The Lazarus File
May 14, 2011 12:03 PM   Subscribe

The Lazarus File. "In 1986, a young nurse named Sherri Rasmussen was murdered in Los Angeles. Police pinned down no suspects, and the case gradually went cold. It took 23 years—and revolutionary breakthroughs in forensic science­—before LAPD detectives could finally assemble the pieces of the puzzle. When they did, they found themselves facing one of the unlikeliest murder suspects in the city’s history."

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posted by zarq (60 comments total) 57 users marked this as a favorite

 
I read this a couple of days ago - fantastic piece.
posted by rtha at 12:30 PM on May 14, 2011


Gosh, glad the cops didn't want to go "into the house with a search warrant in the middle of the night and it maybe ending in tragedy.” Is that why they call "professional courtesy?"
posted by entropicamericana at 12:32 PM on May 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


er, why = what, obviously
posted by entropicamericana at 12:32 PM on May 14, 2011


Just finished reading this in the print copy, definitely a good read...
posted by rollbiz at 12:36 PM on May 14, 2011


entropicamericana: "Gosh, glad the cops didn't want to go "into the house with a search warrant in the middle of the night and it maybe ending in tragedy.” Is that why they call "professional courtesy?""

I suspect they were probably just being prudent. They knew she had been issued a firearm by the LAPD and would have been as well trained as anyone they sent in after her.
posted by zarq at 12:41 PM on May 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


Dna testing is good, we are going to need it.
posted by Mblue at 12:43 PM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


What was the motivation for taking a swab of the bite mark if they couldn't get DNA from it? Was there something else they could get from it at the time?
posted by bleep at 1:03 PM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Guilty or not, still bothers me that she can be in prison for over two years waiting for her trial.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 1:03 PM on May 14, 2011 [12 favorites]


Well-written piece!
posted by salvia at 1:10 PM on May 14, 2011


well she coulda posted bail...

10 million seems like the the right amount to me.
posted by dawdle at 1:10 PM on May 14, 2011


Not to trivialize the crime or the murder, but Jesus, that article was a hell of a shaggy dog story.
posted by clockzero at 1:10 PM on May 14, 2011 [8 favorites]


"Gosh, glad the cops didn't want to go "into the house with a search warrant in the middle of the night and it maybe ending in tragedy.” Is that why they call "professional courtesy?"

If cops can avoid serving a warrant on a suspect while the suspect has access to a weapon, they'll do everything in their power to do so. It has nothing to do with professional courtesy -- it has everything to do with protecting themselves and also making sure that the suspect doesn't turn the weapon on herself.

From the article:

In the end, they decided to stage the interview at Parker Center’s Jail Division, located on the floor directly below the Robbery-Homicide Division and the Art Theft Detail. Firearms were not allowed in the jail, so it would not seem unnatural for all three detectives—Stearns, Jaramillo, and Lazarus—to surrender their guns before entering.

The primary job of every police officer is to do everything within their power to avoid any sort of confrontation unless absolutely necessary. At this time, it was not absolutely necessary.
posted by incessant at 1:21 PM on May 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


clockzero: Not to trivialize the crime or the murder, but Jesus, that article was a hell of a shaggy dog story.

That's a feature, not a bug: the article has successfully embodied the nature of the 23-year investigation.
posted by -->NMN.80.418 at 1:24 PM on May 14, 2011 [14 favorites]


What was the motivation for taking a swab of the bite mark if they couldn't get DNA from it? Was there something else they could get from it at the time?

the article says that at the time they could do more rudimentary tests like testing for blood type.
posted by luvcraft at 1:25 PM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Her interview videos are interesting, and if she is ever found guilty would make good teaching cases, e.g. especially the going from not remembering anything ("Rooten... Rooten...... John Ruetten?") and not remembering the wife to remembering lots about the wife, etc.

Which makes their release to the public before the trial... amazing.

But I think clockzero really hits the import of this article. The story is way less interesting and way less complicated than this article makes it out to be. They had her as a suspect early on, but prejudice (she was a cop) lead them to ignore her. As evidenced by the interview videos, she clearly lies about her relationship to the husband and the wife. It's not enough to convict today-- what with DNA and all-- but it would have gone a long way in 1986, especially along with the stolen gun report.

