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Rasmussen shortly before her 1985 wedding
|Date||February 24, 1986|
|Location||Van Nuys, California, USA|
|Litigation||Rasmussen v. City of Los Angeles, Francis v. City of Los Angeles|
Rasmussen shortly before her 1985 wedding
|Date||February 24, 1986|
|Location||Van Nuys, California, USA|
|Litigation||Rasmussen v. City of Los Angeles, Francis v. City of Los Angeles|
Sherri Rasmussen (February 7, 1957 – February 24, 1986) was found dead in the apartment she shared with her new husband John Ruetten in Van Nuys, California, United States. She had been beaten and shot three times following a struggle. The Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) initially considered the case to have been a botched burglary. It remained unsolved for over 20 years despite her father's persistent belief that Stephanie Lazarus, an officer who had dated Ruetten prior to his marriage and stalked Rasmussen since the engagement, was a stronger suspect than police had originally believed.
Detectives who re-examined the cold case files in 2009 were eventually led to Lazarus, by then herself a detective. A DNA sample Lazarus unknowingly discarded was matched to one from a bite on Rasmussen's body that had remained in the files. She was convicted of the crime in 2012.
Lazarus is serving a sentence of 27 years to life for first-degree murder at the Central California Women's Facility in Chowchilla. She is appealing the conviction, claiming that the age of the case and the evidence denied her due process. She also alleges that the search warrant was improperly granted, her statements in an interview prior to her arrest were compelled, and that evidence supporting the original case theory should have been admitted at trial.
Some of the police files suggest that evidence which could have pointed to her earlier in the investigation was later removed, perhaps by others in the department. Rasmussen's parents unsuccessfully sued the LAPD over this and other aspects of the investigation. Jennifer Francis, the criminalist who found that the DNA from the bite mark was from a female has also sued the city, claiming she was pressured by police to favor certain suspects in this and other high-profile cases and was retaliated against when she brought this to the department's attention.
While an undergraduate at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) from 1978 to 1982, John Ruetten, a mechanical engineering major from San Diego, occasionally dated a fellow Dykstra Hall resident named Stephanie Lazarus, a political science major from Simi Valley. Both were avid athletes; Lazarus played on the school's junior varsity women's basketball team. She would steal his clothes when he showered and take naked photographs of him while he slept. The relationship, which while the two frequently had sex Ruetten never considered more serious than "necking and fooling around," continued intermittently after he graduated. He took a position with hard-drive manufacturer Micropolis; she applied to the city's police academy and became a uniformed officer with the LAPD in 1983.
Ruetten later met Sherri Rasmussen, a graduate of Loma Linda University who was on a fast career track in critical care nursing. She had entered college at 16, and by her late 20s was the director of nursing at Glendale Adventist Medical Center, giving presentations and teaching classes for fellow nurses. Ruetten proposed to her at the beginning of 1985, and they were married near the end of the year.
Despite the seriousness of Ruetten's new relationship, Lazarus continued to make her presence felt. She had thrown Ruetten a surprise party for his 25th birthday, unaware of Rasmussen's existence or that he had even been dating other women. When she found out, she was despondent. "I'm truly in love with John and the past year has really torn me up," she wrote Ruetten's mother in August 1985. "I wish it didn't end the way it did, and I don't think I'll ever understand his decision." In her own journal she wrote "I really don't feel like working. I found out that John is getting married." She visited him at his condo, depressed, and the two had sex—"to give her closure", Ruetten testified years later—for what Ruetten says was the only time before Rasmussen's death. Later she woke up a fellow officer she was rooming with to commiserate.
She came over to Ruetten's apartment at one point during their engagement to leave some waterskis for waxing. Rasmussen, by then living there, felt this was a little strange, since Lazarus was dressed in flattering workout clothes, and asked her fiancé after Lazarus left if their relationship was truly over. Ruetten convinced her the two were just friends and would remain so, even after Lazarus returned, in uniform and armed, when Ruetten was absent, to pick the skis up.
