Friday, November 16, 2012
C.A. Rejects Suit Charging LAPD Covered up Murder by Officer
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The parents of a woman murdered by her husband’s former girlfriend, a police officer, waited too long to sue the Los Angeles Police Department on charges it covered up the crime, this district’s Court of Appeal ruled yesterday.
Justice Laurence Rubin said Nels and Loretta Rasmussen’s claims, if true, “call out for redress on the merits, subject to the other affirmative defenses raised by respondents.” But the statute of limitations, he explained in an unpublished opinion for Div. Eight, sometimes works in ways that “can be sadly inequitable.”
The plaintiffs’ daughter, Sherri Rasmussen, was murdered in 1986. LAPD Detective Stephanie Lazarus was charged in 2009, following a DNA match to a bite mark on the body, and was convicted this past March.
Lazarus was sentenced to 27 years to life in prison; that case is on appeal.
The Rasmussens sued in July 2010, while Lazarus was awaiting trial. They alleged that they had told the LAPD the day after the murder that they suspected their son-in-law’s ex-girlfriend was the killer, although they did not know her name at the time.
The dead woman’s husband, John Ruetten, identified Lazarus as his ex-girlfriend and told the investigators that she was an LAPD officer. The LAPD, the Rasmussens alleged, ignored evidence that Lazarus had stalked and confronted Sherri Rasmussen, focusing instead on an untenable theory that the killers were two unknown Hispanic men who had committed burglaries in the area.
That theory, they said, was discredited in 2005 when DNA obtained from the bite mark was tested and determined to have been left by a woman, although it took another four years before Lazarus was linked to the bite mark.
The Rasmussens sued the LAPD for civil rights conspiracy and violation of federally protected civil rights, and sued Lazarus for wrongful death. After the case was removed to federal court, they dismissed the federal claim with prejudice in order to have the case returned to state court.
The city’s demurrer was sustained on the ground that mere failure to investigate a crime does not constitute a conspiracy under the Bane Act, Civil Code Sec. 52.1(b). The statute provides for damages in favor of a plaintiff whose exercise of his or her civil rights has been interfered with, or attempted to be interfered with, by means of coercion, threats or intimidation.
The Rasmussens were granted leave to amend. In their amended complaint, they alleged additional facts which they said established a Bane Act conspiracy, and also pled claims for intentional interference with emotional distress and fraudulent concealment.
They claimed that when they told detectives they believed Lazarus was responsible, they were physically confronted in a manner they believed was designed to intimidate them, and were given the impression “that they would be harmed in some unforeseeable fashion” if they continued to accuse Lazarus. The object of the conspiracy, they alleged, was to deter them from filing suit against Lazarus for wrongful death.
The theory of the fraudulent concealment claim was that the detectives knew that Lazarus was the killer and concealed that information from the Rasmussens in order to protect the department from embarrassment and protect Lazarus from being sued.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Elizabeth A. White sustained the city’s demurrer on the ground that all of the claims were time-barred.
Rubin agreed, citing the Rasmussens’ admission, in the amended complaint, that they ceased all contact with the LAPD regarding their daughter’s murder in 1998.
Once the plaintiffs were no longer dealing with the LAPD, the justice reasoned, the statute of limitations was triggered with regard to all of the claims.
The Bane Act and infliction-of-emotional-distress claims, Rubin explained, were subject to the general two-year statute of limitations for wrongful acts, while the concealment claim was subject to the three-year statute for fraud.
Neither the fact that the plaintiffs continued to suffer damages as a result of the alleged cover-up, nor the lack of prosecution of Lazarus during the ensuing 23 years, is relevant to the statute-of-limitations issue, Rubin declared.
“While a successful criminal prosecution may have benefited the civil case,” he wrote, “it was not a prerequisite.”
Attorneys on appeal were John C. Taylor of Taylor & Ring and the firm of Esner, Chang & Boyer for the plaintiffs and Deputy City Attorney Blithe S. Bock for the defendant.
The case is Rasmussen v. City of Los Angeles, B234731.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company