Re: 2 years in jail without a trial. In her case she can't come up with the bail and her lawyer needs a lot of time to prepare, so it can't be helped. You should, however, reserve that incredulity for the thousands of "possession" and "trespassing" and ""VOP" and "terroristic threats" (domestic drama) where they spend 6-12 months in jail awaiting trial, go to trial where they "take" the deal-- because it gives the time served. Then, awesomely, that guilty verdict helps justify their next incarceration for the same, and it repeats. Pretty soon, a guy's lost five years of his life to jail, none of them sentenced.
posted by TheLastPsychiatrist at 1:34 PM on May 14, 2011 [27 favorites]


Man is this confusing...
He drove directly to the coroner’s office, where an evidence custodian booked the swab of the bite mark on Sherri Rasmussen’s arm into evidence at 10:32 a.m. on February 25, 1986.

Transcript of police interview with Stephanie Lazarus, June 5, 2009
Why put that transcript there? I have no idea who Lazarus is at that point in the story and the transcript doesn't relate to anything I've read so far.
posted by desjardins at 1:37 PM on May 14, 2011 [12 favorites]


they found themselves facing one of the unlikeliest murder suspects in the city’s history.

A Cat in a tank?
posted by edgeways at 1:39 PM on May 14, 2011 [20 favorites]


"If cops can avoid serving a warrant on a suspect while the suspect has access to a weapon, they'll do everything in their power to do so. It has nothing to do with professional courtesy -- it has everything to do with protecting themselves and also making sure that the suspect doesn't turn the weapon on herself."

This is not my experience
posted by Blasdelb at 1:39 PM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


-->NMN.80.418: That's a feature, not a bug: the article has successfully embodied the nature of the 23-year investigation.

I see what you're saying. I have no idea whether or not that's what the author was going for, but I think that writers would be well advised to allegoritize more exciting processes for rhetorical purposes. Some might say that great writers know this instinctively.

And TheLastPsychiatrist, you understood what I meant. They had the ostensible perpetrator all along, it was a fairly simple case, and it took an extraordinarily long time to solve for entirely banal reasons.
posted by clockzero at 1:41 PM on May 14, 2011


I'll admit I scrolled down, thinking "the unlikeliest suspect" would be a female, and frail, such as her 89 year old great aunt, or a young child. A cop doesn't strike me as "unlikeliest".
posted by dabitch at 1:41 PM on May 14, 2011 [9 favorites]


... or a 97-year old nun. That would be unlikeliest.
posted by dabitch at 1:42 PM on May 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


they found themselves facing one of the unlikeliest murder suspects in the city’s history

Quick guess: she staged it herself as a way to take down the Guatemalan government.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 1:47 PM on May 14, 2011 [7 favorites]


Man is this confusing...

He drove directly to the coroner’s office, where an evidence custodian booked the swab of the bite mark on Sherri Rasmussen’s arm into evidence at 10:32 a.m. on February 25, 1986.

Transcript of police interview with Stephanie Lazarus, June 5, 2009

Why put that transcript there? I have no idea who Lazarus is at that point in the story and the transcript doesn't relate to anything I've read so far.



Seriously? You should never attempt to read House of Leaves. I'm guessing it added a much-needed element of suspense to an otherwise fairly straightforward weshouldaknownwhodunnit.
posted by umberto at 1:49 PM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


But I think clockzero really hits the import of this article. The story is way less interesting and way less complicated than this article makes it out to be. They had her as a suspect early on, but prejudice (she was a cop) lead them to ignore her.

That's certainly part of it. But we're also talking LA in the 80s ---- given a house that's appears broken into and ransacked, with a BMW stolen, which is likelier, that the house was actually broken into and ransacked by somebody looking to steal stuff or that the scene was carefully constructed to cover up a murder by a police officer? I can't quite blame the cops in 86 for looking for horses before zebras, especially with the crime rate they had then. They should have paid more attention to the misgivings of the victim's father --- but of course it's easy to say that now, when we know he was almost certainly right. After all, the number of people who've gotten into an argument with the new partner of their ex is probably, oh I dunno, 10,000x greater than the number of people who have killed their ex's new partner.

In re the shagginess, I think the level of detail is a deliberate attempt to show all the little snags and eddys it take in order to solve a case like this...all the little things that had to go right are what's interesting about it.
posted by Diablevert at 1:53 PM on May 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Nuttall was stunned at the thought that a cop might have killed someone and gotten away with it. “It was extremely difficult initially to process that possibility,” he says.

lol
posted by jjoye at 1:57 PM on May 14, 2011 [16 favorites]


Wait, they're publishing the video recording of her police interrogation two months before her trial is set to begin? Am I understanding that right? And essentially convicting her in The Atlantic? That's completely fucked up.

