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Published: Wednesday, January 11, 2012, 10:23 a.m.

As Biendl murder case unfolds, fundamental questions persist

As the anniversary of Jayme Biendl's killing approaches, another investigation at the state prison complex in Monroe has provided some answers about what went wrong but also leaves some big questions.

Eric Stevick reported Sunday that prison officials have concluded that the killer of corrections officer Biendl likely exploited a co-worker's absence from his post. If the other corrections officer had been standing watch where he was supposed to be, the inmate likely wouldn't have had the opportunity to slip back into the chapel at the Washington State Reformatory and attack Biendl, investigators concluded.

The corrections department's conclusions match what frontline prison workers in positions to know shared with us under guarantee of anonymity, not long after the killing.

The Teamsters union, representing the officers who were fired or demoted over the Biendl case, places blame with prison brass. It points to a state Labor and Industries investigation that found flaws in the department's management of its own policies and procedures.

The controversy over who at the prison is most responsible will get resolved in another venue. Less clear is whether we'll ever learn just what the corrections officer who was supposed to be watching Biendl's back was up to the night she died.

Monroe prison superintendent Scott Frakes told Stevick that after nearly a year of investigation, officials still don't know with certainty where the errant officer was during the critical minutes.

Ponder that for a moment.

A prison is designed to monitor and control the movements of people found guilty of awful crimes. But on Jan. 29, 2011, procedures were so lax that nobody can say with certainty where all the officers keeping watch were, let alone what they were doing.

There are no plans at the prison to investigate further, corrections department spokesman Chad Lewis said this week. Prison officials have similarly decided to leave largely unexplored how Byron Scherf, the repeat-rapist accused in Biendl's death, wound up at Monroe at all. In 1997, prison officials put notes in Scherf's file describing him as cunning and a serious risk to female employees. That observation was made shortly after Scherf was sentenced to life for his third attack on a woman. The corrections department's internal investigation found "no clear documentation" explaining the decision to move him into a medium-security setting at Monroe about a decade ago. That decision came shortly after Scherf attempted suicide, records show.

Prediction: We are all going to know way more about Scherf and prison operations by year's end. His trial now is scheduled for mid-September. Prosecutors plan to seek the death penalty. Between now and then, hearings will determine what evidence will be presented. Next month a courtroom has been reserved for three days as lawyers on both sides joust over whether the jury chosen this fall will get to watch videotaped statements Scherf made after Biendl's death.

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