Alex Tresniowski
July 13, 2009 12:00 PM

She was at her desk when she got the call: Report to the jail downstairs right away. Det. Stephanie Lazarus, a respected 26-year veteran of the Los Angeles Police Department, was told a suspect had information to give her. But once she got there, on June 5, she quickly realized she was the suspect. For 45 minutes, a detective questioned her about a grisly murder that happened way back in 1986—until Lazarus demanded a lawyer. Minutes later she was in handcuffs. “On the surface, nobody thought she could have been involved in such a brutal crime,” says L.A. Deputy Chief Charlie Beck. “Maybe there’s more to Stephanie Lazarus than we thought.”

Just like that, a long-cold case had a shocking new suspect—one of the LAPD’s own. Lazarus, 49, is charged with first-degree murder in the shooting of Sherri Rae Rasmussen, a 29-year-old hospital nursing administrator whose body was found in her condo by her husband, John Ruetten, in February 1986. Police believe that Lazarus, then a beat cop, had a past relationship with Ruetten and killed Rasmussen out of jealousy or “to get the wife out of the way so she could get him back,” says Beck. Lazarus’s attorney Mark Pachowicz says he has yet to see the evidence against his client and is skeptical about it. “It seems strange the LAPD has all this stuff that makes it look like a no-brainer,” he says.

The original detectives, who never named a suspect or made an arrest, focused on the theory that two male burglars killed Rasmussen. Back then, however, the LAPD did not yet use DNA analysis as an investigative tool (see box). The case was dormant for nearly two decades, until DNA tests on saliva samples taken from bite marks on Rasmussen’s body revealed the murderer had, in fact, been female. Earlier this year detectives assigned to review the cold case turned their attention to Lazarus—who since the crime has led a seemingly quiet life, settling in suburban Simi Valley with her husband, LAPD detective Scott Young, 44, and their 2-year-old daughter Sydney. “How can someone live with themselves after doing something like that?” wonders Rasmussen’s friend and former boss Althea Kennedy, 70. “How is it that guilt didn’t just consume her?”

Rasmussen’s loved ones have a more pressing question: Did the LAPD cover up for Lazarus 23 years ago? According to relatives, Lazarus once told Rasmussen, “If I cannot have John, nobody can”—a threat Rasmussen’s father says he shared with detectives shortly after the murder. What’s more, the only thing stolen from inside Rasmussen’s home was her marriage certificate. Still, detectives did not even interview Lazarus. If police stuck with the burglary theory to take Lazarus off the hook, “we’d be very, very concerned,” says Deputy Chief Beck. The original detectives are now being interviewed by police; one of them, Lyle Mayer, has claimed Rasmussen’s father never brought Lazarus to his attention.

John Ruetten, who is now 50 and runs a marketing consulting firm, declined to comment except to tell PEOPLE, “Sherri was an extraordinary person, and I was proud to be her husband.” Rasmussen “was extremely likable, warm and friendly,” agrees Kennedy. On Feb. 24, 1986, Rasmussen—married to Ruetten just three months earlier—called in sick; later that day, a maid working in a nearby condo heard screams coming from her unit. Police discovered a gruesome scene that suggested a violent struggle: Rasmussen’s wrists had been bound, her head bludgeoned and her body shot several times.

Lazarus, insist friends, simply could not be capable of such savagery. “At Christmastime she’d pass out homemade chocolate-covered cherries,” says her neighbor Sandra Preece, 65. “She’s sort of the unofficial block captain, peacefully resolving things,” says another neighbor, Sue Hudson, 61. When police arrested Lazarus, her husband, Scott, “was just devastated,” says Hudson. “He said, ‘This is the most bizarre thing I’ve ever heard.'”

Today, Lazarus—who most recently worked as an art theft and forgery detective because “she didn’t like dealing with violent criminals,” says Hudson—may be facing the death penalty if found guilty (her arraignment is set for July 6). Meanwhile, Rasmussen’s family is pressing for a formal inquiry into the LAPD’s conduct. “Sherri’s death was such a senseless thing, and I hope justice finally gets done,” says Althea Kennedy. “Better late than never.”

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