A deeply-reported, riveting account of a cold case murder in Los Angeles, unsolved until DNA evidence implicated a shocking suspect – a female detective within the LAPD’s own ranks
On February 24, 1986, 29-year-old newlywed Sherri Rasmussen was murdered in the home she shared with her husband, John. The crime scene suggested a ferocious struggle, and police initially assumed it was a burglary gone awry. Before her death, Sherri had confided to her parents that an ex-girlfriend of John’s, a Los Angeles police officer, had threatened her. The Rasmussens urged the LAPD to investigate the ex-girlfriend, but the original detectives only pursued burglary suspects, and the case went cold.
DNA analysis did not exist when Sherri was murdered. Decades later, a swab from a bite mark on Sherri’s arm revealed her killer was in fact female, not male. A DNA match led to the arrest and conviction of veteran LAPD Detective Stephanie Lazarus, John’s onetime girlfriend.
The Lazarus Files delivers the visceral experience of being inside a real-life murder mystery. McGough reconstructs the lives of Sherri, John and Stephanie; the love triangle that led to Sherri’s murder; and the homicide investigation that followed. Was Stephanie protected by her fellow officers? What did the LAPD know, and when did they know it? Are there other LAPD cold cases with a police connection that remain unsolved?
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|Publisher:||Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.|
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(February 24, 1986)
Sherri Rasmussen, a twenty-nine-year-old hospital nurse, was just one of 831 people murdered in Los Angeles in 1986.
Sherri's husband, John Ruetten, came home from work at six p.m. on Monday, February 24, and discovered her lifeless body. Sherri and John had been married for only three months. The young newlyweds lived in the Balboa Townhomes, a well-kept but nondescript condominium complex in the Van Nuys section of Los Angeles.
Van Nuys was a middle-class community in the heart of the San Fernando Valley. As late as the 1940s, Van Nuys was mostly sunbaked farmland. After World War II, its orange and walnut groves were uprooted for vast tracts of single family homes. Practically overnight, the character of Van Nuys changed from rustic to suburban. Major companies like General Motors and Anheuser-Busch built massive plants in Van Nuys that employed thousands. Prosperity fueled more development, until few traces remained of the once bucolic landscape. The streetscape that supplanted it was flat and unglamorous, with broad boulevards lined by all manner of businesses. The 1970s brought more change to Van Nuys. Many single family homes were torn down and replaced by higher-density apartment buildings. Violent crime increased. From 1970 to 1975, the LAPD's Van Nuys Division averaged about a dozen homicides per year. Over the next five years, the Van Nuys murder rate doubled.
The Balboa Townhomes, built in 1980, were well secured compared to other residences nearby. A six-foot wall surrounded the entire condo complex, which spanned the 7100 block of Balboa Boulevard, a major north–south thoroughfare through the Valley. The only gaps in the wall were a locked pedestrian gate, which opened by key or from inside by buzzer, and an electric car gate. Past the car gate was a paved interior driveway bordered on each side by rows of three-story condos.
John sensed that something was wrong as he pulled up in his car that night. Their unit's garage door was open, which was highly unusual, and no cars were parked inside. John knew Sherri had called in sick to work that morning, so there was no reason for her car to be gone. The pavement in front of the garage door was strewn with broken glass. To John it looked like auto glass. It reminded him of a minor driving mishap Sherri had a few months before, when she clipped her car while backing out of the garage. John wondered if she might have done something similar, like broken her taillight or side mirror. John figured maybe she took her car to get fixed and forgot to close the garage.
John and Sherri had had a burglar alarm system installed just two months earlier. They typically armed the alarm only when they were both out, and before they went to sleep. When John left for work at 7:20 that morning, Sherri was still in bed. John had not thought to set the alarm, or to make sure that their front door was locked. The front door unlocked automatically when opened from inside. If they didn't manually lock the door afterward, it remained unlocked. John and Sherri rarely used the front door, mostly only to let the cat in or out, or when they had guests. Their friends tended to use it because it was closest to the condo's visitor parking.
Sherri's younger sister, Teresa, and her husband, Brian, had visited with Sherri and John the day before, a Sunday. Teresa was five months pregnant with her and Brian's first child. During the visit, Sherri gave her a present, a maternity bathing suit and swim cap she bought to encourage Teresa to exercise during her pregnancy. Sherri, Teresa, and Brian also took a drive in Sherri's BMW to a pet store to look at saltwater aquariums. Sherri's car was stylish and still new. She let Brian drive. Sherri and John had bought the BMW 318i for Sherri nine months earlier, the same weekend they got engaged, in lieu of a diamond ring. Sherri decided having a car was more practical. After Teresa and Brian went home, a friend of John's, Mike, also visited John and Sherri at home.
