The weeping widower of a woman murdered 26 years ago testified Wednesday about a love triangle that prosecutors believe led his former lover _ then a Los Angeles police officer _ to kill his wife.
Defendant Stephanie Lazarus avoided the gaze of witness John Ruetten as he said he never considered Lazarus to be his girlfriend, even though they had a long sexual relationship.
"What was your understanding of the relationship?" Deputy District Attorney Shannon Presby asked.
"We were good friends," Ruetten said. "We saw each other on and off, and on some of those occasions we had sexual intercourse."
The tall, gray-haired Ruetten was overcome several times during his testimony, pulling tissues from a box on the witness stand to wipe his eyes as he spoke of Sherri Rasmussen, his murdered wife.
He also told of his friendship with Lazarus that dated back to their days as students at UCLA. There was only "necking and fooling around" in their college years, he said.
Jurors were shown pictures of them together as college kids, including one of Ruetten with his arm around Lazarus in her cap and gown at graduation.
Ruetten, 53, wearing a dark business suit, testified that he met Rasmussen in 1984 at a party and they quickly became a couple. When they were engaged, he said, he felt no need to tell Lazarus because he had not seen her for months.
However, he said she later learned of the engagement, summoned him to her condo and through tears expressed her love for him. She also asked him to have sex with her, which he said he did but now considers it a stupid move. He stressed that nothing changed that night.
"Here's the deal," he said. "It was clear she was very upset that I was getting married and moving on."
Later, he said, he confessed the incident to Rasmussen and told her: "Don't let this mess us up. I want nothing more in the world than to be married to you."
He also said he ended all contact with Lazarus, who has pleaded not guilty to the murder of Rasmussen.
Ruetten identified blissful photos of the couple's wedding on Nov. 23, 1985. Lazarus did not look up as the photos flashed on a courtroom screen.
Rasmussen was killed on Feb. 24, 1986, bludgeoned and shot to death by an intruder at the condo where she and Ruetten lived.
Prosecutors are trying to show that Lazarus sought revenge for being spurned by Ruetten.
Later in the day, Ruetten told of returning home from work on Feb. 24, 1986, to find his wife dead on the living room floor.
"I was reeling," he said. "I was in shock."
He said he put a blanket over his wife's face, called 911 and made himself available to police for interviews. But he said he never lived in the condo again, quit his job and moved out of Los Angeles. He said he didn't mention Lazarus to police as a possible suspect in the murder because, "It never crossed my mind that she could be involved."
He said he was later assured by a homicide detective that Lazarus was not a suspect, and that his wife was most likely killed by burglars.
He went to live with his parents in San Diego, and in 1989 he made contact with Lazarus again and met up with her in Hawaii. When he moved back to the Los Angeles area the next year, he said he contacted her and they had sex again at least twice.
"In those times when you saw the defendant, did she ever ask about Sherri's death?" asked Presby.
"No," said Ruetten.
When the case was reopened in 2009, he said he voluntarily gave a DNA sample. Presby asked if he had anything to do with the killing and he said no.
On cross-examination, Lazarus' lawyer, Mark Overland, stressed that the relationship with the police woman was more serious than Ruetten said.
Ruetten acknowledged that Lazarus knew his entire family and in September 1984, unaware of his relationship with Rasmussen, Lazarus threw a surprise 25th birthday party for Ruetten.
Under Overland's questioning, Ruetten insisted, "I always just made it clear we were just friends and this wasn't going toward marriage."
Another witness, retired Los Angeles police officer Mike Hargreaves, said he lived at Lazarus' condo for a year and recalled that she woke him once in the middle of the night and said Ruetten had broken up with her.
"She said John told her he was going to marry someone else," Hargreaves said.
He said Lazarus, who was exceptionally fit, suggested they do "buddy sit-ups" together and she felt better after that.
Ruetten's sister, Gail Lopes, showed jurors a letter to her mother from Lazarus that was postmarked Aug. 6, 1985.
In it, Lazarus told Mrs. Ruetten: ""I'm truly in love with John and the past year has really torn me up. I wish it didn't end the way it did, and I don't think I'll ever understand his decision."
In subsequent years, Lazarus married and adopted a daughter. She rose to the rank of detective and was honored for her work in the art forgery section.
She was arrested in 2009 after forensic experts, examining the file on Rasmussen's murder, linked her DNA to a bite mark on the slain woman's arm.