Anatomy of a Murder

How $23 in gas and an overcrowded jail cost Chris Rentz his life.

Anatomy of a Murder
Illustration: Joe Preston
Chris Rentz

What had begun as a perfectly normal summer morning would end as Chris Rentz’s last day of freedom, with an unpaid tank of gas landing him in a cell in the Spokane County Jail. Two months later, he would be found there, face down, lying in a pool of his own blood with a bed sheet tied tightly around his neck.

It was a morning that began innocently with a purchase of donuts and juice for his niece and nephew. It was early on July 26, and Chris, 21, and his mother, Debra, woke up after a night of sleeping at his sister Billie’s house, a modest home on the outskirts of Hillyard. Billie, relaying her mother’s account, says they left without waking her and headed to get gas. Chris went inside and spent his money on breakfast; Debra (who is transient and could not be interviewed for this story) filled the tank.

When Chris emerged, he found himself in the middle of an already escalating scene. Debra realized that she had left her money at the house, and asked him to pay the $23.04 for the full tank. Having spent his money on food, he had no way to cover it. Chris told the attendant that he would wait at the station while Debra went home to get money. Looking at Chris — tall, lanky, clothed in black, with a glazed over look to his eyes — the attendant thought he was being scammed and grew angry. Chris got nervous. When Debra got into the car to leave, the attendant opened the door and yanked her 80-pound frame outside. Chris smacked the attendant’s arm away.

Though Chris and Debra waited for the police to arrive, it was then — with a tank of gas still unpaid and an attendant with a sore arm — that a simple misdemeanor transformed into an assault charge, when a day in jail turned into months and when Chris Rentz’s 21-year-old life would soon end.

That $23 tank of gas would land him in a jail cell with the man who would take his life — a 28-year-old with six felony convictions who was awaiting a sanity assessment.

The Jailhouse is Full

The Spokane County Jail opened on July 11, 1986, after nearly six years of research and careful planning. The Spokane County Commissioners had promised Don Manning Sr. and his design team a large plot of land that would extend as far north from the Courthouse as Gardner Avenue. Things changed at the last minute, however, and Manning got the news that the land wasn’t available after all. The jail project was nearly scratched.

But one architect on the design committee knew the original plans could be reconfigured — and in a matter of weeks, he came back to the commissioners with a conversion of the original design into a high-rise jail. The new design made compromises here and there, but nothing that Manning and his team thought would make a difference if the jail was appropriately staffed and operated at the correct capacity.

Manning, who served as jail commander for 13 years, says the jail was built to house 450 inmates but could still run effectively if the population inflated to around 500.

Last Friday, the jail was overflowing with 591 inmates.

Spokane County Sheriff Mark Sterk says the jail will take in well over 600 inmates, but usually no more than 650.

“Any time we get over 650, it’s dangerous for the officers and the inmates,” Sterk says.

The danger lies in those little compromises that were made back when Manning’s design team converted the jail into a high-rise lockup. The unnatural lines of sight from the corrections officers’ stations into the individual cells suddenly become liabilities when the population gets that high. 

Manning says that no matter how many people are inside, any jail needs sufficient room to safely hold all of the people who have been arrested.

“The reality is, you have to have places to put people when they’re arrested,” Manning says. “If you have got a good, rock-solid operation that is operating in what they would call a ‘constitutional fashion,’ it protects the rights of your inmates. You have to view pre-trial inmates as innocent until proven guilty, and you have to treat them that way.”

The Spokane County Jail operates using a “Direct Supervision” philosophy: Inmates are not confined, and officers do not have weapons while they are inside the jail walls. It’s a philosophy that allows inmates’ constitutional rights to be most effectively guarded while they are in the pre-trial phase.

But when inmates are double-bunked, problems arise. During a tour of the jail on June 6, some cells were bursting with four or more mattresses on the floor. And when the jail is understaffed — as it currently is, Sterk says — that’s when corrections officers, no matter how hard they try, just can’t protect the constitutional rights of their inmates properly.

“Me and Chris are like this”

No matter how much black clothing Chris Rentz wore, he just wasn’t the kind of guy you could be afraid of.