According to Nels Rasmussen, Sherri's father, Lazarus later visited Rasmussen at her office, again in uniform and armed. She allegedly claimed that things were not over between her and Ruetten and told Rasmussen "If I can't have John, no one else will." Shortly before her death, Sherri again confided to her father her fear that Lazarus was stalking her on the street.
On the morning of February 24, 1986, Ruetten left the couple's condominium on Balboa Boulevard in Van Nuys before Sherri. She was scheduled to give a motivational speech at work that day, a managerial tactic she did not feel was effective. To avoid it, she told him, she might use a back injury she had incurred while doing aerobics the day before as an excuse to call in sick.
When he returned in the evening, he found his garage door open, broken glass on the driveway and the BMW he had bought Sherri as an engagement gift missing. Because of her morning plans, he found it strange that she would have later gone out without letting him know. He had not been able to reach her all day, and the house's answering machine had not been turned on as both of them usually did when leaving it unoccupied.
Inside he found her dead on the living room floor, shot three times. There were signs of a struggle, such as a porcelain vase that had apparently been broken over her head prior to the shooting, a bloody handprint next to the burglar alarm's panic button, and a toppled credenza. One of the shots had also been fired through a quilt, apparently to muffle the sound. The investigating criminalist also saw a bite mark on Rasmussen's arm, and took a swab from it.
Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) detectives investigating the case quickly concluded that it had been a botched burglary. Rasmussen's attire, a bathrobe, nightgown and panties, suggested she was not expecting visitors. The housekeeper in a neighboring unit reported hearing screaming and fighting at one point during the day, but no gunshots. She had thought the whole event was a domestic dispute and had not called police. Electronic equipment appeared to have been in the process of being taken when Rasmussen had come upon the thief or thieves, and as a result jewelry had been left behind and the vehicle taken as a getaway. It was recovered a week later, abandoned, and yielded no new evidence. The only other thing that appeared to have been taken from the apartment was the couple's marriage license.
Lyle Mayer, the lead detective, did consider other possibilities. He soon ruled out the grieving Ruetten, who very shortly after the crime quit his job and moved not only out of the condo but the Los Angeles area, as a suspect. Nels Rasmussen and his wife Loretta told him about Lazarus's harassment, although Mayer claims otherwise. But the police remained focused on the burglary, especially in light of one reported later in the same area in which one of the two reported suspects had been carrying a gun, possibly a .38-caliber like the one that had fired the three bullets into Rasmussen.
Mayer's partner, Steve Hooks, found the bite mark unusual. Bites during struggles are more commonly inflicted by women, while most burglars are men. But men have bitten opponents during fights as well, so the burglary theory stood.
The suspected burglars that detectives ascribed the crime to remained at large, despite a followup newspaper story eight months later and a reward offered by the family. The LAPD, preoccupied with the violence resulting from gang wars and the crack epidemic that plagued the city at the time, was unable to devote much more attention to the case. Detectives at the Van Nuys office were, the Rasmussens say, often unhelpful when they called, hanging up or putting them on hold. A year after the burglary the frustrated Rasmussens reiterated their offer at a press conference and called for more action. Nels Rasmussen wrote to Darryl Gates, then chief of the LAPD, about the possibility that Lazarus might have been involved. Detectives told him he "watch[ed] too much television." He continued to publicize the reward, and later worked with the short-lived television series Murder One on a segment inspired by the case.
Nels in particular was unconvinced that it had been a botched burglary. His late daughter had been six feet (180 cm) tall, larger than some men and many women, and in good physical shape. It would have been a struggle for anyone trying to subdue her in close quarters, and Mayer had told him at one point that it might have lasted an hour and a half, a long time to take for burglars primarily after items of value in the condo. Further, whoever shot his daughter had fired directly into her chest at close range and taken the trouble to muffle the shot with the quilt, suggesting that the killing was deliberate and not the accidental byproduct of a struggle.
