Stephanie Lazarus, the Crazy-Eyed Detective Who Fooled Everyone

Back in 1986, 27-year-old Sherri was a highly regarded nurse living with her husband, John Ruetten, a young engineer. Sherri was extraordinarily happy. She had a successful career and a warm, loving marriage. Except… there was one little caveat – John’s ex-girlfriend, Stephanie Lazarus.

Stephanie Lazarus / Stephanie Lazarus and John Ruetten / Stephanie Lazarus / Stephanie Lazarus
Source: Getty Images

A well-respected female detective from the LAPD, Stephanie was described as “a cop’s cop,” and “a woman who made it big in a man’s world.” But Stephanie’s personal life was in ruins. She was obsessed with John and blamed Sherri for ruining her chances of getting back with him.

Stephanie decided to take matters into her own hands. And on a cold February morning, she did the unthinkable.

Shattered Glass and a Puddle of Blood

On the morning of February 24, 1986, John Ruetten kissed his wife Sherri goodbye before heading out to work. Later on in the evening, at around 6 p.m., he returned home to find shattered glass all over the garage floor.

A photo of Sherri and John Ruetten.
Source: Facebook

He cautiously went up the stairway, opened the door, and found Sherri lying on the floor in a pool of her own blood. She was found with three bullet wounds, two in the upper torso and one in the abdomen.

“Talk to My Ex-Girlfriend”

Early in the investigation, John urged police to interview his ex-girlfriend, Stephanie. He had a hunch that she had something to do with it. But the cops were off chasing other leads, and as time went on, John gradually faded out of sight.

A photo of John Ruetten and Stephanie Lazarus.
Source: Reddit

“I would have expected that John would have been much more involved in the investigation and demand answers,” Sherri’s childhood friend, Jane Goldberg, told reporters. “He should have camped outside the police station.”

It Was Love at First Sight

John and Sherri met in the spring of 1984, at a party of a mutual friend. He spotted Sherri from across the room, looking as radiant as ever. Stunned by her beauty, John approached her with genuine curiosity and excitement.

Sherri and John dance together at a party.
Source: Facebook

They hit it off from the start and by the end of the night, he asked for her number. A few days later, the two were at Sherri’s home, eating beef stroganoff she had prepared and chatting over several glasses of wine.

A Dreamy Honeymoon in Jamaica

A little over a year later, in the fall of 1985, Sherri and John said “I do” in front of a crowd of family and friends. By mid-late December, they were on their way to their dream-like honeymoon in Jamaica.

John and Sherri on their wedding day.
Source: Twitter

At the time, life seemed almost perfect. Sherri felt fulfilled in both her personal life and in her career. So did John, who had just taken up a new job as a computer engineer. . He was earning a good salary.

Neither of them imagined that in just two months, their lives would be turned upside down.

In Came John’s Crazy Ex − Stephanie Lazarus

Stephanie and John met at UCLA when John was a sophomore and Stephanie was a freshman. They both lived on the top floor of one of the university’s dormitories and gradually became more than just friends.

Stephanie on the day of her graduation.
Source: Reddit

Stephanie was a really outgoing, fun person. She was a jokester, a prankster, a bold character who wasn’t afraid to get messy. John, a rather timid guy, didn’t realize Stephanie was into him romantically at first. He just assumed she was being friendly.

Stephanie Wanted More From John

Stephanie and John made out a few times in college, but it wasn’t anything too serious. However, she managed to charm her way into his family after getting on good terms with his mom and his siblings.

A portrait of Stephanie and John.
Source: YouTube

John and Stephanie’s relationship was always a bit ambiguous. They defined it as just “casual hook-ups” at first, although Stephanie always wanted something more. John, on the other hand, didn’t. He was seeing other people and only saw Stephanie as a good friend he occasionally slept with.

John Didn’t Feel the Same Way

Stephanie was aware that John didn’t care about her as she cared for him. She complained about it to her friends and constantly wrote about it in her journals. But she never dared to tell John. That is until she found out he was engaged.

John and Sherri dance together during a house party.
Source: Reddit

On the 4th of June 1985, Stephanie discovered that John and Sherri got engaged. She was devastated because all this time she was holding on to the thought that one day she and John would get together.

She Begged Him Not to Marry Her

Here’s what Stephanie wrote in her journal on the day she found out:

“I didn’t feel like working. I found out that John is getting married. I was depressed, this is very bad. My concentration was -10.”

A portrait of Stephanie Lazarus.
Source: Tumblr

That night, she called John. She bawled her eyes out and begged him not to get married. “I need to see you, can you come over?” she asked. John agreed, and when he got to her house, she confessed her love to him. “I couldn’t let you get married without telling you,” she cried.

