While many people who date during college end up tying the knot years later, others enjoy college romances that serve a purpose at the time, if not for the future. But sometimes, young love is a serious force to be reckoned with, especially where envy and jealousy are involved.
John Ruetten was a mechanical engineering major from San Diego who dated Stephanie Lazarus, a fellow Dykstra Hall resident and a political science major from Simi Valley, back in 1978. While the couple clicked physically, Ruetten never thought there was anything serious between the two. Years later tragedy struck, but would go unsolved for more than two decades.
Ruetten and Lazarus had a bunch in common. During their time at the University of California at Los Angeles, the pair were avid athletes. Lazarus loved her time playing for the UCLA’s junior varsity basketball team. While Ruetten was more into his studies, he also played different sports and had a keen interest in her, even if that interest was predominantly sexual.
While Ruetten had a soft spot for Lazarus, he was also often confused by some of her freaky behavior. The two had great chemistry, but when she stole his clothes while he showered and took pictures of him naked while he slept, Ruetten had great cause for concern. They even met for sex on occasion after the two graduated, but when he took a job at a computer manufacturer, and she joined the police academy, the pair drifted apart with the passage of time.
Some years later and Ruetten met Sherri Rasmussen, a graduate of Loma Linda University and a critical care nurse. Things became pretty serious with Sherri although Ruetten was still in touch with his ex-flame Lazarus. She had been unaware that he was getting serious with another woman at the time when she threw him a surprise 25th birthday party. When she heard about his relationship with Rasmussen, Lazarus was less than thrilled.
Lazarus was in touch with the Ruetten family since college and was considered to be a close friend. But when she wrote a letter to Ruetten’s mother in 1985, some alarm bells began to ring loudly. “I’m truly in love with John and the past year has really torn me up,” she wrote. But her journal entries from around the same time were even more worrying. “I really don’t feel like working. I found out that John is getting married,” read one entry. But Lazarus wanted closure in one way or another.
Lazarus noted in her journal that she was “depressed” that her lover had met another woman who he was getting serious with. She went to visit him in his condo, and the two had sex to “give (Lazarus) closure.” But when Ruetten announced that he was engaged to Rasmussen, Lazarus was devastated. That didn’t stop her from remaining friends with her ex-lover though.
It was understandable that Rasmussen was upset when her fiance’s ex-girlfriend showed up at the apartment they now shared. One particular night she arrived with a pair of skis and asked Ruetten to wax them for her, despite the objections of his wife-to-be. The fact that Lazarus was dressed in flattering workout attire at the time made things even worse, even if he did convince Rasmussen that the two were “just good friends.”
While the couple married in November 1985, the new bride still felt uncomfortable about her husband’s relationship with his ex-lover. But when Lazarus visited Rasmussen at her office, telling her that things weren’t over between her and Ruetten, she also said: “If I can’t have John, no one else will.” That comment should have raised some serious red flags somewhere, but it didn’t.
In February 1986, just a few months after the wedding, Sherri Rasmussen was found dead in the apartment she shared with her husband. Having been bitten, beaten and shot three times, the LAPD assumed this was a botched robbery gone very wrong. But the victim’s father felt that Stephanie Lazarus should have been the prime suspect as his daughter had told him more than once that she had been stalked on the street by her as well as verbally threatened.
On the morning of February 24, 1986, Ruetten left his apartment for work. His wife was due to give a motivational speech that day in the office, but she hated giving such talks. On that fateful morning, Rasmussen decided to call in sick to avoid the talk, telling her boss that she had incurred a back injury from an intense aerobics session the day before. At 9:45 a.m., a neighbor noticed that the garage door of the residence was open, but there was no car inside. Just fifteen minutes later and Ruetten would make the first of several calls to his wife to check if she was alright.