Mayer eventually retired, and the new detective assigned the case told Nels Rasmussen he was unable to follow up on Mayer's notes and did not think that any new leads would emerge. Rasmussen was rebuffed again in 1993, when he offered to pay for DNA testing on the evidence from the murder, now that the technology was available; he was told that the police had to have a suspect in order to proceed with testing. Lazarus briefly reunited with Ruetten in 1989; Mayer's notes show that Ruetten had called him to ask if he still considered her a suspect.
In the meantime, Lazarus continued working with the Los Angeles Police Department; she went on to start her own private investigation firm, Unique Investigations. In 1987 she earned medals, including one gold, at the World Police and Fire Games in San Diego. In 1993, after stints at the department's D.A.R.E. and internal affairs divisions, she made detective. Three years later she married a fellow officer and adopted a daughter with him, moving back to Simi Valley; at work she became an instructor at the police academy. Ruetten eventually remarried as well; he moved on with his life and did not pressure the police as his former father-in-law had.
In the late 1990s, after the use of DNA evidence had become widespread, the LAPD formed a new unit that looked through the forensic evidence collected from the department's cold cases to see if any had the potential for new leads that could be developed through that method. Among the evidence seen as likely to do so was that collected from the Rasmussens' residence. However, it was not until 2004 that another criminalist, Jennifer Butterworth, was able to analyze it.
Some of it, including evidence that might have had the suspect's DNA, was missing, having been collected in 1993 by another detective. What Butterworth did find and test was likely to contain only Rasmussen's DNA, and did. However, the property sheet listed the bite swab, which was located in the back of a freezer at the coroner's office a week later.
Butterworth did not find any matches in the CODIS DNA database, but did find that the saliva in it had come from a female, undermining the initial detectives' burglary theory. Several years later she claimed that, unusually, she had access to not just the sample but the entire case file, which had been given to her to help her decide which other samples to analyze. Upon discovering that the biter (and likely perpetrator) was female, she reviewed it and came across a report of a "third-party female" having allegedly harassed the victim at her job and residence before the murder.
She asked the detective supervising her if this woman had been investigated. "Oh, you mean the LAPD detective," he supposedly responded. He elaborated that the woman, a former boyfriend of the victim's husband, was in fact a current LAPD detective but "she's not a part of this." He insisted that the case was simply a burglary as the department had long concluded. No other detective would pursue the case, and the evidence went back into the files.
By 2009, crime in Los Angeles had declined enough from its earlier levels that detectives began looking into cold cases to increase their clearance rates. In Van Nuys, Jim Nuttall and Pete Barba looked at the Rasmussen file and found it interesting enough to be worth pursuing. Because the DNA test pointed to a female suspect, they knew the burglary theory was invalidated and they would have to start from the beginning.
They looked at the case as a murder, with the burglary staged to throw the police off the trail. Many aspects of the crime were improbable for a break-in, especially one committed in daylight: Rasmussen's jewelry box, an inviting target for a burglar, was in plain view atop her dresser and had not been touched. The condo was in the middle of a gated complex, surrounded by other units from which burglars could have expected to be easily observed. The front door had an alarm warning, and had not been forced open, as it might have been if the putative burglars had not expected anyone to be at home.
Inside, a key aspect of the crime scene did not make sense as the act of burglars, either. At the top of the stairs was a stack of stereo equipment atop a VCR. If, as the evidence suggested, the struggle between Rasmussen and her attacker had begun upstairs and then continued downstairs, that stack would likely have been knocked downstairs and scattered as well. It made more sense to assume that it had been stacked afterwards, when an actual burglar would have fled the scene.
The forensics reinforced this theory. On a record player atop the stack was a thumb-shaped bloodstain. It had no print, suggesting whoever left it was wearing gloves to avoid leaving identification. But the blood was Rasmussen's, suggesting the equipment had been stacked after the struggle and shooting. They had been left behind, the detectives realized, to make the crime look like something other than what it really was.
From the four bound volumes of the case file they developed a list of five women who might be suspects. Nuttall was taken aback when Ruetten told him over the phone that Lazarus was a police officer. By then Lazarus had been promoted to a higher level of detective, and was working art theft cases as part of the elite Robbery-Homicide Division (RHD).
