September 28, 2012

The Stephanie Lazarus case is among the most covered cold case murders in recent years.

The Atlantic, Los Angeles Times, New York Times, ABC News, NBC News, 48 Hours Mystery and others have covered it.

No wonder: it’s a story with a remarkable twist.

Sherri Rae Rasmussen, a nurse, was murdered in her home in 1986. The case went unsolved until earlier this year when Los Angeles Police Department Detective Stephanie Lazarus was found guilty and sentenced to 27 years to life.

Rasmussen had married Lazarus’ old boyfriend. The narrative laid out by prosecutors said the police officer committed murder partly due to “a broken heart.”

The story has, at this point, been told and retold. A recent retelling came from Mark Bowden, one of the best narrative non-fiction writers working today.

His feature, “A Case So Cold It Was Blue,” appeared in the July issue of Vanity Fair. Bowden’s story uses the interrogation of Detective Lazarus as the narrative device to reveal the story. He weaves in and out of the exchanges between her and Detectives Dan Jaramillo and Greg Stearns to draw out the tale.

It’s an artful retelling by a skilled writer.

But Bowden’s construction of events didn’t sit well with Betsy A. Ross. She wrote five blog posts (1,2,3,4, 5) on her crime blog, Trials & Tribulations, outlining what she saw as factual errors and other issues with the Vanity Fair piece.

Ross described herself to me as a semi-retired woman who has “been blogging about Los Angeles murder trials since 2007.”

“All my life, I’ve been fascinated with true crime stories. I write Trials & Tribulations for the love of it and as a public service,” she said.

In her first post about the Vanity Fair story, Ross wrote that the text “raised a lot of troubling questions.”

The power of the fifth estate

After years of blogging L.A. murder trials, in January 2011 Ross was accredited by the courthouse as a member of the media. When it comes to the trials she covers, she applies a level of diligence that borders on the exhaustive.

For example, her coverage of the Lazarus trial includes links to official court documents, media coverage, and more than 50 of her own posts about the case.

Ross applied the same diligence to laying out her concerns with Bowden’s article. Her posts outline what she sees as factual errors, questionable characterizations and other things that struck her as off while reading the piece. Ross’ first post was published in June; the fourth came in the middle of last month.

I first became aware of her criticisms after receiving two emails from people (other than Ross) suggesting I look into what she’d written. Not long after, a comment pointing to Ross’s work was placed on a post of mine. It seemed others had taken notice of her work.

As it turned out, so had Vanity Fair.

Cullen Murphy, the magazine’s Editor-at-Large and Bowden’s editor on the piece, confirmed they were aware of Ross’ posts.

“Yes, the Trials & Tribulations posts came to the attention of the editors at VF,” he said in a statement provided to me. “The standard response when possible errors are called to our attention is to undertake a serious review. Having been made aware of the critical T&T posts, we therefore reviewed the article carefully.”

Murphy responded after I asked about one of the central charges of error made against Bowden: that in three places the quotes attributed to the interrogation of Lazarus did not exactly match what was actually said. (I tried to get in touch with Bowden directly but was unable to find contact information for him, so I reached out to the magazine.)

That led to Murphy’s initial denial, which kicked off several more exchanges between us, and between me and Ross.

Ross never contacted the magazine, and they never spoke to her. Though Murphy said otherwise, it seems to me they didn’t thoroughly investigate her claims. Ross and Vanity Fair were like two ships passing in the night, except each was fully aware of the other.

Even stranger, the online version of the Vanity Fair article includes a video of the Lazarus interrogation. The video was embedded from YouTube. Who uploaded the video to YouTube?

Betsy A. Ross.

So Vanity Fair’s story actually featured content provided by Ross — content that, it turned out, later proved her claim that some of the exchanges quoted in Bowden’s piece didn’t exactly match the interrogation.

I found myself acting as the intermediary between the publication and the person who spotted the error, as I sometimes do. Sometimes I amplify a concern by blogging about it. Other times, as in this case, the process of writing about an incident results in me becoming something of a go-between. I brought the concerns to Vanity Fair because they seemed legitimate to me. I advocated to have them taken seriously, but it was up to the magazine to chose its response and course of action.

