Byron Scherf, the inmate suspected of killing a guard this weekend at the Monroe Correctional Complex, rarely found trouble inside prison walls.
Byron Scherf, the inmate suspected of killing a guard this weekend at the Monroe Correctional Complex, rarely found trouble inside prison walls. He was, in the words of a 1993 state report, “an easy keeper,” an inmate who avoided infractions while completing “every self-help program available.”
The 1993 report was produced by the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, a state agency which decided to parole Scherf that year, writing: “His rehabilitation is as complete as it could ever be.”
But outside prison, Scherf proved to be an extraordinarily dangerous man, particularly to women. In 1995, two years after he was last paroled, Scherf kidnapped and raped a Spokane woman, a real-estate agent, in a “third strike” offense that resulted in a mandatory life sentence.
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In 2007, when Scherf came back before the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board, the board wrote: “Mr. Scherf is quite clearly one of the most dangerous individuals under the board’s jurisdiction,” adding: “Incapacitation for public safety is the only responsible decision.”
Yet, however dangerous he may have been in the community, Scherf continued to steer clear of trouble behind bars. The Department of Corrections (DOC) determined in 2009 that his good behavior qualified him to be downgraded from a high-security risk to medium security. At the time of his status change, Scherf had not racked up an infraction for eight years, DOC officials said Monday.
On Saturday night, Jayme Biendl, a 34-year-old corrections officer, was strangled while working alone in the prison chapel. Prison officials said Scherf, 52, is the chief suspect.
Biendl’s death marks at least the second time the DOC’s handling of Scherf has been called into question after he committed an act of violence. The Spokane real-estate agent raped by Scherf in 1995 sued the state, alleging the DOC’s negligent supervision of him while he was on parole allowed the crime to happen.
Janet Rice, a Seattle attorney who represented the real-estate agent in the lawsuit, said Monday of Scherf: “He was a very, very, very, very dangerous guy who could work the system and make himself appear better than he was. He conned everybody.”
Mark Leemon, another Seattle attorney who was Rice’s co-counsel in that case, said: “He is smart. He is planning. He is devious.”
Scherf’s first two strikes occurred in Pierce County. In 1978, he was convicted of attacking, at knife point, a 16-year-old girl who had been hitchhiking in Tacoma. He was paroled in 1980.
A year later, he kidnapped a waitress and took her to an abandoned house, where he bound and raped her. Scherf then doused the woman with gasoline and set her on fire. She survived only by wriggling through a second-story window; a veranda porch broke her fall, after which she freed herself and called for help.
Who was this inmate?
Through the years, evaluations of Scherf while he was in prison have reached dramatically different conclusions.
In 1981, a Western State Hospital staff psychiatrist wrote a report saying Scherf’s problems were beyond treatment, according to a story in The News Tribune on Monday.
“I feel that even after treatment for his rape tendencies he would still be of strong enough anti-social personality that he would continue to break the law,” the psychiatrist wrote, according to the Tacoma newspaper.
But in 1993, when Scherf again was up for parole, he impressed the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board with the changes he’d made. Scherf had completed self-help programs while an inmate. He had earned an associate degree from Walla Walla Community College. He had married while in prison.
And he had managed to win over a psychiatrist who had tested Scherf and found “a significant change in the MMPI,” short for Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory, a battery of true-or-false questions used in mental-health testing.
“We do not see this very often, which would tend to support that there has been a positive change in Mr. Scherf,” the board wrote in a July 28, 1993, report.
The same report said Scherf “has benefitted from his incarceration” and added: “His rehabilitation is as complete as it could ever be.”
Based upon the report’s finding, Scherf was paroled in December 1993.
Lynne De Lano, chair of the Indeterminate Sentence Review Board since January 2010, reviewed Scherf’s history Monday, trying to reconstruct his interaction with the board. Asked about the use of the MMPI 18 years ago, De Lano said, “There’s no scientific instrument out there that can predict with 100 percent accuracy. We’re talking about human behavior.”
When Scherf returned to prison after the 1995 rape and kidnapping — this time, as a three-strikes offender with no hope of parole — his approach to serving time seemed to change, according to former inmates who knew him.
Stevan Dozier, who in May 2009 became the first three-strikes offender to be granted clemency by Gov. Chris Gregoire, served time with Scherf at Monroe. Dozier called Scherf “a weirdo” and said he was known to thrown temper tantrums when his wife didn’t come to visit.
Scherf tried to dissuade other three-strikers from having any hope of ever being freed, Dozier said. “We called him a hater.”
Scherf kept to himself, Dozier said. “He wasn’t in any cliques, he wasn’t in the law library, he wasn’t trying to go home. He wasn’t trying to improve himself, but he was just him.”
Vance Bartley, another former three-strikes offender released from prison after an appeal, served time with Scherf at both Monroe and at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center, where Scherf was housed before being transferred to Monroe. Scherf was “very entrenched in religious activities,” Bartley said, but otherwise was known mostly for keeping quiet.
Bartley now works as a paralegal for a Seattle law firm that handles clemency matters, among other kinds of cases.
A few months ago, Bartley said, Scherf called the firm to ask for help, saying the DOC had taken away his conjugal visits with his wife because of concerns about a urine test. Scherf called back a few weeks later to report that the issue had been cleared up, and the law office never heard from him again, Bartley said.
DOC officials said Monday that they didn’t have any record of a questionable urine test for Scherf. Since arriving in prison, he had received only one infraction, and that was for attempting to commit suicide in 2001, they said.
At Monroe, Scherf worked most recently as a clerk at the print shop.
Brenda Bindschatel, Scherf’s wife, said Monday that she wished to be left alone: “I’m in a lot of pain. I don’t wish to talk to anybody about this.”
Problems with women cooks
Kenneth Holdaas, a retired Monroe corrections sergeant, said Monday that Scherf once worked in the prison’s kitchen. Holdaas remembered Scherf as a man with mental issues who had particular problems with the women who worked as cooks.
One time, Holdaas said, a female cook told him that she was scared of Scherf. “I went over and talked to him and said, ‘You can’t be doing this, and now you have to leave,’ ” Holdaas said. “So he left. And after that we made it a point to watch him when he was in there.”
In the lawsuit filed by the Spokane real-estate agent, a jury determined in 2000 that the DOC had failed to supervise Scherf’s parole properly, but found that the DOC’s negligence wasn’t to blame for the rape. The woman appealed the verdict, but lost.
Leemon, one of the woman’s attorneys, said it was “mind-boggling” that Scherf was allowed to be in the prison chapel with a lone female prison guard.
“The idea that he is going to turn into a law-abiding citizen — while nice to fantasize about — is not extremely likely,” Leemon said. “Why you would trust him to do anything, even in a prison setting, is beyond me.”