As one of the two detectives in the nation's only full-time unit devoted to that specialty, she had gained some local media attention when she and her partner had recovered a statue stolen from Carthay Circle. To better understand the field, she told a local newspaper, she had begun learning to paint herself. Off the job, she had been active in the Los Angeles Women Police Officers Association and organized childcare for families of officers. She also made chocolate-covered cherries and homemade soaps for her neighbors in Simi Valley for Christmas.
Since she was still with the department, they realized they would have to proceed carefully. Still, they ranked Lazarus as the least promising of the five suspects, since from what they read in the files Lazarus and Ruetten had ended any relationship they had had over the summer before the murder.
Their investigations soon eliminated all but one of the other women. The other, a former coworker of Rasmussen's who had had some disputes with her, was eliminated by a covertly-collected DNA sample. With only Lazarus left, they kept their investigation a closely guarded secret. Not only did her husband work in the nearby Commercial Crimes Division as a detective, she may have had other friends who could have tipped her off. If she was the killer she could have improved her defense; if she was not then they could have unintentionally smeared a fellow officer who had had an unblemished service record over the course of her career, with no disciplinary investigations or civilian complaints. They only referred to her as "No. 5", worked on the case after hours or behind closed doors, and developed cover stories to explain why they wanted to look at personnel records for one particular officer from 20 years ago.
They began looking into other aspects of her life during the mid-1980s. Another detective recalled that at that time, most LAPD officers had preferred a .38 as their backup or off-duty carry gun. State records showed that Lazarus had indeed owned one at the time—and reported it stolen to Santa Monica police 13 days after the murder. Since the location where she had reported it stolen from was near a popular pier, they assumed she had thrown the gun into the Pacific Ocean. Without that gun, possibly the murder weapon, DNA would be the only definitive way to connect the crime to Lazarus.
Nuttall and Barba theorized from their own experience about how an LAPD officer would commit a murder. It would be better to do it on a day off, and departmental records showed that Lazarus had indeed been off the day Sherri Rasmussen was killed. An officer would know better than to use their duty gun, since it would have to be disposed of after the crime and the penalties for losing a duty gun or letting it be stolen were severe. Instead it made sense to use a backup gun like Lazarus's .38. Lastly a working patrol officer would know how to do just enough to make the crime scene look like an interrupted burglary to satisfy an overworked detective.
Nels Rasmussen told Nuttall about Lazarus's continued contact with his daughter, which had not been in the files although he had mentioned it frequently during Mayer and Hook's interviews. Realizing that Lazarus was now their prime suspect, the detectives informed their superiors of this and arranged to discreetly collect a voluntarily discarded DNA sample from her, knowing they would have to do so without getting a warrant, which would have let her know she was under investigation for the murder. They were able to retrieve a cup she had been drinking from and thrown out while running errands off-duty. A sample was taken from it, and it matched the DNA from the bite mark on Sherri Rasmussen.
Rob Bub, the chief detective at Van Nuys, began letting his senior officers, all the way up to Chief William Bratton, know of the case along with senior prosecutors from the Los Angeles County District Attorney's office. It was transferred to RHD, which handled many of the department's high-profile cases—including the art theft bureau where Lazarus herself worked. Her arrest was planned carefully. On the day of the arrest dozens of officers arose before dawn. After being briefed on a search warrant they were told would be executed outside the city, but with few details beyond that, they went to wait near Lazarus's home in Simi Valley and that city's Metrolink station, where Lazarus commuted to the city.
A short time later detectives from the RHD who had been selected for their lack of personal connection to Lazarus called her one morning from the lockup at Parker Center, the department's headquarters. Bratton had ordered that location be used since Lazarus would have to surrender her gun in order to enter it, limiting the possibility she might resist violently when she was arrested (as was the plan immediately following the interview) or realized that she was the prime suspect. The detectives, Greg Stearns and Dan Jaramillo, told her they had someone in custody who wanted to talk about an art theft.
