MONROE - Detectives with the Monroe Police Department spent Monday interviewing staff members at the Monroe Correctional Complex and processing evidence seized from the cell of a man suspected of strangling corrections officer Jayme Biendl inside the prison chapel.
In Biendl’s hometown of Granite Falls, about 20 friends and family members gathered Monday on a friend’s land where Biendl and her boyfriend, Larry Heiser, loved to spend time together and with those close to them.
The mourners brought blue, white and pink balloons. They wrote messages on them to Biendl. Then they gathered outside in a big circle and let the balloons drift free in a chorus of goodbyes.
“It’s going to take a long time to ever get over this,” said Dege Engstrom, who owns the property. “I hope she’s resting in peace now.”
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Meanwhile, in Olympia, state prison officials and Gov. Chris Gregoire fielded questions about what, if anything, could have been done to keep Biendl safe.
Gregoire announced that Saturday’s killing will be independently reviewed by National Institute of Corrections, an agency within the U.S. Department of Justice.
That is a move supported by the state’s corrections officers union, whose leaders said they warned state officials that budget cuts and staff reductions would make prisons more dangerous.
At a news conference Monday afternoon, Gregoire promised to get to the bottom of what happened, including determining if there is adequate staffing at the state’s other prisons. She expects to answer all questions, “but today is to honor the sacrifice of this young woman and her dedication to her job,” Gregoire said.
The governor ordered all state flags to be lowered in Biendl’s honor. Biendl had been a corrections officer since 2002. She was named Monroe’s officer of the year in 2008.
Biendl, 34, was found Saturday on the stage of the small chapel after her co-workers realized that she hadn’t turned in her keys or radio, something that was required at the end of her shift. An amplifier cord was wrapped around her neck, Monroe police spokeswoman Debbie Willis said. An autopsy Monday confirmed Biendl was strangled, the Snohomish County Medical Examiner’s Office said.
Prison officials have segregated Byron Scherf, 52, a convicted rapist serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole. He is the prime suspect in Biendl’s slaying, Willis said.
Detectives are working to confirm the timeline of events, including when Biendl and Scherf apparently were alone in the chapel.
“Because they weren’t found together and there was about an hour difference, we’re looking for the nexus that connects them,” Willis said.
Scherf was missing Saturday during a routine count of inmates. Corrections officers began checking all inmates against their picture identification. Scherf was found minutes later, sitting in the lobby of the chapel. He reportedly told officers he’d planned to escape. The chapel had closed at 8:30 p.m.
Officers focused on the security breech and putting Scherf back into a cell. The prison has no protocol that directs officers to check on other staffers near a potential escape attempt, said Bernie Warner, the state’s director of prisons.
“If (Scherf) hadn’t been there, then they would have begun peeling layers back, talking to staff and following the trail deeper into the investigation,” Warner said. “If he hadn’t been found, they would have been walking through the program areas and looking in all the nooks and crannies.”
Biendl was found about an hour later, at 10:20 p.m.
“It looks like the standard practice was followed and that when the keys and the radio weren’t turned in, the officer in the major control booth recognized it and had staff respond accordingly,” Corrections Secretary Eldon Vail said.
The surveillance cameras in the chapel area were working, but there was none in the sanctuary itself, where Biendl was found.
The nine-year veteran had told union leaders she was concerned about being the sole person in the chapel.
The news of Biendl’s death reverberated throughout Washington state and the law enforcement community around the globe.
Tribute messages proliferated on Facebook, Twitter, law enforcement community pages and the Teamsters website. Condolences came from corrections officers and their families as far away as New Zealand. Hundreds of people joined a Facebook memorial page in Biendl’s honor.