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.

If Lisa Kahn was the district attorney’s resident DNA geek, that role in the LAPD was filled by Detective David Lambkin. In 1981, as a young cop, Lambkin had requested assignment to the Automated Information Division, which, among other responsibilities, maintained a citywide crime database that could be searched by modus operandi or other basic criteria—for instance, all liquor-store robberies in which the suspect wore a mask. Primitive as the IBM punch-card and mainframe-computer databases might seem today, they were cutting-edge at the time, and they nurtured Lambkin’s interest in how technology could be used to solve cases. He made detective quickly and requested assignment to a sex-crimes unit. Lambkin excelled at the work, but by 1990, he felt burned out and decided to shift to homicides.

At the dawn of the DNA age, Lambkin’s background investigating sex crimes proved an excellent foundation for homicide work. Given the number of drive-by shootings then occurring in the city, LAPD detectives were far more accustomed to picking shell casings up off the street than searching for hair strands, semen stains, and other barely visible bodily traces. Lambkin, by comparison, had been working with biological evidence for years, and was already convinced of DNA’s potential. Moreover, he believed strongly that the LAPD had a moral obligation to do its best to solve cold cases. “For these families, this stuff never goes away,” he says.

In 1993, Lambkin was working homicide at the Hollywood Division, where he had a front-row seat for the conclusion of perhaps the coldest case ever solved by the LAPD. The victim, Thora Rose, had been brutally killed in her apartment in October 1963. At the time, detectives had collected more than 30 fingerprint lifts from the scene, but they had never identified a suspect. In 1990, when the lifts were uploaded to a fingerprint database, the computer reported a match with a previously unknown suspect named Vernon Robinson.

In 1963, Robinson had been an 18-year-old Navy recruit stationed in San Diego. After leaving the Navy in 1966, he fell into drugs and crime, and was eventually sentenced to three years at San Quentin for assault and robbery. Robinson emerged from prison a changed man. He got sober and enrolled in college. Later, he married and raised a family. When he was arrested for killing Thora Rose, Robinson was a 45-year-old manager for a building-maintenance company in Minneapolis. The LAPD detective who arrested him had been 8 years old when the murder occurred.

In court, Robinson cut a respectable figure. His children and members of his church packed the gallery in support of him. Deputy D.A. Paul Turley, in his closing argument, addressed head-on the defendant’s evident rehabilitation and the three decades that had passed between the crime and the trial. “I’m very happy to stand in opposition to the principle that you are entitled to one free murder every 30 years,” Turley told the jury. The jurors, and the judge, agreed: Robinson was convicted and sentenced to life in prison.

The Rose case made Lambkin eager to see how many other homicides from the city’s past might be solved using new technology. LAPD homicide detectives had always been free to work cold cases, but only as time permitted between fresh murders, which wasn’t very often. Now, using the new fingerprint and ballistics databases that had come online, Lambkin found he was able to clear some old homicides fairly easily. Although he didn’t solve every fresh case he worked, he closed enough old ones to maintain a remarkable 100 percent personal clearance rate every year from 1991 through 1996.

In October 1998, the FBI launched a DNA database called the Combined DNA Index System, or CODIS, which gave detectives the ability to compare DNA samples collected at crime scenes with the DNA profiles of legions of potential suspects. When, in 2000, a $50 million state grant became available to fund DNA testing in certain unsolved murders, Lambkin and Lisa Kahn seized the opportunity to propose a joint LAPD/D.A. task force to tackle the citywide backlog. After considerable political machinations, the LAPD’s new Cold Case Homicide Unit went operational in November 2001.

The cold-case unit initially consisted of seven detectives: three teams of two, with Lambkin at the helm. The “office” the unit was given—a 250-square-foot former janitorial storage space—was so cramped that every time someone wanted to leave, others had to pull in their chairs to make room.

The unit gradually came to grips with the magnitude of its caseload. The coldest homicide on the LAPD’s books was, literally, the first one: the unsolved murder of a man named Simon Christensen in downtown Los Angeles on the night of September 9, 1899. A century later, the unit could not do much about that one. But how far back could they go, given the inevitable loss and decay of physical evidence? “I knew from experience that there was probably nothing left from earlier than 1960,” Lambkin says. The unit’s initial focus would therefore be on unsolved homicides committed from 1960 through 1998.

Using the LAPD’s annual statistics, Lambkin tallied the numbers. During those 39 years, 23,713 murders took place in Los Angeles. Of those cases, 13,300 were cleared by arrest and another 2,668 were recorded as “cleared other.” That left 7,745 cold cases. Page by page, for months, the detectives combed the old homicide summary books. “We were looking for cases that had the best chance for us to potentially work with, given the small numbers [of detectives] we had,” says Rick Jackson, who was part of the original unit. “So we looked for sexually motivated murders, where there was a better chance for DNA. We looked at maybe a burglary murder that was unsolved. Because a burglary murder—someone is going to have broken into the place, spent some time there. In an indoor crime scene, obviously, the longer you are there, the more you do—whether you’re sexually assaulting, burglarizing, moving around ransacking—you increase the chance for good fingerprints.”

