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Evidence debated in 1st day of 1986 murder case

February 6, 2012 12:00:00 AM PST
A murder trial was under way Monday for a former Los Angeles Police Department detective accused in the 1986 murder of her ex-boyfriend's wife.

"A bite, a bullet, a gun barrel, and a broken heart," were prosecutor Shannon Presby's opening words Monday, marking a powerful opening to an already dramatic case.

Prosecutors allege that because of 51-year-old Stephanie Lazarus' experience as a detective, she had a working knowledge of how crimes are investigated, allowing her to dodge suspicion in the murder of Sherri Rasmussen for 26 years.

Presby told jurors that the killing was personally motivated. Lazarus fell for John Ruetten, her college sweetheart, and was overwrought with jealousy when Ruetten married Rasmussen instead.

Lazarus was arrested in 2009 shortly after she was questioned on tape about the night Rasmussen was murdered.

The 29-year-old was found beaten and shot to death in a Van Nuys condo Feb. 24, 1986. Investigators initially thought she was the victim of a burglary, because, as prosecutors allege, the crime scene was staged to appear as a home invasion.

As a result, the case remained unsolved for over two decades, until DNA testing of saliva from a bite mark on Rasmussen revealed her killer was a woman.

After Lazarus' 2009 interview, detectives began to wonder if she was a suspect in the case. Detectives were able to obtain a sample of Lazarus' saliva from a straw, and DNA testing results showed a match to the 1986 bite mark.

Prosecutors said in light of that DNA evidence, a statistical possibility that it could be anyone else but Lazarus is one in 1.7 sextillion, that is, 17 followed by 20 zeros.

Lazarus admitted to confronting Rasmussen, but denies having part in the murder.

"I'm really shocked that somebody would be saying I did this," she said in the 2009 interview. "We had a fight, so I went and killed her? I mean come on."

Lazarus never looked at the jury or the evidence shown on a screen Monday. Rasmussen's parents were present, watching everything and occasionally bowing their heads. Rasmussen's parents had urged detectives to investigate a female LAPD officer two decades ago, saying she had even confronted their daughter at her place of work.

Defense attorney Mark Overland attacked the saliva evidence, raising questions about the DNA and possible tampering. He said the tube holding the swabs was exposed through a hole in the envelope.

"You could unscrew it, do anything you want with it," he said.

Overland also said that Lazarus had made no attempts to contact Ruetten after Rasmussen's murder. He also raised questions about a string of burglaries that also took place in the area, committed with the same kind of gun used to shoot Rasmussen.

Finally, he said a forensic dentist was unable to match Lazarus to the dental pattern of Rasmussen's bite.

An LAFD firefighter was among the first to testify, describing a violent scene at the home where the murder took place.

The trial is expected to last four to five weeks.