When Police Retested DNA From A Cold Case, The Chilling Result Pointed To One Of Their Own

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Detectives have cracked open a cold-case murder file, which includes a single DNA sample. Forensic scientists then test the genetic material, expecting it to confirm cops’ initial suspicions as to who committed the gruesome crime. But the results that come back are stunning. They point to a police officer as the person responsible for murder.

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It could have been easy to miss the DNA sample left behind on Sherri Rasmussen’s body. The nurse had also bruises and bullet holes marring her body, which might well have made it harder to notice. But one detective happened to see tooth marks on her arm. They swabbed the DNA and saved it in a vial, probably never suspecting that it’d solve the case more than two decades later.

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Indeed, the Los Angeles Police Department could have done a better job investigating Rasmussen’s slaying at the time. But the city had rampant gang crime and drug use to deal with, so they let her murder go unsolved for 23 years. However, when things calmed down and cops scanned her cold case file, they realized they had DNA. And soon enough, they’d use it to pinpoint the surprising person responsible for the killing.

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Attending the University of California, Los Angeles, brought John Ruetten together with Stephanie Lazarus in 1978. He moved from his home in San Diego to study mechanical engineering at the esteemed institution, while she was originally a Simi Valley resident and planned to major in political science. They happened to live in the same residence hall and started casually dating from there.

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Ruetten and Lazarus had a common love for sports – she even made the UCLA women’s junior varsity basketball squad. But the pair seemed disjointed when it came to their view of the relationship they shared. Indeed, as far as the San Diego native was concerned, they were nothing more than casual bedfellows

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But Lazarus seemed to view things differently – she took their dalliances much more seriously. Sometimes, she’d hide Ruetten’s clothes while he took showers. Or, she’d snap photos of him while he was asleep in the nude. And when the pair graduated from UCLA in 1982, they continued to rendezvous.

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The pair were able to keep meeting because Ruetten and Lazarus both ended up in the same city. He worked for Micropolis, a company that made hard drives, and she became a member of the LAPD. But their meet-ups eventually stopped when the engineer met a new woman. Sherri Rasmussen was a nurse who had entered the field at just 20 years old.

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Rasmussen started university at 16 years old and was working as a qualified nurse at 20. Her parents, Nels and Loretta, told 48 Hours in 2010 that this was par for the course with their daughter – she succeeded in all that she tried. Plus, she had a passion for the career path that she had chosen.

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Loretta said, “[Rasmussen] liked taking care of people and making sure things were done right, that people were cared for properly.” Her father, Nels, recalled his daughter saying, “I’m going to elevate the stature of nursing in the nation.” From his viewpoint, “she was on her way” to doing that, too.

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Indeed, just as Rasmussen turned 27, she became director of the Glendale Adventist Medical Center’s critical care nursing unit. She often also delivered lectures there. And, with Ruetten, her home life seemed good as well. That is, until his ex-girlfriend Lazarus got wind of this new relationship.

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In fact, Lazarus had been so in the dark about Ruetten’s relationships with other women that she threw him a surprise 25th birthday party. But by that time, he and Rasmussen’s relationship had become serious. This left the LAPD cop feeling upset, to say the least. She refused to date anyone else, even though it was clear that the engineer’s heart was elsewhere.

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To that end, Lazarus’s career with the LAPD took off in the midst of this personal turmoil. She started out working in the anti-drug-use program, DARE, before moving on to Internal Affairs. In 1993, the beat cop became a detective, but she still had time to pursue her passion for sports – basketball and running, mainly.

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Lazarus’s roommate and fellow LAPD officer, Michael Hargreaves, remembered her being hung up on Ruetten throughout it all. He told Los Angeles magazine in 2012, “She didn’t date anyone but John. She told me she was in love with him.” Things then spiraled when the engineer and Rasmussen became engaged – and the detective found out.

