Prosecutors play confession videos in Scherf trial

EVERETT — Before this week jurors had heard only lawyers describe how Byron Scherf killed a Monroe corrections officer, but on Tuesday the jury heard the inmate explain in his own words what he did to Jayme Biendl on Jan. 29, 2011.

“I’m responsible for the death of a corrections officer at the Monroe Correctional Complex. I strangled her to death at approximately 8:40 p.m. in the chapel,” Byron Scherf said.

Prosecutors on Tuesday played jurors three videotaped interviews Scherf gave to detectives not long after Biendl was found dead inside the chapel at the Washington State Reformatory. Some jurors read the transcripts as the videos played and others seemed intent on watching the story unfold on screen.

Scherf is charged with aggravated murder. The convicted rapist already is serving a life sentence without the chance of release. Prosecutors are seeking his execution.

They allege that Scherf plotted to kill Biendl, 34. They said he took steps to guarantee that he would be alone with her in the chapel and out of view of any prison security cameras.

Scherf’s attorneys have suggested that there are reasons to doubt that the slaying was premeditated. Defense lawyer Jon Scott in opening statements last week quoted Scherf saying that he was overcome with rage and blacked out as he was choking Biendl with an amplifier cord.

The defense had fought to keep Scherf’s videotaped statements away from jurors. During three days of pretrial hearings last year, they raised questions about their client’s mental state at the time he spoke with detectives. They suggested that Scherf agreed to speak with detectives only as a way to improve his living conditions at the Snohomish County Jail.

Superior Court Judge George Appel ruled, however, that the videos would be allowed to be shown during the trial.

Snohomish County deputy prosecutor Ed Stemler on Tuesday asked sheriff’s detective Brad Walvatne how Scherf began talking about the killing.

Scherf initially had declined to talk to police. He later asked to speak with Walvatne and his partner, sheriff’s detective Dave Bilyeu, who were assigned to photograph the inmate’s injuries over the course of two weeks.

Scherf’s first interview centered around improving his living conditions at the jail.

He said he’d be willing to give detectives “a full confession” if some of his requests were met. Scherf wanted to be able to shave and make more phone calls. He wanted soap, toothpaste and hot water in his cell. He also asked to be able to buy snacks from the jail’s commissary.

“I want some things done, and if this doesn’t happen, then everything’s off the table,” Scherf said.

Two days later, Scherf sat down with detectives in front of a video camera. Jurors on Tuesday heard how Scherf had been provided a lawyer, and had been repeatedly advised he didn’t have to talk.

Scherf made it clear that he was there voluntarily and hadn’t been promised anything. He said the detectives had been kind and professional to him.

“I’m here because I need to be here,” Scherf said.

He spoke with detectives over several days. In the first video, a much-heavier Scherf is seen seated at a table, sipping a cup of coffee and fiddling with a pen as he described the hours leading up to the attack.

The inmate said he became angry over a comment he claimed Biendl made about his then-wife. Detectives tried to get Scherf to explain further, but he said that was between him and Biendl.

He also said Biendl’s comment was the “straw that broke the camel’s back” for him, and she paid the price for what he considered to be years of injustice while serving decades in prison.

He said he initially planned to stay behind and assault Biendl.

“I got to the point when I knew I was going to kill her,” Scherf said.

He described feeling rage. He spoke of thinking he would need to take her communications radio, stripping her of the ability to call for help.

He said he first left the chapel, checking the immediate area for other inmates or corrections officers. He shut the locking gate to the entrance of the chapel. He knew that if officers saw the gate open, they’d get suspicious.

He said he went back into the chapel to the sanctuary. He snuck up on Biendl and cornered her on the stage.

Early in the struggle, Scherf said, he tore the radio microphone from her uniform, where it had been attached near her shoulder. The pair then fought over the radio holstered on her hip. Biendl at one point was yelling and using both hands, trying to hang on to the radio and to summon help.

“Do you remember what she was saying?” a detective asked.

“‘Help, help, please help,” Scherf said.

He detailed the struggle, saying it may have lasted three to four minutes. Biendl fought. She bit his finger so hard she drew blood. Scherf said the bruises all over his body — about 70 different injuries — were from her.

Once they were on the ground, Scherf reached for an amplifier cord. He used about “75 percent” of his strength in pulling tight the cord around Biendl’s neck and then claimed he “blacked out” for several minutes, until after the corrections officer was dead.

He said he came to, sitting on a chair in the back of the sanctuary.

“Be honest with you it was a pretty big adrenaline pump,” he said.

In a later interview, Monroe police detective Barry Hatch pressed the inmate about blacking out. He suggested Scherf just didn’t want to share his real memories.

Scherf said he wasn’t holding back.

“I intended to kill her. I took the steps to kill her and she’s dead,” Scherf said.

Detectives asked Scherf if he ever thought of summoning aid for the corrections officer.

“At that point I wasn’t sorry she was dead,” he said.

Later in that same interview with police, Scherf said he is sorry for what happened. He said he’d done some soul-searching and sought guidance in scripture.

He teared up when he told them that Biendl didn’t deserve to die.

“The Bible says if you take a life, you give a life. That’s all I can say,” Scherf said.

Jurors later were told how Scherf on Feb. 14, 2011, sent a letter to detectives asking them to visit at the jail. When they got there, the inmate had prepared a written message addressed to prosecutors. He asked the detectives to help him put it in their hands.

On Tuesday, a tape of that conversation was played while jurors read from transcripts, following along. Scherf told the detectives he understood his request was unusual and perhaps raised legal questions, but he urged them to deliver “my statement to the prosecutor about what I hope to happen in this case.”

Stemler then entered into evidence the message Scherf had wanted prosecutors to see two years ago.

He had Walvatne read it aloud to jurors.

Scherf noted that he already was serving life in prison. He urged prosecutors to charge him with aggravated murder and to seek the death penalty.

“I WILL plead guilty!” Scherf wrote at the time. “I have a moral obligation to do so. The Biendl family deserves no less. I will not put them through any more suffering than they are already enduring. They deserve swift justice and closure.”

More testimony is expected today. Lawyers said Tuesday that the case could go to the jury later this week.

Writer Scott North contributed to this report.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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