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.

The Van Nuys detectives quickly eliminated three of the five women on their list for having insufficient motive to harm Rasmussen. That left them with only two suspects: Lazarus and one other woman, a fellow nurse who, according to the original case notes, had occasionally argued with Sherri at the hospital. “We were teetering,” Bub recalls. But as far as motive was concerned, “the information that we had was that [Lazarus and Ruetten’s] relationship had been over since the previous summer. We didn’t have anything to establish there was any animosity.”

The detectives decided they would investigate the nurse first, confirming or eliminating her as a suspect. She was located living in Northern California, and Bub made arrangements with local law enforcement to surreptitiously collect a DNA sample from her. In mid-April, just over two months into the new investigation, that DNA report came back negative. The detectives’ list was down to one name: Stephanie Lazarus.

Fact by fact, the team began piecing together Lazarus’s relationship to Sherri Rasmussen. Lazarus and John Ruetten had become close friends at UCLA, where they’d lived in the same dorm. After graduating in the early 1980s, they dated on and off. In 1985, Ruetten began dating Rasmussen seriously. He proposed to her that summer, and they married in November. Three months later, she was dead.

At the time, Lazarus was a 26-year-old patrol officer in her third year with the LAPD. In 1993, she made detective, and in 1996 she married a fellow LAPD officer, with whom she later adopted a little girl. In 2006, Lazarus was assigned to the department’s Art Theft Detail, a plum post with a degree of prestige rare for Los Angeles police work. In her long career, she had never been involved in a use-of-force incident or been accused of any misconduct.

Still, as the Van Nuys unit continued to dig, other details fell uncomfortably into place. Marc Martinez recalled that in the mid-1980s, most LAPD cops carried a .38 as their backup or off-duty gun—the same caliber weapon indicated on the ballistics report in the Rasmussen murder book. On April 30, the detectives entered Lazarus’s name into the California state gun registry, which returned a list of all the firearms she had ever registered. One of them, a .38, had been reported stolen on March 9, 1986—13 days after the murder.

Within a week, the detectives obtained a copy of the stolen-gun report. It indicated that shortly after 2 p.m. that Sunday, Lazarus had walked into the lobby of the Santa Monica Police Department, identified herself as an LAPD officer, and told the clerk that her car, parked near Santa Monica Pier, had been broken into. The lock on the driver’s-side door had been punched, she said, and a blue gym bag stolen. Lazarus listed for the clerk the contents of the stolen bag: clothes, half a dozen cassette tapes, and the handgun, which she described as a Smith & Wesson five-shot .38 revolver. Without that gun—or, more precisely, without a bullet known to have been fired from it—the Van Nuys detectives would have no way to prove, or disprove, that it was the murder weapon.

By this time, Nuttall had spoken on the phone with Nels Rasmussen, Sherri’s father, whose persistence and intelligence impressed him. “I said, ‘We need to talk about everything. I need you to walk me through everything from A to Z,’” Nuttall recalls. He asked Nels about women who might have wanted to harm Sherri, and Nels recounted what he had told detectives in 1986 about Ruetten’s cop ex-girlfriend, who his daughter said had confronted her at the hospital where she worked. Given the sensitivity of the unfolding investigation, Nuttall had to be cautious about tipping his hand. But he told Nels, “Give me time to do what I have to do, and I think I’ll be able to have an answer for you.”

Detective Stearns: Did you have a fight with her?

Stephanie Lazarus: You mean like we fought?

Detective Stearns: Yeah, did you ever duke it out with her?

Stephanie Lazarus: No, I don’t think so … I mean, it just doesn’t sound familiar. I mean—I mean, what are they saying? So I—I fought with her, so—so, now, I mean, I—I—I’m getting the jump—the leap … They’re saying, okay, I fought with her, so I must’ve killed her. I mean, come on. I mean that’s—you know, I don’t even know who those people are. I can’t even say I met any of these people. I mean, that’s—it’s insane.

If a case against Lazarus was going to proceed, it was inevitably going to end up with the department’s Robbery-Homicide Division, the elite detective unit that handles the city’s most sensitive and high-profile murder cases. Bub, a veteran of RHD, was determined to deliver an ultra-professional case to them. The detectives had known for a while that they would need to obtain a sample of Lazarus’s DNA to compare with the bite-mark swab. “We had kicked around the idea of doing it ourselves, doing surreptitious DNA,” Bub says. “But the way the circumstances were, there would have been too many variables involved and too much potential for screwup. We felt it best, if we’re going to do this and hand the package to RHD, we’re going to hand it to them with everything done correctly.”