Late in 2002, when the cold-case unit finished its initial screening of all unsolved homicides committed in Los Angeles from 1960 through 1998, it judged 1,400 to have good forensic potential for reinvestigation—among them, the 1986 murder of Sherri Rasmussen.

Stephanie Lazarus: I mean, that’s—now that you guys are bringing all this stuff up, I mean, it sound—that sounds familiar. But, again, I mean, you know, what’s—I mean, what’s this got to do with me dating him and, you know, her getting killed? I mean, I—I don’t—you know, I don’t have anything to do with it …

Detective Stearns: Well, like we said, we just, literally, got this the other day … And then so, you know, I mean obviously, it’s, like—

Stephanie Lazarus: Yeah.

Detective Stearns:—we recognize the name, and we, you know—

Stephanie Lazarus: Yeah.

Detective Stearns:—you work next door to us. And so we’re trying to get some background. We’re trying to figure this out.

In February 2003, a year and a half after its formation, the cold-case unit made its first arrest, solving the 1983 murder of a young nurse and mother named Elaine Graham. A suspect, Edmond Marr, had been identified at the time but was never prosecuted; confronted with wiretap evidence and a DNA report that linked him to the murder, Marr eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 16 years to life.

Seven months later, in September, the unit cleared four cases at once when it arrested its first serial killer, Adolph Laudenberg. A 77-year-old grandfather with a bushy white beard, Laudenberg was suspected of having raped and strangled four women between 1972 and 1975; the media quickly dubbed him the “Santa Claus Strangler.” The detectives possessed the killer’s DNA profile, but had no sample from Laudenberg with which they could compare it. A warrant could have forced their suspect to give them a sample, but they weren’t sure they had enough evidence to get one. They could also have asked Laudenberg to submit a sample voluntarily, but that would have alerted him that he was a suspect.

Detectives have a third way to get a suspect’s DNA sample without running afoul of the Fourth Amendment: collect a voluntarily discarded sample. In this case, it would not be easy. Laudenberg lived in a mobile home that he moved sporadically around Los Angeles. Eventually, a detective arranged to meet at a doughnut shop to discuss what he described as a series of burglaries from automobiles. Afterward, the coffee cup the old man had used was whisked to the lab and his DNA was harvested from the brim. The profiles matched, and Laudenberg is now serving a life sentence. “The press loves these cases,” Lambkin says. “I mean, it is all positive every time you solve one. If you don’t solve one, well, no one solved it. But when you do, you’re like a freaking magician.”

During the summer and fall of 2003, Lambkin’s unit was working its way, case by case, through the 1,400 unsolved homicides it had flagged as having good forensic potential. On September 19, DNA analysis was requested on evidence from the 1986 murder of Sherri Rasmussen. The request reached the desk of a criminalist at the LAPD crime lab, but given staffing shortages, no action was taken on it for more than a year.

In December 2004, a criminalist named Jennifer Butterworth noticed the unworked request sitting on her colleague’s desk and volunteered to handle it. The first article Butterworth analyzed was a blood swatch taken at the victim’s autopsy, which gave her Rasmussen’s DNA profile. When she turned to the crime-scene evidence, the items she initially tested—a piece of fingernail, a bloodstained towel—yielded only the victim’s profile. Then Butterworth noticed that the property sheet listed a bite-mark swab. Yet she couldn’t find the swab in the rape kit or anywhere else. A week went by before the coroner’s office could locate the missing evidence.

The 5-by-7-inch envelope, new and crisp when Lloyd Mahany had sealed it in 1986, was no longer so pristine. Its condition would later be described in court as “pretty beaten up” and “ratty.” There was a tear at one end, from which protruded the red-capped top of the tube holding the swab, but the tube itself appeared intact. When Butterworth analyzed the swab, it yielded a mixture of two DNA profiles, one of which matched Rasmussen’s. The other presumably belonged to her killer.

This mystery profile did not return a CODIS hit, which meant the suspect was not in the FBI’s DNA database. But a curious detail caught Butterworth’s eye. DNA profiles developed since the late 1990s typically include a gender marker. In most violent crimes, the suspect comes up XY, or male. But the DNA results in front of Butterworth were XX, meaning that the person who bit Sherri Rasmussen was female. Without the case file, Butterworth had little information regarding theories of the case or possible suspects, and so lacked context for her discovery. But it was certainly unusual. She typed up her conclusions and sent the report to the cold-case unit on February 8, 2005.

