By Rikki King and Eric Stevick Herald Writers
MONROE — Three corrections officers have been fired for their conduct at the Monroe Correctional Complex the night officer Jayme Biendl was killed and for inconsistent or false statements made to investigators afterward.
Two other officers were demoted and three received reprimands, officials announced Wednesday.
In all, Monroe Correctional Complex Superintendent Scott Frakes disciplined seven officers who were on duty Jan. 29 when Biendl was attacked at her post at the Washington State Reformatory chapel.
The disciplinary investigations focused on whether there was misconduct on the part of two lieutenants, a sergeant and four officers the night Biendl died.
Biendl, 32, allegedly was strangled by an inmate. She wasn’t found for almost two hours. A previous state Department of Corrections internal investigation stopped short of saying that missteps by staff contributed to Biendl’s death.
Inmate Byron Scherf, 53, a convicted rapist serving a life sentence, is charged with aggravated first-degree murder and faces the possibility of the death penalty.
Frakes released a statement on Wednesday detailing the discipline involving the officers.
“We carefully reviewed every action that occurred on that night and found that nearly every staff member followed procedures and policies,” Frakes said. “However, we did find some staff members who did not take appropriate actions or intentionally misled investigators. To operate a safe facility it is absolutely critical that we hold ourselves accountable for our actions, which is why I took the action I did.”
Investigators from the Monroe prison and state Department of Corrections headquarters were involved in the disciplinary probes.
“It was very thorough,” corrections department spokesman Chad Lewis said.
Lewis said corrections officials were constrained on saying much more because the disciplinary decisions are personnel matters that can be challenged by the officers.
It is unusual for the corrections department to publicly announce disciplinary decisions.
“This is obviously an extraordinary case,” he said. “We wanted to show public accountability.”
The officers can appeal any disciplinary decision under their labor contract, Lewis said.
Union leaders vowed to appeal the firing of the three officers and the demotion of a sergeant.
“Frankly, I’m appalled,” said Tracey Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local Union 117. “It seems to me what management has done is shift 100 percent of the blame to the boots on the ground, the line staff.”
She said prison management also should be under scrutiny. She argued that Scherf is an extremely dangerous inmate whose classification was too lax given his violent past.
Thompson said she hopes the case involving the officers will go to expedited arbitration and can be resolved quickly.
Since Biendl’s death, people at the prison had been privately placing some blame on staff who reportedly weren’t where they were supposed to be. The July investigation concluded that if prison officers had been following procedures, they would have found Biendl earlier that night.
Now, one lieutenant has been reprimanded for failing to notify and account for staff after Scherf was reported missing, according to Frakes’ statement. He has been demoted to sergeant.
A second lieutenant was reprimanded for inaccurately accounting for staff members and visitors.
A sergeant was demoted for failing to take action when he knew that one of the officers was regularly outside of his assigned zone.
That officer was fired for leaving his zone at the prison, and for providing conflicting statements about the night of Biendl’s death — both to police investigators and the corrections department.
Another officer was fired for falsifying entries in a logbook documenting that the chapel was cleared of inmates. He also allegedly gave inconsistent statements to police and corrections officials.
The third firing was for an officer who reportedly failed to inspect and secure the chapel after Scherf was discovered there following an inmate count. Biendl’s body remained undetected inside. The officer allegedly lied to investigators about checking the chapel.
Another officer was reprimanded for failing to search a building near the chapel where Biendl was killed.
The internal investigation, made public in July, found several procedural problems among corrections staff that night.
The review team examined a letter that Scherf sent to prison officials in April. The letter stated there was no officer on the walkway between Tower 9 and the chapel during the time he allegedly has admitted slipping back inside to attack Biendl.
“Scherf suggested in the letter that any meaningful investigation would include a review of why (officers) were not posted on the walkway,” according to the report. “One inference that could be taken from the Scherf letter is that he looked for and saw the opportunity to return to the chapel undetected.”
Rikki King: 425-339-3449; firstname.lastname@example.org.