After Lazarus had checked her gun and come to the interrogation room, they explained that this was really about some loose ends they were trying to tie up in the Rasmussen case, since her name had come up in the investigation. They claimed they wanted the private setting because while Ruetten was an old boyfriend, she was long married to someone else and did not want her private life to become the subject of office gossip. Stearns and Jaramillo knew they would have to tread carefully since Lazarus herself was well aware of police interview techniques and her rights to silence and legal counsel, which she could invoke at any time. They rambled and digressed from the subject at times, sometimes discussing unrelated police business, but eventually came back to Rasmussen. Lazarus claimed to recall little due to the intervening years, but gradually revealed more and more knowledge—including oblique acknowledgements of her visits to the Ruetten condo—until she accused her colleagues of considering her a suspect, whereupon they allowed that there was DNA evidence connecting her to the crime scene and she was free to go. She left the room and was immediately arrested and charged with the murder. Once she had been arrested, the teams in Simi Valley began searching her home and car.
As the investigating detectives had been, many other LAPD officers were stunned at the idea she might have murdered someone. Fellow detectives recalled her as vivacious and supportive (although some also recalled that her behavior when angry had led some to refer to her as "Spazarus" behind her back). A case she had been developing from her art-theft work, with elder abuse and real estate fraud aspects, had to be dropped since it was highly unlikely that it could be prosecuted successfully if the lead investigator was herself under arrest for murder.
After her arrest she was allowed to retire early from the LAPD; she was held in the Los Angeles County Jail. A bail hearing was not held for almost six months. Judge Robert J. Perry surprised both sides when he set the amount at $10 million in cash; well above what the defense had suggested and more than twice what prosecutors had proposed. The case against her was very strong, he said, and thus she might well be at risk to flee the country or obtain weapons through her husband. Lazarus's lawyer, Mark Overland, said the judge did not understand the case well and contrasted the high figure with the $1 million set for Robert Blake and Phil Spector when they were charged with murder. Several months later, her brother claimed she was not receiving adequate treatment for an unspecified cancer while in custody, either.
In October, Overland moved to have the entire case dismissed on the grounds that the initial investigators should have identified Lazarus as a suspect but failed to do so. In support, he cited missing aspects of the original file such as recordings of interviews, Sherri Rasmussen's blood toxicology report, as well as a polygraph test Ruetten allegedly failed. The motion noted Nels Rasmussen's belief that Lazarus was a suspect at the time of the murder, and his ensuing efforts to get the LAPD to take that theory seriously. Because of this failure, he argued, Lazarus's due process rights had been adversely affected since the quality of evidence had degraded in the intervening 23 years.
Overland argued that the truth-in-evidence provisions of the California Constitution required that a long delay in bringing charges which adversely affected the quality of the evidence which might otherwise have allowed him to make a better case that there were other suspects, or that the evidence against Lazarus was not as solid as the prosecution claimed, be considered sufficiently negligent enough on the state's part to justify dismissing the case. For example, a witness who could have corroborated the prosecution's account of the confrontation between Rasmussen and Lazarus at the hospital had died in 2000. Prosecutors argued in response that Perry was required to apply federal standards, under which such a delay could only be considered prejudicial if it was shown to have been intentional. Perry agreed, and let the case proceed.
Following that denial, Overland moved to quash the search warrants that had been executed on Lazarus's home, vehicle and spaces she utilized at work, and suppress the evidence obtained from them. They were, he argued, based on stale information and did not sufficiently establish a nexus between the places searched and the likelihood of finding evidence there—Lazarus had not moved to her present residence, he observed, until 1994, eight years after the murder, and the affidavit in support of the warrant did not provide any reason why evidence might be found there. At times the affidavit was even deceptive, Overland claimed, with the submitting detective asserting that the murder weapon might be found there, when Nuttall and Barba had already theorized that Lazarus had reported it stolen two weeks after the murder and irretrievably disposed of it.