They Spent One Last Night Together

John’s response was honest. He told Stephanie that he didn’t feel the same way. Wiping away her tears, Stephanie asked him to sleep with her one last time, and either out of pity or genuine compassion, he agreed.

A photo of Stephanie Lazarus.
Source: Reddit

John probably wanted to give her the closure she needed. However, his little act of nobility was still considered cheating, as he was just weeks away from marrying Sherri. I don’t know about you, but this was definitely not the way to behave in my opinion.

Stephanie Harassed Sherri at Work

John believed that the night he spent with Stephanie would calm her nerves and get her to realize that he had moved on. He was wrong because just a few weeks later, Stephanie paid a visit to Sherri’s workplace.

A portrait of Sherri.
Source: Twitter

She arrived at the hospital wearing provocative clothes. Sherri’s secretary later told police that the two of them had been cooped up in her office for a couple of minutes, after which Stephanie walked out with a smug look on her face.

“If I Can’t Have Him, No One Can”

When Sherri stepped out of the office, it was obvious that she had been crying. Stephanie’s visit had upset her so much that she decided to go home. Later that day, she called her parents to share what had happened.

Sherri is knitting in her living room.
Source: Facebook

As it turns out, Stephanie told her things like, “If I can’t have John, no one can,” and “when the marriage fails, I’ll be there to pick up the pieces.”

Stephanie was one mean woman, and poor Sherri had to deal with all the hate.

Stephanie Sent John’s Mom a Letter

As if all that wasn’t crazy enough, Stephanie once sent John’s mom a letter. To be fair, his mom sent her a letter first with some pictures attached. Still, it was disturbing. Stephanie wrote:

Dear Mrs. Ruetten,

“I wanted to thank you for the pictures. The reason it has taken me so long to respond is because I had to build up my courage.”

A smiling Stephanie Lazarus poses for a picture.
Source: Tumblr

“For now, I don’ know when or if I will ever see you or your family again. I do want you to know a few things though. I’m truly in love with John. And this past year has really torn me up. I wish it hadn’t ended the way that it did, and I don’t think I’ll ever understand John’s decision.”

Love always, Stephanie

She Showed Up Unannounced

Sometime between December 1985 and January 1986, Stephanie showed up to Sherri and John’s apartment unannounced, with a pair of skis in her hands. She begged John to wax them for him.

A man makes adjustments to a pair of skis.
Photo by Thomas Northcut/Getty Images

John, who didn’t have the guts to tell her off, agreed to do it. He thought that giving in to her request would get her to leave. Eventually, Stephanie stuck around for several hours, and Sherri was the one who finally asked her to leave.

John Didn’t Have the Guts to Kick Her Out

The following day, Stephanie arrived at the apartment yet again. This time, it was a short visit, just to pick up the skis. In retrospect, Sherri’s dad suggested that the “wax-my-skis” visit was probably to check out their apartment and prepare herself mentally for the killing.

A view outside John and Sherri’s apartment.
Source: Facebook

Stephanie appeared on their doorstep yet again sometime in mid-January 1986. John wasn’t home this time, and Sherri kicked her out, telling her never to step foot near them again. If John wasn’t willing to stand up to her, she was.

She Didn’t Feel Like She Could Talk to the Police

Sherri told her dad all about Stephanie and even considered filing a police report. However, she was afraid it would just inflame the situation and that none of the cops would believe her if she filed a complaint against one of their own.

Stephanie poses with her fellow police officers
Source: NBC

It’s terribly sad that Sherri felt like she couldn’t approach the police. The LAPD’s primary job is to ensure safety, and the fact that one of them felt like they would just be written off says a lot…

Sherri Was Being Followed

Sherri also felt like she was being followed. When she and John were out for dinner one Friday night, she saw a person looking at her suspiciously. And when they noticed she spotted them, they moved.

A photo of Sherri.
Source: Tumblr

Sherri later told her dad that the person looked like they were wearing boy’s clothes and that they had crazy, glaring eyes. Another odd thing that was happening during that time was that she and John would get these odd phone calls at night, and when they’d pick up, there would be no response on the other line.

The Detectives Ignored Sherri’s Dad

Fast forward to the murder. Sherri’s dad, Nels Rasmussen, practically begged the police to look into John’s ex-girlfriend. But the lead detective ignored his request and never cared to interview her, not even once. He never even considered her a suspect.

Stephanie poses with fellow officers during an event.
Source: CBS News

Instead, the investigative squad pushed for a different agenda – a botched burglary. They made up a bizarre theory that two men were trying to rob the house when they came upon Sherri who tried to fight them off. They then killed her and escaped.

