LOS ANGELES - Jealousy drove a former Los Angeles police detective to gun down her ex-boyfriend's wife in 1986, a prosecutor told jurors today, saying the defendant's "grief" as a scorned woman and skills as a police officer provided the "perfect cocktail" for murder.
"The motive in this case was jealousy -- jealousy toward Sherri," Deputy District Attorney Paul Nunez told jurors during his closing argument in the trial of Stephanie Lazarus, who is charged with the Feb. 24, 1986, shooting death of hospital nursing administrator Sherri Rasmussen.
Rasmussen, 29, had months earlier married Lazarus' one-time boyfriend, John Ruetten.
Nunez called jealousy "one of the deepest, darkest human feelings."
"Who else would want to kill this woman?" Nunez asked. "There is no evidence that anyone else had a motive to kill Sherri Rasmussen. The defendant did."
When Lazarus heard of Ruetten's engagement, the prosecutor said, it destroyed her long-held "dream" of marrying him herself.
"The ring on Sherri's finger was supposed to be hers," he said. "It was ripped from her."
But in his closing argument, defense lawyer Mark Overland disputed the prosecutor's characterization of Lazarus as a "John Ruetten-obsessed individual" and called the DNA evidence allegedly linking her to the murder unreliable.
Lazarus, 51, was arrested in June 2009 after cold-case investigators matched her DNA profile to a bite mark found on Rasmussen's arm.
"That item of evidence ... cannot be trusted or relied upon because its integrity has been compromised," Overland argued.
He called the rest of the prosecution's case "fluff and filler that proves nothing."
Ruetten found Rasmussen shot and beaten to death on the floor of their Van Nuys condominium. According to Nunez, Lazarus, using her expertise as a detective, staged the crime scene to make it look like a burglary.
"Twenty-six years ago, the defendant thought she had gotten away with it, thought she had committed the perfect murder," he said in asking the jury to convict Lazarus of first-degree murder.
Nunez told jurors that Rasmussen was lying "helpless" on the living room floor when Lazarus shot her twice in the chest through a blanket. Then, he said, crouching down and pointing to the courtroom floor, "Jealousy needed to be served in this case, so she put the gun to the chest of Sherri and she fired a third time."
Much of the evidence in the trial involved a test tube containing two swabs taken from the bite mark on Rasmussen's arm. The defense has made much of the fact that when the test tube was retrieved for DNA testing in 2005, the envelope containing it was found to be torn.
But Nunez emphasized that the contents of the test tube were still "intact" and there was no evidence of tampering.
"The tear occurred because (the envelope was) 19 years inside a freezer up against other items of evidence," he said. "There is no evidence that somebody stole the defendant's DNA, snuck into the coroner's office ... found the right freezer" and put it in the test tube.
According to the DNA test results, the statistical probability of the DNA belonging to someone other than Lazarus is one in 1.7 sextillion.
"You would need the population in 240 billion Earths to find the frequency of that DNA profile again," Nunez said.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is proof beyond a reasonable doubt, this is overwhelming evidence of the defendant's guilt," he concluded.
Lazarus, an art theft investigator, retired from the Los Angeles Police Department following her arrest on June 5, 2009, by LAPD Robbery-Homicide Division detectives at the department's downtown headquarters. She has remained jailed since then, with her bail set at $10 million.
Lazarus had previously been in a sexual relationship with Ruetten, whom she had met in college, but Ruetten testified during the trial that he never considered her his girlfriend and continued to date other women while he was seeing her.
But Ruetten said Lazarus saw things differently. He said that after Lazarus found out in June 1985 he was engaged, she called, "very upset and crying ... full-on crying," and begged him to come to her condo, he testified.
"She wanted me to come over and see her so we could talk," Ruetten said. "She was basically trying to tell me she had deeper feelings for me. She was in love with me."
Before that evening, Ruetten testified, he hadn't spoken to the defendant in months.
Ruetten and Rasmussen were married Nov. 23, 1985. Three months later, the Glendale Adventist Medical Center nursing supervisor was shot three times in the chest at the couple's Balboa Boulevard townhouse.
Although Rasmussen's father insisted that police investigate Lazarus -- who had been an officer for two years at the time of the murder -- the case went cold until 2004, when the coroner was asked to retest DNA from a bite mark on the victim, and when the test was finally conducted, it was determined the DNA belonged to a female.