Joseph Byrnes, Musician Who Slaughtered Dog in Church, Dies at 44

Categories: Local News
Joseph Byrnes
Those who know the Bay Area music scene well might remember Joseph Byrnes, who drummed for The Enablers, Broken Horse, Tarnation, and so many others. Those who knew Byrnes personally described a sweet and gentle man.

But, sadly, many people know Byrnes only from another, abhorrent incident. In August of 2009, horrified witnesses watched Byrnes hack his pit bull, Nickel, with an axe, and then carry the mortally wounded dog into Immaculate Conception Church in Bernal Heights. Police followed a trail of blood into the Catholic church to discover a nude Byrnes crouching over the dog. He later allegedly told his arresting officers "I had to kill my dog; he had the devil in him."

Byrnes' heartbreaking tale came to a close last week. On Friday he was discovered dead in his room at the Civic Center Hotel. The medical examiner declined to comment on the cause of death. Byrnes was just 44 years old.

In the wake of Byrnes' 2009 arrest and incarceration, many of his longtime friends told SF Weekly of a three-year downward spiral for the artist and musician. His bouts of mental illness grew more pronounced, forcing him to withdraw from The Enablers. In the months leading up to the incident at Immaculate Conception, Byrnes grew increasingly erratic. He lost a job as a cook, lost his room of a dozen years in a friend's home, and was, according to friends, living out of his pickup truck and abusing drugs and alcohol.

The man who played in a band called The Enablers may have had his destructive behavior fostered by enablers in his life. "People keep saying, 'Joe, he's okay, he's a little wacky.' But his longer-time friends were saying 'No, he's not doing well. He needs some help,'" recalled one of those longer-time friends back in '09. "He's not just some fucking lunatic. He's someone struggling with mental illness who has not gotten proper care.... He's a really close friend of mine and it's breaking my heart."

A young Joe Byrnes works on his chopper
Byrnes was released from San Francisco's jail system in May of 2010. On July 13 of that year, over the District Attorney's strong objections, Judge Mary Morgan "pleaded open" Byrnes' case. Under this procedure, a defendant admits guilt to his charges and, rather than accept a plea bargain with the prosecutors, receives a sentence directly from the judge. In Byrnes' case, the DA was seeking a 16-month prison sentence. Instead, he received a suspended sentence, three years of adult probation, and entry into a program with the county's Behavioral Health Court. His last date at the BHC was on June 14, when he was given a "positive report." Byrnes would have been back in court for another meeting tomorrow.

In the years leading to his violent run-in with the law, Byrnes' friends recalled his obstinacy in admitting he had a problem, and troubles with sobriety. It is unknown if this was the case in the final months of his life.

What is known is that Joseph Byrnes breathed his last, alone, in a residential hotel. And his loved ones are left to wonder, how did it all come to this?

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