July 16, 2016


The Lazarus File : In 1986, a young nurse named Sherri Rasmussen was murdered in Los Angeles. Police pinned down no suspects, and the case gradually went cold. It took 23 years--and revolutionary breakthroughs in forensic scienceĀ­--before LAPD detectives could finally assemble the pieces of the puzzle. When they did, they found themselves facing one of the unlikeliest murder suspects in the city's history. (MATTHEW MCGOUGH  JUNE 2011, The Atlantic)

IN FEBRUARY 2003, a year and a half after its formation, the cold-case unit made its first arrest, solving the 1983 murder of a young nurse and mother named Elaine Graham. A suspect, Edmond Marr, had been identified at the time but was never prosecuted; confronted with wiretap evidence and a DNA report that linked him to the murder, Marr eventually pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 16 years to life.

Seven months later, in September, the unit cleared four cases at once when it arrested its first serial killer, Adolph Laudenberg. A 77-year-old grandfather with a bushy white beard, Laudenberg was suspected of having raped and strangled four women between 1972 and 1975; the media quickly dubbed him the "Santa Claus Strangler." The detectives possessed the killer's DNA profile, but had no sample from Laudenberg with which they could compare it. A warrant could have forced their suspect to give them a sample, but they weren't sure they had enough evidence to get one. They could also have asked Laudenberg to submit a sample voluntarily, but that would have alerted him that he was a suspect.

Detectives have a third way to get a suspect's DNA sample without running afoul of the Fourth Amendment: collect a voluntarily discarded sample. In this case, it would not be easy. Laudenberg lived in a mobile home that he moved sporadically around Los Angeles. Eventually, a detective arranged to meet at a doughnut shop to discuss what he described as a series of burglaries from automobiles. Afterward, the coffee cup the old man had used was whisked to the lab and his DNA was harvested from the brim. The profiles matched, and Laudenberg is now serving a life sentence. "The press loves these cases," Lambkin says. "I mean, it is all positive every time you solve one. If you don't solve one, well, no one solved it. But when you do, you're like a freaking magician."

During the summer and fall of 2003, Lambkin's unit was working its way, case by case, through the 1,400 unsolved homicides it had flagged as having good forensic potential. On September 19, DNA analysis was requested on evidence from the 1986 murder of Sherri Rasmussen. The request reached the desk of a criminalist at the LAPD crime lab, but given staffing shortages, no action was taken on it for more than a year.

In December 2004, a criminalist named Jennifer Butterworth noticed the unworked request sitting on her colleague's desk and volunteered to handle it. The first article Butterworth analyzed was a blood swatch taken at the victim's autopsy, which gave her Rasmussen's DNA profile. When she turned to the crime-scene evidence, the items she initially tested--a piece of fingernail, a bloodstained towel--yielded only the victim's profile. Then Butterworth noticed that the property sheet listed a bite-mark swab. Yet she couldn't find the swab in the rape kit or anywhere else. A week went by before the coroner's office could locate the missing evidence.

The 5-by-7-inch envelope, new and crisp when Lloyd Mahany had sealed it in 1986, was no longer so pristine. Its condition would later be described in court as "pretty beaten up" and "ratty." There was a tear at one end, from which protruded the red-capped top of the tube holding the swab, but the tube itself appeared intact. When Butterworth analyzed the swab, it yielded a mixture of two DNA profiles, one of which matched Rasmussen's. The other presumably belonged to her killer.

This mystery profile did not return a CODIS hit, which meant the suspect was not in the FBI's DNA database. But a curious detail caught Butterworth's eye. DNA profiles developed since the late 1990s typically include a gender marker. In most violent crimes, the suspect comes up XY, or male. But the DNA results in front of Butterworth were XX, meaning that the person who bit Sherri Rasmussen was female. Without the case file, Butterworth had little information regarding theories of the case or possible suspects, and so lacked context for her discovery. But it was certainly unusual. She typed up her conclusions and sent the report to the cold-case unit on February 8, 2005.

As it happened, just a few months before, California voters had overwhelmingly approved Proposition 69, a ballot measure co-authored by Lisa Kahn. Prop 69 required police to collect DNA samples from all individuals arrested for a felony or a sex crime, as well as from all state-prison inmates who had been convicted of such crimes. The DNA profiles of tens of thousands of California inmates were uploaded to the FBI's vast database. As a result, in 2005 Lambkin's unit was swamped with CODIS-based "cold hits": DNA reports implicating suspects previously unknown to detectives.

As tantalizing a clue as Butterworth's DNA report provided in the Rasmussen case--namely, that a woman might be the murderer--it did not point directly to a specific suspect, unlike the many cold hits rolling in thanks to Prop 69. Perhaps for this reason, Butterworth's report went into the Rasmussen case file, and the case file itself went back on the shelf, where it would sit for a few years more.

BY EARLY 2007, when David Lambkin retired, the Cold Case Homicide Unit had solved more than 40 old murder cases. His successor was Robert Bub, another veteran homicide detective. Bub estimates that when he took over the unit, it numbered 10 detectives and had about 120 cases open. The team had by then moved to a new, slightly more spacious squad room on the fifth floor of Parker Center, the LAPD's legendarily decrepit headquarters, but it still didn't have enough space for all the murder books that it had accumulated. Detectives boxed up whichever cases weren't being actively worked and sent them back to the divisions where they had originated, if there was room for them, or to the LAPD archives if there wasn't.

As a result, sometime in 2007, the Sherri Rasmussen case file was returned to the Van Nuys Division in a cardboard box. By coincidence, Bub followed it in March 2008, when he accepted a transfer to run the Van Nuys homicide unit, which had just lost its supervising detective and two others to retirement. When the dust settled, the squad consisted of Bub and three other detectives: Pete Barba, Marc Martinez, and Jim Nuttall.

Whereas Van Nuys once recorded 30 to 40 homicides a year, nowadays it averages five to seven. "It's a very manageable number of murders for three guys to work," Bub says. In early February 2009, with the squad's most recent homicide cleared, Nuttall and Barba began poking around for an interesting cold case. They settled on Sherri Rasmussen's.

"It was four books when it reached me, four books deep," Nuttall says of the case file. "They kept a pretty good chronological record of everything that was done over 23 years." When Nuttall reached the 2005 DNA-analysis report, he saw immediately that the gender marker was incompatible with the original theory of the case. "That jumps off the page at you, because when you have that, and you're aware that the case is based on two male burglars--well, that alters the entire course of the investigation. You have to go back to square one."

The detectives went back over the whole investigation--but this time with the assumption that they were looking for a female suspect. When they finished going through the case file, they had a list of five names, among them that of Stephanie Lazarus, who was cited in the original police work as John Ruetten's ex-girlfriend, with the further notation "P.O." Nuttall didn't make anything of the initials until he called Ruetten, who told him that Lazarus had been a Los Angeles police officer.

Nuttall was stunned at the thought that a cop might have killed someone and gotten away with it. "It was extremely difficult initially to process that possibility," he says. Wondering whether she might still be on the job, the detectives typed her name into the LAPD's directory, and there she was: Detective Stephanie Lazarus. Nuttall phoned Bub and told him they had identified the police-officer ex-girlfriend whom Nels Rasmussen had brought up all those years before. The suspects on the squad's list were numbered 1 through 5. Lazarus, considered the least likely suspect, was No. 5.

Posted by at July 16, 2016 7:09 PM