My sense today, and it’s certainly my opinion, is neither Ross nor the magazine is happy with how the other handled things. That may be a result of them never having spoken. For the record, I’m not happy that two factual errors spotted by Ross and subsequently confirmed by the magazine will only be corrected online.

Here’s the correction now appended to Bowden’s piece:

An earlier version of this story misidentified Sherri Rasmussen’s alma mater. It is Loma Linda University, not U.C.L.A. The date on which Stephanie Lazarus was mentioned in the case file is November 19, 1987, not November 19, 1986. A cup and straw introduced into evidence were used outside Costco, and not inside, and the DNA from the sample was identified two days later, not three days later.

I asked Murphy why the correction will only appear online and he said, “Corrections can be made in the online version of the text, and the fact that there are corrections — and what they are — can be clearly noted in tandem. This is the version that anyone looking for the story will access.”

This is true, and a wonderful benefit of online corrections. But the magazine routinely offers corrections in print for misspelled names and other errors. Ross noted this in her fourth post about Bowden’s story. She highlighted two corrections that appeared in the August print edition of Vanity Fair:

It seems to be standard Vanity Fair practice to correct errors in the print edition.

Overall, this episode illustrates how valuable it can be to engage with outside critics, especially when they provide clear and easily checked reports of error. The same was true in a separate incident this week: the plagiarism by Globe And Mail columnist Margaret Wente, and how it came to light via a post by an outside blogger.

In this case, the fact that neither Ross nor Vanity Fair chose to engage directly led to the fixes being delayed, and what I’d characterize as an element of mutual distrust.

This meant I ended up choosing to engage in a process of back-and-forth until the correction to Bowden’s piece was published.

Quote discrepancies

When I first asked about the discrepancies between the interrogation quotes used in Bowden’s piece and the transcript excerpts shown by Ross, Murphy offered an unequivocal reply.

“The central charge made by T&T is that Mark Bowden does not accurately quote the interrogation of Stephanie Lazarus and in one instance even adds his own material. This is false,” he wrote.

Murphy continued:

The author of the T&T post relied on a transcript of the interrogation. Bowden, rather than use some unknown person’s transcript—transcripts are notoriously unreliable—went to the actual videos of the interrogation to confirm his quotations. Further, to make sure the speakers were being identified correctly, the quotations were read back to Detectives Stearns and Jaramillo of the LAPD. When the article was published, Vanity Fair put the videos online to make the source readily available. On review, we confirmed that Bowden’s quotations are indeed accurate and that the transcript is not. (We did find that two sentences in a single quotation in the VF piece had been inadvertently transposed, with no impact on meaning.)

I went back to Ross and she held her ground.

“Vanity Fair is flat out wrong and trying to spin you,” she wrote in an email. “The transcript is not by ‘some unknown person.’ The transcript of Stephanie Lazarus’ pre-arrest interview is an official document commissioned by the LAPD and the LA District Attorney’s office after her arrest in June 2009.”

She told me I could watch the video of the interrogation myself to see the Vanity Fair quotes were not exactly what had been said. (Yes, this is the video the magazine embedded at the foot of Bowden’s piece.)

I watched the video and it was clear Ross was correct: three of the exchanges quoted by Bowden were not exactly as they had occurred in the interrogation.

Now, let me state that the discrepancies don’t amount to quote manipulation or a misrepresentation of what was said. There are two cases where a few lines of dialogue have been excluded. The use of ellipses would have solved any confusion. But ellipses weren’t used.

In another place, Bowden put quotes in the wrong order, which is something Murphy acknowledged in his first statement to me.

After viewing the video, I went back to the magazine and explained that from what I could see Ross was correct. I asked them to explain why they saw things differently. (My assumption was there was some mistake made either by me, Ross or the magazine. I didn’t know for sure what was going on at the time.)

Murphy got back to me.

“You’re in fact correct about the congruence of the video and the official transcript, and we were mistake[n],” he said. “As it happens, the fact-checker did have a transcription that contained many errors, but it wasn’t the official one, and I apologize for inadvertently introducing a red herring.”