While Perry admitted he was "uncomfortable" admitting some of the seized evidence, in particular from Lazarus's personal computers and other electronic storage devices at her home, since either she had not had them at the time of Rasmussen's death or they had not existed. But, he felt that since an experienced judge had issued the search warrants, the good-faith exception to the exclusionary rule applied and all the evidence obtained could be admitted. Overland's subsequent motion for a Franks hearing, which would have allowed them to cross-examine the detective who had filed the search-warrant affidavit to better determine whether the evidence obtained was admissible was also denied on the same basis.
Overland's next motion, heard late in 2010, sought to bar the use of statements Lazarus made during her videotaped interrogation at Parker Center. He argued that, per the Garrity warning, California law compelled her to answer questions as a police officer or face disciplinary action for refusing to cooperate with an investigation, entitling her to automatic use immunity for those answers. The prosecution argued that that only applied where there was an active administrative proceeding, which wasn't started against Lazarus until after her arrest. Perry agreed with them that Overland's argument was overbroad.
A year later, Perry denied the last of Overland's significant pretrial motions. The criminalists had used a new product to type Lazarus's DNA; he argued it was sufficiently different from previous technology that she was entitled to a Kelly–Frye hearing to determine whether its results were of sufficient scientific validity to be admissible. Perry ruled that it was just another form of the PCR method commonly used to test DNA samples.
The case attracted considerable media attention. Many of its elements—a love triangle with a woman scorned, a cold case unsolved for over 20 years and the killer turning out to be a police officer herself—were similar to the plots of popular televised police dramas and reality shows like Snapped, Scorned: Love Kills and Deadly Women. The Atlantic ran a feature story about the case before the trial began; Vanity Fair ran one by Mark Bowden afterwards.
The trial began in early 2012. In Los Angeles County Superior Court, prosecutors argued Lazarus' motive for the murder was jealousy over Sherri Rasmussen's relationship with Ruetten. In his opening argument prosecutor Shannon Presby summed up the case as, "A bite, a bullet, a gun barrel and a broken heart. That's the evidence that will prove to you that defendant Stephanie Lazarus murdered Sherri Rasmussen." A highlight of the case was Ruetten's testimony. Several times he became emotional and wept, particularly when recalling his courtship of Rasmussen. He allowed that having sex with Lazarus while he was engaged to his future wife was "a mistake."
In cross-examining the police detectives and other technicians who had originally investigated the killing, Overland stressed the original botched-burglary theory and pointed to evidence, such as the similar burglary shortly thereafter, that he claimed supported it. He also highlighted evidence that was not analyzed, such as a bloody fingerprint on one of the walls, to suggest that other suspects had not been adequately excluded from consideration. He questioned whether it could be truly inferred from the weapon used that it was Lazarus's lost gun, since .38s were in wide use. Since the DNA from the bite mark was central to the prosecution's case, he attacked it vigorously, pointing to improper storage procedures and a hole the tube had left in an envelope that he said would have allowed Lazarus's DNA to be added to it long after it had been collected.
During the two days in which he presented his case-in-chief, Overland focused on the prosecution's theme of a lovelorn Lazarus, presenting friends of hers who denied that, at the time of the murder, she was showing any signs of violence or despondence over her failed relationship with Ruetten. Excerpts from a contemporaneous journal were offered as evidence; Lazarus wrote of dating several different men, none of them Ruetten. He reinforced his attack on the forensic evidence, calling as his last witness a fingerprint expert who said prints at the crime scene did not match Lazarus's.
Both prosecution and defense reiterated their themes in closing arguments. After showing the jury of eight women and four men photographs of a beaten, bloodied Rasmussen, prosecutor Paul Nunez told them "it wasn't a fair fight ... This was prey caught in a cage with a predator." Overland dismissed the entire case as circumstantial "fluff and fill", save for the "compromised" bite-mark DNA sample. He moved for a mistrial after Nunez reminded the jurors that no alibi had been provided for the time of the murder, since defendants' refusal to testify cannot be held against them, but Perry denied it, saying he did not take that as directly suggesting Lazarus herself had refused to testify and thus her Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination had not been violated.
In March, after several days of deliberations, Lazarus (then 52) was convicted of first-degree murder. Later that month, she was sentenced to 27 years to life in prison, and she is currently serving her sentence at the Central California Women's Facility. She will be eligible for parole in 2039.
