LOS ANGELES, Nov. 25, 2010 — -- New details on a Los Angeles cold case that led to the murder arrest of a respected police detective show how the case played out like a suspenseful Hollywood script.
Court transcripts and video of an interrogation on the morning of June 5, 2009, reveal how police detectives lured fellow Los Angeles Police Det. Stephanie Lazarus to an interrogation room in the basement of the Los Angeles Police Department's headquarters under false pretenses.
The awkward, sometimes tense interrogation came as a shock to the suspect, who eventually asked, "Am I on 'Candid Camera'?"
But, in fact, Lazarus soon was under arrest for allegedly gunning down Sherri Rae Rasmussen, a 29-year-old nurse, in 1986, less than four months after Rasmussen married Lazarus' former lover.
At the time of the murder, police believed Rasmussen was the victim of a botched robbery by a suspect or suspects who had committed other crimes in the neighborhood, but no one was arrested and it eventually became a cold case.
Rasmussen's family urged police to keep the investigating going. While the victim's father did not know Lazarus by name, he urged police to look to his daughter's widowed husband's ex-girlfriend, Lazarus.
In 2003, the case was re-examined as part of a slew of cold cases dating back to the 1960's. DNA evidence revealed saliva found on the victim's body belonged to a woman and not a man. New interviews were conducted with the victim's husband, John Ruetten, her father and other family members.
It was then that Det. Lazarus became a suspect. An undercover officer was assigned to follow her and finally collected DNA samples from the veteran officer.
Suspenseful Road to Arrest
On the morning of June 5, 2009, the detective assigned to the case, Daniel Jaramillo, approached Lazarus under the pretense of needing her expertise in questioning a man who had information on an art theft case. Lazarus was a specialist in the field.
Once in the jail facility, where Lazarus had to surrender her gun before entering, casual conversation began to turn awkward as the detective's partner, Det. Greg Stearns, joined the two.
"What this is, is--" Jaramillo said, according to the transcript.
"I didn't want to bring this up in the squad room," he added, "cause--"
"Oh, that's OK," Lazarus said.
Jaramillo said he was looking into a case where Lazarus' name was mentioned, and he asked about Lazarus' relationship with Ruetten.
"Yeah, we were very close friends," Lazarus said. "I mean..."
"Yeah?" Jaramillo said.
"I mean, what's this all about?" Lazarus asked.
The transcripts were made public during a court hearing on Friday. The story first was reported on by the Los Angeles Times.
Lazarus struggled and stumbled several times during a line of questioning by detectives Jaramillo and Stearns. Initial softball questions yielded to more detailed queries that clearly frustrated the suspect.
According to the transcript, Lazarus said, "I mean, that's-- Now that you guys are bringing 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, I don't have anything to do it [the murder] it and you got something that's somebody said, you know, whatever? I mean--"
Jaramillo eventually addressed the tense relationship the victim's friends said she had with the suspect.
"Well, one of the concerns I had as we were looking at some of the notes is some of Sherri's friends said that you and her were having problems because of the John situation," Jaramillo said.
The interrogation ended with Lazarus being taken into custody.
"You're going down to the women's facility at Century Sheriffs," Stearns told his partner.
"Can I call my husband?" Lazarus asked. "Can I make my--"
A Frustrating Road to Justice
For the Rasmussen family, last year's break in the case and arrest of Lazarus was long overdue.
The Rasmussen family long suspected Lazarus in the murder, even urging the police department to look within.
"That is an interview that the Los Angeles Police Department should have been done back in 1986," said family attorney John Taylor. "The family had questions about this woman, which was reported to the LAPD back at the time, and the interview with Stephanie Lazarus leads to the answers to many of the questions that the family had."
The victim's family is not commenting, but has read through the transcripts and seen excerpts of the interview posted online.
The frustrated family of the slain hospital nurse is taking matters beyond the criminal realm and has filed a civil lawsuit against the Los Angeles Police Department, the city of Los Angeles and the defendant, Lazarus, whose criminal trail on the murder charge is scheduled for early in 2011.
Lazarus has pleaded not guilty. Calls to her defense attorney, Mark Overland, were not returned.
The Los Angeles Police Department does not comment on ongoing investigations.