This isn't high profile, recent murder, it's from the eighties. Why make this news now, ahead of the trial? This article couldn't have been written without a bunch of help from the police. I don't think the police should be doing that to innocent people who have yet to go to trial.
posted by ryanrs at 2:06 PM on May 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


... or a 97-year old nun. That would be unlikeliest.


how about a newborn baby. Now that would be unlikely.
posted by found missing at 2:20 PM on May 14, 2011 [6 favorites]


Thanks for the link Zarq; I find the article fascinating. As to them shying away from a "no-knock" it was covered in the story and I think the most likely fear was her turning her service weapon on herself.
posted by Jaymzifer at 2:22 PM on May 14, 2011


Wait, they're publishing the video recording of her police interrogation two months before her trial is set to begin? Am I understanding that right?

No. You're not understanding that right. This story is not new and the video of the interrogation tapes have been publicly accessible for some time now.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 2:32 PM on May 14, 2011


They had the ostensible perpetrator all along, it was a fairly simple case, and it took an extraordinarily long time to solve for entirely banal reasons.

This is kind of the point of the story.
posted by dortmunder at 2:34 PM on May 14, 2011


This story is not new

But the case hasn't gone to trial yet, right? Why are the cops pushing this story now, or back in 2010, or whenever it was that they released the videos?
posted by ryanrs at 2:41 PM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


But the case hasn't gone to trial yet, right? Why are the cops pushing this story now, or back in 2010, or whenever it was that they released the videos?

The news report implied that once something has been submitted as evidence (and the interrogation video has been), it can be broadcast and disseminated. I don't know the legality of that or if that is unique to California , but they did address that in the news piece.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 2:46 PM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


They had her as a suspect early on, but prejudice (she was a cop) lead them to ignore her

It sounded to me more like the prejudice was that they assumed the murderer was male. Once they learned the murderer was probably female, the cop went right onto the list (albeit at the bottom).

The primary job of every police officer is to do everything within their power to avoid any sort of confrontation unless absolutely necessary.

If only this were true!
posted by hattifattener at 2:47 PM on May 14, 2011


Oh, hey. Even more: 48 Hours episode concerning the Rasmussen/Lazarus case.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 2:52 PM on May 14, 2011


I'll admit I scrolled down, thinking "the unlikeliest suspect" would be a female, and frail, such as her 89 year old great aunt, or a young child. A cop doesn't strike me as "unlikeliest".

... or a 97-year old nun. That would be unlikeliest.

how about a newborn baby. Now that would be unlikely.


As soon as I read that "unlikeliest suspect" bit, I assumed the murderer was either Adam Weishaupt or an anthropomorphic sea turtle.
posted by steambadger at 2:59 PM on May 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


hattifattener: " It sounded to me more like the prejudice was that they assumed the murderer was male. Once they learned the murderer was probably female, the cop went right onto the list (albeit at the bottom)."

Per the article, this is correct. The DNA test proved the gender of the person who had bitten Rasmussen was female. That new evidence let the police to alter their list of suspects.
posted by zarq at 3:00 PM on May 14, 2011


Do what now?
posted by lazaruslong at 3:07 PM on May 14, 2011 [3 favorites]


Unless I missed something, one question was sort of glossed over in the article: the victim's father told detectives early on that she had had some sort of confrontation with an ex-girlfriend who was an LAPD officer, but he didn't know her name. Did anybody ever ring up the husband and ask, "Say, you didn't ever happen to date a homicidally unhinged cop, did you?" If not, why not?
posted by steambadger at 3:08 PM on May 14, 2011 [8 favorites]


Unless I missed something, one question was sort of glossed over in the article: the victim's father told detectives early on that she had had some sort of confrontation with an ex-girlfriend who was an LAPD officer, but he didn't know her name. Did anybody ever ring up the husband and ask, "Say, you didn't ever happen to date a homicidally unhinged cop, did you?" If not, why not?

**Wasting my Saturday night alert**

Okay, so I'm watching the 48 Hours Mystery clip that I linked above, and they are taking about the husband in a bit more detail. Apparently he was and has been pretty reticent and not 100% cooperative in the investigation (of course, I take that with a grain of salt - in those 48 Hours/Dateline things, everything is super dramatic and everyone seems like a possible villain). Anyway, they mention that yes, he did actually mention his ex-girlfriend as someone the police should talk to in the week following the murder and they just chose not to follow up on that lead. They were simply convinced that this was a burglary gone bad. Interestingly, the husband also later admitted that he had slept with Lazarus in the time between his engagement to Rasmussen and their wedding. So, maybe he felt complicit in some "I drove her to it" kind of way. Who knows. So much drama in the LBC.
posted by (Arsenio) Hall and (Warren) Oates at 3:36 PM on May 14, 2011 [2 favorites]


I was fascinated by this article. Gotta say - I'm kind of bowled over that murderers just go on with their lives, do their jobs well, get married, have kids. I guess there's a kind of hope in that . . . a person can lead a productive life after doing something unforgivably wrong. But, it's also eerie.
posted by Euphorbia at 3:56 PM on May 14, 2011 [5 favorites]


Interestingly, the husband also later admitted that he had slept with Lazarus in the time between his engagement to Rasmussen and their wedding.