As evidence was introduced at the trial, it became apparent that not all the evidence available and in possession of the LAPD had been found. Recordings and transcripts of interviews with both Nels Rasmussen and Ruetten that discussed Lazarus were absent from the file, although both remembered them when called to testify, and other aspects of the missing interviews are alluded to in interviews in the file. The only mention of Lazarus during the initial investigation is a brief note of Mayer's in which he reports that Ruetten had confirmed that she was a "former girlfriend."
Two lawsuits have been filed based on these allegations. One, by Nels and Loretta Rasmussen, has been dismissed as time-barred. The other, a whistleblower suit by criminalist Jennifer Francis (Butterworth at the time she tested what turned out to be Lazarus's DNA on the bite mark), is pending. It alleges misconduct in not only the Rasmussen case but other high-profile investigations, and that she and others suffered retaliation and harassment from superiors when they tried to report this and accurately report the results they had found.
Records also showed that, in 1992, shortly after Nels Rasmussen had offered to pay for DNA analysis on the remaining forensic evidence from the case, all samples other than the bite swab that might have helped to identify an attacker had been checked out of the coroner's office by a detective named Phil Morrill. While this appeared to have been part of the routine transfer of records to the LAPD, the evidence could not be located in department files, and only the bite swab, inadvertently left behind at the coroner's office, remained to connect Lazarus to the crime.
In 2010, the Rasmussens filed a civil lawsuit against the city, the LAPD, Ruetten (named only as an indispensable party without any specific claims), Lazarus and 100 Does. They alleged that the coverup, which they purported extended to allowing Lazarus to periodically review the case file, and the LAPD's hostility to them, starting on the night after the murder and continuing when they pressed the Lazarus claim throughout the 1990s amounted to a violation of their civil rights, intentional infliction of emotional distress and fraudulent concealment. Lazarus and the Does they further alleged wrongful death against.
Since the civil-rights claim included a violation of Section 1983, the city successfully petitioned for removal to federal court. After the Rasmussens stipulated to dropping the federal claim with prejudice, they were allowed to refile an amended claim in state court, which they did at the beginning of 2011. In state court, the city was found to be immune from liability for all of the claims except the civil rights violation. When the Rasmussens filed an amended complaint restricting it to just the civil rights claim, the judge dismissed it in August because he believed that their stipulation in federal court earlier barred them from doing so.
The Rasmussens appealed. In its response, the city raised the statute of limitations as a defense, something it had not done when the suit was originally filed. The appellate court upheld the suit's dismissal on those grounds, holding that the Rasmussens' time to sue was limited once they broke off contact with the LAPD in 1998; the last year they could thus have filed suit was 2000. The California Supreme Court refused to hear the case in March 2013.
Francis filed her suit late in 2013, following the rejection of her claim by the city and a finding by the state's Department of Fair Employment and Housing that she had a right to sue. She alleges that the Rasmussen case, where after finding that the DNA from the bite belonged to a woman the LAPD detective supervising her verbally steered her away from Lazarus as a suspect, without naming her. When Nuttall called her and told her the Van Nuys detectives were working the cold case and had identified Lazarus as a suspect, she did not share what her supervisor had told her for fear of retaliation.
According to Francis, the Rasmussen case was not the only one in which she believed DNA evidence was being purposefully ignored by the department. She was told "we're not going there" in one case where she suggested comparing a partial profile from one victim with that of a suspect in a string of similar unsolved murders, also from the 1980s. Work she did on the DNA found on Jill Barcomb, believed to have been killed by the Hillside Strangler revealed instead that she was a victim of Rodney Alcala, another serial killer active around the same time in the Los Angeles area; he was ultimately convicted and sentenced to death in 2010. After she suggested doing DNA analyses of semen found on two teenage girls also believed to be victims of the Hillside Strangler, another detective discouraged her with the words "we don't want to open that can of worms." A short time later she learned the semen samples had been destroyed; she could not find out why.