Bub went to his lieutenant in the Van Nuys Division and briefed him on the investigation. Outside of Bub and the three men in his unit, the lieutenant was the first person in the department to learn that an LAPD detective had become a cold-case murder suspect. The captain of the Van Nuys Division and his commanding officer, the chief of the Valley Bureau, were quickly brought into the loop. “We explained that this could still turn out not to be her,” Bub says. “There were some coincidences, but there was nothing definitive for us at this point.” The chief decided that Bub’s unit could hang on to the case until the DNA sample was obtained. Back at the squad room, the detectives prepared for two possible outcomes: if Lazarus’s DNA matched the sample from the swab, RHD would assume responsibility for the case; if it didn’t match, the Rasmussen case would be designated “investigation continued” and shelved yet again, probably forever.

On May 19, 2009, the Van Nuys detectives met off-site with detectives from the LAPD’s Professional Standards Bureau, a surveillance unit directly under the command of the chief of police, who was then William Bratton. On May 27, after a week of preparation and surveillance, plainclothes detectives surreptitiously trailed Lazarus as she ran errands. When she threw out a cup and straw she had been drinking from, the surveillance team swooped in and retrieved it from the trash.

At the Scientific Investigation Division, a DNA profile was quickly developed from the saliva on the straw and compared with the unidentified profile extracted from the bite-mark swab. On May 29, Bub was on a day off when his cell phone rang. The call was from a technician at the crime lab. Bub recalls, “It was one of those gut-wrenching moments when he said, ‘Yes, it’s a match.’”

Stephanie Lazarus: I wish I had been recording this, because—because now it sounds like, you know, there’s—you know, you’re telling me these people say I’m fighting with her. And, now, it sounds like you’re trying to, you know—I’ve been doing this a long time.

Detective Jaramillo: Yeah.

Detective Stearns: We know.

Stephanie Lazarus: Okay? And—and, now, it almost sounds like you’re trying to pin something on me.

The Art Theft Detail where Lazarus worked was on the third floor of Parker Center, just across the hall from the Robbery-Homicide Division squad room. Lazarus was friendly with a number of RHD detectives, which made assigning the case a challenge. The two detectives who were ultimately chosen, Greg Stearns and Dan Jaramillo, were selected in part because they did not know Lazarus well, and had no bias for or against her. Bub says maintaining the secrecy of the investigation was a top priority. Detectives are gossipy, he explains. “That’s the nature of being a detective: we all want to know.”

Within hours of receiving the DNA results, Bub and Nuttall brought the four binders that comprised the Rasmussen case file to Stearns and Jaramillo at Parker Center. “We’re giving them this spiel of where we are and how we got here, what’s been going on for 23 years,” Nuttall recalls. “Dan and Greg aren’t asking questions yet, because they’re still absorbing this information that’s just overwhelming.” When they finished, all four detectives went straight from RHD to the D.A.’s office, where Bub and Nuttall briefed the prosecutors who would be handling the case.

To maintain secrecy, Stearns, Jaramillo, and Nuttall spent the next week working out of a conference room at the D.A.’s office. While Stearns and Jaramillo began planning their strategy for interviewing Lazarus, Nuttall and Lisa Sanchez, another RHD detective, flew to Arizona to meet with the Rasmussen family. Because many more people within the LAPD and the D.A.’s office were now aware of where the investigation was headed, concern was growing that word could leak at any moment. Nuttall and Sanchez were tasked with getting on-the-record statements from the Rasmussens and updating them on the investigation, without tipping them off to just how close the police were to making an arrest.

Despite his many phone conversations with Nels, Nuttall had never met the Rasmussens in person, and he was nervous about the encounter. The night before, and all through the morning, he went over in his head exactly what he was going to say to them: “The hardest part was, I thought, Man, Nels is going to undress this. He’s going to know I know. He’s not going to miss this.”

When the two LAPD detectives pulled up to the house, Nels came out to the driveway to greet them. The whole family was waiting inside. “He walks me in,” Nuttall recalls, “and I drew a blank on what I was going to say.” The awkward silence was broken when Loretta crossed the room to where Nuttall stood, and hugged him. “Here’s this woman who never said two words to me,” Nuttall says. “She just walked across the room and she gave me a hug.” Before the detectives left, Nuttall made one last plea for the family’s patience.

The detectives returned to Los Angeles and dove back into the case with Stearns and Jaramillo. One of the thorny issues still to be resolved was how and where to confront Lazarus. “Chief Bratton didn’t want anybody approaching her when she had a gun or access to a gun,” Nuttall explains. “There was no way anybody was going to sign off on us going into the house with a search warrant in the middle of the night and it maybe ending in tragedy.”

