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Published: Sunday, January 29, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

A year after Jayme Biendl's death, her family sees reminders of her everywhere


Jayme Biendl (second from right) poses for a photo with her siblings at Yellowstone National Park.

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he six children were born in quick succession. Their father, a wiry machinist and ex-Marine, worked two jobs. Their mother stayed home with her burgeoning brood. They lived in a three-bedroom home on ample acreage tucked in the woods eight miles up the Mountain Loop Highway east of Granite Falls.

See more photos from Jayme Biendl's life in our photo gallery.
Money was tight, but the family managed well enough. Each summer, they'd pile into their Ford Econoline van with a trailer in tow for a week of fishing at a log cabin resort in Eastern Washington. They'd bring their dogs and even a box turtle. It was, after all, a family vacation, and the Hamm family was close. "With all that camping equipment, we looked like 'Grapes of Wrath,' I suppose," the father, now 69, muses today. The oldest child was born in 1976. The year a nation marked its bicentennial, James and Jacquelyn Hamm celebrated the miracle of life. And that's what it felt like to them: a miracle. Jacquelyn, who'd previously been married for six years, had been told she couldn't conceive. The young couple wanted to name their firstborn James. There was one small hitch: Their baby was a girl. So they named her Jayme. From an early age, Jayme Hamm kept a watchful eye on her five younger siblings. She set an example for them with her pragmatism, work ethic and willingness to stand up for her convictions. The nation came to learn of her as Jayme Biendl, the first Washington state corrections officer killed in the line of duty at a prison in more than three decades. She was strangled in the Washington State Reformatory chapel a year ago tonight, allegedly at the hands of an inmate serving a life sentence for a series of violent attacks on women. Jayme Biendl was 34. Thousands of people attended her memorial in Everett. Condolences poured in from across the country and beyond. To date, police have spent more than 4,400 hours on the criminal investigation. Much has been written since then about the suspect, the court case that could end in the death penalty, and investigations into what went wrong inside the Monroe prison that night. Through it all, Biendl's family has asked for privacy as they processed their grief. A year later, several were ready to share their memories. Today, their pain is still fresh. They still lose sleep. Tears well. Voices choke. The family sticks together.

Jayme (third from left) with her brothers and sisters.

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n many ways, it was an idyllic time and place to grow up. In the early 1980s, there were no electronic games and gadgets in their home to keep the Hamm children away from the fresh air, giant vegetable garden and forest that surrounded them. Their playground was the quiet 12 acres they called home, but it really extended well into the rustic Robe Valley. In the summer, the Hamm youngsters sometimes pooled their change and rode bikes a couple of miles down the Mountain Loop Highway to Green Gables Country Store where they would divvy up a bounty of Bazooka Joe bubble gum, Tootsie Rolls and Jolly Ranchers. Jayme, who never had a cavity, wasn't that into sweets, but enjoyed the ride just the same. Summer afternoons were spent wading in the creek, swimming in a pond and floating on inner tubes through the culvert beneath the rural highway that fronted their land. Jayme became a solid first baseman for her youth softball teams. A switch hitter with power, she launched home runs from both sides of the plate and could catch the ball while doing the splits. In the fall, the Hamm children would wander down a 500-foot gravel driveway to reach their school bus stop. Mom often would walk with them, carrying a fishing pole for a few casts. A towering cedar provided dry refuge from rain as they waited for the bus to arrive. The family would go to Puget Sound to dig clams and fish for crabs. They'd hunt for mushrooms together -- morels in the fall, chanterelles in the spring. The family ran a Christmas tree farm on six acres of their land. Early on, the children learned to escort holiday visitors. When they were old enough, they were handed saws to cut down Douglas and noble firs and Scotch pines that the customers picked out. As she grew up, her parents noticed a determined toughness about their firstborn. Jayme was the only child willing to ride Tony, the family's notoriously ornery Shetland pony. She helped around the property without being asked. And she wanted to work. At 12, she'd wake up before sunrise on summer mornings when the crops were ready. For several years, she worked in the fields, picking raspberries around Granite Falls, spinach near Snohomish. She and her younger sister, Lisa, would compete to see who could fill a five-gallon container of blueberries first. As they grew older, they moved up the ladder to canning, working at a small operation that specialized in vinegar-packed dilly beans. Lisa noticed her sister's industrious approach in whatever job she was given, no matter how menial. At 16, Jayme Hamm was handling the deep fryer and meat and cheese slicers at a deli in a Granite Falls grocery store. When Lisa wanted to get a job there too, Jayme gave a simple recommendation to her boss. "This is my sister," she remembers her saying. "She is a good worker." That was all he needed to hear. He tossed Lisa an apron and told her to check the schedule on Monday.