His sister, Billie, laughs when she describes her brother’s lanky frame and how difficult it is for her to tackle him when they wrestle.

These days, Billie still describes her brother in the present tense — smiling when she talks about the days he spent at the nearby park with her and her kids, chuckling at pictures of him in his diaper, eager to tell stories about her little brother.

“Here’s the picture of him when he discovered his weenie,” she laughs, pointing to a picture of Chris in a diaper. “Whenever he brings a new girlfriend home, I always show them that picture.”

“Me and Chris are like this,” Billie, 23, says holding up her crossed fingers. “When you have kids and are homebound — I don’t have a car — no one wants to kick it with you no more. But Chris would come up here and go to the park, and we’d order pizza.”

Only 11 months older than Chris, Billie says that when they were growing up, she was always closest to her younger brother — the brother she would invite to the mall instead of her girlfriends, the one she admired for his cool, calm attitude.

Chris was born with defect in his feet and with an extra layer of skin over his eyes. He had surgery for both as an infant, but his eyes always looked cloudy — like cataracts in an aging cat or dog. Billie thinks those defects always made Chris feel a little behind. And that made her always want to look after him.

When their parents’ arguments started to get more and more violent in the last four years, she made Chris move in with her and her boyfriend, Ben. But when Chris got older and moved into an apartment on his own, Billie made sure that he knew he could call her with any problems. She just wanted to make sure he was going to be OK.

A Million-Dollar Hole

You could say that the brain trust at the Spokane County Jail has tried just about everything to make do with its budget. The number of corrections officers has been cut to lower costs. Sheriff Sterk has proposed that some positions be “civilianized” in order to free up corrections officers for other duties. Inmates share cells that were intended to be singles. Cracked paint peels away from the walls. The higher the prisoner’s security level, the more Spartan the cells. Meals have been reduced to a bare-bones 57¢ per inmate.

But no matter what gets cut, there’s a looming million-dollar hole in the jail’s budget that no one can seem to patch. That’s how much the jail estimates it is spending this year alone on psychotropic drugs to treat inmates — $500,000 more than budgeted.

But because the jail houses so many mentally ill inmates and has become an oversized waiting room for those pre-trial inmates in need of mental evaluation, it’s a cost that the jail has no way to shed, regardless of how it bogs down every aspect of its operations.

“These folks are repeat customers,” Sterk says. “In my opinion, they don’t belong in the jail. They belong at Eastern State Hospital. But unfortunately, that’s not possible. They really shouldn’t be in our jail in the first place.”

The overwhelming number of incarcerated people with mental illness isn’t unique to Spokane. Mark Konty, a criminology professor at Washington State University, says it’s a result of the nationwide closing of mental institutions and asylums during the 1980s. “The idea was that the state shouldn’t hold people against their will just because they were having mental problems — they had to be of harm to society,” Konty says of the mass closings.

But when states released so many mentally ill people onto the streets — people who had been institutionalized for years — things like homelessness, unemployment and crime surged. Those very same people who were once institutionalized were the ones committing the crimes.

“People were put back into institutions — this time in the form of the jail,” Konty says, adding that jails are not the right place for someone with mental illness.

“Usually what the prisons and jails try to staff in terms of mental health are substance-abuse counselors,” Konty adds. “But true mental health professionals? There just isn’t the money [for them]. The prisons have become a default source of mental health treatment — and criminal justice is not designed for delivering mental health.”

Jails were hardly prepared to become the next mental health care system; they still find themselves inundated with the mentally ill today. In a 1999 study by the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 16 percent of inmates in local jails were identified as mentally ill, while 10 percent said that they had a mental condition.

“These people are going to get out of jail eventually. And when they do, their mental illness isn’t treated — and they are going to go back out and victimize [the public],” Konty says.

Clay Mosher, an associate professor of sociology at WSU-Vancouver, agrees. “As [state care of the mentally ill] has gone away, you end up with more of these people in the prisons because of their vulnerabilities,” says Mosher. “They are subject to all kinds of abuse.”

