MONROE — Not long after he arrived at the Monroe prison complex nearly a decade ago, Byron Scherf was the focus of state corrections department warnings that today read like terrible prophecy.
The convicted rapist, now charged with the Jan. 29 strangling of Monroe corrections officer Jayme Biendl, was then about four years into serving a life sentence without possibility of release. He was being closely watched after threatening to kill himself over the conditions of his confinement.
“Staff are concerned that his next victim could be a staff person,” one corrections worker wrote June 1, 2001, in the running log state prison officials have kept on Scherf’s behavior since the mid-1990s.
Another log entry from that period probed Scherf’s mental problems, and the risk he appeared to pose behind bars.
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.
“At this time (Scherf) is completely appropriate, friendly, patient and polite,” the log entry continued. “It is also these traits that could make him such a risk in the future as he is so agreeable. His positive actions and attitude should be encouraged, but he should always be seen as potentially predatory and dangerous.”
Scherf is charged with aggravated murder and could face the death penalty for Biendl’s slaying. The inmate allegedly has admitted killing the corrections officer while she worked alone at the prison chapel, a place where he had volunteered for years.
Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail last week said he’s ordered a review across the prison system to see if there are other inmates with violent histories similar to Scherf’s who have found their way into positions of trust.
The state’s prisons house 16,000 offenders. Roughly 1 in 4 are serving sentences of at least 20 years. Among male inmates, 70 percent are locked up for violent crimes.
“The language in Scherf’s case file is not unique to Scherf,” corrections spokesman Chad Lewis said. “You could look at the 16,000 other current inmate case files and find many that are similar to this, some more dangerous. That doesn’t diminish the safety concerns … When we say our staff members have a hard, dangerous job this is exactly what we are talking about — cases like this.”
There are 3,700 corrections officers statewide. With so many more inmates than officers, order in the state’s prisons is maintained in part by rewarding offenders’ good behavior with increased opportunities for work and social interaction.
In the months to come, the prison system’s history with Scherf will be closely scrutinized in a series of separate investigations involving police detectives, labor officials and corrections experts. A three-person team from the National Institute of Corrections, an arm of the U.S. Department of Justice, last week began its examination. Results are expected by March 19.
State officials want to know if evaluating offenders more often could help, Vail said. While the crimes that send inmates to prison are considered, their behavior behind bars also weighs heavily in custody decisions.
In Scherf’s case, “Some madman studied the system and figured out how to take advantage of it,” Vail said. “We got beat, and we got beat bad.”
Predicting human behavior is part of the job, but so is recognizing limits, Vail said. Trying to determine what is going on in inmate’s head is “not like doing an X-ray to see who has a broken leg,” he said.
The Herald used public records laws to obtain access to some of Scherf’s prison records.
Except for his 2001 suicide attempt, he was infraction-free over the past decade. His behavior was so good that he qualified for conjugal visits with his wife, the last in December.
The latest entries in Scherf’s prison behavior log provide no hint that officials were worried that an attack was being planned.
That wasn’t the case a decade ago.
In summer 2001, Scherf underwent a detailed risk assessment. Prison officials warned that he was dangerous, cunning and a planner.
Part of that review included a close examination of the crimes that sent him to prison, including a 1995 rape and kidnapping of a real estate agent near Spokane and an attack on a Pierce County woman in 1981.
In the 1981 case, Scherf abducted a waitress, took her to an abandoned house, tied her up and sexually assaulted her. Before leaving, he poured gasoline on the woman and set her afire. She survived after managing to wriggle out of a second-story window to get help.
The 2001 risk assessment noted that Scherf admitted he planned the 1981 Pierce County rape while serving time in prison, and that it “had been a sustained fantasy throughout his incarceration and parole.”
Scherf first was imprisoned in 1978, when he was 19, after he pleaded guilty to attacking a 16-year-old girl with a knife. He and a couple friends picked up the girl as she hitchhiked in Tacoma.
Prosecutors said Scherf intended to rape the girl, a motive he didn’t admit until 1994, corrections department records show. He served part of his sentence for that attack in Monroe.
His first arrests came when he was 12 or 13 for running away from home. The reports described Scherf recounting a tumultuous relationship with his parents.
“I wanted my own way. I manipulated for I what I wanted,” he said.
The 2001 report said Scherf was unhappy with having earlier been classified as a sufficient threat behind bars that he required close-custody supervision.
While prison records released so far contain redactions, they connect Scherf’s suicide threats with his demands for less restrictions. The report also noted that as of 2001, Scherf had “no real remorse for his crimes or legitimate empathy for his crime victims. His supreme concern appears to be his own well-being and he focuses on talking about his problems to the exclusion of discussion regarding the problems his behaviors have caused others.”
Prison officials moved Scherf to medium-security custody in 2002. The reports released so far don’t detail all the factors that were considered.
Determining what happened, and identifying ways to improve the process, are the reasons prison officials are seeking multiple reviews, Lewis said.
Meanwhile, Scherf remains under lock and key at the Snohomish County Jail. He allegedly has said he attacked Biendl out of anger, not for sex. She injured him while fighting for her life. Detectives say there were no obvious signs of a sex assault.
Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe has given Scherf’s defense attorneys until Monday to provide information they want Roe to consider before he decides whether to seek the death penalty.
Scherf’s attorneys already have said they won’t be able to meet the deadline. A day before Scherf was charged with aggravated murder they filed a civil lawsuit, asking a judge to order prosecutors to give them more time. They also asked for an injunction to bar Roe from swiftly filing a notice to seek the death penalty.
It’s unclear if Scherf’s attorneys will pursue a civil case now that criminal charges are filed.
Prosecutors have until Friday to re-file in Superior Court. Scherf could be arraigned as early as March 15.
Roe plans to meet with his senior deputy prosecutors to discuss whether to seek Scherf’s death. He has met with Biendl’s family. They are in favor of a death sentence for Scherf.
The defendant also reportedly says he deserves to die.
Scott North, 425-339-3431, firstname.lastname@example.org