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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Lawsuit filed over jail death

The family of a man who was strangled in the Spokane County Jail filed a $5.65 million civil rights lawsuit against the county Tuesday in federal court.

Christopher L. Rentz, 21, died Oct. 2 after he was beaten with a broom, cut on his neck with a razor and strangled with a bed sheet while in a dormitory cell at the Spokane County Jail.

The suit alleges that the jail, which is run by the Spokane County Sheriff’s Office, violated Rentz’s civil rights and was indifferent to his safety, in part by placing him in a cell with men accused of much more violent crimes, including rape and murder.

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 a station attendant in the process.

“Chris Rentz was put in a cell with two very dangerous individuals,” said Jeffry Finer, the attorney representing the Rentz family. “The fear we have is that it is a common practice.”

Sheriff Mark Sterk said on Friday that he couldn’t comment on the case. However, in a discussion about jail overcrowding, Sterk said the jail is “overpopulated and understaffed.”

“Because we don’t have the staff, I believe that leaves us (open) to huge liability,” Sterk said. “It’s dangerous for both our corrections officers and our inmates.”

Finer said a lack of money to hire a larger corrections staff doesn’t excuse the jail for placing violent offenders in a cell with Rentz.

“Budget and staffing are always a problem for jails, but the bedrock rule is not to mix maximum and minimum security inmates,” Finer said.

Spokane County jail policy says “no ‘minimum’ custody level inmates will be housed with those inmates having a ‘maximum’ custody level.” The suit alleges that the jail wasn’t following its policy.

According to the lawsuit, Rentz was classified as a minimum security risk, while two men accused of killing Rentz were marked as maximum security threats. The two alleged killers were charged in December with Rentz’s murder.

Michael L. West Jr., 28, faces a count of first-degree murder. At the time of Rentz’s death, he was in jail on charges of repeatedly stabbing a woman and raping her.

Brandon W. Martin, 20, faces a count of second-degree murder. When Rentz was killed, Martin had recently pleaded innocent “by reason of insanity” to killing two men at a party in Mead in October 2003.

The suit names Spokane County, Sterk and seven jail employees as defendants. That includes a corrections officer who called into the cell through an intercom around the time of the attack. A fourth inmate in the cell told investigators that West was strangled after the officer called.

“We’re not Monday-morning quarterbacking,” Finer said. “We’re just noting that there were warnings, warnings and warnings.”

Rentz’s mother, Debra Rentz, and his brother and sister are the plaintiffs in the case. Finer said that Rentz’s father has hired a different attorney and is pursuing a separate case against the county.