SEATTLE – An inmate suspected of strangling a female guard with a microphone cord in a prison chapel during an escape attempt is a rapist who once doused a woman in gasoline and set her on fire, raising more questions about why the officer was alone and unarmed at the time of the attack.
Two days after the death of 34-year-old Jayme Biendl, Gov. Chris Gregoire and the head of the state corrections department called for an outside investigation focused on whether there is adequate staff at the medium-security reformatory unit of the Monroe Correctional Complex about 30 miles northeast of Seattle.
"There's a lot of grief and sorrow, and I think there are probably pockets of anger as well," said Dan Pacholke, the Department of Corrections deputy director of prisons.
The suspect, Byron Scherf, had earned a spot as a chapel volunteer through more than a decade of good behavior. He told officers he was trying to escape when he was found in the chapel lobby after it was noticed he was missing.
Biendl's body was found an hour later, fully clothed and with no evidence of sexual assault. She had a two-way radio with an alarm, but prison officials don't know whether she tried to call for help.
Union officials questioned why Biendl, a nine-year veteran of the department, was alone after complaining to prison supervisors about being the only guard working in the chapel without anyone checking on her.
Recent budget cuts have forced staffing reductions and union members have been worried about the impact on safety, said Teamsters 117 spokeswoman Tracey Thompson.
Prison officials said staffing levels weren't down; just one person worked in the chapel for the past 15 years.
Guards always have been outnumbered by inmates, and prisons are full of people who have committed crimes as bad or worse as Scherf's, Pacholke said. Budget cuts have forced hiring freezes among administrative and support personnel, officials said, but there's been no reduction in the number of "front-line" officers.
Scherf was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole in 1997 in the kidnapping and rape two years earlier of a 37-year-old real estate agent near Spangle, 17 miles south of Spokane. Prosecutors said he told the woman he wanted to look at a home for sale, then he forced her at gunpoint into the trunk of his car and later raped her and threatened to kill her and her daughter if she reported the attack. He was arrested several days later in Post Falls, Idaho.
It was his second conviction for rape. In 1981, he was convicted of raping a Pierce County woman before dousing her with gasoline, binding her and setting her on fire. She escaped through a second-story window.
Scherf was paroled in 1993, and despite parole violations that included possession of pornography, the state maintained Scherf "was in substantial compliance" with his parole terms. He remained free until the 1995 kidnapping and rape.
Previously, in 1978, Scherf was convicted of second-degree assault in Pierce County and paroled after serving two years of a 10-year sentence.
During his latest stint in prison, he had not had a serious infraction since 2001, had a prison job, wasn't in a gang and had earned privileges for good conduct, Pacholke said. Everything seemed to indicate he was "serving his incarceration in an acceptable fashion," he said.
However, he said that did little to comfort prison staff trying to cope with their "tremendous sorrow" at the loss of a personable young woman who in 2008 had been named Monroe's corrections officer of the year.
Gregoire said Monday that in addition to the standard department review, she has asked for an outside review by federal officials at the National Institute of Corrections.
The 800-inmate unit was locked down and could stay that way the rest of the week as the criminal investigation continues, Pacholke said.
Associated Press Writer Curt Woodward contributed from Olympia.
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