September 19, 2007 in City

County to pay $180,000 in inmate’s murder

By The Spokesman-Review
 

A $5.65 million federal lawsuit on behalf of a Spokane County Jail inmate who was murdered by his cellmates in October 2004 is to be settled for $180,000.

County commissioners approved the settlement Tuesday without comment. It now goes to a U.S. District Court judge for final action.

The lawsuit alleged that jail employees and a Spokane Mental Health nurse practitioner negligently violated 21-year-old Christopher L. Rentz’s civil rights by placing the minimum-security prisoner in a cell with two maximum-security prisoners, including one later convicted of an unrelated double-murder.

The dormitory cell ordinarily was limited to inmates with mental issues.

Rentz had a history of property crimes and was being held on a charge of stealing $23.04 worth of gasoline and punching an attendant who tried to stop him.

The only violent crime for which Rentz had been convicted involved throwing a tray of food at a Geiger Corrections Center officer. Rentz said he wanted to be sent back to the county jail because he feared for his safety at Geiger.

Family members representing Rentz’s estate also claimed the jail staff was negligent in giving his killers access to the broom handle with which Rentz was beaten, the razor blade with which his throat was cut and the sheet used to strangle him.

The lawsuit also complained that a jailer heard the attack on Rentz and took no action except to use an intercom to ask what was happening. The corrections officer reportedly couldn’t understand the scratchy answer, but still didn’t investigate.

Although the county admits no fault in the settlement, Undersheriff Jeff Tower said the Sheriff’s Office implemented a series of reforms, including confining inmates with mental problems to their own cells.

Also, Tower said, a sergeant was assigned to make sure the jail does a better job of classifying inmates according to how dangerous they are.

“Definitely we have a sense of regret,” Tower said. “We have looked at everything that happened that night and at ways to prevent that from happening in the future.”

Still, he said, “Any acts of the county Sheriff’s Office did not lead directly to the death of Christopher Rentz. It was the two people who have been held accountable.”

Those two are Michael Lee West Jr., now 31, and Brandon West Martin, now 22.

West was being held for allegedly kidnapping and repeatedly raping and stabbing a former girl-friend in May 2004. He had been charged with first-degree assault, first-degree kidnapping, three counts of first-degree rape, first-degree robbery and harassment.

West pleaded guilty to first-degree murder for beating and strangling Rentz. West also pleaded guilty to second-degree rape in the case for which he originally was jailed. He was sentenced to a maximum-standard 45 2/3 years in prison for the murder and to an indeterminate sentence of 23 1/3 years to life for the rape.

Rentz’s other attacker, Martin, was awaiting trial for gunning down two young men and attempting to shoot a third at a party where teenagers were using drugs and alcohol in a Mead home in October 2003. A jury convicted Martin of those crimes, and he later pleaded guilty to first-degree rendering criminal assistance in Rentz’s death.

Martin was sentenced to 27 2/3 years in prison, on top of the two life-without-parole sentences he already had – all consecutive.

A fourth inmate in the cell where Rentz was murdered, James “Jimi” Felice, provided evidence against West and Martin and wasn’t charged.

According to court documents, Felice told investigators that Martin alternately participated and tried to defuse the situation as West sexually abused Rentz and beat him with a push broom.


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