On his way to work the next morning, John dropped off some clothes at the dry cleaner's. He arrived at his office at about ten minutes to eight. John had started work about six weeks earlier as an engineer at a company named Micropolis, which made computer disk drives. Around 10:00 a.m., he called home, to see how Sherri was feeling, but got no answer. A little later, he tried again. The phone rang and rang. John then called the hospital and spoke with Sherri's secretary, Sylvia. Sylvia told him that Sherri was out of the office, teaching a class. Unbeknownst to John, Sherri's sister Teresa also tried calling her at home and left a message on the answering machine. Sherri did not return the calls. John finished work around five o'clock. On his way home, he ran a few errands, stopping to collect their dry cleaning plus a package at the UPS store.
John drove past the broken glass and parked in his usual spot in the garage. He took the dry cleaning and started up the short staircase inside the condo. John's unease deepened when saw that the door at the top of the stairs was wide open. He was certain he had closed and locked that door when he left that morning. As John walked upstairs, he did not see that the wall alongside him was flecked with bloodstains.
The stairs up from their garage opened onto a tiled entryway near the front door. John saw Sherri lying in the middle of their living room, which was in disarray. A shelf of their entertainment wall unit had collapsed. A corded telephone and pieces from a broken vase were strewn on the carpet around her. A drawer from a nearby end table had been pulled out and its contents dumped in a heap. In the entryway, right at John's feet, two video components were stacked on the floor. John stepped past them into the living room, where, amid the detritus, Sherri lay motionless on her back.
Sherri was dressed in a short rust-colored robe, which she wore over a sleeveless undershirt and panties. Her right arm appeared frozen in place, with her hand raised to the ceiling. Her left hand, with its wedding ring, rested on her chest.
John couldn't understand why Sherri would be on the floor. He wanted to believe she was sleeping. He draped the dry cleaning across the back of their living room sofa and approached her body with trepidation.
I hope she's okay, John thought. But one look told John that she was not. Sherri's face was badly bruised, and her complexion the wrong color. Her left eye was open and unblinking. Her right eye was swollen shut and crusted with blood. More blood was smeared across her forehead. Sherri's lips were parted slightly, as if in midgasp.
Tentatively, John touched his wife's calf. Her leg felt stiff and cold. John tried to find a pulse and couldn't. But it was her face, so beautiful just that morning, that most unnerved him. He could tell from her eyes that she was gone. Sherri's facial injuries were so disturbing to John that he did not notice the three gunshot wounds in her chest, or the bite mark on the inside of her left forearm.
John picked the phone handset up off the floor and dialed 911. Ten or fifteen seconds later, a dispatcher came on the line.
"I think my wife is dead," John said. The operator took the address and told him not to call anyone else. "Just wait there, somebody is on the way," the operator promised. John set the phone down and paced the living room. If it even occurred to him to call Sherri's parents and notify his in-laws of her death, he could not bring himself to make the call.
John didn't know what to do with himself while he waited. He went back to Sherri and looked at her again, which only made him feel worse. He took a hand towel and draped it over Sherri's face, less for her dignity than to spare himself the distress of seeing her injuries. Even with Sherri's face covered, John still felt too upset to stay in the living room with her body. He walked back down to the garage and looked around to make sure no one else was there. He considered waiting by the front door to meet the authorities and let them in. Then he decided he should stay near the phone in case someone called. The wait was only a few minutes but seemed interminable. John felt he couldn't take it, being there alone. He wanted someone else to be there with him and Sherri's body.
The 911 operator had routed the call to the Los Angeles Fire Department, which dispatched an ambulance. Two fire-fighter-paramedics arrived at the condo at 6:08 p.m. John was standing near the front door, crying, when they came inside.
The paramedics removed the makeshift shroud that John had placed over Sherri's face. Her blunt force trauma was so extensive that the paramedics, like John, did not initially notice her gunshot wounds. Sherri had no pulse or respiration. It was obvious that there was nothing they could do. They pronounced her dead at 6:10 p.m.
