In 2009, a decades-old cold case, the 1986 murder of Sherri Rasmussen, a young newlywed nurse in Van Nuys, heated up when a suspect was finally arrested. As in many recent cases, new testing of old DNA evidence – here, an allegedly misplaced swab from a bite mark on Sherri’s arm – was the key in solving it.
The murderer was more unusual – a female LAPD detective, a position she’d also held at the time of the murder.
In April 2008, about a year before she was arrested, I had actually met Lazarus at Parker Center, the LAPD headquarters, and interviewed her at length for a book I was planning to write about art theft, Lazarus’s beat at that time. My chance encounter with Lazarus made me intensely curious to learn the truth. Did a respected police detective really commit murder and carry that secret for her entire career?
At the time of her arrest, Stephanie Lazarus was a detective in the enviable art theft division. As cold case detectives homed in on her, they had to employ special methodology to ensure nothing leaked, and that Lazarus couldn’t look up information about the now-active case while at work, something they suspected she’d been doing over the years.
Lazarus’s connection to Rasmussen was through the latter’s husband, John Ruetten, Lazarus’s college friend and former hookup buddy. She couldn’t let him go and began stalking and threatening Rasmussen, even showing up at the hospital where she worked.
Rasmussen’s friends and family were suspicious and pressed detectives to investigate her, but they were set on a burglary theory. A friend points out the patently ridiculous oddities here, like why Rasmussen would take on two men with a gun in a vicious fight rather than try to get away. They also ignored these potential witnesses, failing to interview most of them and later claiming that the Rasmussen family, who had repeatedly contacted police and mentioned Lazarus (her name is in the case file) hadn’t actually contributed any information or leads.
There’s an argument to be made about the responsibility the LAPD had to investigate one of their own, and McGough seems to make the case that they didn’t follow through on this, and rather may have actively pushed the investigation in another direction – doubling down on their theory that it was a botched robbery based on the arranged crime scene in order to avoid focusing on Lazarus.
To this end, a second story is suddenly covered, that of Catherine Braley, whose murder is suspiciously connected to LAPD detectives in a somewhat confusing attempt to make a case for corruption or lack of due diligence when fellow officers are involved.
But in 2008-9, in addition to maintaining total secrecy in the investigation to avoid alerting colleagues, “… [detectives] promised one another that they would follow the trail of evidence wherever it led.” How awful that it took more than two decades before that method was used.
The code of silence influences the behavior of many LAPD officers in a variety of ways, but it consists of one simple rule: an officer does not provide adverse information against a fellow officer…Officers who do give evidence against their fellow officers are often ostracized and harassed, and in some instances themselves become the target of complaints.
I figured that since the investigation around Lazarus was such a fascinating, intense story (Mark Bowden did a fantastic longread on it), much of the book would cover that. Instead, it occupies a comparatively minuscule portion, with the majority filling in the backstory of the women’s lives in exhaustive detail, including excerpts from Lazarus’s diaries after joining the force. It’s not particularly revealing, beyond showing that she’s a bit narcissistic with some empathy issues, and illustrates the major problem of this book: an overabundance of unnecessary details.
A few end up being atmospheric, like that a friend of Sherri’s remembers hearing “These Dreams” playing from inside the funeral home. But mostly, the amount of detail overwhelms, and leads to a disjointed, confusing narrative. You try to hold onto some in case they end up being important later, but they usually don’t, and there’s just too much.
The review copy was over 600 pages long, entirely too long even for such a compelling case. It’s admirable that McGough did justice by Rasmussen by fleshing out who she was and how friends and family felt about her – their recollections of her life and so on, but much of this was painfully minute or irrelevant, detracting from a cohesive narrative.
The case story itself is bloated with minutiae and repetition. Information is repeated so much that I wondered if I accidentally bookmarked the wrong page and was rereading, or remembering it from elsewhere (this case has gotten thorough coverage on crime shows and the news, partly thanks to Lazarus’s cringeworthy tricked interrogation video). It was an editing failure, although the writing has a basic, just-the-facts tone that doesn’t help.
There’s an informative sideline into the recent history of women in the LAPD, even more pertinent when Lazarus joined, perhaps highlighting the significance of her position in history. It was only in the mid-1970s that “female LAPD officers would no longer be required to carry their firearm in a department-issue purse, but could wear a holster on duty.” In 1971, they were deemed “no longer wanted or needed by the LAPD”, partly because they supposedly couldn’t be trusted with guns while having periods, and ultimately not a single woman joined the LAPD between 1970 and 1973.
It became apparent that this story was not a whodunit. The evidence presented at trial proved Lazarus’s guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. The unanswered question that loomed over the trial and persisted in its wake was how Lazarus got away with murder for so long.
This is true. Yet the majority of the book doesn’t address that question, despite the effort at linking detectives involved with Rasmussen’s case with Braley’s, and some inexplicable side delves into things like the Night Stalker, which has nothing to do with Rasmussen.
There’s a thoroughly researched good book in here somewhere, but I’m not sure it’s worth wading through the masses of information, repetition, and disorganized narrative. 2/5
The Lazarus Files:
A Cold Case Investigation
by Matthew McGough
published April 30, 2019 by Henry Holt & Co.
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.