The Lazarus File

In 1986, a young nurse named Sherri Rasmussen was murdered in Los Angeles. Police pinned down no suspects, and the case gradually went cold. It took 23 years—and revolutionary breakthroughs in forensic science­—before LAPD detectives could finally assemble the pieces of the puzzle. When they did, they found themselves facing one of the unlikeliest murder suspects in the city’s history.

It was a burglary gone awry. That’s how it looked, at least, to the Los Angeles police detectives who arrived at a gated condo complex in the Van Nuys section of Los Angeles on the evening of February 24, 1986.

The body of a 29-year-old nurse and three-month newlywed, Sherri Rasmussen, had been discovered by her husband, John Ruetten. When Ruetten, an engineer, had come home from work at 5:55 p.m., he’d known instantly that something was wrong. The garage door was open and the silver two-door BMW he’d bought Rasmussen as an engagement gift was gone. It seemed strange that she would not be home; he knew she had called in sick to work that morning.

When Ruetten rushed inside, he found his wife’s body in the ransacked living room. Shards from a broken porcelain vase littered the floor. A TV wall unit was partially collapsed. A credenza drawer had been yanked out and its contents, mostly documents, dumped on the floor.

Examining the scene, the lead homicide detective, Lyle Mayer, began to piece together what he thought had taken place. Burglars must have entered through the unlocked front door. While one removed electronics from the wall unit, the other went upstairs and was surprised by Rasmussen. Her attire—robe, T-shirt, and panties—suggested she had not been expecting visitors.

Rasmussen was six feet tall and fit, and the ensuing struggle was ferocious. It evidently began in the dining room on the second floor of the townhouse, where shots were fired from a .38-caliber pistol, one of which may have hit Rasmussen. Hearing the shots, the downstairs burglar probably fled, ditching the video components. A blood trail down the stairs and a bloody handprint near the front door suggested Rasmussen had tried to escape or reach the panic button on the alarm panel located there, but her assailant followed. In the living room Rasmussen had been bitten on her left forearm, perhaps while grappling for the gun, and then struck over the head with the heavy vase, a blow that likely incapacitated her. The assailant had then taken a quilt from across the room—presumably to muffle the gun’s report—and fired more shots through it, killing Rasmussen. A housekeeper in the unit next door later said she’d heard a scuffle and a scream, but no gunshots. Imagining the din to be a domestic altercation, she hadn’t called the police.

In all, Rasmussen had been shot three times in the chest, the bullets piercing her heart, lungs, and spine. When it was over, the killer stole the BMW parked in the garage. That most items in the house appeared undisturbed—including Rasmussen’s jewelry box, sitting in plain view on her dresser—seemed to Mayer further evidence of a rushed exit.

It wasn’t until nearly two o’clock in the morning that Lloyd Mahany, a criminalist from the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, arrived to examine the body. It was his second homicide of the night. Mahany began by checking for trace evidence around the victim’s body—hair, fibers, anything unusual—but he found nothing of note. Next he opened a sexual-assault kit and collected a series of swabs and slides.

Sherri Rasmussen
Image courtesy of the Rasmussen family

When he noticed the bite mark on Rasmussen’s arm, Mahany selected a six-inch swab housed in a tube with a red rubber stopper. He removed the stopper and carefully swabbed the impression left by the assailant’s teeth. He reinserted the swab into the tube, squeezed the stopper shut, and labeled it with his initials and the coroner’s case number. He placed the tube inside a 5-by-7-inch L.A. coroner’s physical-evidence envelope, on which he wrote Sherri Rasmussen’s name, a description of the contents, and where he’d obtained them. Then he sealed it, noting the date and time he had done so.

The sun was just coming up over the San Fernando Valley when Mahany completed his work at the crime scene. He drove directly to the coroner’s office, where an evidence custodian booked the swab of the bite mark on Sherri Rasmussen’s arm into evidence at 10:32 a.m. on February 25, 1986.

Transcript of police interview with Stephanie Lazarus, June 5, 2009

Detective Jaramillo: I didn’t want to talk about this in the squad room, ’cause—

Stephanie Lazarus: Oh, that’s okay.

Detective Jaramillo: —I don’t know what people are listening … We’ve been assigned a case that we’ve been looking at … And reviewing the case, there’s some notes to see as far as your name being mentioned.

Stephanie Lazarus: Oh, okay.

Detective Jaramillo: Do you know John Ruetten?

Video: Watch key moments from Lazarus's interrogation

Nels and Loretta Rasmussen, Sherri’s parents, arrived in Los Angeles from Arizona the day after the murder. Nels immediately sought out Mayer, the homicide detective, who informed him that the police were looking for one or more burglars in connection with the killing. He also told Nels they had ruled out John Ruetten as a suspect. Nels mentioned that his daughter had complained one or two months earlier about an ex-girlfriend of her husband’s who had shown up at Sherri’s hospital one day and confronted her. Nels didn’t know the ex-girlfriend’s name, but he knew she was a Los Angeles police officer. In Nels’s mind, she was a prime suspect. Mayer made a note of the ex-girlfriend in the case file but apparently never followed up. The stolen BMW was found abandoned nearby about a week later, but it offered up no further clues.

Two months after the murder, a pair of men attempted a burglary a few blocks from Sherri’s condo. When Mayer learned that one of them had brandished a gun, these unidentified burglars became the focus of his homicide investigation. But the suspects remained elusive, and months passed without further leads. In late October, the Los Angeles Times ran a story on the now eight-month-old case, reporting that the Rasmussens were offering a $10,000 reward for any information regarding the suspects in their daughter’s murder, whom Mayer described in the article as two Latino men between 5 feet 4 inches and 5 feet 6 inches tall.

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Matthew McGough is a nonfiction and television writer living in Los Angeles.

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