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.

In 1986, the year Rasmussen was killed, Los Angeles recorded 831 murders, a figure nearly triple what it is today. By the end of the year, LAPD homicide detectives had solved 538 of those murders, a clearance rate of 65 percent. Of them, 463 were “cleared by arrest” and 75 “cleared other,” a catchall designation for cases in which there is sufficient information to support the arrest of a suspect but, for reasons outside police control, no arrest can be made—for instance, when the suspect is dead or cannot be extradited to Los Angeles. LAPD homicide detectives track their clearance rate the way pro athletes track their season stats. It’s the number by which their performance is judged, both within the unit and up the chain of command.

The clearance rates reported at the end of each calendar year stand in perpetuity; they cannot be “corrected” through later arrests. If a homicide occurs in late December but an arrest is made in January, credit for the clearance is taken in the year of the arrest, not the year of the murder. One corollary of this quirk is that a division can raise its current-year clearance rate by solving old cases as well as fresh ones. In 2009, for instance, the LAPD’s Olympic Division recorded seven new murders, but its detectives were able to solve a total of 15, giving the unit an eye-popping clearance rate of 214 percent.

At midnight on December 31, when the LAPD closed the books on its 1986 homicide statistics, Sherri Rasmussen’s murder was indelibly recorded as one of 293 unsolved cases.

Detective Jaramillo: Was there ever any relationship or anything that developed between you and him?

Stephanie Lazarus: Yeah, I mean, we dated.

Detective Jaramillo: Uh-huh.

Stephanie Lazarus: You know, I mean, is it—what’s this all about?

Detective Jaramillo: It’s relating to his wife.

Few people could have predicted in early 1986 that the science of police work was about to take an epochal leap forward. Not since 1901, when Scotland Yard validated fingerprinting for the purpose of criminal identification, had detectives’ power to solve crimes been so profoundly transformed.

Seven months after Sherri Rasmussen’s death, half a world away from Los Angeles, DNA was used in a criminal investigation for the first time. Two 15-year-old girls from neighboring villages outside Leicester, in the English Midlands, had been killed, one of them that summer and one three years earlier. Both victims had been raped and strangled, their bodies left beside out-of-the-way footpaths. The inescapable conclusion for both police and terrified residents was that a serial predator was hiding among the local population.

As Joseph Wambaugh, the LAPD detective turned crime writer, recounted masterfully in his 1989 book, The Blooding, an unprecedented force of 200 police officers was assembled to hunt for the murderer. Suspicion quickly fell upon a 17-year-old boy who seemed to have an unnatural interest in the second crime scene. When the boy was arrested and interrogated, he offered a rambling half-confession to the more recent murder, alternately describing his acts in great detail and then, moments later, denying he’d done anything wrong. The police were certain that he had killed both girls. But no matter how hard they pushed him, the boy refused to confess to the first murder.

By that time, police laboratories in England and America were accustomed to analyzing biological evidence, typically blood or semen, using a laboratory method called serology to determine blood type. It was useful for investigative purposes, but too imprecise to serve as a smoking gun. Serological testing that the police had expected would link the boy to the victims had come up negative, but, in light of the other evidence, they discounted the results.

Someone mentioned to investigators a newspaper article about a local geneticist named Alec Jeffreys, who had developed a novel process for mapping gene variations using DNA molecules. Jeffreys—who would later be knighted for his contributions to forensic science—realized almost instantly the potential of the new technology, for which he coined the term genetic fingerprinting. Police asked Jeffreys to develop DNA profiles from the suspect’s blood sample and from semen at the two crime scenes. The results stunned everyone. The same person had indeed raped and killed both girls. But he wasn’t the boy whom police had in custody. The first criminal suspect ever subjected to forensic DNA testing was thus exonerated by it.