From left to right, Lisa Hamm, Christine Hamm, Jacquelyn Hamm, Wade Hamm, Jayme Beindl, Deborah Hamm and James Hamm.

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n hindsight, James Hamm more and more appreciates the role his eldest daughter took on. "She was like a second mother, really," he said. Lisa Hamm sees it too. "Jayme was very protective of us," she said. "She was the oldest. She was kind of the mother hen in the group." Perhaps no one sensed her maternal instinct more than Wade Hamm, the youngest child. He often needed to be rousted out of bed to catch the bus to get to school on time. He had a job at a chicken farm and often was too tired to make it. By his senior year at Granite Falls High School, Wade appeared hopelessly far behind and was thinking about dropping out. Married by then, Jayme Biendl sat her baby brother down for a talk. She made it clear he would graduate high school, just as his sisters and brothers had done before him. He had to if he was ever going to get a decent job, she explained. "She was pretty stern on that," he said. Biendl made arrangements for Wade to live in town with her and her husband, John. That way he was closer to school and to work and she could keep an eye on him. The young couple added an incentive to her ultimatum. They promised him a hot rod if he managed to graduate. The way Wade Hamm remembers it, it was nonstop work for the many months he lived with his sister. He was behind on credits and had to pass math and history courses he had essentially abandoned. "There were times I was so tired I didn't want to do my homework, but she made sure I did," he said. As he studied at the kitchen table each night, his sister cleaned house and offered advice. He got the diploma and in time, a job in a good trade. "She definitely cared for a lot more than just herself," he said. "I wouldn't be where I am today without her." On graduation night in June of 2000, he was handed a set of keys in the Granite Falls High School parking lot and told to find his car: a 1978 Camaro.

One of Jayme Biendl's passions was riding horses.

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ayme Biendl married shortly after high school and divorced seven years later. She wanted to keep the 10-acre homestead acquired during the marriage. It was where she tended to her horses. She feared losing it to the bank. As a single woman, Biendl knew she needed to find a career that would pay a decent wage and provide benefits. In 2003, she took a civilian job at the Monroe Correctional Complex. She initially handed out uniforms to inmates at the state's largest prison, a sprawling campus that houses 2,400 prisoners on a $110 million annual budget. A few months later, she was hired as a correctional officer. In 2005, she asked to be assigned to the single-office post at the prison chapel within the century-old Washington State Reformatory. Paula Crouch met Biendl in the first grade. They were neighbors of sorts, living a mile apart off the Mountain Loop. They would become lifelong friends from the first day they sat next to each other on the school bus that carried kids from kindergarten through high school into Granite Falls. Both would end up in law enforcement: Biendl at the prison, Crouch for the Granite Falls Police Department. Biendl spoke often to Crouch about the pride she took in her prison job. "Our last in-depth conversation was about what makes a good corrections officer," Crouch recalled. "She said it was someone who was firm, fair and consistent. Jayme always believed in being fair." At the prison, Biendl earned a reputation of working by the book and supporting her colleagues. They thought highly of her. In 2008, she was nominated by her co-workers and named Corrections Officer of the Year at the Monroe prison. Her death still stings her co-workers. "It has been one year now, and there is not one day that goes by that when I or any of our correctional officers walk through that wall to work and do not think about Jayme," corrections officer Kristen Marken said. Sgt. Jim Fletcher is a powerfully built, plain-spoken officer at the Monroe complex. He liked Biendl for her candor and admired the confident way she carried herself. "If I did something wrong, she called me on it," he said. When Biendl had a complaint, she made it constructively and offered a solution, he said. Those qualities endeared her to her co-workers who always felt she had their backs, he said. In 1992, Fletcher was fresh out of high school when his father drowned off Whidbey Island. He joined the search party that found his father's body. "I always thought that was the hardest thing I would have to deal with in my life," he said. Putting Biendl to rest proved to be even tougher, he said. "I think there were a lot of people who had that perception that she was like their little sister," Fletcher said. "There will always be a void."

