Of Life And Lazarus

19th June 2024

In 2012, Detective Stephanie Lazarus of the LAPD was convicted of a homidice, committed in 1986. 

Her crime was a catastrophe, emerging from complicated circumstances. The then 25-year-old Lazarus had found herself on the sharp end of a love triangle. Her surfer-dude college romp, John Ruetten, had failed to deliver for her. He had drifted.

‘Steph has a great body’, he commented to a friend, ‘but her face doesn’t cut it’. John had met, and chose to marry, Sherri Rasmussen, allowing Steph figure it out through grapevine means. After all, it’s not like she was his girlfriend. 

Lazarus revolted. 

Her contemporaneous diary describes how she lost focus on her police work – the Hollywood beat – on hearing of John’s engagement. She wrote a lovelorn letter to John’s mother in San Diego, whose friendship she had cultivated. And, although her diary does not describe it, she set to getting her romantic destiny back on track. 


Based on the ligature evidence at the crime scene, Lazarus had intended to abduct Sherri Rasmussen from her home during daytime, bring her off some place to murder her and then hide the body for all time. Such a mysterious disappearance of his wife might hasten the return of Ruetten, given how loyal Steph would remain through his travails. 

It was a naive plan. And it did not play out like that. 

When Lazarus, armed, picked the lock and entered the marital home of her former lover, she discovered that a 6ft tall, athletic Sherri Rasmussen would fight boldly to save her own life. 

A struggle ensued, during which the police officer bit into her victim’s forearm, presumably to regain control of the gun. 

In the end, Lazarus lived. 

She executed Sherri Rasmussen with three bullets to the chest, the sound muffled in a professional manner, by firing through a handmade quilt gifted to the newly-wed by her grandmother. Any of the three shots would have proven fatal.

Staring down a dead body, Lazarus had to improvise. 

She scattered the contents of drawers in the living room, and placed speakers and stereo equipment (steal-able valuables of the era) close to the door, in order to suggest that this was a burglary, tragically disturbed. 

The cops took the bait. 

Having quizzed an emotionally imploding husband, they decided that any man incapable of notifying his in-laws of the death of their daughter for seven hours, was likely unable to commit such a crime. 

In truth, Ruetten had a cast-iron alibi. But they photographed his shirtless torso to make assurance doubly sure. 

In his interview, John was asked about any testy former girlfriends. He offered nothing, explaining during the 2009 trial that he did not consider he was ever in a relationship with Lazarus. 

Detectives finally settled on the burglary hypothesis, and set about a hunt for two latinos of vague description. The search came up short. Los Angeles crime was crazily high in the 1980s. 


Fourteen days after executing Sherri Rasmussen, Stephanie Lazarus entered a neighbouring police district, and reported her personal back-up gun stolen from her car. Thus, she vanished the murder weapon in plain sight. 

It appears, with time, that she settled her nerve. Bit by bit, she went about building a stellar career within the LAPD, including becoming a homicide detective in Van Nuys, the district in which Sherri had lived and died. It is reasonable to assume that hiding her crime was part-motivation for her LAPD ambitions. 

Time chills justice, and Sherri’s case had gone cold. Her husband of three months, John Ruetten, moved on from his job, on from LA, and, with time, on with his life. 

He was a man of handsome mien, and of mean understanding. 

He renewed his dalliance with Lazarus, having got LAPD reassurance that she was not an official suspect in his wife’s slaying. It was an interesting delegation of reasonable suspicion. 

Eventually, John Ruetten remarried with an Asian-American woman, and had the family of which he dreamed. Like the artful surfer, he seemed always to remain a head-length ahead of damage. 


Things began to stir in 2005 when an eager young criminalist came to the Rasmussen cold case in the knowledge that DNA technology might change the game. The bite-mark swab from the Sherri’s arm had been mislaid in the LAPD freezer, but Jennifer Francis prevailed. Her DNA analysis returned an unexpected result. The perpetrator was female – a fact which stood in opposition to the long-standing latino burglary theory. All she needed was a match. 

It would take four years for the LAPD to act upon this finding. 

In 2009, a new generation of detectives working Van Nuys revisited the case, read its chronology of events in the Murder Book, and noted the contemporaneous suspicions of Sherri’s blood-family and friends regarding an ex of John’s who had been giving her grief. They began to close in on Lazarus – Individual No 5 – logging their detective work in a file hidden from view. 