In the end, they decided to stage the interview at Parker Center’s Jail Division, located on the floor directly below the Robbery-Homicide Division and the Art Theft Detail. Firearms were not allowed in the jail, so it would not seem unnatural for all three detectives—Stearns, Jaramillo, and Lazarus—to surrender their guns before entering. The plan was for the RHD detectives to request Lazarus’s help interviewing a jailed suspect who claimed to have information on an art-theft case. When she arrived at the interrogation room—one equipped with recording equipment to videotape the interview—they would shift gears and gradually turn to the Rasmussen case. Given how many suspects Lazarus had arrested herself over the years, she was undoubtedly well aware of her rights to silence and to legal counsel. The unknown factor was how long she would wait before invoking one or both. “Everything I knew about Stephanie, she was sharp,” Nuttall says. Stearns and Jaramillo’s goal would be to keep her talking as long as possible, while simultaneously assuring her that she was free to leave at any time.

She would be—but only technically. As Stearns and Jaramillo would know, but Lazarus could hardly suspect, the moment she ended the interview and walked out of the room, she would be arrested, regardless of what she had told them. The interview was scheduled for early in the workday on Friday, June 5.

Chief Bratton wanted the Rasmussen family informed of the arrest in person as soon as it happened, so they didn’t hear about it through the media. Nuttall was tapped for the job. He called the Rasmussens and said he was coming back and would need to see them again on Friday morning. Nels replied that he had a doctor’s appointment. Nuttall recalls, “I said, ‘Nels, if you can reschedule it, you may want to reschedule.’”

At 6:40 a.m. on June 5, 2009, Jaramillo stopped by Lazarus’s desk. He was wearing a wire. “Stephanie?” he asked. “Do you know me? I’m Dan Jaramillo. I work over here on the other side.” He explained that he was working on a case and had a suspect in the jail who was talking about stolen art. “I don’t know a lot about this stuff,” he told Lazarus. “You can kind of talk to him. You can see if he’s for real.”

“Sure,” she said.

“Just for like five minutes or something,” Jaramillo added.

When Lazarus arrived in the interrogation room, Stearns and Jaramillo abandoned the story of a suspect talking about stolen art, and explained that her name had come up in a case involving an ex-boyfriend of hers, John Ruetten. Knowing she was married to someone else, they told her, they’d selected a place where they could speak privately, away from gossiping colleagues.

Stearns and Jaramillo interviewed Lazarus for more than an hour, coming at her in an oblique manner that left it unclear whether they were speaking with her as a possible witness or a criminal suspect. The conversation meandered, but every digression led back, inevitably, to the murder of Sherri Rasmussen. It was only after Jaramillo asked Lazarus if she’d be willing to give them a DNA swab and noted, “It’s possible we may have some DNA at the location,” that she said she wanted to contact a lawyer. Declaring herself “shocked,” the veteran detective stood and walked out, 68 minutes after she’d sat down. Lazarus got only as far as the jail’s hallway, where she was stopped by other RHD detectives and placed in handcuffs.

Unidentified Speaker: Too tight? … Which one, left or right?

Stephanie Lazarus: You know, it’s the left but that’s—you know, I think it’s just … hitting my watch.

Unidentified Speaker: Yeah. You want me to take your watch off? They’re going to take it off anyway. Property bag?

Stephanie Lazarus: Well, just—

Detective Stearns: Yeah, just put it in here … Go ahead and grab her ring, too. Want to stand up for just a second?

Stephanie Lazarus: Oh, geez. See if I can get it off.

Detective Stearns: Okay.

Stephanie Lazarus: I’m going to probably have to lick my finger … I need a little spit.

[Lazarus and the detectives discuss other topics for a while—a torn ACL she suffered playing basketball, medication she needs to take every morning—before returning to the ring.]

Unidentified Speaker: They already—they still have your property over there, if you want to take your ring off … Saliva works wonders.

Stephanie Lazarus: Yeah.

From the interrogation room, Lazarus was taken to Lynwood, the Los Angeles County jail facility for female prisoners, where she has been held ever since on $10 million bail. On June 8, 2009, she was charged with the murder of Sherri Rasmussen. Since her arrest, Lazarus has steadfastly maintained her innocence. Through her lawyer, she declined The Atlantic’s interview request. Her trial is tentatively scheduled to begin in late August.

Video: Watch key moments from Lazarus's interrogation

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

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