I had wondered whether that might be the case! That definitely was a possibility that was somehow tripped in my mind as I read the story.
posted by limeonaire at 4:02 PM on May 14, 2011


My first guess based on 'the unlikeliest murder suspect' and the name 'The Lazarus File' was that the DNA test would prove that the victim was the murderer, and the whole thing was an elaborately staged suicide.

I was a little disappointed when I got to the first transcript and realised there was a person named Lazarus involved.

I also watch way too many procedurals.
posted by PercyByssheShelley at 4:23 PM on May 14, 2011 [4 favorites]


Unidentified Speaker: They already—they still have your property over there, if you want to take your ring off … Saliva works wonders.

Stephanie Lazarus: Yeah.
Brilliant. I was gripped throughout, but that's one hell of a punchline.
posted by jack_mo at 4:58 PM on May 14, 2011 [11 favorites]


I also watch way too many procedurals.

Same here, and was stunned to discover it's CODIS, not COTUS as I'd thought - you'd think after hundreds of hours of CSI, L&O and all their acronymical spinoffs I'd have a handle on American accents.
posted by jack_mo at 5:02 PM on May 14, 2011


Great read.
posted by ph00dz at 5:30 PM on May 14, 2011


I just loved the fact that Lazarus worked in the Art Forgery division.
posted by Marisa Stole the Precious Thing at 5:32 PM on May 14, 2011


That was a slam-bang piece of journalism.
posted by killdevil at 6:06 PM on May 14, 2011


Interestingly, the husband also later admitted that he had slept with Lazarus in the time between his engagement to Rasmussen and their wedding.

I had wondered whether that might be the case! That definitely was a possibility that was somehow tripped in my mind as I read the story.


It seems like all the way up to the cold case work, they didn't think there was an affair:

the information that we had was that [Lazarus and Ruetten’s] relationship had been over since the previous summer. We didn’t have anything to establish there was any animosity.

But in the interview quotes Lazarus herself seems to suggest that he was dating both of them at the same time:

STEPHANIE LAZARUS: I—I don’t even know that I knew where they lived …

DETECTIVE STEARNS: But you didn’t have any issues with her; right?

STEPHANIE LAZARUS: No, I mean, you know, obviously, if he was dating me and dating her, I probably said, hey, pick or something, you know …


Which even if she's innocent is a key piece of corroborating evidence that helps them establish the prosecution's version of the events. I guess the police are experts on getting people to talk when they shouldn't, but you would think a cop wouldn't be stupid enough to answer a question like "Did you have any issues with [murdered person]?" with anything other than "No."
posted by burnmp3s at 6:52 PM on May 14, 2011 [1 favorite]


Which even if she's innocent is a key piece of corroborating evidence that helps them establish the prosecution's version of the events. I guess the police are experts on getting people to talk when they shouldn't, but you would think a cop wouldn't be stupid enough to answer a question like "Did you have any issues with [murdered person]?" with anything other than "No."

Eh, I dunno. As a matter of human cognitive capacity, being interviewed by the cops about a murder is about as difficult as it gets ---- particulalrly if you are in fact the murderer --- in terms of pure "I know that you know that i know that you know"-type processing. For the sake of argument, say she did it, here's what she has to keep straight during that conversation:

1) The truth, or at least, what she actually remembers
2) what an innocent person would be likely to know and remember
3) how much infomation about (1) the interviewer would be likely to have, based on his questions
4) any potential areas where (2) conflicts with (1) and what her previous answers during this conversation were in that regard

And, in this particular case, for Lazurus this was a normal workday and all of sudden she's being asked about stuff that took place 25 years ago. If she is the murderer, in may be that in many respects she remembers events a lot more vividly than someone would do if they weren't, and she's got to be aware of that and tone down her level of detail in accordance with that. Not so easy. Say she's the killer --- then I'm sure she remembers exactly who her victim is, her name, why she hated her, what they'd argued about previously, why she herself went to the victim's house that day. If she's not the killer, would she be likely to remember the name of her ex-boyfriends's wife, whether they'd argued? Maybe. Probably the fact that she'd been murdered would stick out in her mind --- but she's got to be calibrating, how much about the nature of the crime would an innocent person be able to recall? Should I pretend to barely remember it? Does the equation change since I'm a cop? Same deal with the gun, her own movements --- if you're a murderer, then you're probably pretty clear on how you disposed of the murder weapon and what alibi you established. But if you're just somebody who had their car broken into twenty-five years ago, how much about that do you remember? Exactly what got nicked? Given that you're a cop and you reported your gun stolen, you'd probably remember that --- but do you remember what year that happenned? What month? Would you remember right away or only after being prompted? During the interview, the suspect has to make all these decisions about what to admit to on the fly --- it's a lot easier to sit down and slowly pore over a transcript and pick out inconsistences, draw inferences.
posted by Diablevert at 7:32 PM on May 14, 2011 [9 favorites]


