Governor promises answers

  • By Diana Hefley and Jerry Cornfield Herald Writers
  • Monday, January 31, 2011 11:45am
  • Local NewsMonroe

MONROE — Monroe police detectives spent Monday interviewing staff at the Monroe Correctional Complex and processing evidence seized from the cell of a man suspected of strangling corrections officer Jayme Biendl inside the prison chapel.

Meanwhile, in Olympia, state prison officials and Gov. Christine Gregoire fielded questions about what, if anything, could have been done to keep Biendl safe.

Gregoire announced that Saturday’s killing will be independently reviewed by National Institute of Corrections, an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice.

That is a move supported by the state’s corrections officers union, whose leaders said they warned state officials that budget cuts and staff reductions would make the state’s prisons more dangerous.

At a press conference Monday afternoon, Gregoire promised to get to the bottom of what happened at Monroe, including determining if there is adequate staffing at the state’s prisons. She expects to answer all questions, “but today is to honor the sacrifice of this young woman and her dedication to her job,” Gregoire said.

The governor ordered all state flags to be lowered to half-staff in Biendl’s honor. The Granite Falls woman had been a corrections officer since 2002. She was named Monroe’s officer of the year in 2008.

Biendl, 34, was found Saturday on the stage of the small chapel after her co-workers realized that she hadn’t turned in her keys or radio, something that was required at the end of her shift. An amplifier cord was wrapped around her neck, Monroe police spokeswoman Debbie Willis said.

An autopsy Monday confirmed Biendl was strangled by somebody using a ligature, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office said.

Prison officials have segregated Byron Scherf, 52, a convicted rapist serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He is the prime suspect in Biendl’s slaying, Willis said.

Detectives are working to confirm the timeline of events, including when Biendl and Scherf apparently were alone in the chapel.

“Because they weren’t found together and there was about an hour difference, we’re looking for the nexus that connects them,” Willis said.

Scherf was missing Saturday during a routine count of inmates. Corrections officers were in the process of checking all inmates against their picture identification. Scherf was found minutes later, sitting in the lobby of the chapel in the Washington State Reformatory building. He reportedly told officers he’d planned to escape. The chapel had closed at 8:30 p.m.

Officers focused on the security breech and putting Scherf back into a cell. The prison has no protocol that directs officers to check on other staff near a potential escape attempt, said Bernie Warner, the state’s director of prisons.

“If (Scherf) hadn’t been there, then they would have begun peeling layers back, talking to staff and following the trail deeper into the investigation,” Warner said. “If he hadn’t been found, they would have been walking through the program areas and looking in all the nooks and crannies.”

Biendl was found about an hour later, at 10:20 p.m.

“It looks like the standard practice was followed and that when the keys and the radio weren’t turned in, the officer in the major control booth recognized it and had staff respond accordingly,” Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said.

The surveillance cameras in the chapel area were working but there was none in the sanctuary itself, where Biendl was found.

The nine-year veteran had told union leaders she was concerned about being the sole person in the chapel.

The post had been staffed by a single corrections officer for at least 15 years, Vail said. So far, administrators have not been able to find any formal grievances or complaints brought by Biendl about working alone in the chapel, he said.

Biendl had worked in the chapel for about five years, a job she had requested.

Scherf was allowed to volunteer in the chapel. He told his wife he liked the work.

Detectives obtained two warrants to search Scherf and his cell. He had some marks on his body, but it’s unclear at this point when and how he received those injuries, Willis said.

There was no evidence that a sexual assault had occurred, corrections officials said.

Scherf isn’t expected to be moved from the prison any time soon. Killing a corrections officer can lead to the death penalty in Washington.

Through good behavior in prison, Scherf had earned privileges, such as volunteering in the chapel, Warner said.

Prisoners who are considered high risk outside prison earn different security classifications based on their conduct inside, prison officials said.

Corrections officers are trained to work in complex and stressful environments, Warner said. They are always outnumbered by the prisoners. They must rely on their professional training, communication skills and the relationships they create with the inmates, he said.

Biendl was a highly regarded officer, Warner said.

“She was very confident and skilled, and she wasn’t hesitant about communicating,” with inmates, he said.

Chuck Wright of Mill Creek has been helping corrections officers at Monroe deal with their grief.

He is a retired community corrections supervisor and a mental health professional who works primarily with police officers, firefighters and corrections officers.

It is “ridiculous” for people to make Biendl’s slaying about gender, he said, because female officers have been a vital part of law enforcement and corrections work for decades.

Corrections officers are highly skilled, and men and women receive the same training, he said. They undergo extensive background testing and educational programs to make sure they’re right for the job.

“In this case, the guy was just a brutal man, and this was an opportunity for him to be brutal,” Wright said.

In the days ahead, lawmakers plan to discuss whether the state is spending tax dollars to properly protect employees like Biendl.

Corrections officers for months have protested state budget cuts.

Vail said on Monday the staffing in the area of the reformatory where Biendl worked has not changed, and there haven’t been any reductions.

Gregoire said the issue isn’t about budget cuts, but whether there is adequate staffing.

“We in this state offer some of the safest prisons in the country,” Gregoire said. “But they are safe because we review our practices and we ask hard questions.”

The Monroe Correctional Complex remained on lockdown Monday with inmates confined to their cells.

“We don’t get to close the prison,” Warner said.

He said that he is proud of the officers and staff there. They are grieving the loss of a friend and colleague but they continue to show up for work.

“This is a difficult job they’re doing for the public on a day-to-day basis,” Willis said. “They’re dealing with people that the public can’t deal with. To see this happen to any law enforcement agency is devastating. Our prayers are with them.”

Herald writer Rikki King contributed to this report

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

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