That’s something Mosher thinks the public overlooks when considering how to fund jails, and it’s the kind of thing people only notice when it’s too late.

“You don’t put a stop sign in until six people are killed at the intersection,” Mosher says.

“He wanted to be different”

Like every teenage boy, Chris Rentz wanted to be accepted by the “cool crowd.” At 15, he got caught in a stolen car, but his sister Billie says he quickly learned his lesson after being punished.

With enough money from the Social Security checks he received for his physical impairments, Chris held down jobs here and there — working at restaurants, occasionally volunteering his time at Goodwill and mowing a neighbor’s lawn. He worked his way through school, achieving enough credits at the Bancroft Center, a North Side alternative school, to be considered a high school junior before he stopped attending. Eventually Chris got an apartment of his own on Sinto Avenue and started hanging out downtown at the STA Plaza.

“He wasn’t a popular kid. He’d be friends with anybody,” says Billie. “If you were cool, he’d talk to you. Everyone down at the Plaza and the malls knew who he was. That’s why we hung signs up there when he died, telling people that he had.”

Like so many people that he knew, Chris started into a cycle of being in and out of jail on charges of possession of stolen property, theft, driving while intoxicated and attempting to elude police. Chris approached Billie and Ben in early 2004, telling them that he had been pulled over for driving without a license and had failed to show up at his scheduled court date. They encouraged him to turn himself in. He did, and he spent seven months in the Spokane County Jail as a result.

When Chris got out, says Billie, she knew that was enough to teach him his lesson. Chris didn’t want to be in and out of jail like his older brother, his father and the friends he hung out with.

“He wanted to be rich and have a nice house. He wanted to get his GED, get his license and pay his fines so he could leave here and be something,” Billie says. “I think he pretty much felt like he was stuck his whole life. Everyone was like, ‘He’s got ADD,’ or they made fun of the way his eyes looked and the way his feet were.”

“He wanted to go somewhere and be different and be better and not just sit around and go in and out of jail like everyone else,” she says.

At one point, the public defender representing Rentz sought an evaluation of his client’s mental capacity, but the request was never granted.

All in the Family

Chris Rentz had the statistical cards stacked against him. In the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2002 “Profile of Jail Inmates,” 46 percent of inmates had a family member who had been incarcerated. For 31 percent, it was a brother; for 19 percent, it was a father. For most of his life, Chris Rentz had watched both his brother and father spend time in and out of jail.

But oddly enough, as fast as beds open and fill again in the Spokane County Jail, the national violent crime rates have been in decline since 1994.

“Even though crime is going down, we’re putting more and more people into jail,” says Mosher of WSU-Vancouver. “Why the hell are people doing these things in the first place? We need to look at what can we do at the other end. We need to look more at sort of preventing these people from engaging in the things that land them in jail.”

In a time of such severe overcrowding, Mosher suggests jails should look at whether filling their beds with inmates with minor offenses is a good idea.

“It’s not like everyone who gets busted for marijuana goes to jail, but if one of those people goes in, then you’re taking up a space in that particular jail where someone who arguably deserves to be there can’t be,” he says.

Mosher and Konty agree that it’s in times of major overcrowding that jails should not only have very discriminating classification officers, but the public should think more clearly about prevention programs instead of building more jails beds.

“The prevention argument is really hard to convince the public of,” Konty says. “People tend to see crime as very choice-oriented. They think that the way to deter crime is to make the crime harsh enough that they will avoid it. That doesn’t work with these people — or with the general population.”

“He couldn’t fight”

When Chris went back into jail again in July 2004, he expressed greater fear to his mother, brother, sister and girlfriend through letters and phone calls than he had during the seven months of his previous incarceration.

Though during an earlier stint at Geiger Corrections Center he’d had problems with owing inmates money for cigarettes, his calls this time around were much more desperate. Letters detailed drugs that he was being given; they made him feel dazed and lost. Chris told Billie that his cellmates were beating up on him, stealing his food and grinding up his pills and snorting them. (Whether Rentz was being medicated is a significant issue; Billie says he was never prescribed any medication, so she wonders why the jailers would have been medicating him.)

