By Eric Stevick, Rikki King and Scott North Herald Writers
“She never said to me why, but she made it clear to me that was her chapel, her place, her job,” prison superintendent Scott Frakes said Sunday. “She loved her job.”
Biendl, a corrections officer for nine years, also expressed reservations to union leaders about being the sole person in the chapel.
On Saturday night, her worst fears came true. Biendl was killed, her body found on the sanctuary floor.
A convicted rapist serving life without parole was being held in isolation at the prison as the prime suspect.
Well liked and professional, Biendl, 34, was chosen by her peers in 2008 as corrections officer of the year at Monroe, the state’s largest prison.
The Granite Falls woman reportedly was found unresponsive about 10:20 p.m. Saturday. Crews attempted to revive her using CPR, but she was declared dead at 10:49 p.m.
“This is the saddest day in my career,” Frakes told a news conference Sunday afternoon.
He described the slain corrections officer as committed, confident and tenacious.
“I never found a time when Jayme Biendl wasn’t on the move,” Frakes said. “She didn’t miss anything.”
Greg Smith was among the dozens of corrections officers who gathered outside the prison entrance Sunday evening for a candlelight vigil in Biendl’s memory. They had been friends for years, he said. He said he can’t imagine what her family is going through.
It was hard for him to speak of his lost colleague.
“She was great, really great,” he said. “She took pride in her job.”
Biendl apparently was strangled; there was no evidence of sexual assault, said Chad Lewis, a corrections department spokesman.
The job of supervising inmates in the chapel has long been worked as a post staffed by a single officer, Frakes said.
The death was discovered an hour after inmate Byron Scherf, 52, was discovered missing during a routine count at 9:14 p.m., prison officials said. Scherf was found minutes later in the lobby of the chapel in the Washington State Reformatory building. He reportedly told officers that he planned to escape.
The prison superintendent said the events that took place Saturday night will be investigated by corrections officials and others. Among other things, he wants to know why it took an hour for others in the prison to realize Biendl had been attacked.
“That is a question on my mind,” Frakes said. “It is a question we will have to thoroughly explore.”
Surveillance cameras were in the chapel, but they apparently didn’t capture the attack, Frakes said. It occurred near the end of her 12:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. swing shift.
Biendl’s killing was the first on-duty death caused by an inmate in the 100-year history of the Monroe correctional complex, Frakes said.
The last corrections worker killed in Washington state in the line of duty was Michael S. Erdahl in May 1985, according to the Washington Correctional Association. He was a probation and parole officer who was tortured and murdered. The case was never solved.
Three corrections officers died in the line of duty in the 1970s, with the last one before that in 1934, according to the Washington State Law Enforcement Memorial Foundation.
Scherf is about 6 feet tall and weighs around 220 pounds. He is about 9 inches taller and 100 pounds heavier than Biendl, prison officials said. Officers inside the prison do not carry weapons around inmates, a security measure to limit the chance of the prison being taken over.
Biendl was an honor roll student and part of the 1995 graduating class at Granite Falls High School. She married her childhood sweetheart. That marriage ended in divorce.
State prisons secretary Eldon Vail met with Biendl’s family between 2 and 4 a.m. Sunday.
Biendl came from a large, well-liked family.
“She was just a real sweetheart, a nice, nice girl,” her high school home economics teacher Catherine Wagner said. “I’m just broken-hearted. She was always sweet, always pleasant. Everyone liked her.
“It’s just sick,” Wagner said. “It’s so wrong.”
The Monroe complex houses roughly 2,500 of the state’s 16,000 inmates. It is made up of five separate prisons on 340 acres, housing minimum to maximum security prisoners. It employs about 1,200 staff.
Corrections officers for months have protested state budget cuts that led to staff reductions. They said officer safety was jeopardized.
Prison officials said Biendl’s death was discovered after they inventoried equipment Sunday and realized that a correctional officer’s keys and radio were missing. That caused them to immediately go to her work area. They began attempts to revive her and called 911.
Kimberly Nichols, the wife of a Monroe corrections officer, said she and others worried that something like this would happen.
In November, she wrote an open letter urging improved safety at the prison.
Corrections officers and their families are devastated, she said.
“This is what we all feared,” she said. “This is exactly what the fear was. Why did it have to come to this?”
Nichols said she didn’t know Biendl personally, but she knew her to be respected and well-regarded throughout the prison.
“If this is not a call for action, I don’t know what is,” she said. “We have got to protect the people who protect us.”
In September, Gov. Chris Gregoire ordered state agencies, including corrections, to cut 6.3 percent of their spending because of the deficit.
That worked out to $53 million in cuts for corrections. Prison officials responded by dicing small pieces from nearly every corner of the budget.
Cuts include less treatment for sex offenders and scaling back prisoners’ education and counseling. Modified lockdowns were scheduled every month and began in November.
The lockdowns were protested by the Teamsters Local Union 117, which represents state correctional workers.
Anger over the state’s handling of the corrections budget mixed with sadness at Sunday’s vigil.
“Her co-workers wanted to give her a tribute tonight. We’re so sad and angry at the same time,” said Tracey Thompson, secretary-treasurer for the Teamsters local.
The crowd swelled as the evening fell. More than a dozen bouquets were laid along the prison’s Twin Rivers entrance sign and on top of a table laden with candles. A ceramic basket of flowers displayed a photograph of the fallen corrections officer. Balloons that looked like U.S. flags blew in the wind.
Corrections officers spoke in small circles, remembering a woman who was a joy to work with and who loved her job.
It is difficult to accept what happened, corrections officer Leigh Breitkreutz said.
“She was a really good officer, and she’s going to be missed,” Breitkreutz said. “I’m going to miss her smiling face.”
People don’t fully grasp the danger corrections officers face, together, every day, she said. Now, they are banding together to face the pain.
“One thing is we all pull together in tragedies,” she said. “We all support each other.”
Herald writer Diana Hefley contributed to this report.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, firstname.lastname@example.org
A timeline of Saturday’s events
Here is a timeline of the events surrounding the death Saturday of Jayme Biendl, an officer at the Monroe Correctional Complex:
8:30 p.m.: Biendl works alone at the chapel in the Washington State Reformatory. The chapel closes at 8:30 p.m.
9 p.m.: A routine inmate count begins.
9:14 p.m.: The count comes up short. Prison officials realize the missing inmate is Byron Scherf, 52, a convicted rapist serving life under a “three strikes” sentence. He’s allowed by the prison system to work as a volunteer at the chapel.
9:19 p.m.: Scherf is found in the chapel lobby. He reportedly tells officials he planned to escape.
10:20 p.m.: Prison officials realize an officer’s radio and keys are missing. They check on Biendl and find her unresponsive in the chapel. Investigators are trying to determine why it took an hour to discover her fate.
10:49 p.m.: Aid crews are unable to revive Biendl. Evidence suggests she’s been strangled.
The prison complex was placed on lockdown Sunday while Monroe police detectives investigated. Scherf was being held in isolation. He declined to be questioned by investigators and asked for an attorney.