Their Theory Was Ridiculous

This theory was so incredibly preposterous and detached from reality because the house hadn’t been robbed. The only two items missing were Sherri’s car (which was a gift to her from John) and… lo and behold, the couple’s wedding certificate.

A man holds onto a marriage certificate.
Photo by Jair Villeda/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images

Hmmm… weird much? Why would two robbers steal their wedding certificate? Why not jewelry or expensive paintings or rugs or telephones or TV screens? It’s incredible that the police bought into their own BS.

They Lacked the Evidence, so They Made Up a Story

Several weeks later, two men tried to commit a similar burglary in the area, and it bolstered the LAPD’s theory. Police even published sketches of these two robbers whom they considered suspects in Sherri’s murder.

Stephanie Lazarus poses in her police uniform.
Source: CBS News

The sad truth was this: there seemed to be little evidence that could tie anyone specifically to this crime. No witnesses, no gun, no fingerprints. So, they had to fill in the gaps themselves, and burglary was the easy way out.

Nels Always Knew It Was Stephanie

The Rasmussen family, however, wasn’t buying it. Any of it. It wasn’t a robbery. “Stephanie Lazarus was the number one suspect,” her father Nels said. From day one of the murder, John’s crazy ex was his primary suspect because of all the disturbing stories Sherri had told him in the weeks prior.

A photo of Nels Rasmussen.
Source: Vanity Fair

But Nels was outnumbered. John was reportedly nowhere to be found. He kept his head out of the investigation. The LAPD was completely fixed on it being a botched burglary, and Nels really had no one else to back him up.

Stephanie Moved On With Her Life

Eventually, the trail went cold. And it remained cold for more than two decades. In the meantime, Stephanie Lazarus went on to be a star detective in her department. She married a colleague, survived thyroid cancer, and even founded a daycare program for members of the LAPD.

Stephanie Lazarus at her police academy graduation.
Source: Twitter

Stephanie even adopted a little girl whom she loved deeply. Stephanie’s younger brother, Steven, would later tell reporters, “When you know Stephanie, then you know her devotion to law enforcement and to her family and to humanity. It doesn’t make sense.”

The Re-Opening of the Case

In 2008, LA cold case investigators came across Sherri’s murder. They decided to quietly reopen her case. As they looked into it, they managed to pick up on a crucial piece of evidence – a saliva sample taken from a bite mark on Sherri’s arm.

A cotton swab with saliva is placed in front of a laptop screen
Photo by GIPhotoStock/Getty Images

The saliva sample was sent to a DNA lab for testing and the results were startling. The DNA came back as belonging to a woman, a finding that completely knocked the socks off the theory that she was killed by two male burglars.

Police Followed Stephanie Around

Nels Rasmussen received a call from one of the detectives. He was ecstatic upon hearing the news. For the first time in over two decades, someone from the LAPD was finally willing to listen to him. He begged them to test and compare the sample with Stephanie’s DNA.

A photo of Stephanie Lazarus.
Source: ABC News

“If we get the DNA and it doesn’t match, we’re back to square one,” they notified him. “Don’t worry, if you get her DNA, I assure you, you’ll get yourself an arrest.”

The cops began to follow detective Lazarus and eventually picked up a cup and straw she had discarded in a local retail outlet.

The Results Were Startling

The samples from Stephanie’s utensils were sent to the lab and the results were stunning. The DNA from Sherri’s bite mark pointed directly at Stephanie Lazarus. As soon as the match was made, more than a dozen LAPD officers planned her arrest.

The detectives that re-opened the cold case.
Source: Vanity Fair

But how were they going to arrest an officer without tipping that officer off? To make matters even more precarious, Stephanie worked directly across the hall from the people investigating Sherri’s murder.

It Was a Dramatic Scene

Their plan was this: a colleague approached Stephanie one day and told her that they needed her to question someone about an art theft. She presented herself right away and walked towards the cell where she thought the suspect was waiting.

A close-up portrait of Stephanie Lazarus.
Source: YouTube

They knew that before interviewing the so-called suspect, she would have to remove her weapon. With her gun out of the way, police were now ready to sit her down for a difficult questioning.

“Stephanie, We Need to Talk to You”

She was asked to sit down. Unarmed and unaware that she was actually the suspect in question, Stephanie made herself comfortable in front of a hidden camera, still believing that the topic they wanted to discuss was an art theft.

Stephanie Lazarus sits in the interrogation room.
Source: YouTube

“Do you know John Ruetten?” asked the detective. “Yeah, I mean, we dated, you know, what’s this all about?” Stephanie wondered. “It’s relating to his wife. Did you know her?” “Not really,” she responded.

Her Body Language Was All Over the Place

The detective kept cornering Stephanie with his questions, leaving her no option but to confess. At one point, she got extremely mad. “You said I was going to interview somebody about art. I don’t understand why you’re talking about some guy I dated a million years ago,” she complained.