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Lazarus grabbed her journal and poured out her feelings in June 1985. She wrote, “I really don’t feel like working. I found out that John is getting married. I was very depressed, very sad. My concentration was negative ten.” Perhaps that was the case on the job, but the detective did have laser focus when it came to Ruetten and his significant other.

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In fact, Lazarus began dropping in on Ruetten and his fiancée. Firstly, the detective went over to the couple’s apartment and asked her former flame to wax her skis. Rasmussen begged her beau to object, but the mechanical engineer did the job anyway. The nurse also found it strange that the LAPD employee showed up to their home in form-fitting workout gear.

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Needless to say, Rasmussen didn’t like it when Lazarus showed up at her house. She pleaded with Ruetten to make the cop’s drop-ins stop, but he instead told his fiancée to ignore the detective. She, however, made it more and more difficult for the nurse to do that – by turning up everywhere.

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Peggy Crabtree, Rasmussen’s friend, recalled what the nurse had told her about Lazarus’s behavior. As she explained to 48 Hours, “John’s ex-girlfriend kept appearing in places that Sherri would go. She couldn’t go out to the store or go to the gym without having this woman show up. Sherri was clearly fearful and unhappy that she just couldn’t get this person out of her life.”

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Things got even stranger when Rasmussen noticed someone in disguise following her every move. Her father, Nels, told 48 Hours that his daughter noticed a person “dressed like a boy. That sounds like she thought the person was a woman […] but had eyes that could penetrate you and, she said, would make you think they could see right through you.”

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Whether or not that strange figure was Lazarus, Rasmussen knew one thing for sure The person coming into her work was definitely Ruetten’s ex. And that’s was confirmed when the two women actually talked. Jayne Goldberg, a friend of the nurse, said, “She told me that John’s ex-girlfriend had come to her office at the hospital – dressed provocatively… And confronted Sherri about John and said that if she couldn’t have John, nobody could.”

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All of this stress and fear almost pushed Rasmussen to break up with Ruetten, but she never actually walked away. Instead, she walked down the aisle and married her mechanical engineer husband in November 1985. They settled into a condo in Van Nuys, CA, but their newlywed bliss would barely last four months.

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On the morning of February 24, 1986, Rasmussen decided not to go into work right away. Indeed, she felt unwell and couldn’t tell if she needed a late morning or an entire day off. She wouldn’t miss anything enjoyable anyway. The nursing supervisor knew she had to give a motivational speech to staff that day, something she hated doing.

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That morning, Ruetten left for work at 7:20 a.m. Less than three hours later, he called to check up on Rasmussen. His wife, however, didn’t answer the phone, nor did she pick up any later calls from him or her sister, who also rang the Van Nuys residence. Around noon, two men gardening in the condo complex found a purse on the ground. They then handed it over to a neighbor, who realized the bag belonged to the nurse.

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A half-hour later, a maid working in a unit close to Rasmussen’s heard something – it sounded like an altercation ringing out nearby. She even caught the sounds of something crashing to the ground. But none of those strange events added up to anyone until Ruetten got home from work. Once there, though, he happened upon a crime scene.

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Ruetten found his wife on the carpet by their fireplace, still in her bathrobe. At first, the engineer didn’t realize she was dead. According to Los Angeles magazine, he initially thought, “Her face is just the wrong color.” But Rasmussen’s body had become stiff and discolored by bruises, bullet holes and bite marks.

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During the assault, Rasmussen, it seems, had put up a fight to save herself, judging by the defensive woulds all over her body. At one point, the assailant had even broken a ceramic vase over her head. However, a bloodstained handprint by the panic button for the security alarm indicated that the nurse might have tried to call for help.

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In the end, though, Rasmussen couldn’t defend herself against the trio of bullets that later ripped through her body. But, as a criminalist analyzed the resulting scene, along with the nurse’s body, they also noticed something else. There was bite mark on her arm. They then swabbed the wound, and that DNA would come into play more than 20 years later.

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Immediately after the crime, though, police said that Rasmussen’s murder was the result of a failed burglary. But Nels, for one, felt unconvinced that his daughter died during a botched robbery. For one thing, the nurse stood at six feet in height and stayed in shape. Which meant that it would be hard to subdue her.

