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Originally published Wednesday, February 2, 2011 at 9:13 PM

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The state's struggle to deal with a 'helpful' prisoner

The state believed Byron Scherf, the suspect in Saturday's killing of a Monroe prison guard, was unlikely to act out in prison. Prison officials also declined to provide him with sex-offender treatment he requested.

Seattle Times staff reporter

Eleven years before Byron Scherf became the chief suspect in the strangling of a Monroe corrections officer, a psychologist had concluded Scherf was "unlikely to act out within the institution."

Summarizing the psychologist's report, a state board that reviews inmate sentences described Scherf, a serial rapist, this way: "He is in fact much more likely to behave as a good, trouble-free, helpful inmate than a violent inmate."

The board added: "Albeit, if he were to act out he clearly has potential for horrific behaviors."

The report from the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, dated Aug. 22, 2000, reflected the state's ongoing struggles to determine the level of danger posed by Scherf, a three-strikes offender serving a life sentence without chance of parole.

The state also struggled to get Scherf sex-offender treatment that both Scherf and prison officials acknowledged he needed. It was considered an inefficient use of resources since the state was unsure when, if ever, Scherf would be released from prison.

And while Scherf acknowledged his continuing threat as a rapist should he ever be released, the Department of Corrections (DOC) in 2009 downgraded Scherf from maximum-security status to medium security. Had that status not changed, he likely would have been transferred to a different prison.

On Saturday night, Jayme Biendl, a 34-year-old corrections officer, was found dead in Monroe's prison chapel, a microphone cord wrapped around her neck. Biendl worked alone in the chapel, where inmates were allowed to visit and worship.

Scherf, 52, became the primary suspect from the investigation's outset and was found with blood droplets on his hands and clothes, and bite marks on his fingers. Detectives suspect Scherf's pants were down during the attack and are investigating whether Biendl was killed while fighting off a sexual assault, according to court records.

Documents obtained by The Seattle Times on Wednesday show that Scherf repeatedly attempted to get sex-offender treatment while in prison, to no avail. In 1991 he was transferred to a prison unit because it offered such treatment. But he wasn't able to enter the program because he was then serving an indeterminate sentence — meaning it was uncertain when he would be released.

After Scherf raped a Spokane real-estate agent in 1995 — and was convicted of felony charges that amounted to his third strike — he was unable to get such treatment because he was no longer eligible to be released. In a 2000 report, the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board wrote: "The Board highly encourages Mr. Scherf to engage in self study by reading and obtaining any information regarding sex offenders and treatment."

The documents also detail the many ways in which Scherf managed to impress counselors, psychologists and assorted parole administrators while in prison over the years.

Scherf has been in prison for almost the entirety of his adult life, beginning with his first penitentiary sentence in the late 1970s. He managed to get paroled twice but quickly reoffended, each time committing a rape that he had planned out and calculated well in advance, according to state records.

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But from the outset, Scherf convinced many prison officials that he was a model inmate, determined to better himself.

A 1979 report said Scherf had a "clear conduct record;" had secured his GED and was on his way to completing community college; had graduated from vocational meat-cutting courses and had moved on to electrical maintenance courses — "and all with outstanding reports. His counselor speaks glowingly of him."

In 1980, a corrections officer reviewing Scherf's request for parole wrote: "I also am of the opinion that Scherf should have little difficulty obtaining full-time employment. He is a neat appearing, clean-cut young man, with good verbal skills and a very positive attitude."

In 1993, Scherf received positive reports from both a psychologist and a counselor. The psychologist, according to a report, "states that Scherf does not appear to be a danger to be at large, and that he seems to be self-motivated to help."

The counselor wrote of Scherf: "His work evaluations have been consistently superior, and his attitude toward staff and other inmates has been beyond question. ... My impression is that Scherf has made the maximum effort that could be expected of an inmate incarcerated within the system."

By the time he was released in 1993 — the second time he was paroled — Scherf had, according to one report, completed the following programs: "two substance abuse programs, two anger/stress management classes, an advanced anger/stress management class ... his Associate of Arts degree from Walla Walla Community College, completing a variety of seminars and programs such as Prison Survival Guide, Forklift Safety, an Industrial Safety course, Peace Between People workshop, Advanced Peace Between People program, Discipleship seminar, and a 'How to be Your Own Best Friend' program."

Using the parlance of the corrections system, the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board wrote: "Mr. Scherf has programmed extremely well."

While the psychologist's report in 2000 downplayed the risks posed by Scherf within prison, the board said the opposite held true outside prison.

"Mr. Scherf acknowledges himself that he does do very well in the institution, but gets in trouble when he is out in the community," the board's report said. "He further acknowledges that he is an untreated sex offender and will more than likely re-offend if he were to be released."

Scherf has consistently professed a devotion to religion, according to the records. He attended Bible study, once worked as a clerk in the chapel, and even took steps toward getting a minister's license.

In 1985, in a rare faceoff with the prison system, Scherf initiated a lawsuit against the DOC. But he quickly withdrew the lawsuit and wrote a letter to the director, saying: "I want you to know that I am sorry for implicating you and the others mentioned and I trust that you will accept my deepest apologies. Although I still believe that the issues contained in the complaint need to be rectified, I am a Christian and have no business pursuing these matters in a worldly court. I have committed these matters unto Him who judges righteously, 1 Peter 2:18 thru 23. Thank you for hearing me out. God bless you richly."

Scherf got married in the late 1980s, while in prison. His wife's involvement with him "first began with mail correspondence through a Christian Outreach Program she was affiliated with in San Diego," state records say. When the two married, she moved from California to Spokane. They have remained married for more than 20 years.

Ken Armstrong: 206-464-3730 or karmstrong@seattletimes.com

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