Washington state corrections officer Jayme Biendl had complained repeatedly to supervisors about working alone in the chapel at the Monroe Correctional Complex. The 5-foot-3, 130-pound officer also complained that security cameras in the area didn't work.
Late Saturday, her worst fears were realized when she was found strangled in the chapel, and a microphone cord was found near her post.
"She was feeling unsafe about this because she's off in the chapel and oftentimes supervising lots of inmates, and she had let her supervisors know that she was not feeling safe," said Tracey Thompson, secretary-treasurer for the state corrections officers union, Teamsters Local 117. "My understanding is there were repeated complaints."
Biendl, 34, was pronounced dead at the Washington State Reformatory Unit in the prison complex in Monroe, Wash., at 10:49 p.m. The slaying is the first of a corrections staff member there and the first of an officer in a state prison since 1979.
Officials of the Department of Corrections (DOC) and Monroe police identified the suspect as Byron Scherf, 52, a "three-strikes," 200-pound repeat rapist serving life without the possibility of parole.
Scherf entered the state prison system in 1997 as a high-security inmate, but he qualified for medium security in 2009 because of good behavior, said Scott Frakes, Monroe prison superintendent.
The first indication something was wrong Saturday came around 9:15 p.m., during a prisoner head count in the reformatory unit. The count found one prisoner missing, and Scherf was located minutes later in the chapel lobby. He told officers he had planned to escape but changed his mind, according to DOC.
An hour later, during a shift change, other officers discovered Biendl hadn't turned in her keys and radio and went to her post in the chapel, DOC said. Staff found her unresponsive, performed CPR and called 911.
Biendl, of Granite Falls, had been with the department since 2002 and was named Officer of the Year in 2008 at the Monroe facility.
"She was active, loved horses and just was beloved by her co-workers at the facility," Thompson said. "Obviously being officer of the year, this was her career. She took her job really seriously, and she did it really well."
Monroe police say Biendl showed no visible signs of sexual assault, according to Frakes. The Snohomish County Medical Examiner will make the final determination.
Scherf is a twice-convicted rapist with a long criminal history. In the late 1970s, at age 19, he was convicted of second-degree assault for trying to rape a Pierce County woman and served two years of a 10-year term, according to court records. On parole, he kidnapped a young waitress from Pierce County, raped her, doused her with gasoline and set her on fire. She survived; he served 12 years in prison.
Scherf was released in 1993. In 1995, he abducted and raped a Spokane real-estate agent after making an appointment with her to see a home. Scherf released his victim when she promised not to report him to police. She did, and Scherf ultimately was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
The Monroe Correctional Complex, the largest in the state, houses inmates under maximum, medium and minimum security, with capacity for 2,400 men. The complex has five units, including ones for sex offenders and the mentally ill, and employs about 1,200.
Officers carry no weapons -- no guns, pepper spray or batons -- while on duty at the Monroe prison. Biendl had worked alone in the chapel since 2005.
While DOC had to cut $53 million during this fiscal year, the chapel has been staffed by one officer for "a long, long time," said DOC secretary Eldon Vail. "It hasn't been affected by the staffing cuts."
Biendl at times might have been accompanied by one or two full-time paid chaplains or volunteers, or by inmate janitors known as "porters," Frakes said.
Most inmates are free to visit the chapel, Frakes said, except for inmates in segregation for bad behavior or those in the mental-health unit with a history of violence.
Typically, two unarmed corrections officers are on duty with 240 inmates in a living unit, DOC spokesman Chad Lewis said. During the day, officers mingle with inmates who are outside their cells, visiting, studying, or attending chapel.
"We want them walking around and having social contact," he said. "We're trying to create a positive social environment."
Weapons not only work against that goal, Lewis said, but they can be turned against corrections officers. All staff members are trained in defensive tactics.
Though Thompson said Biendl had raised concerns about her safety -- and about video surveillance -- Frakes said he "didn't have any sense that she was concerned about things going on there."
Security cameras monitor parts of the chapel area and were working Sunday but did not record the assault, Frakes said. The cameras don't cover the main part of the chapel, he said.
If he had been aware that Biendl had a concern about video surveillance, Frakes said, the prison would have taken it seriously.
(E-mail Seattle Times reporter Sharon Pian Chan at schan(at)seattletimes.com.)
(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service, www.scrippsnews.com)