Police Find Suspect in Cold Case: One of Their Own
Detective Stephanie Lazarus of the Los Angeles Police Department was arrested last week in the 1986 beating and shooting death of the wife of a former boyfriend.
By RANDAL C. ARCHIBOLD
Published: June 12, 2009
LOS ANGELES — To her neighbors, she was the kindly friend who delivered chocolate-covered cherries at Christmastime and passed hours in the garage building doors and cabinets. To her colleagues, she was a basketball-crazed jokester who threw herself into work but delighted in pranks like kidnapping a stuffed bear for a candy “ransom.”
But to the police and prosecutors, Stephanie Lazarus, the 49-year-old mother of a toddler whom friends and co-workers could not praise enough, is a killer. Worse, she is one of their own. She is a Los Angeles police detective, and she has been charged with killing the wife of a former lover more than 20 years ago.
Deputy Chief Charlie Beck, who supervises hundreds of detectives and has seen his share of sensational crimes in a 32-year career here, is still shaking his head at the whirlwind turn of the case.
Only a few police officers in Chief Beck’s career have been charged with deliberately killing someone off duty, and he never imagined investigating one of his own seasoned detectives for such a crime.
“I don’t know that everyone is capable of homicide, but certainly you never know who is capable of homicide,” Chief Beck said in an interview. “People can hold dark secrets and hold them very well for a long period of time. She definitely did.”
Detective Lazarus was arrested June 5 at police headquarters and charged with the 1986 beating and shooting death of Sherri Rasmussen, 29, whom Ms. Lazarus had stalked and threatened, Ms. Rasmussen’s father has said. Detective Lazarus, a 25-year veteran, was a patrol officer then with two years on the force.
Now on leave without pay, Detective Lazarus is to be arraigned July 6 and is being held in the county jail without bail. An assistant for her lawyer, Mark R. Pachowicz, said Mr. Pachowicz would not comment.
Prosecutors will have the option of pursuing the death penalty because the police assert that Detective Lazarus committed robbery — Ms. Rasmussen’s car disappeared, along with her marriage certificate, during the attack, family members said.
Ms. Rasmussen and her attacker engaged in a “dramatic” fight, Chief Beck said, before she was shot three times and left for dead. Her husband of three months, John Ruetten, found the body when he returned to their condo in the San Fernando Valley.
The department is now reviewing the original investigation to determine whether Detective Lazarus was overlooked as a suspect.
Ms. Rasmussen’s father, Nels Rasmussen, would not comment, but his lawyer, John C. Taylor, said that at the time Mr. Rasmussen had pressed detectives to look into a former girlfriend of Mr. Ruetten who was a police officer, though he did not know her name.
Mr. Taylor said Mr. Rasmussen was told at one point, “you have been watching too much TV,” and ultimately investigators concluded that the killing had probably resulted from a botched burglary.
The case had remained unsolved until investigators in the department’s cold-case unit, newly bolstered as a result of the city’s plummeting homicide rate, reviewed it as part of a systematic check of old files using technology that was not available at the time of the crimes.
They discovered evidence — a saliva swab from a bite wound on Ms. Rasmussen — that, after recent DNA testing, revealed the attacker was a woman and not a man, as originally thought.
After re-interviewing Ms. Rasmussen’s friends and family, investigators began looking at Ms. Lazarus as a prime suspect and surreptitiously retrieved a discarded item from her, tested it and determined that her DNA matched the swab.
Detective Lazarus worked on a small squad investigating art theft and fraud. The homicide unit is right across the hall.
Chief Beck said the department had gone to great lengths to keep its investigation secret, including housing the detectives on the case in another building and limiting its knowledge to “very, very few people.”
The arrest stunned colleagues and friends.
“It is heartbreaking,” said Detective Deborah Gonzales, president of the Los Angeles Women Police Officers and Associates, an organization in which Detective Lazarus had been an officer.
“You had the impression this job was her life,” Detective Gonzales said, adding that at work Detective Lazarus often displayed a sense of humor, for example, swiping a stuffed animal for ransom.
“She left a note saying leave 10 M&Ms on her desk and she would give it back,” Detective Gonzales said.
Detective Lazarus lives in suburban Simi Valley on a street populated with several current and retired police officers. Her husband, Scott Young, is a Los Angeles police officer as well, and they have lived on the street for about 10 years.
An elderly woman who answered the door at their home said: “I have nothing to say, and I may never have anything to say. The press has made a circus out of this.”
Neighbors said Detective Lazarus was friendly but not particularly outgoing. She and her husband mostly kept to themselves, the neighbors said, working on the house or walking with the daughter they have adopted, but displayed kindness through small gestures, like distributing Christmas treats and offering flowers to the sick.
They did, however, share their eagerness for a child.
“They wanted a baby so bad,” said Sandra Preece, who lives across the street. “They asked the neighbors if we knew of anyone who wanted to give up a child for adoption.”
For a time, Detective Lazarus ran a private investigation firm on the side called Unique Investigations, according to The Ventura County Star. An article in the paper from 2000 describes her offering free photographing and fingerprinting of children as part of a protection kit for parents.
Mostly, those who knew her said, Detective Lazarus seemed committed to work. In an article on the art-theft unit in The LA Weekly in April, the detective, who graduated from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1982 with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, said she became an art lover at 18 after a trip to Italy. She was described as a protégée of the senior officer in the unit.
Her career collapsed on the morning of June 5. Shortly after arriving at police headquarters, she was summoned to a holding jail in the basement with word that a suspect needed to be interviewed. She was relieved of her gun as part of the jail’s procedure for visiting officers, and an arrest team swooped in.
“There was” a suspect, Chief Beck said. “But it was her.”