It finally took Chris reporting that he was stabbed in the neck with a pencil by another inmate for Debra and Billie to start calling the jail with pleas that Chris be moved into a safer cell.

“I think picking on Chris would have been like picking on a handicapped kid,” Billie says. “He could mouth, but he couldn’t fight.”

Inside Cell 3W30

The Spokane County Jail isn’t a series of sliding iron cell doors where inmates clank their tin cups and hang their arms through the bars. Inside, it’s a pink-and-teal series of solid doors with tiny windows in which most inmates perch their heads, blankly gazing into a common area.

The windows to the outside are frosted over — they have been for years, since officers realized that many inmates’ girlfriends were flashing them from the parking lots. Most cells are only five paces deep, with a stainless steel toilet in one corner and a flat wooden platform bed in the other. Thin, blue plastic mattresses sit unmade on the platforms; novels are on the pillows of some cells. Some inmates get to mill around the common room, but the maximum-security inmates get outside their cells for only 45 minutes every other day. A small grate in each door allows officers to hear everything that goes on in each cell. Dormitory cells are a bigger version of the singulars, with four wooden platforms lining a long, tile-floored cell with a bathroom at one end.

Floors are divided into east and west pods, with each pod boasting two tiers of pink-doored cells and one guard station — a high-countered desk where corrections officers sit during their shifts. Like all the cells on the third floor of the Spokane County Jail, 3W30 is nothing special — just beds, mattresses and pillows. But unlike the others, 3W30 sits at the top of a stairway.

Of all the top-floor cells, 3W30 would be an ideal place to be if you were Chris Rentz — someone who had continually complained about his safety. An officer would simply have to scale the stairs to peer inside his cell window. It would also be the ideal cell for overflow inmates — perhaps the best cell for the unlikely event that minimum and maximum-security inmates would be forced to live together.

And that’s exactly the kind of overflow that Chris found himself drowning in when he was forced to shack up with the likes of Brandon Martin, Michael West and James Felice.

West and Martin had histories of violent crimes — both were awaiting their turn to have their sanity evaluated at Eastern State Hospital. West had six felony convictions, 11 misdemeanors and 19 failures to appear in court. He’d seen the inside of the Spokane County Jail in 2000 after he grabbed a laundromat employee by the hair and swung her into a washing machine, breaking her jaw and knocking her unconscious. He was back again in 2002 for beating someone with a broom, and was most recently in after tying his ex-girlfriend up with tape and electrical cords in her home for more than six hours, repeatedly raping her and stabbing her in the face, chest, back and arms with a kitchen knife. After leaving, she miraculously made her way to her front yard where neighbors spotted her and called the authorities. They picked up West in a second-floor storage area on East First Avenue.

Martin, a 20-year old, was booked in 2003 after murdering two people with a rifle at a party. After smoking marijuana, downing crushed Oxycontin pills and drinking his blood alcohol level to a 0.17 toxicity, Martin got angry when he thought someone stole his marijuana pipe. Then he killed two people trying to find it.

Chris Rentz, on the other hand, was simply accused of stealing $23 of gas (even though he never left the scene) and slapping the attendant’s arm.

According to the findings in the county prosecutor’s “Summary of Facts” regarding the case, tension between West and Rentz rose quickly. One night, the report states, Chris became sick of being bullied and announced to his roommates that he didn’t want anyone throwing wet toilet paper onto his bed anymore. West saw a challenge, said that he was the one who had been messing with Chris’ bed, and soon tackled Chris and tried to strangle him. When Felice and Martin yelled at him to stop, West appeared to snap out of it. He asked the others what had happened. He didn’t believe them when they said he had tried to strangle Chris.

Chris’s sister Billie said there was always something about having anything on his chest — a blanket or even an arm during a friendly wrestling match — that would make Chris hyperventilate.

“That was like his only thing. My mom said nothing ever happened — like no traumatic stuff — when he was a kid,” Billie says. “I think that first time that Chris let them know that he had that weakness, they knew they could take him.”