On May 28th of that year, Lazarus was on a day off with her daughter at CostCo in Simi Valley, where she bought lunch in its Food Court. She binned her cup and straw, which was captured by under-cover agents and sent to a lab. In California, it is legal to collect DNA evidence from discarded items. Lazarus’ CostCo saliva was an exact match for the saliva swab taken from Sherri Rasmussen’s lifeless body, which lay on her living-room floor for eight hours until her husband returned from work. The first stage of rigor mortis had made him think, momentarily, that she was holding her hand aloft.


What followed next has become one of the most extraordinary video interrogations in the public domain. 

The cops invited Lazarus to an interview room one floor below her office at the LAPD Headquarters. The invitation was a ruse, something which would take time for Lazarus to comprehend. 

The video shows a woman who has so fully put her past behind her, that she struggles to process the nature of the questions being posed. Despite her skills as an interrogator, she stammers and flails in a manner that is revolting, tragic, satisfying and darkly funny.

Her LAPD colleagues are well prepared. They will arrest her for first degree homicide after the interview either way, so this conversation is an attempt to get Lazarus to impugn herself. With great patience, across 72 minutes, the heat builds, until the lobster concludes she must be cooking.   

How close was she to John? Was she ever in a relationship with him? When did her dating of him end? What was his wife’s name? Had she ever met Sherri? Had she ever been to their home? How did she learn of Sherri’s death? Did she ever have a gun stolen? Would she be willing to give a buccal swab to eliminate herself from the investigation?

‘It was a million years ago’ emerges as Lazarus’ principal defence, as her responses grow wobblier and wobblier.  The cops persist. She is forced to give up ground, again and again. 

She was friends with John Ruetten back in UCLA, becomes she dated him over many years, including meeting on vacation in Hawaii in 1989. She never spoke to Sherri becomes she may have spoken to her five times. She never met Sherri becomes she travelled to her place of work for a couple of gal-to-gal conversations-cum-fights. She never had any incidents with her car becomes she had a gun stolen from her car. 

Guilt makes an amateur of us all. 

The interrogation video is the surprise-assault of Stephanie Lazarus’ peace, 23 years after Lazarus crept into Sherri Rasmussen’s home in 1986, stole her peace, her freedom, and her life. 


Hers was an extraordinarily vicious crime. And yet, both the law and I can find some sympathy with the plight of Stephanie Lazarus. 

In 2017,  Section 3051 of the Penal Code of California recognised the unique status of crimes committed by people under the age of 26. The act sought to “give great weight to the diminished culpability of juveniles as compared to adults”, and reduced the length of time before which first paroles could be requested. 

Though Lazarus was mature enough to be an officer of the law when she murdered Sherri, she was also under 26 years old. 

Her experience of dating was that of a novice. An 18-year-old Stephanie, entering UCLA, had fixated on a fey pretty boy, equally immature and incapable of seeing beyond his own needs. 

“Steph got left behind” he would say during his re-interrogation in 2009.

And though he had never considered himself in a relationship with her, Lazarus did. 

Sherri Rasmussen was an accomplished, supremely talented young woman who was stalked and then murdered by a person she did not know. 

And it was all for nought. 

Lazarus did not end up with Ruetten. She married a cop. She overcame thyroid cancer. She won detective of the year in LA, twice over. Later in life, they adopted a daughter. 

Bit by bit, she reconstructed her reality, and became a pillar of her Simi Valley community. She backed a children’s charity which allowed parents store the DNA of their children, lest a stranger might come to call. 

Then her own DNA came a-calling. 


She has been in custody since 2009. And because she was under 26 years old when she committed the crime, her file is up for parole submissions in 2024. 

Should I have compassion for a woman who murdered another person, depriving that woman of her life, her happiness and her future? I don’t know, but I do. 

Lazarus was the author of an evil act, but this does not make her evil. Many forces were at play: the cultural drive for Juliets to find their Romeos; the intoxicating power of gun-carriers charged with laying down the law; the lure of young male vanity committed only to pleasures. 

Does every side of a love triangle have a sharp edge? Let’s see.

Sherri’s dead. Steph’s behind bars. But where’s he? 

A simple internet search turns up a clue. It’s a Twitter / X post of his, from December 2021. 

Beside a beaming picture of John Ruetten standing astride a Stewart surfboard in the Californian sun, he describes his 62-year-old surfing persona in this manner…

“I’m not that good, but so far I have survived and usually get some decent rides.” 

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