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Sirens & Gavels

Murder suspect worked in prison chapel

The suspect in the murder of a prison guard had served as a chapel volunteer after a decade of good behavior. 

Byron Scherf, a serial rapist with ties to Spokane , told officers he was trying to escape but had changed his mind when he was found in the chapel lobby after it was noticed he was missing.

Guard Jayme Biendl's body was found an hour later, fully clothed and with no evidence of sexual assault. The 34-year-old woman had a two-way radio with an alarm, but prison officials don't know whether she tried to call for help.

Two days after Biendl's death, Gov. Chris Gregoire called for an outside investigation focused on whether there is adequate staff at the medium-security reformatory unit of the Monroe Correctional Complex, about 30 miles northeast of Seattle.

“There's a lot of grief and sorrow, and I think there are probably pockets of anger as well,” said Dan Pacholke, the Department of Corrections' deputy director of prisons.

  Union officials questioned why Biendl, a nine-year veteran of the department, was alone after complaining to prison supervisors about being the only guard working in the chapel without anyone checking on her.

Recent budget cuts have forced staffing reductions and union members have been worried about the impact on safety, said Teamsters 117 spokeswoman Tracey Thompson. 

Prison officials said staffing levels among guards who deal directly with inmates weren't down; just one person worked in the chapel for the past 15 years.

Guards always have been outnumbered by inmates, and prisons are full of people who have committed crimes as bad or worse as Scherf's, Pacholke said.

Budget cuts have forced hiring freezes among administrative and support personnel, officials said, but there's been no reduction in the number of “front-line” officers.

Scherf had not had a serious infraction since 2001, had a prison job, wasn't in a gang and had earned privileges for good conduct, Pacholke said.

Everything seemed to indicate he was “serving his incarceration in an acceptable fashion,” he said.

However, he said that did little to comfort prison staff trying to cope with their “tremendous sorrow” at the loss of a personable young woman who in 2008 had been named Monroe's corrections officer of the year.

Gregoire said Monday that in addition to the standard department review, she has asked for an outside review by federal officials at the National Institute of Corrections.

The 800-inmate unit was locked down and could stay that way the rest of the week as the criminal investigation continues, Pacholke said.


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