By Diana Hefley Herald Writer
MONROE — The family of slain corrections officer Jayme Biendl has filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Corrections and the Monroe prison’s former superintendent, alleging that numerous system failures helped a rapist carry out murder.
Wednesday marked the third anniversary of Biendl’s death. The lawsuit is the first time her family has publicly criticized the department and former Monroe Correctional Complex Superintendent Scott Frakes.
Biendl was strangled Jan. 29, 2011, by an inmate while at her post in the prison chapel at the Washington State Reformatory. A year ago, repeat rapist Byron Scherf, 55, was sentenced to die for the slaying. He is appealing his conviction.
At the time of the killing, Scherf was serving a life sentence for his violent attacks against women. He had been classified a medium security inmate, allowing him to volunteer in the chapel.
Scherf confessed to ambushing Biendl, 34, at the end of her shift. He said the corrections officer insulted his wife, although he declined to disclose what she said.
Biendl, who weighed about 100 pounds less than the inmate, fought off the attack until Scherf was able to wrap an amplifier cord around her neck.
The lawsuit blames the state and Frakes for not doing enough to protect Biendl.
It was “highly predictable” that lapses in safety at the prison, particularly relating to Scherf, “would cause harm to employees,” the lawsuit said.
As a result “Jayme Biendl was beaten, strangled, and killed. She experienced substantial pre-death pain and suffering, terror and anxiety. James and Jacquelyn Hamm lost their daughter and their other children lost their sister,” Seattle attorney Rebecca Roe wrote in court papers.
Corrections officials declined to comment on Thursday.
“It’s not our practice to comment on pending litigation,” corrections spokeswoman Norah West said.
The lawsuit was filed Tuesday in Snohomish County Superior Court. The family filed a claim with the state in July, stating it was too early to quantify damages but they were expected to exceed $5 million.
Biendl, a Granite Falls native, had requested the solo post in the chapel in 2005. In the months leading up to her death she alerted her superiors to multiple safety issues there, according to the lawsuit. She was concerned about inadequate lighting, the lack of surveillance cameras and poor radio communications. Her warnings were ignored, the lawsuit said.
“The failure to address ongoing safety concerns raised by Jayme Biendl and others amounts to deliberate indifference to the safety of DOC employees,” Roe wrote.
The lawsuit largely focuses on Scherf’s known criminal history and his access to Biendl.
“The biggest issue from the get-go has been how in the world was Scherf in the position he was in, where he could be alone with a female officer given his history, which DOC knew,” Roe said Thursday.
The state had reduced Scherf’s classification status, despite his violent crimes and despite corrections officials’ written warnings that he should always be considered high risk, particularly to female employees.
State prison officials had kept a running log on Scherf’s behavior since the mid-1990s. In 2001, one log entry said that Scherf “will likely be a ‘model inmate’ but he will always be a danger to female staff and, as he agreed, we cannot know if he is having (rape) fantasies or problems; there are no outward signs,” according to state records previously obtained by The Herald.
An internal investigation and a review by the National Institute of Corrections never answered why Scherf was downgraded to medium security. The state also never produced any records documenting the reasons for the change.
The lawsuit alleges that DOC and its employees are liable for “Scherf’s sexually motivated assault on Jayme Biendl” because he was given the opportunity to be alone with the corrections officer.
The lawsuit also blames the state for letting Scherf volunteer at the chapel, saying the prison didn’t have any policies, protocols or screening to determine who should be allowed the privilege. Frakes’ decisions “to permit Scherf to roam the prison unsupervised were objectively unreasonable,” Roe wrote.
The attorney is a former longtime King County prosecutor and the older sister of Mark Roe, Snohomish County’s elected prosecutor. It was Mark Roe who decided to seek the death penalty for Scherf.
The lawsuit also blames Frakes for failing to manage and correct performance issues among his staff.
A corrections officer assigned to monitor inmates leaving the chapel and other outbuildings was not at his post the night Biendl was killed. Scherf admitted that when he didn’t see the man on the walkway he went back into the chapel to ambush Biendl.
During Scherf’s murder trial, prosecutors told jurors that he took advantage of complacency among some corrections officers that night to ambush Biendl while she was alone in one of the few places in the prison not monitored by security cameras.
Three officers were fired after an internal investigation concluded that they engaged in misconduct, and failed to perform their jobs the night Biendl was killed.
The state, however, was forced to offer the officers their jobs back after an arbitrator concluded that safety concerns were widespread at the prison, and that it was unfair to blame individual employees for an institutional problem.
The lawsuit also faults Frakes for failing to implement adequate systems to assure that employees were safe and accounted for at the end of their shifts.
Corrections officers discovered that Scherf was missing from his cell during a routine inmate count. They found him sitting in the chapel foyer. No one searched the chapel sanctuary where Biendl was ultimately found. They realized she hadn’t left the prison when they noted that her equipment hadn’t been returned. Her body was found about two hours after she was killed.
After Biendl’s death, numerous safety problems were found and changes made, including more training, shift changes to increase staffing at peak prison movement times, and tighter screening of how inmates are classified and assigned jobs.
The overall inmate population at the Washington State Reformatory also was reduced, and the department issued body alarms to officers assigned there.
Frakes, who had been superintendent at Monroe since 2008, was promoted in 2012 to deputy director of prisons at the department’s headquarters in Tumwater.
Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; firstname.lastname@example.org.