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Homicide witness says he tried to warn jailers of threats

Fri., Oct. 15, 2004, midnight

An eyewitness to a jailhouse killing claims he and the victim both attempted to warn corrections officers that death threats were being made by a cellmate in the Spokane County Jail’s psychiatric unit.

The beating and strangulation of Christopher Rentz lasted 90 minutes without corrections officers walking by the four-man psychiatric cell where inspections are supposed to occur every half-hour, according to witness James “Jimi” Felice.

“I watched Chris’ head hit the floor, and it sounded like when you go ‘crack’ to an egg in a skillet,” Felice said Thursday.

“Right then and there, I knew he was gone,” Felice said of the victim he’d known a few months.

The Sheriff’s Office declined comment on the allegations. Investigators allege that Michael L. West Jr., 28, and Brandon W. Martin, 20, committed the murder. The homicide investigation was forwarded Wednesday for review by the prosecuting attorney’s office, but formal charges have not been filed.

The witness, in jail on a domestic violence-related assault charge at the time, said he saw a razor blade in the cell. The blade, said Felice, apparently was removed from a safety razor, which aren’t permitted in the psychiatric unit in the jail’s 3-West wing, where Rentz was killed.

Felice said the victim’s throat may have been slashed during the course of the attack. “There was so much blood that West took a towel and wrapped it around Chris’ throat.”

“Chris tried to crawl to the door,” Felice said, recalling “the only sound he could make was the grunting of a pig.”

“I’m sure he was dead within 15 minutes of the beating, but they were working on him for an hour and a half,” Felice said. “The guard never came to check during that time, even though I understand they’re supposed to check every 30 minutes.”

The 21-year-old murder victim, arrested for allegedly stealing $23 worth of gasoline, was placed in the same cell with West, who was being held on charges of rape, assault and kidnapping, and Martin, who recently pleaded innocent by reason of insanity to charges that he killed two men in Mead a year ago.

Rentz was buried Thursday by family members who say they intend to sue Spokane County for his death. The jail’s operations are supervised by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office. It was the first homicide in the jail in more than 50 years.

“At this point, because of the threat of a lawsuit, we have been advised not to comment,” Sheriff’s Inspector Dave Wiyrick said when asked specific questions raised by the eyewitness’ account.

“It’s not a cover-up, by any means,” Wiyrick said. “Any prudent person, facing the possibility of a suit, is going to refer these questions to their attorney.”

He directed questions to Spokane County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Rob Binger, who wasn’t available for comment and didn’t immediately answer questions sent to him by e-mail.

Sheriff’s officials have refused to identify Felice as the fourth inmate in the cell. If murder charges are filed, as expected, against West and Martin, Felice could presumably provide key testimony in the case.

Felice has been released from the jail and currently is a patient at a drug abuse treatment facility in Spokane.

In the phone interview with The Spokesman-Review, he offered a chilling account of the brutal, Saturday night murder.

A short time before it occurred, Felice said West told him: “There’s something inside me that’s going to come out tonight, and don’t you dare try to stop me.”

The inmates were allowed out of their cell from 1:30 p.m. until 5:15 p.m., and West spent part of that time with a religious group watching the movie, “The Passion of the Christ,” Felice said.

When the inmates returned to their cell for nightly “lock-down,” Felice said he intervened when West jumped Rentz in their dormitory cell and attempted to digitally sodomize him.

Later, West handed Felice a note. “It said, ‘I’m going to kill myself tonight, and you all will be released,”’ the witness said. “Then he showed me the razor blade.”

When a corrections officer and nurse brought psychotropic medicine to the inmates about 7:30 p.m., Felice said he whispered to them, “don’t make us do CPR tonight.”

But Felice said the jail guards apparently didn’t understand the impending threat he sensed but felt he couldn’t discuss openly.

Instead of swallowing their psychiatric medicines, West and Martin frequently would pocket their pills and later crush them up and snort them, Felice said.

Felice said West instigated the fatal assault after spotting Rentz attempting to slip a letter under the cell door. The letter was addressed to prison officials and expressed Rentz’ fears for his safety. After reading Rentz’ letter, West picked up a broom handle in the dormitory cell and used it to “spear” Rentz before using it to beat him, Felice said.

“At one point, when West said, ‘This ain’t working,’ Brandon (Martin) picked it up and attempted the same thing.”

“They took turns beating him,” Felice said. The witness said he attempted to intervene, but was repeatedly shoved back by the two assailants.

“Demons were mild compared to these two guys,” Felice said.


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