Two Spokane County Jail inmates with violent histories were charged Wednesday with strangling a third inmate in their cell in October
Michael L. West Jr., 28, is charged with first-degree murder for allegedly killing Christopher L. Rentz, 21. Brandon W. Martin, 20, faces second-degree murder charges. West and Martin had been named by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office soon after the incident as the inmates responsible for the death.
Rentz was in a dormitory cell in the jail’s psychiatric unit with West, Martin, and James Felice, who witnessed the killing.
Rentz’s family filed $4.9 million claim against Spokane County last month that alleges that the jail should not have housed him with men facing charges for such violent crimes.
“Classification rules are supposed to separate people who are a strong risk for violence and people who are not,” attorney Jeffry Finer, who represents Rentz’s family, said Wednesday.
Rentz was in jail facing a charge of second-degree robbery for allegedly stealing $23.04 worth of fuel from a north Spokane gas station, and hitting the arm of the station attendant in the process.
West faced rape, assault and kidnapping charges. He is accused of repeatedly stabbing a woman in her face, chest and leg, and raping her, in May.
Martin was charged with killing two men at a party in Mead in October 2003. He pleaded innocent “by reason of insanity” in August.
Felice told investigators that after medication was distributed to inmates between 7:30 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. on Oct. 2. West and Martin began to haze Rentz, according to court documents. While Rentz was held down, West stuck fingers into Rentz’s anus. When the attack ended, Rentz wrote a letter and slid it under the door into the hallway and leaned against the wall and began to cry, Felice told detectives.
West was able to retrieve the letter, in which Rentz said he wanted out of the cell because he feared for his life, Felice told detectives.
West then beat Rentz with a broom handle, according to court records. Felice said he tried to intervene, but Martin told him to stay out of the beating.
After the first attack with the broom, Rentz was bloodied and was crying on the floor, Felice told investigators. West and Martin then beat Rentz with the bristle end of the broom.
After an officer called into the room, West grabbed Rentz around the neck and Felice said he heard Rentz “making noises that sounded like a grunting pig,” documents say. At this point, Felice said that he and Martin told West to stop. Despite this, Martin was keeping watch at the cell door.
Next, West allegedly put a sheet around Rentz’s neck and tightened it and told Martin and Felice that he was “going all the way.”
Court documents indicate that jail officials first grew suspicious between 6:45 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., when Officer David Dick made rounds and saw West and Martin talking together by the toilet in the cell, documents say.
When Officer Howard Bowman came on duty at 7:30 p.m., Dick had advised him of a “possible tense circumstance” in Martin and West’s unit. Bowman told investigators that at 8:30 p.m., he heard a noise that led him to call the cell.
Finer said that based on the newly released court documents, he expects the family’s claim to increase.
“Some things that we were unsure of appear to be true and worst-case,” Finer said.
Leon Long, director of Spokane County Risk Management department, said the county is reviewing the claim submitted by the Rentz family, but declined to comment further.
In October, Spokane County Sheriff’s spokesman Dave Reagan said records dating back at least 50 years show no other homicides at the jail.
“We take pride in not letting people get away and keeping people as safe as we can in our facility,” Reagan said in October. “It’s just really unfortunate that this occurred.”
Finer praised the prosecutor’s office for its investigation.
“This is a very prompt response,” he said. “If anything, this sounds like this was put on the front burner.”