Various reactions Stephanie had during the interrogation.
Source: Facebook

At that point, the detective brought up the topic of Sherri’s death. “Sherri’s friends say you and her [sic] had a problem,” he explained. Stephanie shot him an alarming look, followed by a shake of the head and a haughty scoff.

She Got Up and Left

Finally, an hour into the questioning, the detective dove into the tough questions: “Did you ever fight with her?” “No,” Stephanie stuttered, “I don’t think so!” That’s a really weird response, considering that it’s pretty rare to forget if you had a fight with someone.

Stephanie Lazarus flashes a creepy smile at the camera.
Source: Twitter

“If you guys are claiming that I’m a suspect, then I got a problem with that. I mean, I’m shocked, I’m really shocked that somebody would say that I did this. We had a fight, so I went and killed her? I mean, come on,” Stephanie said before storming out of the room, only to be arrested and handcuffed a second later.

Finally! Stephanie Was in Handcuffs

On June 5th, 2009, more than two decades after Sherri’s death, Stephanie Lazarus was charged with first-degree murder. Stephanie’s attorney believed that the state’s case against his client was ridiculous and that she was “100% innocent.”

Stephanie Lazarus stands in handcuffs in court.
Photo by Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

“The DNA evidence is a fraud,” he told reporters. Moreover, he insisted that Stephanie wasn’t as in love with John as they made her be. “Was Stephanie obsessed with him? Absolutely not,” he argued. “Infatuated? Yes. Obsessed? No.”

The Prosecutor’s Star Witness – John Ruetten

Prosecutors claimed that Stephanie’s notebook clearly showed that she was growing progressively more upset about Sherri and John’s relationship. To back up their theory, they called their star witness, John Ruetten, to testify.

John Rutten gives his victim impact statement during the trial.
Photo by Gary Friedman/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

For the first time in 25 years, John agreed to speak publicly about the case. He said that Stephanie was so upset that she cried and begged him not to get married. He said that he had never seen her so upset before.

Indication of a Prolonged Struggle

An autopsy of Sherri’s body indicated that there had been a prolonged struggle before the first gunshot was fired. There were signs that her wrists had been bound. And as for the bite mark, there was allegedly an effort to try and wrestle for control of the gun.

A photo of Stephanie Lazarus.
Source: Reddit

At some point, the suspect (Stephanie) bit Sherri on her left inner forearm. Eventually, she got the upper hand. She shot her twice and then delivered the last fatal shot.

According to the prosecutors, it all came down to this – the DNA in that bite mark matched Stephanie’s.

The Defense Tried to Fight Back

Stephanie’s attorney tried to paint a picture of his client as a well-respected officer who wasn’t at all obsessed with John. He then attacked the DNA evidence, claiming that it was completely unreliable because of the way it was handled since it was first taken over 20 years ago.

Stephanie Lazarus' attorney tried to comfort her while sitting in court.
Photo by Brian van der Brug/Los Angeles Times/Getty Images

But the prosecutors weren’t worried. They had an additional, circumstantial case against Stephanie. As it turns out, two weeks after the murder, Stephanie reported a gun stolen from the Santa Monica police. Coincidence? We don’t think so.

The Verdict

After more than a month of going back and forth with over 60 witnesses, the jury took a little more than a day to reach their verdict. “We, the jury, find the defendant guilty of the crime of Sherri’s murder,” they announced.

Stephanie Lazarus looks frustrated while sitting in court.
Photo by Mark Boster-Pool/Getty Images

Stephanie Lazarus was sentenced to 27 years to life. While Sherri’s family was happy to see that justice was finally served, they were still hurting “a pain for which there is no cure,” said her mom.

John Asked for Forgiveness

John spoke in court and opened up to Sherri’s family about the women he loved: “Sherri had an impact on so many people. I’m proud she agreed to be my wife. My heart still races when I look at pictures of her.”

A photo of Sherri.
Source: CBS News

He stunned the people in court by apologizing to her family: “They have treated me like a son and a brother, and the fact that her death occurred because she met and married me, brings me to my knees.”

Stephanie Lazarus Today

As of today, Stephanie is still in the Institution of California for Women in Corona and will be eligible for parole in 2034. Her multiple appeals have been denied, as all the evidence in this case points towards her.

Stephanie Lazarus stands in court.
Photo by Mark Boster-Pool/Getty Images

Sadly, I believe Sherri’s Rasmussen’s death could have been prevented. If only she would have felt comfortable enough to approach the police after she was stalked for weeks on end. If only John would have stuck up for his wife and put his crazy ex in her place… things might have turned out quite differently.