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Man strangled in jail feared for his life

Thomas Gregg holds a photo of his brother Chris Rentz, left in photo, sitting with his mother and Gregg. Rentz was killed in the county jail facility and his family said he called constantly from jail, afraid of how his cellmates were threatening him.
 (Christopher Anderson/ / The Spokesman-Review)
Thomas Gregg holds a photo of his brother Chris Rentz, left in photo, sitting with his mother and Gregg. Rentz was killed in the county jail facility and his family said he called constantly from jail, afraid of how his cellmates were threatening him. (Christopher Anderson/ / The Spokesman-Review)

A man who was murdered this month in the Spokane County Jail told family members that he had begun sleeping with a plunger in case he needed to protect himself from the men in his cell.

Christopher Rentz, 21, was strangled to death with a bedsheet on Oct. 2. A broom and a piece of a razor blade also were used in the killing, Spokane County sheriff’s spokesman Dave Reagan said in the days following the incident.

Rentz, whose funeral will be this afternoon, was in jail 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. He shared a cell with men accused of much more violent crimes, including murder, assault and rape.

The Spokane County Sheriff’s Office has implicated two of Rentz’s cellmates in his death. Reagan said that Michael L. West Jr., 28, appeared to be responsible for the killing and that Brandon W. Martin, 20, acted as an accomplice.

Neither man has been charged in the death so far.

In the weeks leading up to the murder, Rentz told his girlfriend, mother and brother in letters and phone calls that his cellmates were stealing his food and that he was concerned for his safety, said Rentz’s brother, Thomas Gregg.

“He said he was afraid to go to sleep,” Gregg said.

In response to a recent phone call from her son, Rentz’s mother called the jail to complain that her son was in danger, Gregg said. Rentz also told jail officials that he wanted out of his room, Gregg said.

The Rentz family plans to file a civil suit against the jail, Gregg said.

“I don’t care about the money,” Gregg said. “I just think they should pay for what’s been done because you can’t put a price on someone’s life, especially a family member.”

Reagan said Rentz’s death is the first homicide at the jail in at least a half century. Citing the potential lawsuit, Reagan wouldn’t comment on the case’s details, but called the death a tragedy.

“We take pride in not letting people get away and keeping people as safe as we can in our facility,” Reagan said. “It’s just really unfortunate that this occurred.”

West’s attorney, public defender Alan Rossi, declined to comment Wednesday.

According to court documents, West was in jail facing 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 in jail on charges of killing two men at a party in Mead in October 2003. He pleaded innocent “by reason of insanity” in August.

Rentz, West, Martin and a man whom authorities have not identified were in a cell in the jail’s psychiatric ward. Inmates in the ward are checked every 30 minutes and are there because they are taking medications that affect the mind, Reagan said.

Since 2001 Rentz had gathered a criminal record for thefts and similar crimes, court documents indicate. All the cases, however, appeared to be nonviolent with the exception of his most recent charge for stealing the gas and hitting the station attendant’s arm when the employee reached into Rentz’s van in an attempt to turn off the vehicle’s ignition. The employee was not injured in the incident, according to records. Rentz was facing a charge of second-degree robbery.

In September, a judge ordered that Rentz be examined at Eastern State Hospital. His attorney argued there was reason to question Rentz’s sanity.

Rentz’s girlfriend, Kristen Jordan, said Rentz told her that he was scheduled to go to the hospital in December.

“He kept saying I can’t wait to get to Eastern State,” Jordan said.

Rentz’s concern in the days before his death wasn’t the first time he felt threatened behind bars.

In February, Rentz was in Geiger Corrections Center when he threw a tray of food on a guard. Rentz told authorities he did it because he “felt his safety was in jeopardy” and he wanted to be transferred to the Spokane County Jail, court documents say.

Thomas Krzyminski, a public defender who served as Rentz’s attorney for several cases in the last few years, said Rentz felt threatened at Geiger because he owed money to inmates for cigarettes. Krzyminski said Rentz was extremely uncomfortable being incarcerated.

“Nobody wants to be there, but he seemed to have other reasons that caused him some concerns,” Krzyminski said.

Gregg said that his brother wasn’t a violent person.

“He talked to anybody,” Gregg said. “If you’d talk to him, you’d think he was your best friend.”

And if Rentz did get in a fight, he couldn’t win.

“He could never defend himself,” Gregg said.

The man accused of strangling Rentz, however, has a history of instigating violence, according to court records.

In January 2002, West was found guilty of third-degree assault. In that case, West was at a Laundromat and started throwing an ex-girlfriend’s clothes and breaking hangers, according to court documents. When a Laundromat employee threatened to call police, West grabbed the employee by the hair and slammed her head into a washer. The employee was knocked unconscious and suffered a fractured jaw.

West also was found guilty of third-degree assault in February 2003, for punching a man and hitting him over the head with a broom stick, court records say. Court documents indicate that West was taking prescription medication for bipolar disorder at the time of his sentencing for that crime.

Gregg said that his family’s attorney has set up a fund at Sterling Savings to help pay for Rentz’s burial.