The paramedics saw the broken vase on the floor as they checked her vital signs. Once it was clear she was dead, they stepped back from the body, so as not to disturb any potential evidence. The paramedics' responsibility had shifted from saving a life to keeping everyone away until the LAPD showed up. The paramedics led John to the kitchen, one flight up from the living room and out of view of Sherri's body, and assured him the police would be there soon. John felt like he was in shock. John kept telling the paramedics, "I didn't think this could happen here."
The paramedics ceded control of the scene at 6:20 p.m., when the first LAPD patrol unit arrived. LAPD officer Rodney Forrest, a training officer assigned to the Van Nuys Division, and his partner, an LAPD reserve officer, were on patrol when they heard the radio call for a possible homicide at 7100 Balboa.
One of the paramedics was waiting outside by the ambulance when Forrest drove up. The paramedic said that a husband had come home and found his wife dead. The paramedic led the officers to the front door. The second paramedic stood in the entryway. Past him, Forrest could see into the living room, where the victim's body lay with a towel over her face. The paramedics explained that the husband had placed it there before they arrived, and they replaced it after their examination, because he could not bear to see her face that way.
Forrest and his partner set about clearing the condo, which entailed checking room by room for any suspects. They found John sitting upstairs at the kitchen table, distraught, with his head in his hands. Forrest told John that he needed to leave the premises. Forrest watched John and the paramedics walk out the front door.
Once the condo was cleared, Forrest radioed the watch commander, the officer on duty at the Van Nuys station responsible for managing police response. Forrest informed him of the homicide and requested a supervisor at the scene. He then instructed his partner to stand at the front door and start the crime scene log. The log, the first document in any homicide investigation, is intended to record everyone who enters and leaves the crime scene. Without one, it would be impossible to determine later whether a fingerprint or other trace evidence came from a potential suspect or was left inadvertently after the murder by authorized personnel.
Forrest's report to the watch commander was relayed to Leslie "Al" Durrer, the commanding officer of Van Nuys detectives. Durrer was a Lieutenant II, among the highest-ranked officers in the division. The detectives who worked under Durrer were assigned to various "tables," each dedicated to investigating a different species of crime: homicides, robberies, burglaries, auto thefts, and so on. Detective work was organized along the same lines in all of the LAPD's geographic divisions.
Durrer in turn notified Roger Pida, the detective in charge of the Van Nuys homicide table. Pida was a Detective III, the LAPD's highest detective rank. As the Van Nuys homicide coordinator, Pida was responsible for allocating cases among his detectives, supervising their investigations, and signing off on their reports.
By 6:30 p.m., half an hour after John discovered Sherri's body, Pida had assigned the case to two detectives, Lyle Mayer and Steve Hooks. Pida called and gave them the address.
Mayer was by far the more seasoned of the two detectives. Mayer had more than twenty years on the job, and more than a decade's experience as a homicide investigator. He had worked homicide in Van Nuys for five years, since 1981, and had cut his teeth as a detective, earlier in his career, on the homicide tables at the LAPD's Hollywood and Rampart Divisions. Mayer's rank in 1986 was Detective II. In addition to working cases, detectives of Mayer's rank were expected to train and supervise lower-ranked detectives. Mayer's assertive personality reflected the great pride he took in his investigative experience and his status as a homicide detective.
Hooks in 1986 was eight years into his LAPD career, and still a Detective I. Along with being younger, less experienced, and lower ranked than Mayer, Hooks was also more reserved. Although Hooks later joined the Van Nuys homicide unit, he was assigned to the burglary table when Pida tapped him to work with Mayer on Sherri's case. It was standard LAPD practice whenever the homicide table was overloaded or short-staffed to pull detectives off other tables and loan them to homicide. Sherri's case was the first time Mayer and Hooks had worked together as partners.
According to the crime scene log, the first from the detective bureau to arrive was Lt. Durrer, the commanding officer, at 7:24 p.m. Hooks logged in at 7:48, Mayer at 7:52, and Pida, their supervisor, at 8:04 p.m. Forensic personnel from the LAPD crime lab started to arrive around the same time. By nine o'clock, three hours after John called 911, nearly twenty LAPD personnel had responded to the crime scene.
John remained outside the condo amid all this activity. The detectives' initial impression, based on the crime scene, was that Sherri was killed during an attempted burglary. Still, in order to eliminate John as a suspect, the detectives would need to interview him. In addition to being the victim's husband, John was also the last known person to see her alive. John agreed to go to the Van Nuys station to be interviewed.