The Last Letter

Felice told investigators that after dinner on Oct. 2, West showed him a suicide note and a razor blade. He told Felice they would all be released if he killed himself.

After medication was passed out and the residents of 3W30 watched The Passion of the Christ – the uncut version — with jail volunteers, corrections officer David Dick saw West and Martin talking quietly near the bathroom of 3W30 when he made his rounds. The two walked away from each other when they saw him peering in their window.

According to the prosecutor’s report, when Officer Howard Bowman assumed the watch, Dick told him to keep an eye on 3W30 — remarking on Martin and West’s quiet conversation.

Soon thereafter, West and Martin soon began to haze Rentz. West told Rentz he needed to prepare him for prison, and began “bean dipping” him — holding him down while sticking fingers in his anus. They stopped, everyone laughed — including Chris.

Chris then went back to his bed and wrote a letter — one last lifeline to the corrections officers. He then slid it under the door of 3W30, leaned against the wall and started crying. The corrections officers never saw his letter — somehow not passing 3W30 from the time Rentz slid it under, to the time that West retrieved it from under the door. West then sat Chris on his bed and then read the letter back to him. Toward the end of his letter, Chris had written to corrections officers that he was afraid for his life. That was the point when West ripped up the letter and threw it in the trash.

West and Martin then proceeded to beat Rentz with a push broom — taking turns poking him with the handle in the face and chest, and smacking him with the bristles. Felice told them to stop; West told Felice to stay out of it.

At one point, Officer Bowman called into 3W30 on an intercom — having heard noise from his station below — and asked what was going on. West answered that they were playing a game. Bowman did not walk up the stairs and peer into 3W30.

Chris had begun bleeding from his face; West grabbed him around the neck. Felice would later tell investigators that Chris sounded like a grunting pig as he tried to shake off West’s stranglehold. Chris’s head made a cracking noise against the ground when West tackled him. Felice and Martin yelled at West to stop, to which he responded, “Shut the f— up and leave this to me.”

Martin stood guard at the door to 3W30 as Chris’ face turned purple under West’s grip.

Chris was found later by Officer Bowman lying face down on the floor of 3W30 with a bed sheet knotted around his neck and blood pooling around his body. In the Spokane County Medical Examiner’s autopsy report, Chris was found with his neck sliced with a razor blade, and with multiple blunt-force injuries to his head and neck. Cause of death: asphyxiation.

Later that night, at 2 am, Billie, Ben and Debra were informed that Chris was dead — though Billie says the jail was vague on details. At the moment that Chris was murdered, the father of the family, Bill, was in a cell just upstairs from his son. He was put in solitary confinement before being told that his son was dead.

“My older brother was always in and out [of jail], and so was my dad,” Billie says. “I always thought it would be one of them. For me, having Chris taken from me — that’s as bad as getting one of my kids taken from me.”

In the days prior to Chris’s death, Billie and Debra had both been contacted by James Felice — who had known Chris and Billie’s father, Bill Rentz, for years — saying that he would look after Chris in their cell on Three West. At the time, Felice had also been dating West’s mother.

“I think he knew what West was capable of,” Billie says.

The Roots of Crime

At a meeting on June 7, Sheriff Mark Sterk warned the county commissioners of his growing concerns about the jail’s budget. With talk of expanding the jail on the horizon, Sterk wants to make sure that those people who sign the checks are thinking far enough into the future. No one wants a repetition of the Chris Rentz murder.

Even Mark Richard, a Spokane County Commissioner, admits that somewhere along the line, the jail was forgotten.

“I think we’ve been pretty quick to hire deputies on the street, but we have kind of ignored the jail, and I think that puts us at a crisis point,” Richard says.

After last week’s meeting, the commissioners plan to hold a summit meeting today, June 16, in order to address the escalating concerns of the jail, police department, public defenders and judges.

“I think that this is the first time we have attempted to look at this issue as a system instead of looking at one item or another,” Richard says.

Richard expresses personal interest in seeing future money funneled toward the root of the overcrowding issue: mental health. 