As it happened, just a few months before, California voters had overwhelmingly approved Proposition 69, a ballot measure co-authored by Lisa Kahn. Prop 69 required police to collect DNA samples from all individuals arrested for a felony or a sex crime, as well as from all state-prison inmates who had been convicted of such crimes. The DNA profiles of tens of thousands of California inmates were uploaded to the FBI’s vast database. As a result, in 2005 Lambkin’s unit was swamped with CODIS-based “cold hits”: DNA reports implicating suspects previously unknown to detectives.

As tantalizing a clue as Butterworth’s DNA report provided in the Rasmussen case—namely, that a woman might be the murderer—it did not point directly to a specific suspect, unlike the many cold hits rolling in thanks to Prop 69. Perhaps for this reason, Butterworth’s report went into the Rasmussen case file, and the case file itself went back on the shelf, where it would sit for a few years more.

Detective Jaramillo: I know you—you went to talk with her at—at the hospital regarding this issue with John to, you know, kind of like, hey, you know, what’s going to happen with this thing. But would you ever have followed up to her house where you went to talk to her to say, hey, you know what—

Stephanie Lazarus: I—I don’t even know that I knew where they lived …

Detective Stearns: But you didn’t have any issues with her; right?

Stephanie Lazarus: No, I mean, you know, obviously, if he was dating me and dating her, I probably said, hey, pick or something, you know …

By early 2007, when David Lambkin retired, the Cold Case Homicide Unit had solved more than 40 old murder cases. His successor was Robert Bub, another veteran homicide detective. Bub estimates that when he took over the unit, it numbered 10 detectives and had about 120 cases open. The team had by then moved to a new, slightly more spacious squad room on the fifth floor of Parker Center, the LAPD’s legendarily decrepit headquarters, but it still didn’t have enough space for all the murder books that it had accumulated. Detectives boxed up whichever cases weren’t being actively worked and sent them back to the divisions where they had originated, if there was room for them, or to the LAPD archives if there wasn’t.

As a result, sometime in 2007, the Sherri Rasmussen case file was returned to the Van Nuys Division in a cardboard box. By coincidence, Bub followed it in March 2008, when he accepted a transfer to run the Van Nuys homicide unit, which had just lost its supervising detective and two others to retirement. When the dust settled, the squad consisted of Bub and three other detectives: Pete Barba, Marc Martinez, and Jim Nuttall.

Whereas Van Nuys once recorded 30 to 40 homicides a year, nowadays it averages five to seven. “It’s a very manageable number of murders for three guys to work,” Bub says. In early February 2009, with the squad’s most recent homicide cleared, Nuttall and Barba began poking around for an interesting cold case. They settled on Sherri Rasmussen’s.

“It was four books when it reached me, four books deep,” Nuttall says of the case file. “They kept a pretty good chronological record of everything that was done over 23 years.” When Nuttall reached the 2005 DNA-analysis report, he saw immediately that the gender marker was incompatible with the original theory of the case. “That jumps off the page at you, because when you have that, and you’re aware that the case is based on two male burglars—well, that alters the entire course of the investigation. You have to go back to square one.”

The detectives went back over the whole investigation—but this time with the assumption that they were looking for a female suspect. When they finished going through the case file, they had a list of five names, among them that of Stephanie Lazarus, who was cited in the original police work as John Ruetten’s ex-girlfriend, with the further notation “P.O.” Nuttall didn’t make anything of the initials until he called Ruetten, who told him that Lazarus had been a Los Angeles police officer.

Nuttall was stunned at the thought that a cop might have killed someone and gotten away with it. “It was extremely difficult initially to process that possibility,” he says. Wondering whether she might still be on the job, the detectives typed her name into the LAPD’s directory, and there she was: Detective Stephanie Lazarus. Nuttall phoned Bub and told him they had identified the police-officer ex-girlfriend whom Nels Rasmussen had brought up all those years before. The suspects on the squad’s list were numbered 1 through 5. Lazarus, considered the least likely suspect, was No. 5.

The detectives on the Van Nuys squad made two pacts regarding the Rasmussen case. First, they agreed that they would maintain total secrecy, and would never speak or write Lazarus’s name where anyone else might hear or see it. There was no way to know who in the division might be acquainted with her, and they didn’t want to dirty her good name in the likely event that she didn’t have anything to do with the murder—or tip her off in the unlikely event that she did. Second, they promised one another that they would follow the trail of evidence wherever it led. “This was not a random act of violence toward Sherri Rasmussen,” Nuttall says. “Somebody on that list committed this crime.”

Stephanie Lazarus: Oh, yeah, they—my cars have been broken into, you know, but no cars have ever been stolen.

Detective Jaramillo: Uh-huh. How long—well, when—tell me about this—the car getting broken into.

Stephanie Lazarus: Well my car had been broken into several times.

Detective Jaramillo: Oh, really? Did you ever lose anything or—

Stephanie Lazarus: Yeah, now that you mention it. Let’s see. I had a gun that was stolen.

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

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