married to a detective and didn’t want anyone to spread office gossip.

When detectives asked Stephanie for a sample of her DNA, she said no and left but was promptly arrested outside the interrogation room. After her arrest, detectives searched her house and found Sherri’s journal from the mid-1980s chronicling her love affair with John. Stephanie’s computer history showed she searched for John’s name numerous times over the years.

Murder Trial and Conviction

Stephanie’s defense attorney said his client law enforcement officer Stephanie Lazarus was not guilty of the murder of Sherri. The defense counsel claimed the prosecution only had circumstantial evidence against their client. Prosecutors showed the jury that the genetic profile found on the bite mark swab matched Stephanie. Expert’s were called to the witness stand to testify the contributor of the major profile found on the bite mark swab belonged to Stephanie Lazarus. A defense motion asked for the exclusion of evidence. A judge denied their motion for the exclusion of evidence.

In March 2012, jurors found Stephanie guilty of Sherri’s murder and sentenced her to twenty-seven years to life in prison. Stephanie will be eligible for parole in 2034. Due to the circumstances surrounding Sherri’s murder, many movies and television shows used the facts as their plot. Reality true crime shows like Deadly Women, Snapped, Scorned: Love Kills, and People Magazine Investigates have all documented Sherri’s murder by her husband’s jealous ex-lover.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is Stephanie Lazarus still alive?

Yes. Stephanie Lazarus is currently serving her sentence in Central California Women’s Facility for her role in the 23-year murder mystery. A bite mark swab convicted Sherri of first degree murder.

Who is Stephanie Lazarus’s husband?

Stephanie Lazarus married Scott Young in 1996. An internal affairs investigation was started because Stephanie and Scott were detectives.

What was Stephanie Lazarus’s defense?

Stephanie Lazarus denied killing Sherri Rassmussen despite being the contributor to the major profile found on the bite mark swab. Defense counsel filed a defense motion for exclusion of evidence.

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