Los Angeles Cop Accused of Murdering Ex-Boyfriend's New Wife

07/06/2009 at 04:30 PM EDT

Los Angeles Cop Accused of Murdering Ex-Boyfriend's New Wife
Stephanie Lazarus
Mark Boster/AP
Los Angeles police detective Stephanie Lazarus could become the first policewoman in California history to face the death penalty for a murder she allegedly committed more than 20 years ago.

On July 6, the 26-year veteran of the LAPD pleaded not guilty to charges that she brutally murdered her ex-boyfriend's wife, Sherri Rae Rasmussen, just three months after the couple's wedding in 1986.

"We are certain she went into the house with the intent to commit murder," LAPD Deputy Chief Charlie Beck tells PEOPLE, adding that new DNA evidence recently linked her to the crime. Lazarus was charged with first-degree murder during a burglary.

Cold Case

Lazarus, 49, one of only two full-time art-theft police detectives in the nation, is married to a LAPD officer and has a 2-year-old daughter. "It's a sad case that has a wide-ranging effect on a lot of people I know," says Beck.

Meanwhile, attorneys for the dead girl's parents, Nels and Loretta Rasmussen, have requested a formal investigation into why it took the LAPD 23 years to arrest Lazarus.

The couple say they informed detectives the day after the murder that Lazarus had recently threatened their daughter, a 29-year-old hospital nursing administrator, and had been caught alone in her house. Lazarus had previously dated Sherri's husband John Ruetten, a marketing executive.

Lazarus's preliminary hearing is scheduled for July 21.

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