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The crime scene didn’t exactly scream “burglary gone wrong,” either. The only things missing from the home were Rasmussen’s BMW, which Reutten got the nurse for their engagement, and the couple’s marriage certificate. Goldberg found this suspicious, she told 48 Hours. She said, “Those two things are gone. It’s just so symbolic.”

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Plus, as Andrew Blankstein, a police reporter, told the show, “When detectives did their walkthrough, there’s nothing else in the house that’s disturbed. So it raises questions about whether this was, in fact, a burglary.” And yet, cops doubled down on their theory. So when another home was burglarized in the area, they named two Latino men as suspects in both cases.

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But police neither identified nor arrested these Latino men, and Rasmussen’s murder case remained unsolved for over 20 years. Those close to the slain nurse, however, had their own suspicions as to who had killed her. Nels even wrote to the LAPD, at one point, asking investigators to consider Lazarus a suspect, but they brushed off his accusations.

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At the time, however, the LAPD did have a lot on its plate. Gang violence raged in the city, and more and more people began to abuse crack. So, the cops turned their focus to these major issues instead of Rasmussen’s case. They simply didn’t have the time to investigate her murder fully, even if Nels had cited Lazarus as a potential suspect for them to investigate.

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Of course, based on outward appearances, Lazarus wouldn’t have made an obvious murder suspect. But more than her looks, there was her profession. Indeed, in the years following Rasmussen’s death, she rose through the ranks of the LAPD to become a star investigator dealing with art theft. She also married a fellow investigator and adopted a little girl.

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But everything would change in 2009, when the L.A. crime rate finally started to drop. This then gave investigators the chance to re-open cold cases. And in Rasmussen’s file, they honed in on one piece of evidence in particular – the DNA swab from the bite mark on her body. It was sent out for testing and came back with a chilling result.

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Initially, the LAPD had claimed that two Latino men had burgled Rasmussen and Reutten’s house before killing her. However, a DNA test revealed that the bite mark hadn’t come from these suspects. Joel Rubin, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times told 48 Hours, “The DNA testing comes back as belonging to a woman.”

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With that, the LAPD had to face a tough reality. And it was that Lazarus, their own detective, could have been behind the murder. So, the cops did their due diligence, trailing her to try and get a DNA sample. Eventually, she visited a retail outlet and threw away a drinking cup, alongside a straw. The undercover cops then swooped in to collect the specimen they needed.

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Once again, a DNA test would completely change the direction of Rasmussen’s murder case. This time, though, experts compared the genetic material from the bite mark to Lazarus’s own DNA. Stunningly, they found that the chances of anyone other than the art-theft detective having left that sample were 402 quadrillion-to-one.

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So, the LAPD knew what they had to do – arrest Lazarus, who worked just a few offices away from those secretly investigating her for murder. They had to be careful, though, since she’d most likely have her service gun with her while on duty. As such, a scheme was hatched to separate the detective from her weapon before they cuffed her.

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As such, one of Lazarus’s colleagues approached her, revealing that a recently arrested individual had information about one of her cases. This prompted the detective to head to the nearby jail, where the supposed suspect waited to speak to her. To enter,though, she would have to ditch her gun at the security checkpoint.

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On the other side of that checkpoint, though, officers were waiting for Lazarus. They then arrested the detective for murder. It had been decades since Rasmussen’s death, but her loved ones finally got answers. As Nels told 48 Hours, “It was exactly who I’d been pointing to for 23 years. I never felt so good in my life.”

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When the case got to trial, however, Mark Overland, Lazarus’ lawyer, tried to discredit the DNA evidence. Indeed, he claimed that it had been compromised after sitting around for so long. But the jury didn’t buy his argument. They instead sentenced the accused detective to 27 years behind bars. As a result, the convicted murderer won’t be considered for parole until 2039, when she’ll be 72 years old.

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