The investigation went back to the drawing board in all respects except one: police now had a DNA profile of their killer, who they suspected lived nearby. In January 1987, a bold plan was announced: the police requested that all male residents between the ages of 17 and 34 provide blood samples for DNA analysis, to eliminate themselves as suspects. No one was forced to participate in “the blooding,” as the DNA dragnet came to be called, and few expected that the killer would volunteer himself. But police hoped that the list of those who declined to participate would provide new leads.

Several months and thousands of blood samples later, the police received a curious tip. A woman who worked at a bakery in Leicester had been gossiping with co-workers at a pub when one mentioned that he had agreed to take the blood test on someone else’s behalf. The woman called the police, and the naïf who’d taken the surrogate blood test promptly fingered the man who had talked him into it, a fellow baker with the improbable name of Colin Pitchfork. When confronted, Pitchfork confessed to the killings, and DNA analysis later confirmed that he had raped both girls. In January 1988, Pitchfork became the first murderer in history to be convicted on the basis of DNA evidence. All over the world, newspapers hailed the breakthrough and marveled at the ways DNA forensics might revolutionize detective work.

Detective Stearns: Had you ever met his wife?

Stephanie Lazarus: I may have.

Detective Stearns: Do you know—do you remember her name or anything or—or what she did for a living or where she worked or anything about her?

Stephanie Lazarus: Well, I think she—I’m going to say I think she was a nurse … I don’t understand why you’re talking about some guy I dated a million years ago.

Detective Jaramillo: Yeah.

Detective Stearns: Well, do you know what happened to his wife?

Stephanie Lazarus: Yeah, I know she got killed.

In Los Angeles, the first two defendants told by prosecutors that DNA evidence would be used against them promptly pleaded guilty. The third, in 1989, was an accused rapist named Henry Wilds. The prosecutor in his case was Lisa Kahn, a deputy in the district attorney’s Van Nuys office—the same branch that would have handled the Rasmussen murder a few years earlier, had a suspect ever been arrested. Wilds was charged with committing two rapes, in 1986 and 1987. The LAPD had collected semen at both crime scenes, and Kahn received permission to submit the evidence to a private lab for DNA analysis, which confirmed that Wilds’s DNA profile matched that of the rapist.

Jury selection began in January 1990. Kahn recalls her desire to find jurors who would be able to make sense of this new universe of DNA testimony. “We were looking for a bright jury,” she explains. “So I get up there first and I say, ‘Has anybody ever heard of DNA?’ Some little retired guy raises his hand and says, ‘Yeah, I know, I know. It means “Does Not Apply.”’” DNA experts testified for both sides. The jury—which included Kahn’s “little retired guy”—voted to convict. In the wake of the successful prosecution, Kahn became responsible for handling any DNA-admissibility hearing that took place in Los Angeles County.

Forensic scientists and legal historians refer to the late 1980s and early ’90s as the height of “the DNA wars.” As DNA evidence was accepted state by state, jurisdiction by jurisdiction, defense attorneys were initially helpless against the highly credentialed scientific experts called by prosecutors to testify. But that began to change in 1989, when two lawyers, Peter Neufeld and Barry Scheck, convinced a New York judge that poor laboratory procedures warranted exclusion of DNA evidence that had been introduced against their client. The decision, People v. Castro, sent shock waves through the criminal-justice system. Over the next few years, in courtrooms across America, the adversarial process worked its magic. All concerned—prosecutors, defense lawyers, forensic scientists, judges—had to raise their game. Laboratories became more careful with evidence; trial courts grew more familiar with DNA; and higher courts affirmed its admissibility as a matter of law.

By 1994, the DNA wars were basically over, as a singular case would affirm. On June 13 of that year, LAPD homicide detectives visited the Rockingham Avenue mansion of O. J. Simpson to notify him that his ex-wife and an acquaintance of hers had been stabbed to death outside her Brentwood condominium. Simpson was soon linked to the crime by forensic evidence—in particular, a blood-soaked glove that a detective named Mark Fuhrman reported finding on Simpson’s property. (Defense lawyers would later suggest that Fuhrman had planted it.) On behalf of the prosecution, Kahn coordinated the DNA testing of more than 50 blood samples that seemed to tie Simpson inextricably to the killings.