When Ruetten returned from work in the early evening, he was shocked by the scene that met him. His garage door was still open, and there was broken glass on the driveway. He also noticed that a bike he had bought his wife was missing from the garage. When he entered the residence, he found his wife dead on the living room floor with three bullet wounds in her. He noticed signs of a struggle as well as a bloody hand-print next to the panic alarm button in the home. Investigators found a bite mark on the victim’s arm which they swabbed.
At the time of the investigation, with no DNA samples available, the LAPD concluded that the murder was due to a burglary gone wrong. As Rasmussen was dressed in her bathrobe, it was clear she hadn’t been expecting visitors. On top of that, numerous items had been stolen from the residence including electronic equipment, the bike from the garage, the car and also the couple’s marriage license. The last item should have raised some suspicions at the time, but it didn’t.
The lead detective running the case at the time, Lyle Mayer, soon ruled out Ruetten as a suspect. After the murder, he quit his job and moved away from Los Angeles altogether to try and piece his life back together. But the victim’s parents, Nels and Loretta Rasmussen told Mayer about the ongoing harassment of their daughter at the hands of Stephanie Lazarus. For whatever reasons, the cops didn’t suspect Lazarus at the time and were convinced that the murder had been due to a failed robbery.
Despite a newspaper story about the murder some eight months after it took place, and a generous reward for information offered by the Rasmussen family, the case went cold. This was during a time when law enforcement in LA was preoccupied with gang violence and the increasingly deadly crack epidemic which had a firm hold over the city. The victim’s father even claimed that the detectives at the office were wholly unhelpful when he called them for information.
The victim’s father never gave up hope of finding his daughter’s killer. He also wasn’t at all convinced that it was due to a botched burglary as his daughter was six feet tall, in great shape and very strong. The fact that Sherri had been shot at close range through a quilt to muffle the noise was even more curious, and not in line with the usual practice of home invaders. When Nels Rasmussen offered to pay for DNA testing on the evidence from the bite mark, he was told by the police that he couldn’t do it as they had no suspect.
Many years had passed since the unsolved murder, but in 2009, due to a decline in crime in Los Angeles, detectives started reopening cold cases to increase their clearance rates. When the Rasmussen file was reexamined by detectives Jim Nuttall and Pete Barba, they found it to be worth pursuing. For a start, the DNA from the bite mark on the victim belonged to a woman, and that meant that the botched burglary theory was fickle at best.
When detectives realized that the botched burglary had been staged to cover up some other motive for the murder, they took the DNA sample from the bite on the victim and were shocked to find it was a match with Lazarus’ DNA. The fact that she was now a high-ranking detective herself by this stage, working art fraud cases at the time, made their plan to arrest her a tricky one.
When detectives working the case were certain that Lazarus was their main suspect they moved to arrest her but in a well-planned sting operation. The detectives wanted to lure her to a place where she would have to give up her gun before entering, lest she became violent at the 26-year-old allegations against her. The cops forged a plan to tell Lazarus she needed to meet them and a suspect in a lockup in the city. Lazarus was arrested and charged with the murder of Rasmussen.
Following her arrest, Lazarus was allowed to retire from the LAPD and was held in the Los Angeles County Jail. Six months passed before her bail hearing was heard by Judge Robert J. Perry who set her bail at $10 million. When her trial finally came around in 2012, amid much media attention, Lazarus was convicted of first-degree murder and was sentenced to 27 years to life in prison at the California Institution for Women in Corona.
In 2010, the Rasmussen family filed a civil lawsuit against the city and the LAPD, alleging everything from cover-ups to negligent police work as Lazarus was “one of them.” They claimed that their civil rights had been violated as well as the “intentional infliction of emotional distress and fraudulent concealment.” Nothing ever came of that civil lawsuit, and the Rasmussens dropped their charges eventually.
When the verdict against Lazarus was read out in court, the Rasmussen family sobbed quietly. John Taylor, the family’s attorney, told reporters: “The family is relieved that this 26-year nightmare has concluded with the positive identification of the person who killed their daughter.”