By Eric Stevick Herald Writer
MONROE — As the somber anniversary of the slaying of Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl nears, newly released documents show that state prison officials believe dereliction of duty by some of her co-workers helped set the stage for the killing.
The evidence is found in blistering letters sent to three officers who were fired last October. The letters, obtained through the state’s open records law, detail alleged misconduct that night and describe officers apparently trying to misdirect investigators afterwards.
One of the officers was singled out for particularly scathing criticism. He was supposed to be watching inmates as they filed out of the prison chapel where Biendl was strangled shortly after 8:30 p.m. Jan. 29.
The man admits he wasn’t at his post. A year later, prison officials said they still don’t know where he was that night.
In an Oct. 25 termination letter, the prison’s director told the corrections officer he “severely compromised an essential safeguard” for Biendl and an inmate “took full advantage of your failure.”
Does Scott Frakes, superintendent of the Monroe Correctional Complex, believe officer inaction or failure to complete duties are responsible in some way for Biendl’s death?
“That would require I speculate,” Frakes said in an interview. “I can’t do that.”
Biendl’s strangling was the first time in more than three decades that a Washington corrections officer was killed in a state prison. Inmate Byron Scherf, 53, is charged with aggravated first-degree murder and could face the death penalty.
The officer who wasn’t at his post had worked at the prison for three years. Frakes didn’t mince words in the letter he sent telling the man he was fired.
“It was during that offender recall movement that offender Byron S. exited the chapel, saw that no one was standing at or near the gate and was able to turn around, go back through and close the gate, and re-enter the chapel without detection where he proceeded to attack and murder Officer Biendl,” Frakes wrote.
The Monroe complex includes five prisons on one campus. It’s the state’s largest prison and houses more than 2,500 offenders. Biendl was killed inside the Washington State Reformatory, a medium-security prison, now more than a century old.
Scherf, in an April letter, wrote to prison officials that any meaningful investigation would have to determine why an officer was not posted on the chapel walkway. Investigators believe that in his letter, Scherf was suggesting that he saw the opportunity to return to the chapel.
Frakes found that another officer, also a three-year corrections employee, failed to verify with Biendl that the chapel was clear of all inmates at 8:30 p.m. The man was fired for allegedly making a false entry in the Tower 9 log book indicating that the chapel had been checked by Biendl and was empty.
After the killing, the officer presented an initial incident report, indicating he saw Biendl close the gate outside the chapel. He later told investigators he wasn’t sure.
The bogus log entry was made at 8:45 p.m., roughly 13 minutes after Scherf apparently snuck back into the chapel and attacked Biendl.
Frakes wrote: “Despite what you entered in the logbook, Officer Biendl did not close the gate, did not make notification that the chapel was clear, and you did not follow up with her to account for the fact that her area was clear of offenders after the (8:30) recall movement.”
The third fired officer submitted an incident report saying he inspected and secured the chapel after Scherf turned up missing in an inmate count. The officer found Scherf sitting in a chair within feet of the chapel’s front doors at 9:19 p.m. Biendl’s body was not discovered until 10:26 p.m., after others in the prison realized she’d never left work after her shift ended that evening.
A state Department of Corrections investigation, released in July, concluded that if prison officers had been following procedures, they would have found Biendl much earlier.
After being confronted with video surveillance during a June interview with corrections investigators, the officer, a 10-year veteran, ultimately admitted he did not inspect the chapel. When asked why he said he had, the man told investigators: “I wrote down what was expected of me, not what I did.”
He also was criticized for failing to properly notify other staff that he had found Scherf in the chapel — an error that not only placed him at risk, but other officers as well.
The letters were based in part on a review of officers’ statements made as the circumstances around Biendl’s death were investigated by police and the corrections department.
Four other officers also faced discipline.
A sergeant in charge of the officer who was not watching the walkway by the chapel was demoted. Frakes wrote that the sergeant had been told by his superiors on many occasions that the officer wasn’t where he was supposed to be during inmate movements and that he failed to act.
Another officer was reprimanded for failing to search a building near the chapel where Biendl was killed.
A lieutenant was reprimanded for failing to immediately account for Biendl and other staff after Scherf was reported missing. He was demoted to sergeant.
Another lieutenant was reprimanded for inaccurately accounting for staff members and visitors.
The officers who were fired are appealing their terminations.
In an interview, Frakes acknowledged the disciplinary letters conveyed “a tone of disappointment,” reflecting his belief that staff members failed to uphold their duties.
Disciplining and firing staff is painful, Frakes said.
“There is a difference between making a simple mistake and a willful act,” he said. “A pattern of not being there and giving conflicting stories of where you are would be a willful act.”
Corrections officials still haven’t been able to determine the whereabouts of the officer who was missing from his assigned post near the chapel. The investigation found evidence he likely was inside the prison because he wrote an email minutes before the movement of inmates, but exactly where he was remains a mystery.
“I don’t have a definitive answer,” Frakes said in an interview. “The answer is they were not able to pin that down cleanly. I believe he was somewhere on the grounds but where I don’t know.”
The fired officer acknowledged to corrections department investigators that he was outside of his zone during the inmate movement. He claimed he was helping with pat down searches of offenders at the base of a nearby watch tower, and that he was talking with two other corrections officers. Neither officer he named remembered seeing him there.
It is unclear if anything the fired officers did — or did not do — warrants criminal charges.
“We have received the same letters and information.” Snohomish County Prosecutor Mark Roe said. “Anything we have to say we will say in court if and when it becomes an issue.”
A series of changes have been made at the prison since Biendl’s death.
They include more training, security advisory committees, shift changes to increase staffing at peak prisoner movement times, and tighter screening of how inmates are classified and assigned jobs.
Officers also are being outfitted with personal alarms that are designed to better alert their colleagues to problems.
The overall inmate population at the reformatory was reduced to 630, from around 750.
Scherf had been serving a life sentence. His file contained pointed warnings that his criminal history indicated he could present a grave risk to corrections officers, particularly women. After Biendl’s death, the corrections department reviewed inmate files and reassigned some to other prisons. As a result, the number of inmates serving life sentences at the reformatory has dropped from 150 to 100.
The corrections department investigation of the actions of Biendl’s co-workers the night she died was extensive and, ultimately, painful. Frakes said.
“The best word I can come up with is ‘sad,’” he said. “I was just sad that there were issues connected to staff.”
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, email@example.com