Yeah my only credentials are watching a lot of procedurals (so none), but it really looked like a combo of a) nervous, and b) trying to figure out exactly what the RHD guys knew before committing to any details about the situation.
posted by grapesaresour at 7:45 PM on May 14, 2011


That's an interesting article but I also find it weird that the videos of her interrogation been released before the trial.
posted by LobsterMitten at 10:11 PM on May 14, 2011


Diablevert: "I know that you know that i know that you know"-type processing

Which just goes to show - if you're going to kill someone:

1. Take a crash course in game theory.
2. Plan how to dispose of the body.
posted by vanar sena at 1:20 AM on May 15, 2011 [3 favorites]


It's heartening that the LAPD would stay on a case, but I am curious about the cases they think they don't have a chance of solving. Throw those out to the cloud in the future?

And, of course, it's good to hear that murders are down - I didn't realize the difference was quite that dramatic. 30-40 a year in Van Nuys down to five to seven now? That's downright stunning. It's not like Van Nuys has gotten a whole lot nicer (or worse) in the last couple of decades, either.
posted by Xoebe at 1:49 AM on May 15, 2011


I think the writer was very clever calling this the Lazarus file. I mean, the case came back from the dead, so it is a colorful...what? That's actually the suspect's name? Oh, well, nevermind.
posted by Mental Wimp at 4:35 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


...being interviewed by the cops about a murder is about as difficult as it gets...
What's wrong with saying nothing?
posted by Coventry at 4:46 AM on May 15, 2011


What's wrong with saying nothing?

There are certainly times to do that. But I think this is the value of the detectives' approach. At first, she wasn't sure that she was even really a suspect. The best way to get away with a crime is to avoid becoming a suspect in the first place. As long as she thought that might be possible, it makes sense that she'd act normal and play along so as to stay off the radar. If she wasn't a suspect, clamming up would have certainly raised a red flag.
posted by Edgewise at 5:23 AM on May 15, 2011


I was really disappointed in the narrative structure of this article. If you set it up that the murderer is an unlikely suspect, and on the first page show me a video of the police questioning a woman - now the whole thing is ruined for me. I would have much preferred those videos to be saved for the fourth or fifth page, when the questioning is actually taking place. There's no mystery to the mystery and no point to the story if you tell me who did it on the first page. Dramatic tension fail.
posted by jocelmeow at 10:18 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


From the Los Angeles Times Murder of Sherri Rae Rasmussen archives.

February 26, 1986: Woman Found Slain in Apartment Identified.

October 23, 1986: $10,000 Reward Offered for Killers of Nurse.

November 24, 1987: Parents of Slain Nurse Seek Help in Finding Killer. An LAPD detective says Rasmussen was killed when she "surprised one or more burglars who beat her and shot her once before stealing her car." The car was found about two miles from the crime scene. Two months after the murder another woman walked into her apartment three blocks away and found two guys robbing the apartment; they pointed a gun at her and ran away.

June 6, 2009: A colleague's arrest on suspicion of murder stuns the LAPD.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:33 AM on May 15, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's heartening that the LAPD would stay on a case, but I am curious about the cases they think they don't have a chance of solving.

They didn't stay on the case. This case one was a cold case, one of the ones they didn't think they could solve. The decrease in the murder rate one of of the factors that gave the Cold Cases Unit time to look into the case.
posted by kirkaracha at 10:35 AM on May 15, 2011


The primary job of every police officer is to do everything within their power to avoid any sort of confrontation unless absolutely necessary.

er, weather you like cops or not I think this statement is off. Police intervene, mediate and even instigate conflict all the time. That is their job. If you put a positive spin on it, you can say it is a natural outlay of being charged with enforcing the laws and keeping the peace. From traffic stops to domestic disputes to simply being on patrol being a cop is one long confrontation. They don't have to be violent, and the overwhelming majority of confrontations are not, but they are confrontations.
posted by edgeways at 2:07 PM on May 15, 2011


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