Yet contrary to expectations, Simpson’s “Dream Team” of defense lawyers did not fight to keep DNA results out, nor did they challenge the forensic value of DNA evidence during the trial. Ultimately, the not-guilty verdict turned more on Fuhrman’s alleged racism and the LAPD’s carelessness in handling evidence than on the validity of the DNA. Indeed, by the end of the trial, the DNA results had ironically become a pillar of the defense’s alternate narrative of the murder. Of course it was O.J.’s DNA: it had been planted at the scene!

By one count, the term DNA was spoken in court 10,000 times during the nine-month trial, in addition to innumerable citations on television and in print. Just five years after a potential juror had confidently informed Lisa Kahn that DNA stood for Does Not Apply, it had become a household term.

Detective Stearns: And you think—you thought—you said you thought his wife was a nurse. Do you have any idea where she was working at the time, or did he ever mention that to you? Was it a hospital or a doctor’s office?

Stephanie Lazarus: I’m sure he must’ve mentioned it. I mean, now that you’re bringing it up, I think she worked at a hospital somewhere. And, yeah, I may have met her at a hospital. I may have talked to her once or twice—

Detective Stearns: At a—at a hospital?

Stephanie Lazarus: —or more, you know?

Even as forensic technology was taking great leaps forward, the investigation into Sherri Rasmussen’s murder remained stalled. For years, her parents, Nels and Loretta, did everything possible to keep the case alive. In November 1987, they returned to Los Angeles and held a press conference, at which they renewed their offer of a $10,000 reward for information leading to an arrest. Sherri’s widower, John Ruetten, was also there. “It’s been nearly two years of hell, not knowing who did this to Sherri or why,” he told the assembled reporters. In 1988, Nels wrote a letter to then–Chief of Police Daryl Gates requesting his intervention in the case, specifically looking into the possibility that an ex-girlfriend of Ruetten’s who was a police officer might have been involved. He received no reply. About that time, Nels again mentioned the ex-girlfriend to the Van Nuys detectives. “You watch too much television,” he remembers being told.

Into the early 1990s, Loretta called the Van Nuys homicide unit regularly to inquire about Sherri’s case. In 1993, the Rasmussens traveled to Van Nuys for a face-to-face meeting with one of the detectives who had inherited the case when Lyle Mayer retired. Mayer’s successor explained that he had reviewed the original case notes and tried to advance the investigation, but he had been unable to identify any suspects, and prospects for new leads were poor. Nels brought up an article about DNA forensics he had read in a science magazine and offered to pay for DNA analysis of the evidence at a private lab. The detective turned him down. Move on with your lives, he advised the Rasmussens. After that meeting, Loretta stopping calling.

Meanwhile, in a freezer in the Los Angeles County coroner’s office, alongside biological evidence from hundreds of other murders, the swab of the bite mark on Sherri Rasmussen’s arm lay waiting for forensic science—and the LAPD’s scrutiny—to catch up with it.

Detective Jaramillo: Do you know what the circumstances were regarding her death?

Stephanie Lazarus: Geez, let me think back. Geez, I don’t know if it was—you know, if it was burglary or something. Yeah, it’s—I mean, it’s been so many years …

Detective Jaramillo: Do you remember her first name?

Stephanie Lazarus: Shelly, Sherri. I don’t know. Something …

Presented by

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

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register with Disqus.

Please note that The Atlantic's account system is separate from our commenting system. To log in or register with The Atlantic, use the Sign In button at the top of every page.

blog comments powered by Disqus


A Stop-Motion Tour of New York City

A filmmaker animated hundreds of still photographs to create this Big Apple flip book


The Absurd Psychology of Restaurant Menus

Would people eat healthier if celery was called "cool celery?"


This Japanese Inn Has Been Open For 1,300 Years

It's one of the oldest family businesses in the world.


What Happens Inside a Dying Mind?

Science cannot fully explain near-death experiences.

More in National

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In