If there’s one consistently troubling criminal-justice-system theme running from one era to the next in Southern California, it’s that numerous law-enforcement bureaucracies are ethical cesspools—or, worse, criminal operations hiding behind badges, Glocks and aggressive, taxpayer-funded media spin doctors.
That fact isn’t debatable.
Consider a few of the embarrassments racked up in the past decade: Orange County Sheriff Mike Carona and his two top assistant sheriffs, Don Haidl and George Jaramillo, were convicted for corruption. That mess led to the rise in the OC Sheriff’s Department (OCSD) of Sandra Hutchens, a two-faced liar whom the California Court of Appeal rebuked in 2016 for overseeing systemic, unconstitutional jail capers to rob pretrial defendants of fair trials.
Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, Sheriff Lee Baca and his undersheriff, Paul Tanaka, routinely acted above the law. To illustrate how derange these fellows became, consider they thought they could threaten FBI agents. Both are now convicted felons.
Veteran journalist Matthew McGough recently published a mesmerizing, phenomenally researched account of such entrenched law-enforcement muck. The Lazarus Files focuses on the February 1986 murder of Sherri Rasmussen, a 29-year-old director of critical-care nursing at an LA hospital. Through incompetence, villainy or a combination of both, the case went unsolved for decades inside the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD). A killer had entered Rasmussen’s home on a Monday morning, ambushed her, savagely bit her arm, repeatedly cracked her skull, fired three fatal bullets into her chest, staged a burglary-gone-wrong scene, left the victim wearing expensive jewelry, then calmly resumed her day job as an LAPD cop.
But as McGough documents, Stephanie Lazarus not only escaped justice, but also thrived in the department for the next 23 years. She rose in rank, won cushy assignments, filled private-diary entries with her regular dream destination (a tanning salon), spent hours dining while on duty, visited boyfriends and slept in a patrol car she’d parked in secluded areas. Department brass frequently promoted this murderer, including to internal-affairs work, and celebrated her supposed “loyalty, attention to duty and unselfish work ethics.”
Lazarus should have been a suspect from the outset, especially given that overkill is often a sign the murderer knew and hated the victim. The cop had been a sex partner of UCLA classmate John Ruetten, Rasmussen’s husband. She also told Ruetten’s mother of her intense disappointment that he’d married another woman. Before her death, Rasmussen advised her parents that she felt stalked and that one of her husband’s ex-girlfriends—an LAPD cop, no less—had entered their home without permission to frighten her. Other witnesses also knew that Lazarus had visited Rasmussen’s workplace in an effort to wreck the marriage by saying she’d had sex with Ruetten during their engagement.
But LAPD detectives assigned to solve the murder must have never watched an episode of Columbo. Even a casual viewing of the show would have provided the elementary roadmap for how actor Peter Falk carefully studied clues, sidestepped misdirection traps and ultimately got the bad guy. Columbo repeatedly badgered his suspects with “just one more thing” questions.
That type of curiosity never surfaced in this real-life tragedy. Detectives ignored Lazarus’ ties to Ruetten; incredibly, she may have never been interviewed. Nor did their investigation note that in the days after the murder, she reported as stolen her LAPD-issued backup revolver, a Smith & Wesson model 49—the same type of weapon used to beat and shoot Rasmussen.
“The total absence of documentation in the LAPD’s typed [chronological probe log] and follow-up reports that Stephanie was ever contacted or interviewed in 1986, along with her silence on the subject in her diary, suggest that she was off the radar of the detectives who initially investigated Sherri’s murder,” wrote McGough, who reports that when pressed to explain a lack of interest in their colleague, detectives said, “This is not going anywhere.”
Instead, the LAPD sleuths claimed they deduced that a male burglar must have killed Rasmussen. But why would a burglar leave so many valuables behind and in plain sight? Why would a burglar drive the victim’s BMW to a heavily Latino neighborhood and leave it there when there was no police pursuit, instead of taking it to a chop shop for cash? Why would a burglar neutralize the homeowner with vicious skull-cracking blows, bite her and risk alerting neighbors by then firing three bullets into an unconscious body?
Yet, according to McGough, just 43 days into the unsolved case, then-police chief Daryl Gates, a Dana Point resident who died in 2010, praised the detectives for their “good work . . . talent, attention to detail and diligence.”
The Lazarus Files produces powerful hints the killer cop may have escaped justice with sinister assistance. After Rasmussen’s frustrated parents, Loretta and Nels Rasmussen, pressed for renewed attention to crime-scene recoveries, a detective checked out the forensic evidence from the crime lab and suspiciously never returned it. Asked later to explain his actions, the officer claimed ignorance.
Luckily, one piece of forensic evidence remained—a swab from the killer’s deep bite mark in Rasmussen’s arm—but only because the coroner’s office had stored it separately. In 2005, Jennifer Francis, an LAPD criminalist, analyzed the swab for DNA and determined the major contributor contradicted the department’s stubborn theory of the killing.
“Francis was stunned by the realization that it was a woman who bit Sherri,” McGough wrote.
The criminalist reported the news to the LAPD detective who’d assumed control of the 19-year-old case, but he, too, immediately dismissed Lazarus as a suspect. “She was not part of this,” McGough quotes the cop saying.
When the case finally landed with Detective Jim Nuttall four years later, he saw Francis’ bombshell DNA conclusion and recalled the lone mention of Lazarus in the massive murder book authored by the original case investigators: “John Ruetten called—verified Stephanie Lazarus—[police officer] was former girlfriend.”
To Nuttall and his partners, “The execution-style manner of Sherri’s death appeared consistent with the elimination of a witness who could have identified her killer,” according to McGough.
Because Lazarus had access to the agency’s investigatory files, Nuttall’s team (Robert Bub, Pete Barba and Marc Marinez) launched a secret plan that identified their target only as candidate No. 5. They also succeeded in quietly obtaining her DNA from a discarded soda cup. A day later, she was officially linked to the bite mark, arrested and, in 2012, sent to prison for a term of 27 years to life. Then-Chief Bill Bratton called a press conference, hailing the LAPD’s work as “a very positive reflection on us, in the sense that we take our oaths seriously.”
But that oath took a serious detour again in the wake of Lazarus’ takedown. Despite the true professionalism of Nuttall and his colleagues, department management demanded these detectives stop working on another cold-case murder. They confiscated all the files related to the unsolved 1988 killing of 26-year-old Catherine Braley.
McGough, who has written for The New York Times and NBC’s Law & Order, notes that the last person known to have seen Braley alive was a veteran LA County sheriff’s deputy who’d tried to have sex with her in his police car after he’d gone on a wild, 11-hour bar drinking binge.