Longtime Friends of Man Accused of Slaughtering Dog in Church: 'We've All Been Very Worried About Him For a While'

Categories: Crime, Local News
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Joe Byrnes' friends say they pleaded with him to seek help -- and he always refused
Longtime friends of Joe Byrnes say the man accused of slaughtering his pit bull with an axe while naked in a San Francisco Catholic church has a long history of mental illness and has steadfastly refused his loved ones' pleas to seek help.

"We've been very, very worried about him for a while. He's been in no condition to seek help for himself because he's had some problems," said one of Byrnes' closest friends. "Some people don't want to recognize this and that's really unfortunate. It's really upsetting things got to this point."

Police and eyewitness reports state that Byrnes drove up to the Immaculate Conception church in Bernal Heights on Sunday and proceeded to hack at his pit bull, Nickel, with a hatchet, before carrying the dog inside. Police followed a trail of blood into the chapel and located the stained hatchet as well as Byrnes' blood-soaked pants and shoes. They found him crouched over the mortally wounded dog, naked and slathered in blood. The arresting officers claim Byrnes told them "The devil was in my dog. I had to get the devil out."

Several of Byrnes' best friends described a three-year downward spiral for the artist and musician in which his bouts of mental illness grew more and more pronounced (one of Byrnes' pals said the 41-year-old been diagnosed with bipolarity, though another said Byrnes had never received a proper diagnosis).

Then, in the last three months, things appear to have taken a precipitous turn for the worse. Byrnes' increasingly erratic behavior led to him leaving his job as a cook, losing the room in a friend's home he'd resided in for a dozen years, and also losing his gig drumming for the local band The Enablers. At the time of his arrest, his friends believe he was living out of his pickup truck -- and possibly abusing drugs and alcohol.

A number of Byrnes' loved ones told SF Weekly they'd implored him to seek medical and/or psychiatric help for his condition -- but he never did. "He refused care like most people in his situation do. They're delusional," said one friend. "He didn't think anything was wrong with him," added another.

Byrnes had been subjected to several "5150" involuntary psychiatric holds in the past -- but he always was eventually released and got back on with his life. "There have been plenty of opportunities for the state of California to do something for him and they haven't," bemoaned one of Byrnes' friends.

While being held at the psychiatric wing of General Hospital, Byrnes this week told friends that the police allegations were false. He said his dog had been hit by a car and he'd taken it to the church to "heal" it. Then, when he realized it was dying, he decided to put it out of its misery with a hatchet. He didn't explain why he had a hatchet with him. Or why he was nude.

That many of Byrnes' friends were eager to believe this story instead of the disturbing scene reported by multiple eyewitnesses and police is understandable. But some of Byrnes' inner core of friends say it's symptomatic of the man's associates refusing to acknowledge the severity of his problems.

"People were saying, 'Oh, Joe, he's okay. He's just a little bit wacky.' But his longer-time friends were saying, no, he's not doing well. He really needs help," said one. "I think it's really tragic. When Joe is lucid and okay and not suffering from a hyper swing, he's a really lovely guy. But he's got some problems. I'm assuming the police reports are correct. He's a really close friend of mine and this is breaking my heart"

Byrnes was arraigned on Wednesday and charged with one count of maiming or killing an animal and one count of residential burglary. His bail was set at $100,000 -- and, if convicted of both charges, he could face three years and eight months in prison.

His next court date is on August 25. 

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