Slain corrections officer’s family settles lawsuit

MONROE — The state has settled a lawsuit with the parents of slain Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl.

The lawsuit was dismissed earlier this week after the state agreed to pay Biendl’s parents $900,000, according to records provided Friday by the state Attorney General’s Office.

“This settlement may bring closure, but it won’t bring Jayme back. There is no amount of money that can replace the loss our family has endured. We have been on an emotional roller coaster these past three years and worry that our mom and dad cannot take the emotions of fighting the state for another two to five years,” Biendl’s siblings wrote in a statement released to The Herald.

“We truly hope and pray that no other family ever has to feel the pain we felt on January 29, 2011,” they wrote.

Biendl, 34, was strangled by an inmate while at her post in the prison chapel at the Washington State Reformatory. Repeat rapist Byron Scherf, 55, confessed to ambushing Biendl at the end of her shift. A Snohomish County jury last year sentenced Scherf to die for the slaying.

He already was serving a life sentence for violent attacks against women, including lighting a victim on fire after raping her.

Scherf had been classified a medium security inmate, allowing him to volunteer in the chapel. Biendl had worked in the prison chapel, a solo post, for about six years before she was killed inside the sanctuary.

Her family filed a lawsuit Jan. 28 against the state Department of Corrections and former Monroe Correctional Complex Superintendent Scott Frakes. The lawsuit alleged that the state and Frakes failed to do enough to protect Biendl.

The lawsuit largely focused 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,” Seattle attorney Becky Roe told The Herald in January.

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 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.

Biendl’s sibling would have preferred going forward with the lawsuit “to draw more scrutiny to the unsafe working conditions at Monroe, and particularly the horribly flawed decisions that classified Scherf such that he could roam the facility unsupervised,” according to the family’s statement.

However, Jayme’s parents, Jackie and James Hamm, already endured “the stress and trauma of the lengthy criminal case,” the release said.

“Another step toward closure was more important at this stage in their lives,” Biendl’s sister Lisa Hamm said in the release.

Biendl’s father is “hopeful that DOC has learned a lesson and that Jayme’s death was not in vain.”

As a result of Biendl’s death, state lawmakers now require the corrections department to make an annual report on corrections staff safety. Many of the changes were recommended by the National Institute of Corrections after then Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered a study on prison safety.

Additionally three Monroe corrections officers were fired after an internal investigation found that they engaged in misconduct, and failed to perform their jobs the night Biendl was killed.

A corrections officer assigned to monitor inmates leaving the chapel and other outbuildings was not at his post that night. Scherf admitted that when he didn’t see the man on the walkway he went back into the chapel to attack Biendl.

During Scherf’s murder trial, prosecutors told jurors that he took advantage of complacency among some corrections officers that night to corner Biendl while she was alone in one of the few places in the prison not monitored by security cameras.

The state was forced to offer the fired 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.

Biendl’s family called for change, urging the state to make prisons safer for staff.

“We can only hope that the DOC will use any money they have to make improvements to the prison to protect the amazing people who work there and protect us every day,” Biendl’s family wrote. “Please keep our family in your thoughts and prayers as we try to rebuild our lives and finally try to mourn the loss of our daughter, sister, and friend.”

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

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