LOS ANGELES (AP) — A trial opening this week has the dramatic elements of a TV crime show — a bloody murder scene, two pretty women and a love triangle that could have precipitated the killing.
But other factors have made this case even more compelling. The defendant was a highly respected veteran police detective and the evidence that led to her arrest is 26 years old.
The case of Stephanie Lazarus has already inspired multiple TV reality shows. On Monday, attorneys will present their opening statements outlining the evidence.
Without the science of DNA, developed in intervening years, Lazarus, 51, probably would never have been charged with the murder of Sherri Rasmussen and would still be working at the Los Angeles Police Department.
It is the classic cold case which gathered dust in a police evidence room for decades until a new review suddenly raised suspicions among detectives who wondered if one of their own could be involved.
Lazarus had been mentioned in the original file because she had been the ex-girlfriend of Rasmussen's husband, John Ruetten. He discovered his wife dead, shot and bludgeoned presumably by an unknown intruder.
The murder scene had blood spattered walls, overturned furniture and Rasmussen's body bludgeoned and shot through with three bullets. She was 29-years-old, a nursing director at a hospital and a newlywed. She and Ruetten married a few months before she was killed.
Investigators on the case noted there had been a series of robberies in the neighborhood and chalked it up to a killing during a burglary. There was one piece of physical evidence that intrigued detectives who were giving the case a second look. It was saliva from a bite wound on the victim's arm that had never been analyzed.
Back in 1986, when the killing occurred, it was assumed the bite came from a man — probably a burglar who broke into the couple's condominium.
But a DNA laboratory came up with a shocking result. The bite came from a woman.
In a TV-like maneuver, detectives secretly followed Lazarus until they could recover a cup from which she drank. They gathered her DNA and the result was a probable match. The investigation had taken a new turn and police faced the devastating possibility that the murder was committed by one of their own, a veteran detective who worked just across the hall from the robbery homicide division.
Lazarus has pleaded not guilty and expressed shock during an interview with detectives that she would be accused of such a crime.
"You're accusing me of this? ... "Am I on 'Candid Camera' or something? This is insane,'" she said. " This is absolutely crazy "
Rasmussen's parents have accused police of dropping the ball when the killing occurred. They said little note was taken of their efforts to point detectives toward Lazarus who had been in a romantic relationship with Ruetten before his marriage to Rasmussen.
A lawyer for the Rasmussen family has said that Lazarus confronted her rival at the hospital where she worked and told her: "If I can't have John, no one can."
When Rasmussen's father continued to prod detectives to look at the ex-girlfriend as a suspect, attorney John Taylor said he was told: "You've been watching too much TV."
In subsequent years, Lazarus continued to move up the ladder in the LAPD, becoming a detective with a specialty in art forgeries. She married a colleague and they adopted a daughter. The former detective has been in custody since 2009. Her lawyer, Mark Overland, has hinted he has some witnesses who could absolve her. And he is questioning the reliability of the DNA evidence.
Defense attorney Dana Cole, who is not involved in the case, predicted that the defense will launch a fierce challenge of the DNA evidence, claiming it was contaminated during collection and further degraded as years passed.
"They have to attack the DNA," said Cole. "The typical defense in cases like this is to call experts to say there is DNA contamination and the evidence is not reliable," he said.
As for the love triangle, he said, "It provides motive. No question about that. But it's not conclusive. You still have to prove the defendant is responsible. There are many love triangles in which no one gets murdered."