“We do believe that we’ve kind of been looking at things from a short-sightedness in the past,” he says, hoping to see some funds go toward assisting children with mental health issues. “The reality is that until we get to these children and try to change this pattern of mental illness and provide them with the care that they need, we’re not going to stop this trend of more and more criminal activity.

“It’s going to cost a lot of money in the front, but in the end, our goal is to take the burden off of our court system, jail system and police departments,” Richard says.           

Earlier this year, both Todd Mielke and Phil Harris advocated the establishment of a tent city jail for low-risk offenders. That’s a plan Richard says the commissioners realized would just be thinking in the short-term.

“The main reason we ruled it out was cost in exchange for that short term didn’t add up,” he says.

Regardless of future plans, the county commissioners will have to answer to Chris Rentz’s family; in March, they filed a $5.65 million civil lawsuit against Spokane County over Chris’s death.     

Costs from legal settlements only add to the budget problems the jail faces: In a recent study, the Spokane County Jail found that it would need to expand by 65 beds a year in order to keep up with the space they expect to need to house law-breakers.

“The issue is, if you need 650 beds in 10 years, it’ll take you four to five years to build the facility,” says Sterk, who declined to comment on whether the Rentz case was the catalyst for dialogue about the jail’s budget. He did say, however, that “We’ve had problems for the seven years I’ve been here.”

With the staff that’s available, Sterk says jail commanders are trying harder to classify inmates more appropriately. That’s the case with most things for the Spokane County Jail these days — experimenting and using what they have to find solutions for the facilities’ numerous problems. A doctor was brought in to do closed-circuit TV assessments of inmates’ mental states, but Sterk says they scrapped that after they realized it wasn’t saving them any cash.

“We are managing our beds really, really well,” he says, “But we need to put a plan quickly in place for the beds we’re going to need. If not, we’ll be behind the curve.”

Clay Mosher, the sociologist from WSU-Vancouver, notes that one program already in place that could help is the Mental Health Docket in Spokane County. The docket deals exclusively with criminal defendants and assists in getting them the mental health treatment that they need while protecting the public and reducing recidivism rates. Mosher thinks expanding mental health programs is better than expanding the jail.

“There is a negative impact on employment when you build more jails because it drives out private businesses,” he says. “If you build it, they will come, and if you expand the jail, you’re going to find people to put in those beds. Obviously the crowding problem isn’t going to go away.”

But with long waiting lists already for the 83 beds available for jail-inmate transfers at Eastern State Hospital, where defendants diverted by the Mental Health Docket will be treated is a question that may only be answered with more money.

Mark Richard says he would love to get behind seeing the mental health docket expanded — even noting that the commissioners are trying to upgrade the docket from the district to the superior court.

Broken Lives

On the eve of his 29th birthday, Michael West pleaded guilty to his previous charge of second-degree rape, and to the first-degree murder of Chris Rentz. He will be sentenced in July and could face up to life in prison. His ex-girlfriend sat as far from West as she could during his plea. When West peered over his shoulder at her, she shook her head. West simply shrugged his shoulders.

When he responded “guilty” to Judge Gregory Sypolt’s question of his first-degree murder charge, Debra Rentz’ tiny shoulders started shaking uncontrollably. She crumpled sobbing onto Billie’s shoulders. Billie’s face stayed hard and stoic.

Brandon Martin, now 20, was sentenced to life in prison for double murder in early May, and will face trial in late July for second-degree murder in Chris Rentz’ death.

Billie still shakes her head at the thought of her brother’s murder — as if it’s still settling in that her younger brother isn’t around anymore. There are still so many questions, so many details the jailers missed. There are so many unanswered questions about why it had to be her brother’s life, why the county is now reconsidering how its jail is run. Some say it’s above average for a jail to go five years without seeing a murder — and the Spokane County Jail went 20 without one.

But excuses about the probability of a jailhouse murder once every five years won’t ever bring back her brother. She glances at the frame with Chris’ smiling picture that hangs on her living room wall.

“The first time that the scared little mouse goes out, he gets in trouble,” Billie says. “And they are the ones who get it the worst.”