Mayer, the lead investigator, would question John. Mayer left for the station at 9:00 p.m. Hooks remained behind to monitor the forensics team's search for clues and physical evidence. Durrer and Pida, the detectives' supervisors, logged out from the crime scene at 9:25.
As John was driven to the station, the LAPD's investigation had only just begun. No one at the time could have predicted how many years the truth would remain hidden, and at what cost to all involved.CHAPTER 2
(1957 to 1984)
Before Sherri and John met, the condo had belonged to Sherri. Sherri's parents, Nels and Loretta Rasmussen, had purchased it for her six years earlier, in 1980.
Back then, Sherri was in her early twenties and studying for her master's degree in nursing at UCLA. She also worked at the time as a staff nurse at UCLA Medical Center, to help pay her way through school. Her hours were irregular and long, and often required her to commute to work late at night. The crime rate in Los Angeles was far higher then than it is today.
Sherri was young and beautiful and planned to live alone. Her parents were naturally concerned for her safety. Nels and Loretta lived in Tucson, Arizona, where they had raised Sherri and her two sisters. Coming from Tucson, Nels regarded Los Angeles warily. He and Sherri had looked at countless places for Sherri to live before they chose the condo in Van Nuys, largely because it felt safe.
Although Nels loved all three of his daughters, he was especially close to and protective of Sherri. Sherri was the middle child, but the last of the three to get married. Because Sherri was single, she was more available than her sisters to spend time with her parents. After Sherri moved into the condo, she and Nels talked nearly every night, sometimes for hours.
The Rasmussens had always been a loving and tight-knit family. Nels was a dentist with a thriving practice in Tucson. Loretta worked full time as Nels's office manager. They had been a couple since they were teenagers, in the early 1950s, growing up in rural Washington State. Nels and Loretta met at Columbia Academy, a Seventh-Day Adventist high school, where they dated briefly but broke up before graduation.
Nels lived with his parents, older sister, and younger brother on a small farm in Amboy, about twenty miles from Mount St. Helens. Amboy had one gas station, one grocery store, and four beer parlors. Everyone in town knew Nels as Junior.
Nels Senior was a logger with a reputation as an expert timber faller. Nels's father's work regularly took him into the woods and away from his family for weeks at a time. Being the de facto man of the house at a tender age shaped the younger Nels's character and work ethic.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Lazarus Files"
Copyright © 2019 Matthew McGough.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Part 1 Sheri, John, and Stephanie
1 The Aftermath (February 24, 1986) 3
2 Sherri Rasmussen (1957 to 1884) 10
3 John Ruetten (February 1984 to May 1985) 35
4 Stephanie Lazarus (1960 to March 1984) 53
5 "Admit Nothing. Deny Everything. Demand Proof." (March 4, 1984, to March 30, 1985) 74
6 Stephanie at Club Dev (March 31 to June 16, 1985) 102
7 The Hospital Confrontation (June to August 1985) 113
8 Night Stalkers (August 12 to October 12, 1985) 130
9 Tying the Knot (November to December 1985) 158
10 Warning Signs (December 1985 to January 1986) 169
11 The Month Before the Murder (Mid-January to February 23, 1986) 183
Part 2 The Murder of Sherri Rasmussen
12 Sherri's Final Day (February 24, 1986) 199
13 The Chrono and Crime Scene (February 24, 1986, 6:30 to 9:00 p.m.) 204
14 John's Interview (February 24, 1986, 9:00 p.m.) 225
15 The Bite Mark Swab (Early Morning of Ftbruary 25, 1988) 250
16 "The Day Was Boring and Nothing Happened That Was Worth Remembering" (February 25, 1986) 278
17 The First 48 Hours Ends (February 26 and 27, 1986) 324
18 "God Holds the Key" (February 28 to March 2, 1986) 362
19 "A Well-Reasoned, Carefully-Documented and Insightful Investigation" (March 3 to April 8, 1986) 383
20 The Burglary Suspects (April 10 to May 21, 1986) 423
21 "There Is No Power on Earth More Formidable Than the Truth" (May 1986 to November 1987) 440
Part 3 The Murder of Catherine Braley
22 Catherine Braley (Januarys 1988) 493
Part 4 Epilogue
23 "We Do Not Condone Murder" (2008-2012) 539
Author's Note on Sources 591