Regarding relationships, jealousy is as prevalent as love, especially when things get complicated. But, once the boy gets the girl and they start their happily-ever-after, the jealousy portion usually takes a back seat. In the case of Sherri Rassmussen, it did–for more than 20 years. However, when the murder-gone-cold case was reopened in 2004 and again in 2009, authorities made a shocking discovery about what they’d previously believed to be a burglary resulting in collateral damage. What they’d believed to be a separate incident of brutality was about to get personal, jealously so.
Three months into marriage is generally the epitome of bliss for newlyweds. When John Reutten found his new wife dead in their condo before the honeymoon stage ended, it quickly became apparent that their life together was never destined to end in happiness and roses. At first, the brutal murder appeared to be a freak, random act of violence. Yet, behind the curtain of the past, the cold, complex significance of the jealous incidents that Ruetten and the authorities had chosen to ignore was brought to light.
Happily-Ever-Never for Sherri Rassmussen
For 29-year-old Sherri Rassmussen and 27-year-old John Ruetten, February of 1986 began a new chapter in their lives. Only having been married for three months, they were smack dab in the middle of the honeymoon phase. According to Steven Mikulan of Los Angeles Magazine, the lovebirds lived in the Van Nuys neighborhood of Los Angeles. Sherri Rassmussen was a supervising nurse at Glendale Adventist Medical Center, and Ruetten worked as an engineer at Micropolis. He was over six feet tall, athletic, and handsome. She was only a few inches shorter, making them a striking couple. They’d fallen quickly in love during college, dating for one year before becoming engaged. During their engagement, Ruetten gifted his wife a condo on Balboa Boulevard with a garage. The condo came with a striking 1985 BMW, solidifying their picture-perfect setup.
On February 24th, Ruetten left just after 7 am for work. Sherri Rassmussen was reluctant to seize the day and expressed her desire to skip an HR speech she was supposed to deliver. She even considered calling in sick to work, as she confided in her husband. She hated such tasks, and puttering around the house in her robe was an agreeable alternative. As it turned out, what appeared to be a harmless avoidance of an unenjoyable task proved deadly.
Murder of Sherri Rassmussen
When Ruetten arrived home after work that evening, he found glass in the driveway and his wife’s BMW missing. Figuring she’d had an unlucky car mishap, he went inside. It wasn’t until he reached the living room that the quaintness of his new life was shattered.
The cruelty of the scene, and especially the bruising bite mark on Rassmussen’s left arm, suggested that the murder was more intimate than a burglary gone South. Lead homicide investigator, Detective Lyle Mayer, voiced his concern that Rassmussen had been targeted. However, this theory was quickly tossed aside as cookie-cutter evidence of a burglary began to pile up: stereo components that the robber had presumably intended to take with him were by the front door, and a drawer of the living room table stood open. A report from a woman a few weeks later that two armed men had attempted to rob her condo cinched the conclusion. The case was chalked up to an unfortunate case of burglary.
The Restless Dead End of the Sherri Rassmussen Case
Mayer followed the customary procedure and asked Ruetten about Rassmussen’s close acquaintances. However, the murderer was an outsider, which made Mayer’s questioning seem futile. Ruetten mentioned Rassmussen’s sister, brother-in-law, and former roommate as her close acquaintances. The former roommate was a fellow nurse who had lived in the condo before Sherri Rassmussen was married. None of these individuals raised any alarm.
Ruetten didn’t say much about her, except for the fact that he had dated her while at UCLA. He mentioned that she had become an LAPD officer at some point. Lazarus had expressed her annoyance to Ruetten’s new lover when he started seeing Rassmussen, and she appeared noticeably sore. However, Lazarus’s involvement in the couple’s past was overlooked.
Rassmussen’s family took issue with the police’s lack of interest in Lazarus. They told Mayer that their son-in-law’s ex-girlfriend–whose name Rassmussen never disclosed to them–had harassed their daughter and should be investigated. Rasmussen had told her mother that Lazarus used to show up at their condo for stupid reasons like wanting Ruetten to wax her snow skis. Matters grew increasingly creepier when Rassmussen caught Lazarus stalking her at the gym or while she was out shopping. According to an article by Howard Breuer and Caitlin Keating in People, Rassmussen had confided to her parents that Ruetten’s ex had threatened her, saying, “If I can’t have John, nobody can.”
They insisted that Lazarus’s history with Ruetten was significant, but the case went cold. The case remained untouched for 23 years, with no progress made in the investigation.
A Ghost from the Past
Rassmussen’s murder didn’t come up again until it rolled across the desk of a cold-case investigator in 2004. Michael Martinez and Stan Wilson of CNN report that the saliva sample taken from the bite mark on Rassmussen’s arm had been sitting in an evidence freezer since her death. Due to a lack of technology, it had never been matched with anyone. When the case was reopened, technological advancement gave authorities a realistic chance of pairing the evidence with Rassmussen’s killer.
The previously voiced concerns about Lazarus’ aggressiveness toward Rassmussen were finally taken seriously. Undercover police followed the LAPD officer to a Costco, where she discarded a soda cup.
When one viewed Lazarus with the omission of her eerie interactions with Rassmussen, she appeared to be a model citizen. Los Angeles Magazine records that she came from a respectable, middle-class family living in Simi Valley. While attending UCLA, Lazarus made friends with the jocks and had a reputation for being social. As a student, she was one of them herself. Kathleen Blakistone, who knew her in college, spoke highly of Lazarus’ persona. “She created a community around herself and had a lightness about her…She had a sage mind…I believe that the idea of being a detective was something she really wanted.”
