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Originally published January 30, 2011 at 11:26 AM | Page modified February 2, 2011 at 2:53 PM

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Monroe guard complained about working solo before inmate killed her

Corrections officer Jayme Biendl had repeatedly complained to her supervisors about working alone in the chapel at the Monroe prison. The 5-foot-3, 130-pound officer also complained that security cameras in the area didn't work. Late Saturday, her worst fears were realized when she was strangled in the chapel.

Seattle Times staff reporters

KING5 | Gov. Gregoire press conference

Corrections officer Jayme Biendl had complained repeatedly to supervisors about working alone in the chapel at the Monroe Correctional Complex. The 5-foot-3, 130-pound officer also complained that security cameras in the area didn't work.

Late Saturday, her worst fears were realized when she was found strangled in the chapel, and a microphone cord was found near her post.

"She was feeling unsafe about this because she's off in the chapel and oftentimes supervising lots of inmates, and she had let her supervisors know that she was not feeling safe," said Tracey Thompson, secretary-treasurer for the state corrections officers union, Teamsters Local 117. "My understanding is there were repeated complaints."

Biendl, 34, was pronounced dead at the Washington State Reformatory Unit in the prison complex at 10:49 p.m. The slaying is the first of a corrections staff member at Monroe and the first of an officer in a state prison since 1979.

Al Noriega, investigator for the Snohomish County Medical Examiner's Office, said Monday that Biendl died of asphyxia due to strangulation. He said her case has officially been ruled a homicide.

On Monday, Gov. Chris Gregoire said she asked the National Institute of Corrections, a federal research and training agency, to review the case and determine if proper procedures were followed.

"I join an entire state in mourning this tragedy, and trying to make sense of it," Gregoire said during a short press conference.

Officials of the Department of Corrections (DOC) and Monroe police identified the suspect as Byron Scherf, 52, a "three-strikes," 200-pound repeat rapist serving life without the possibility of parole.

Scherf entered the state prison system in 1997 as a high-security prisoner, but he qualified for medium security in 2009 because of good behavior, said Scott Frakes, Monroe prison superintendent.

The first indication that something was wrong Saturday came at around 9:15 p.m., during a prisoner head count in the reformatory unit. The count found one prisoner missing, and Scherf was located minutes later in the chapel lobby. He told officers that he had planned to escape but changed his mind, according to DOC.

An hour later, during a shift change, other officers discovered Biendl hadn't turned in her keys and radio and went to her post in the chapel, the DOC said. Staff found her unresponsive, performed CPR and called 911.

The Snohomish County Medical Examiner is expected to release the results of an autopsy on Biendl later Monday or Tuesday. Monroe police are conducting taped interviews at the prison.

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Former Officer of Year

Biendl, who lived in Granite Falls, had been with the department since 2002 and was named Officer of the Year in 2008 at the Monroe facility.

"She was active, loved horses and just was beloved by her co-workers at the facility," Thompson said. "Obviously being officer of the year, this was her career. She took her job really seriously, and she did it really well."

Monroe police say Biendl showed no visible signs of sexual assault, according to Frakes. The Snohomish County Medical Examiner will make the final determination. Monroe police Sunday obtained two search warrants related to their investigation, including one to search Scherf for physical evidence.

Scherf, the suspect in Biendl's slaying, is a twice-convicted rapist with a long criminal history. In the late 1970s, at age 19, he was convicted of second-degree assault for trying to rape a Pierce County woman and served two years of a 10-year term, according to court records. During parole, he kidnapped a young waitress from Pierce County, raped her, doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. She survived; he served 12 years in prison.

Scherf was released in 1993, began therapy and was enrolled in college, according to court records and accounts in The Spokesman Review.

In 1995, he abducted and raped a Spokane real-estate agent after making an appointment with her to see a home. Scherf released his victim when she promised not to report him to police. She did, and Scherf ultimately was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The officers' job

The Monroe Correctional Complex, the largest in the state, houses inmates under maximum, medium and minimum security, with capacity for 2,400 men. The complex has five units, including ones for sex offenders and the mentally ill, and employs about 1,200.

Officers carry no weapons — no guns, pepper spray or batons — while on duty at the Monroe prison. Biendl had worked alone in the chapel since 2005.

While DOC had to cut $53 million during this fiscal year, the chapel has been staffed by one officer for "a long, long time," said DOC secretary Eldon Vail. "It hasn't been affected by the staffing cuts."

Biendl at times might have been accompanied by one or two full-time paid chaplains or volunteers, or by inmate janitors known as "porters," Frakes said.

Most inmates are free to visit the chapel, Frakes said, except for inmates in segregation for bad behavior or those in the mental-health unit with a history of violence.

Typically, two unarmed corrections officers are on duty with 240 inmates in a living unit, DOC spokesman Chad Lewis said. During the day, officers mingle with inmates who are outside their cells, visiting, studying, or attending chapel.

"We want them walking around and having social contact," he said. "We're trying to create a positive social environment."

Weapons not only work against that goal, Lewis said, but they can be turned against corrections officers. All staff members are trained in defensive tactics.

"It's always dangerous to have offenders nearby," Lewis said. "We're always outnumbered."

Frakes said female officers began working all posts inside prisons about 30 years ago and began to be seen as "equal to and just as valuable" as male officers.

Thompson, the union representative, said the prison isn't doing enough to protect officers.

"Under the existing staffing model that the Department of Corrections has, a solo officer is in the chapel, which is ridiculous," Thompson said. "I am absolutely beside myself with the fact that it takes one of our members being murdered for the department to listen to our pleas to stop cutting staff and eliminating programs and putting staff at risk."

Thompson said that though Biendl was petite, she was a good at the job.

"She was a small woman, but she was a good, professional officer," Thompson said. "Any officer alone is at risk whether you're 5-foot-2 and 120 pounds or 6-foot-3 and 230."

Attack not on video

Though Thompson said Biendl had raised concerns about her safety — and about video surveillance — Frakes said he "didn't have any sense that she was concerned about things going on there."

Security cameras monitor parts of the chapel area and were working Sunday but did not record the assault, Frakes said. The cameras don't cover the main part of the chapel, he said.

If he had been aware that Biendl had a concern about video surveillance, Frakes said, the prison would have taken it seriously.

Biendl was frank and outspoken and "quick to tell me what was on her mind," Frakes said. He said he last talked to her Thursday.

Early Sunday, Vail drove to Biendl's relatives' homes to notify them personally, Frakes said.

Gov. Chris Gregoire said in a statement Sunday that she has asked the DOC to review the incident and to look at its safeguards.

"It is with a heavy heart that I offer my condolences to the family and friends of Officer Jayme Biendl. I am truly saddened by her senseless murder," Gregoire said in the statement. "This young woman was devoted to an agency that works around the clock to ensure our communities are safe, which makes her death all the more tragic."

Added Thompson: "The folks who work inside there are really saddened, but they're also really angry because we've been talking about safety issues to the governor and the Legislature and the department."

Five corrections officers have died in the line of duty in Washington state, according to the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial Fund. The last one killed in a prison was William Cross in 1979, one of three officers killed at the Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla in the 1970s. Most recently, community corrections officer Michael Erdahl was slain in 1985. His slaying never has been solved.

Staff reporter Jonathan Martin contributed to this report.

Sharon Pian Chan: 206-464-2204 or schan@seattletimes.com.

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