MONROE, Wash. - A female corrections officer was strangled to death Saturday night at the Monroe Correctional Complex, and an inmate serving a life term for rape is the key suspect, officials said.
The attack, apparently carried out during an abortive escape attempt by the 53-year-old male inmate, took place as the corrections officer was alone and unarmed in the chapel of the facility, officials said.
The slain officer was identified as Jayme Biendl, 34, of Granite Falls. She had been with the Department of Corrections since 2002 and had expressed concerns earlier about being the only guard in the chapel. She was Monroe's Officer of the Year in 2008.
Her alleged attacker was identified as Byron E. Scherf, a repeat sex offender who was convicted in 1993 for kidnapping and raping a Pierce County woman at knifepoint, then setting her on fire with gasoline. He also was convicted of rape and assault in two other cases.
A spokeswoman for the Monroe Police Department said it was initially reported that Biendl was stabbed to death, but later reported that it appears she was strangled. The Snohomish County medical examiner will make the final determination of the cause of death.
A Department of Corrections spokesman said the killing was discovered Saturday night after an inmate was reported missing during a routine count of offenders in the prison.
The offender was found three minutes later, at about 9:17 p.m., in the prison chapel lobby and told officers he had planned to escape, said Department of Corrections spokesman Chad Lewis.
An hour later staff members completed an inventory of equipment and discovered that a correctional officer’s keys and radio were missing, Lewis said.
Staff members immediately went to the chapel area and found Biendl lying there unresponsive. The staff conducted CPR and called 911. Emergency responders declared the officer dead at the scene at 10:49 p.m.
Monroe Correctional Complex is now on lockdown as local law enforcement continue to investigate.
Scherf, a three-strikes offender, is serving a life sentence at Monroe and was being housed in a medium-security unit at the Monroe complex. He has now been isolated in a segregation unit, Lewis said.
This is the first time a guard has been killed at the 100-year-old Monroe facility, Lewis said.
Prison officials said Scherf, who has had a clean record at Monroe since a suicide attempt in 2001, had been serving as a volunteer worker in the chapel.
Biendl led religious programs there, Lewis said. She was alone at the chapel Saturday night and was not carrying a weapon, as is typical for many corrections officers, he added.
A union spokesman said Biendl had complained several times to her supervisor about feeling unsafe working alone with no backup in the chapel, and was awaiting a reassignment to another section of the prison.
"This is what we've all feared would happen, and now it has," said Tracey A. Thompson, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 117, which represents guards at the prison.
Thompson said guards have been forced to work solo more often as budget cuts have reduced the size of the staff at the prison facility.
"We are all shocked, saddened, and angered by this terrible tragedy," Thompson said.
Monroe corrections officers picketed in November outside the facility to draw public attention to effects of the staff cuts, saying they could jeopardize public safety.
Court records show that Scherf was first convicted of second-degree assault in 1978 and sentenced to 10 years in prison, but was paroled two years later.
While on parole Scherf kidnapped a young waitress and brought her to an abandoned house where he bound and raped her. He then poured gasoline over the waitress, lit it, and left. The waitress survived by wriggling, still bound, through a second-story window.
Scherf was convicted of the rape and sentenced to life in prison, but was paroled again on Dec. 30, 1993.
During his second parole, he lured a female real estate agent to a remote home by posing as a potential buyer, then kidnapped and raped her. He again was convicted and sentenced to life in prison, and is now serving that sentence at Monroe.
The victim in that attack later sued the state, alleging that Scherf should never have been released on parole and was inadequately supervised after he was paroled. She lost the case after appealing all the way to the state Supreme Court.
Gov. Chris Gregoire issued a statement offering condolences to the family and friends of Officer Biendl.
"I am truly saddened by her senseless murder," Gregoire said. "This young woman was devoted to an agency that works around the clock to ensure our communities are safe, which makes her death all the more tragic."
Gregoire also said she has asked Department of Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail to conduct a thorough review of the killing, as well as a look at the safeguards in place at the Monroe Correctional Complex.
About 2,500 inmates are housed at the Monroe facility.
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