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Parole delayed for former LAPD cop convicted of killing ex-boyfriend’s wife

Stephanie Lazarus, a 25-year veteran detective, was arrested in 2009 for a 1986 murder after DNA from a bite mark on the victim linked Lazarus to the victim’s death

Stephanie Lazarus

Veteran LAPD detective Stephanie Lazarus,49, appears at the Criminal Justice Center in Los Angeles for her arraignment on murder charges June 9, 2009. Lazarus is charged with the 1986 murder of Sherri Rasmussen. (Mark Boster/Los Angeles Times)

Mark Boster/TNS

By Richard Winton
Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES — Despite a campaign by justice reform advocates, the California Board of Parole Hearings has revoked plans to release former LAPD Det. Stephanie Lazarus from prison after hearing emotional testimony from family and friends who said she “lied for decades” and used her police training to cover up the 1986 murder of her ex-boyfriend’s wife.

The decision marks another chapter in a notorious murder case that rocked the Los Angeles Police Department. It overturns a November recommendation by a parole panel that the 64-year-old should be set free after serving 15 years of her life sentence and a new hearing be held to examine evidence in the case. The governor’s office had asked the board in April to review the plan to parole Lazarus.

A tear ran down John Ruetten’s cheek Monday as he recalled the “brutal murder” of his wife, Sherri Rasmussen, by a jealous Lazarus, who finally confessed to the crime last year at a parole panel.

“We’re not here today — 38 years after Sherri’s brutal murder, reliving the horror — because of an impulsive act. [It was] skillful deception and complete disregard for the suffering of others. The inmate used her police training to cover up the crime,” Ruetten told the parole board, which was considering releasing Lazarus as early as July.

“She lied for decades until her only option was to pursue parole,” he added, noting Lazarus’ denial of the crime at her arrest in 2009, during her trial three years later and through repeated appeals.

Lazarus was a detective with 25 years on the force when homicide investigators reopened Rasmussen’s cold case and tested DNA from a bite mark on the victim. The 2009 examination led to Lazarus’ arrest in the death of the 29-year-old nursing director.

Three years later, Lazarus was found guilty of first-degree murder and sentenced to 27 years to life in prison at the California Institution for Women in Chino.

On Monday, Rasmussen’s friends and family — including two sisters and two nieces — begged the parole board to keep Lazarus locked up, saying she is a cold, calculating killer working the system she knows everything about as a former cop.

Connie Rasmussen said far from being a “youthful offender” — as justice reform advocates have described Lazarus, who was 25 at the time of the slaying — her sister’s killer was an educated cop who graduated from UCLA and committed a “well-planned and executed murder.”

In contrast, justice reform advocates, formerly incarcerated persons and a wrongly convicted inmate told tales of Lazarus’ prison leadership and work in education programs, religious advocacy, comforting dying inmates and even buying books for others.

“Stephanie is kind, compassionate and a dedicated individual. She has taken full responsibility for her actions,” said Jane Dorotik of the Los Angeles Innocence Project , who served 12 years alongside Lazarus before her own murder conviction was overturned. “I saw many women who talked a big talk about giving back to the community. Stephanie actually accomplished it.”

A nun, two college professors and several formerly incarcerated people called Lazarus a “transformed person” who “worked tirelessly to improve herself” and others. One former inmate described how Lazarus helped her turn her life around in prison as her “personal mentor,” enabling her to graduate from college.

Lazarus did not appear before the board Monday, but spoke to the panel in November.

“It makes me sick to this day that I took an oath to protect and serve people, and I took Sherri Rasmussen’s life from her, a nurse,” Lazarus said, according to a transcript of the hearing. “All I could think about was getting out of there before the police showed up.”

Ruetten, however, told parole commissioners on Monday the “inmate” — as he called Lazarus — is a master of deception.

“Sherri’s parents lost her child, and her sisters lost a dear friend and confidante because Sherri loved and married me,” he said, his voice quivering. “For me, the reality of the pain never subsides.”

Ruetten and Lazarus met as students at UCLA in the 1970s. Though the two dated casually for a few years after graduating, Ruetten testified at trial that he never considered Lazarus his girlfriend.

He later met Rasmussen, and they became engaged. Soon after, Ruetten said, he was confronted by Lazarus, then an LAPD patrol officer, who pleaded with him not to get married. Ruetten and Rasmussen wed in 1985.

The following year, Ruetten returned home from work to find Rasmussen badly beaten and with three gunshot wounds to the chest. The initial investigation determined Rasmussen died during a robbery by two men at the home, but no arrests were made.

The case was reopened in 2009, and DNA was run on a saliva sample taken as evidence from a bite mark on Rasmussen’s arm. The sample was found to have come from a woman. Undercover officers collected Lazarus’ DNA, and after a match was made against the bite-mark evidence, she was arrested.

Greg Stearns, a veteran LAPD Robbery-Homicide Division detective who made the arrest, told the parole board on Monday that Lazarus does not deserve to be released.

” Stephanie Lazarus stalked her victim, chose a time and place when she knew she would have the victim alone. Brought cordage to bind her, used an improvised suppressor to execute her, staged a burglary and then disposed of the murder weapon and filed a false police report with an outside agency to explain the absence of that weapon,” he told the panel. “Those are not the hallmarks of youthful offense. They are the hallmarks of criminal sophistication and maturity.”

He said if someone came between Lazarus and something she desires, “she is capable of that level of savagery and violence” again.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times .

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