In the nearly six weeks since Los Angeles Police Detective Stephanie Lazarus’ arrest for the 1986 murder of Sherri Rae Rasmussen, LAPD brass have ducked questions about why detectives failed to investigate alarming tips 23 years ago, which could have shown Lazarus as the prime suspect.
The victim’s father, Nels Rasmussen, has told an eerie story in recent weeks, of begging LAPD to pursue solid evidence that his daughter was being harassed at work and home by a female cop, Lazarus — all because Sherri Rasmussen had married John Ruetten, the stalker’s former boyfriend.
Nels Rasmussen’s attorney, John C. Taylor, says, “The first person Nels and Loretta Rasmussen talked to on the day after their daughter’s murder was [LAPD detective] Lyle Mayer, and they spoke with him at length, and they told him about Sherri’s various confrontations with John Ruetten’s cop-ex-girlfriend.”
Taylor says that although the Rasmussens spoke to the detective often after their daughter’s brutal beating and shooting, “whenever they asked Mayer about the ex-girlfriend, about whether [the LAPD] found her or knew who she was, they never got a straight answer.”
In fact, the LAPD knew early on that the alleged female stalker was one of their own — young cop Stephanie Lazarus. Mayer, who confirmed to L.A. Weekly that he was part of the original investigative team, concedes that he never questioned Lazarus but adds, “More than one detective was involved.”
Mayer won’t say, today, who at LAPD made the decision not to pursue the Rasmussen family’s tips about a highly aggressive female cop stalker. Yet many of the family’s allegations about Lazarus were easily verifiable, had the cops bothered to interview Sherri Rasmussen’s co-workers at Glendale Adventist Hospital, where she worked as the highly admired director of critical-care nursing.
The long-ago decision not to seriously probe Lazarus has set off widespread speculation that LAPD was either grossly inept, or in serious denial, when it came to suspecting one of its own.
But the motivations may go deeper than these two scenarios. LAPD had especially pressing political reasons for not wanting a lurid killer-cop investigation in the headlines in 1986 — particularly a murder involving a female cop gone bad.
That year, LAPD was in the grips of an unprecedented scandal involving “killer cops” Richard Ford and Robert Von Villas. At the same time, the department was coming under extreme pressure to entice greater numbers of women to join the police force.
In July 1983, dirty cops Ford and Von Villas were arrested for plotting to kill exotic dancer Joan Loguercio in order to collect on a $100,000 life insurance policy. For the next six years, ugly details from the investigations, hearings and trials flowed into newspapers, magazines and TV reports. “Officers Plotted to Torture Victim to Death,” one headline read.
Informant Bruce Adams described in one front-page story how he and Ford “intended to drug, torture and murder the woman, then dump her body in a Hollywood alley so that she would appear to be ‘just another whore’ killed in Hollywood.” Ford and Von Villas were convicted of attempted murder in that case, and were convicted in another case of the murder-for-hire of businessman Thomas Weed. The two LAPD cops got life prison terms.
Heaped atop that bruising scandal was the 1986 arrest of LAPD cop William Leasure for stealing luxury yachts, an investigation that quickly led to Leasure’s indictment for two murders-for-hire. (In 1991, Leasure was sentenced to 15 years to life in prison.)
Three bad cops — Ford, Von Villas and Leasure — were big stories in 1986. In fact, Ford and Von Villas ultimately made the history books, as the first L.A. cops ever convicted of first-degree murder. “It’s totally beyond our belief that two of our people could get themselves involved in activities that we fight against every day,” former Police Chief Daryl Gates told the Los Angeles Daily News in April 1987.
Yet during that very same window of time, LAPD was ignoring Nels and Loretta Rasmussen’s tips, which ominously linked officer Stephanie Lazarus to their daughter, murder victim Sherri Rasmussen.
The LAPD’s current investigation into what went wrong will no doubt focus on who dropped the ball. LAPD veterans concur that protocol, even in 1986, would have demanded that Nels Rasmussen’s suspicions be passed along by detectives to their superiors, and possibly turned over to Robbery Homicide or Internal Affairs.
Former Robbery Homicide Detective Russell Poole was not involved in the case but, he explains, information about a suspect cop would always be “run up the ladder,” often right to the chief. Poole has had some experience with department protocol regarding suspect cops. He is the detective who first exposed and arrested cop Rafael Perez, triggering the Rampart scandal.
In 1986, Lyle Mayer’s higher-ups would have included Roger Pida, who was recently misidentified by the L.A. Times as his partner but was, in fact, his supervisor. (Pida did not respond to queries by the Weekly.) The late Leslie Durr, commanding officer of Van Nuys detectives, was also involved in the investigation. Mayer, for his part, cryptically says, “I know the truth, and the truth is very positive for the police department.”
During that era, the LAPD was also under intense pressure to hire more women. Following a long, bitter 1980 court battle, the city entered into a consent decree requiring LAPD to have a force that is 20 percent women — which proved unattainable. Today, the force is 19 percent women.
But 25 years ago, political pressure to achieve the consent decree goal was intense, as was the resulting turmoil in City Hall and the department over allegations of discrimination against women — and mounting lawsuits by female cops who accused LAPD of unfairly disciplining or firing them.
In fact, in 1986, as the Rasmussens were ignored, Internal Affairs was investigating a group of police at West L.A. Division calling itself “Men Against Women.” Neither the Internal Affairs Division nor the Police Commission found evidence of discrimination by the group — they instead found an after-shift drinking crowd that deliberately styled itself Neanderthal, and included women.
Today, former Police Chief Gates denies that he or his top brass were reluctant to pursue a third murder case against an officer. “If they had any suggestion she might be involved, they should very definitely have taken a look at her,” he says, all but denying that the allegations against Lazarus ever crossed his desk. “Whether or not they did, I don’t know. If the investigators failed to follow up, shame on them.”
He also rejects the notion that LAPD was hesitant to investigate a female cop because of political sensitivities, saying, “The only thing that mitigates against [suspecting] a female is the brutal nature of the murder. Let’s face it, women don’t usually commit brutal murders. Men are pretty good at it.”
But Nels Rasmussen says he sent Gates a letter asking him to look into the connection. Gates’ response is that he has “no recollection of it whatsoever. I have just a vague recollection of the murder itself, and then only because it was a fairly brutal murder.”
Gates doesn’t see any point in “rehashing” the Rasmussen murder case — an opinion certainly in the minority, since it is a story the public is following closely. “The brutal death of his daughter will never go away,” he says. “You can’t bring the investigators back and discipline them.”
The better reason to re-examine it, he says, is to show future detectives how a case can go badly astray: “Detectives often get hooked on a strong belief in a certain plausible explanation, and they get tunnel vision. I’ve often lectured detectives on their unwillingness to look at every aspect of a case. I’ve seen too many cases where that tunnel vision did not serve the department well.“
Nobody knows, yet, what the detectives in the 1980s were thinking. Was this case of tunnel vision caused solely by “a strong belief in a certain explanation,” or was it caused by other, more troublesome, factors? The Rasmussen family awaits the answer.