He also addressed the difference between the interrogation and what was printed.

Having gone back again to compare, it’s hard to see a substantive issue. Much verbiage and crosstalk has been cut out for concision and clarity—pretty standard when dealing with a long, rambling, and shaggy interrogation—but the quotations used in Bowden’s text correspond with relevant portions of the video. Some things are hard to make out, and there may be an occasional small variance, but a fair reading would conclude that the quotes track accurately and correctly capture the dynamic of the interrogation. There has been no distortion.

I agree there wasn’t any distortion. But Ross’ points were valid, and the reader didn’t know those passages were contracted.

In that same first post, Ross also listed factual errors. I chose two that seemed the most easily verifiable and raised them with the magazine.

Ross was once again correct. The Bowden piece claimed that Rasmussen attended UCLA at 16, which wasn’t the case. It also said that the first mention of Lazarus in the Rasmussen investigation documents was in 1986. It was in 1987. Both mistakes have now been corrected in the online version.

Other claims

After I informed Ross that the magazine would be making the corrections, she said, “I have to wonder, why not any of the others?”

Part of the answer may be that I didn’t ask the magazine to respond to all of Ross’s claims. I chose the ones that struck me as the most notable, and the easiest to verify.

There are also things Ross lists as mistakes that I personally don’t see as errors, though she is of course within her rights to raise them. One example would be the way Bowden refers to Lazarus.

“She was a respected, well-known figure in the department,” he wrote. “No, more than that. In this close-knit world, she was in her own way legendary.” (Emphasis his.)

Bowden also refers to Lazarus as an “esteemed colleague” of the two detectives who ended up arresting her.

Ross says there’s no evidence that Lazarus was legendary or otherwise, and cited numerous conversations with police officers and others who knew the detective:

Several officers told me about her hyperactive personality, which was reflected in her nicknames: “Crazy Steph” and “Snacks.” Not a single LAPD officer described her to me as anything like “legendary,” “perfection,” or “a privilege to know.”

My question is, who did Bowden speak to that described Stephanie Lazarus in this way? The article doesn’t say.

This gets at one of Ross’ central complaints about the article: that Bowden wasn’t there in the courthouse watching the trial. Ross, of course, was.

I asked Ross if she thought the magazine would have taken her concerns more seriously if she had contacted them.

“I don’t believe it has any relevance how Vanity Fair learned about the problems in their Stephanie Lazarus article,” she wrote back. “You asked me whether I think Vanity Fair would have taken my concerns more seriously, if I’d contacted them. I don’t know. To me the issue is: What is Vanity Fair going to do, now that its editors are aware of the problems with Mark Bowden’s article?”

The lesson for newsrooms

In an email to Vanity Fair’s Murphy, I wrote that it’s “a good thing engaged people like Ross can participate in reporting and also add their expertise via a blog. The fact that she spotted two factual errors and raised points about the quotes is, to me, valuable.”

Cullen said he appreciated the point I was making.

“We’re always grateful to have errors called to our attention,” he said. “We take fact-checking very seriously, and when issues arise we look into them carefully.”

There are three lessons here for newsrooms.

  • Whether or not you like the tone or approach taken by an outside critic, you still have a responsibility to examine claims of factual error or ethical malfeasance. (If someone just says they hate you and offers no specific complaint, then that’s a different matter.)
  • Engaging with a critic is a part of that examination. People are almost always more agreeable when you deal with them directly. By responding, you demonstrate a commitment to accountability. You’re also able to better understand their concerns, and share your perspective.
  • Even if you examine a claim and find it to be invalid, it’s a good idea to share this publicly. Otherwise, the accusation will still be out there. If Vanity Fair had responded to Ross after its initial examination, she would have been able to make them aware that they missed the issue related to its use of quotes from the interrogation, and that they still had at least two factual errors in the piece.

Correction Oct. 10, 2012: This story incorrectly stated Betsy A. Ross had published four posts about Mark Bowden’s Vanity Fair article. By the time this post was published, she had in fact published five pieces on her blog.

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Craig Silverman ( is an award-winning journalist and the founder of Regret the Error, a blog that reports on media errors and corrections, and trends…
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