The family has kept Jayme Biendl's 1964 Volkswagen Beetle, which she was given at age 16; she drove her siblings everywhere in it. Her sister Lisa hopes to restore the car.

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t the American Legion Cemetery in Granite Falls, there is a large, shiny headstone. Etched in white on the front of the black slab is a cross. Immediately below is the name Jayme Lee Biendl with her maiden name Hamm in parenthesis. Beneath that is her date of birth and death, and an image of her badge. On the back is the striking image of two Arabian horses, a mare, Layla, and her foal, Dancer. Biendl often could be spotted in her rubber boots, jeans, sweatshirt and raincoat in the pasture where she would be brushing, training and riding her animals. The horses, like the headstone, are reminders of a daughter, sister, friend and co-worker who died behind the prison walls. There are many others. Her mom keeps a jar of asparagus Biendl canned for her. Lisa Hamm stores her elder sister's 1964 Volkswagen under a tarp in her back yard. It was the light blue Bug her parents bought for $700 when Jayme turned 16. She drove her siblings everywhere in it and she could never bear to part with it. Lisa Hamm has grand designs to restore the car, to get its engine running again and to order a special license plate in her sister's honor. Wade Hamm now drives his big sister's 1984 Toyota pickup truck that's pushing 300,000 miles. Ever the frugal one, she held on to the rig because she didn't want to take on car payments. After Biendl died, Wade Hamm would drive out to her place. Layla and Dancer would kick up their hooves and whinny at the sound of the engine and the sight of the pickup that used to bring them hay. Biendl's family is sure the horses thought she was coming home. "The first time I pulled in, it was pretty tough," Wade said. Beyond the tangible reminders are the images that pop up from everyday experiences. Paul Crosby-Mapes is Lisa Hamm's husband and a pretty fair cook. He senses his sister-in-law when he makes certain meals. She was always asking questions and trying to learn his recipes, down to what went into a salmon glaze or how much paprika was used on a schnitzel. He would make a tasty meal. Biendl would go home and make it even better, he said. Her parents miss the frequent phone calls. Their eldest daughter never stopped asking them for advice. "She was sincere about everything," James Hamm said. "She wouldn't do a thing on impulse. She would confide in me and say, 'Well, what do you think, Dad?' " Perhaps that was her greatest gift. Her parents knew they still were relevant in her life. In describing her childhood friend, Paula Crouch seems to capture a line from Shakespeare's "Hamlet" in which Polonius advises his son Laertes: "To thine own self be true." "The thing I respected most is she always did what she thought was right, even if it was to her detriment," Crouch said. "She lived a very good and clean life. She didn't bow to social pressure that so many other children do." Today, the five surviving Hamm siblings -- two Boeing workers, a flight attendant, a plumber and a maintenance specialist -- plan to participate in an inaugural memorial run for their sister. The route starts in downtown Monroe and passes in front of the reformatory where Biendl worked for eight years. In the days leading up to the anniversary, Christine Hamm tried to capture with words the loss she and her siblings feel. "I love my sister and miss her so much," she said. "She will be in my thoughts, memories and heart forever." Memorial events On the first anniversary of her death, Jayme Biendl will be remembered during two public events today in Monroe. A memorial run is set to begin at 9 a.m. at Sky River Park, 818 Village Way, Monroe. Event-day registration begins at 7 a.m. for those wanting to walk or run the 5K course. Registration is $35. A candlelight vigil is set for 8 p.m. at the entrance of the Twin Rivers Unit of the Monroe Correctional Complex, 16774 170th Drive SE. At 9 p.m., the state Department of Corrections will observe a moment of silence at all its prisons. Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, stevick@heraldnet.com

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