Lazarus went on to work in the anti-drug DARE program, earn the title of Detective, act as treasurer of the Los Angeles Women Police Officers and Associates, become an instructor at the academy, and compete in numerous athletic events, including relays and basketball. However, despite the other ventures that kept her busy, she had one main obsession: Ruetten. She was devastated when she found out he was engaged to be married, pining for the man she’d lost. “She had a ‘John standard’ and was very picky,” her former roommate explained. “[A]ny man she went out with had to be tall, athletic, handsome. Like John.”
Stellar Woman had the Heart of a Killer
During the years after being scorned, Lazarus appeared to move on, marrying a fellow LAPD officer and adopting a child. At the age of 45, Lazarus secured a position in the Art Theft Detail, beating out other applicants who competed against her. Her skills stood out dramatically, earning her the job.
Just as Lazarus of old was raised from a tomb, Officer Lazarus was about to experience a resurrection in her own life. Unluckily for her, a skeleton she would have preferred to keep buried was about to be raised like a nightmare from the past.
An Unwelcome Resurrection of the Sherri Rassmussen Case
Under the guise of Art Theft Detail business, Lazarus was brought to an interrogation room by Daniel Jaramillo, presumably to question a suspect. She quickly discovered that she wasn’t there as an interrogator but to be interrogated herself.
The ABC News footage of the questioning is raw and chilling as Lazarus’ composure transforms from unsuspecting to appalled to panicked. When asked if John Ruetten’s name rings a bell, she pauses, thinking for a moment. She corrects the questioner’s pronunciation of his name before almost gleefully exclaiming that she knew him in school. However, when she is asked to elaborate on the nature of their relationship, she clams up a little. “What’s this all about?” she asks, her demeanor hardening slightly.
When asked if she knows the name of Ruetten’s wife, she feigns ignorance, pretending to struggle to recall her first name though she eventually says it was Sherri Rassmussen. In response to whether or not she’d met Rassmussen, she scowls, offering a vague “I may have.” Lazarus claimed that she was still unsure of Rassmussen’s profession. However, after some hesitation, she suggested that Rassmussen may have been a nurse.
Lazarus’ nonchalant display begins to crack as the interrogation wears on. “I don’t understand why you’re talking about some guy I dated a million years ago,” she snaps. Lazarus became increasingly agitated as the conversation delved deeper into her connection with Rassmussen. Her head shook rapidly, and her eyes widened with apparent discomfort. Sherri pulls a face when it’s suggested that the two of them had beef but finally admits that she had visited Rassmussen’s workplace. She insists their conversation was so brief that she could hardly remember the subject. “It wasn’t like we went out to lunch or anything,” she huffs. Lazarus might not have taken Sherri Rassmussen out to lunch that day, but she did much more on February 24th, and the authorities knew it.
Lazarus’ wide-eyed look returns when asked for a DNA swab, and she only gives a non-committal response of “maybe”.
Stephanie Lazarus Thwarted in Love, Condemned on the Stand
After years of believing that she would escape a murder born from jealous rage, People record that Lazarus was charged in 2009 with Rassmussen’s murder. During her trial in 2012, prosecutor Paul Nunez called Lazarus’ standing as a member of law enforcement and her anger over losing Ruetten the ‘perfect cocktail’ for committing such an atrocity. “The motive, in this case, was jealousy toward Sherri,” he said. “The ring on Sherri’s finger was supposed to be hers. It was ripped from her.” That rage, paired with her knowledge of how to make the crime scene look like a robbery, was, according to Los Angeles Magazine, what enabled her to remain hidden for so many years.
In 2015, a defense request was made to review the case, but the supreme court declined it. This isn’t surprising considering CNN’s notation of Deputy Assistant District Attorney Presby’s statement that the chances of the authorities being wrong about Rassmussen’s murderer were “one in 1.7 sextillions.”
Those are pretty stiff odds for the formerly respected cop turned killer.
From the beginning, the Rassmussen’s had made their misgivings about the police’s insistence that their daughter had simply been a casualty of a failed robbery attempt. Los Angeles Magazine states that the fact it took so much time to bring about justice was a source of frustration for the victim’s parents. Rassmussen’s father, Nels, said that when he tried to persuade Mayer that the brutality of the murder pointed to someone with a motive and mentioned Lazarus, he was quickly shut down. “You know, you’ve been watching too much TV,” Mayer reportedly replied. “Don’t go there, there’s nothing there.”
Though the family’s aggravation was acute at being ignored for so long only to have the very person they’d suspected found guilty, there was one small comfort beyond hearing the verdict of 27 years to life behind bars. Had the police heeded the Rassmussen’s concerns two decades earlier, things might have ended quite differently. The lack of DNA testing technology back in 1986, which had made it impossible for the authorities to identify the saliva sample, might have provided a loophole for Lazarus. Without the advanced techniques developed years after Rassmussen’s murder, the police wouldn’t have been able to use their most persuasive and irrefutable evidence to put Lazarus behind bars.
Painful as it had been, it appeared there had been purpose in the waiting. This realization was a welcome salve but by no means undid Lazarus’ diabolical act. “I don’t see murder trials as occasions for joy,” Presby is recorded to have said after it all. “There’s satisfaction if you feel the right result was reached, but not joy.”.