At the end of 2009, while prosecutors were preparing for the preliminary hearing in the Lazarus trial, she met with an assistant D.A. and told her about the resistance she had initially encountered over the possibility of Lazarus as a suspect in the Rasmussen murder. Several months later she was called into her supervisor's office and asked to relate those events. A month later she told Detective Nuttall, who had spearheaded the reinvestigation that led to Lazarus's arrest, as well.
The next month she was called into her supervisor's supervisor's office, and told to go to an employee counseling service, an act she knew to be punitive, "because you look stressed." The therapist who spoke with her seemed to Francis more interested in finding out what she knew about the Lazarus case and who she might have shared it with. After two sessions in which she declined to share that information, she was again called into her supervisor's office and told she was not cooperating and needed to "talk this out." She told the therapist she was getting a lawyer, after which further sessions were canceled as a "mistake."
Two detectives from RHD interrogated her the next month, July 2010. She told them she was concerned that events leading to Lazarus's arrest in which she was involved had been portrayed differently in the media than she recalled them, putting the department in a more favorable light. Nuttall as well, she recalled, had been placed in an equally difficult position, since he told her that Lazarus may have learned that they had reopened the investigation despite the precautions he and Barba had taken.
In the wake of these events, Francis claims, she was taken off the upcoming Grim Sleeper case despite the work she had done on it, including the DNA sample that had led the police to their suspect. The same detective who had insisted Lazarus was not involved in the Rasmussen killing, she noted, had played a major role in investigating the Sleeper. In another meeting, her supervisor threatened her with more counseling and told her she was "obsessed ... emotional" and "shouldn't have said anything." She was transferred to a non-analytical position.
The retaliation continued after Lazarus was convicted, Francis claimed. She faced more retaliatory action from her supervisors, whom she also accused of sexually harassing other female criminalists, and was again transferred. A report from the department's Inspector General on her complaint to Internal Affairs was delayed and appeared to have been reviewed by someone else prior to her receipt of it.
Lazarus filed a lengthy appeal of her conviction in May 2013 with the California Court of Appeal, Second District, Division Four, which has appellate jurisdiction over Los Angeles County's courts. Her attorney, Donald Tickle of Volcano, argued that Perry had erred in his rulings for the prosecution on all four pretrial motions Overland had filed. Tickle argued that multiple precedents supported the defense arguments over the prosecution's, and sometimes directly contradicted them. For example, he applied the good-faith exception to the detectives' reliance on an admittedly defective search warrant based on the fact that the judge had issued the warrant after reviewing the affidavit. An existing California case, however, had expressly held that the state cannot rely purely on the warrant's issuance by a judge to establish sufficient good faith that the search was constitutional.
Tickle also attacked Perry's rulings limiting the defense's ability to put on evidence suggesting the initial botched-burglary theory of the crime was more credible than the prosecution claimed, The prosecution had not moved to exclude third-party culpability evidence despite claiming the initial investigation's conclusion was erroneous during its opening statement, which led Perry to ask if they were conceding that it was. Nevertheless, he told Overland that without "some remarkable similarities" between the burglary that killed Rasmussen and the later one nearby he would not allow the defense to explore the later burglary, since there were also important dissimilarities.
Perry, Tickle said, had misread the primary California case Overland had relied on as not applying to evidence of third-party culpability, while other cases made clear the statute it interpreted did indeed cover that. That case also imposed a lower standard of admission than "remarkable similarities." The use of a .38 caliber weapon and a similar residence in both burglaries established a strong possibility of a common modus operandi for both crimes, Tickle said.
As a result of this ruling, Overland had been denied the opportunity to cross-examine Mark Safarik, the last prosecution witness, an FBI expert on burglaries, had testified that the crime scene suggested a staged burglary, as opposed to a real one that had been interrupted in progress. Since the prosecution had told the court at a sidebar prior to Safarik's testimony that they intended to limit their questioning to supporting this theory, Perry similarly limited the defense on cross. However, Tickle argued, since Safarik's own report had considered the other burglary, testimony about that should have been allowed..