Ex-LAPD detective guilty in 1980s murder
Former detective Stephanie Lazarus was convicted of the 1986 murder of her ex-boyfriend's wife.
A quarter century after a woman's murder, jurors took little more than a day to decide Thursday the killer was a former Los Angeles police detective who was finally unmasked by her DNA and history of obsessive love for her victim's husband.Skip to next paragraph
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Stephanie Lazarus was impassive as she heard the first-degree murder verdict. Her long-ago lover, John Ruetten, watched grimly in the courtroom with the family of his slain wife.
Lazarus, 51, was linked to the case by a cold case team examining DNA swabs taken from a bite mark on the arm of victim Sherri Rasmussen.
Police Chief Charlie Beck, who had worked closely with Lazarus in the LAPD, apologized to the Rasmussen family for the long delay in closing the case.
"I am truly sorry for the loss of your wife, of your daughter. I am also sorry it took us so long to solve this case and bring a measure of justice to this tragedy," he said in a written statement.
"This case was a tragedy on every level," he added. "The LAPD family felt a sense of betrayal to have an officer commit such a terrible crime."
Los Angeles County District Attorney Steve Cooley was in court for the verdict and said later the case demonstrated the importance of DNA as an investigative tool.
"Had it not been for DNA the case might never have been solved," he said.
The police officer's union issued a statement saying it hoped the case would not tarnish the reputation of thousands of dedicated police officers.
The conviction came after a three-week trial that included testimony from a forensic expert who said the DNA found in the bite mark was a match to Lazarus.
Her defense attorney countered that the DNA was packaged improperly and deteriorated while stored in a coroner's freezer for two decades. He also suggested there might have been evidence tampering.
Prosecutors Shannon Presby and Paul Nunez suggested during the trial that Lazarus, a trained police officer, knew to avoid leaving other evidence such as fingerprints and may have worn gloves.
The idea that saliva from a bite mark could be her undoing was inconceivable in 1986 when DNA had not yet entered the justice system as a forensic tool.
Among those present at the verdict was Superior Court Judge Lance Ito, who presided over the first famous DNA case in the building — the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995. Ito, whose court is down the hall from that of Superior Court Judge Robert Perry, had occasionally stopped in to listen to DNA testimony during the Lazarus trial.
The family of Rasmussen cried softly after the verdict was delivered in the courtroom ringed by 10 sheriff's deputies.
"The family is relieved that this 26-year nightmare has concluded with the positive identification of the person who killed their daughter," said John Taylor, an attorney for the Rasmussen family.
Lazarus' family also was present.
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