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Thursday, August 13, 2009

Distraught Friends Stick Up for Man Accused of Slaughtering Dog in S.F. Catholic Church

Posted By on Thu, Aug 13, 2009 at 12:01 AM

click to enlarge Joseph Byrnes' longtime friends have trouble believing he'd ever harm one of his beloved dogs -- but note the San Francisco musician's battles with mental illness
  • Joseph Byrnes' longtime friends have trouble believing he'd ever harm one of his beloved dogs -- but note the San Francisco musician's battles with mental illness
On Monday, SF Weekly broke the disturbing story of a nude man eyewitnesses and police claim hacked his pit bull to death in a Bernal Heights church with a hatchet before telling officers that he was forced to kill the dog as it was possessed by the devil.

Longtime friends of Joseph Byrnes, 41, have offered up a scenario that portrays the unemployed artist and musician as a compassionate -- if greatly disturbed -- pet owner, rather than the blood-soaked dog-killer described by police and witnesses.

Scot Velardo has been Byrnes' friend for more than 15 years and lived with him for a dozen of them. He spoke with Byrnes this week at the psychiatric ward of San Francisco General Hospital. "I don't think Joe would lie to me," Velardo said. "He's bipolar and might have been acting crazy, but he'd never do that to his dogs."

Velardo said Byrnes -- drummer in the local band The Enablers -- told him that his unleashed pit bull, Nickel, ran into the street near the Immaculate Conception church in Bernal Heights and was struck by a hit-and-run driver. Byrnes then claims to have carried the dog to the church in an attempt to heal it -- before realizing the dog was mortally wounded and opting to put Nickel out of his misery with a hatchet. How Byrnes came by the hatchet was left unexplained.

To put it mildly, this story varies greatly from police and eyewitness reports. For one thing, it doesn't explain Byrnes' nudity. "Yeah, he didn't mention that," Velardo conceded.

Police spokeswoman Sgt. Lyn Tomioka said that multiple eyewitnesses -- who do not know Byrnes and therefore had no reason to make false statements -- watched a shirtless Byrnes pull up to the church in a yellow pickup truck and begin hacking his dog with a hatchet outside the building. He then carried the mortally wounded dog into the chapel.

Police on the scene followed a trail of blood into the church and discovered the hatchet as well as Byrnes' blood-soaked pants and shoes. The bloody trail led them to a courtyard where they discovered Byrnes, nude and slathered with blood, hunched over Nickel. Officers described the dog's brains oozing out of a gash in its head; Inspector Ricardo Galande said the dog was "chopped to pieces." At this point, the arresting officers claim Byrnes told them, "I had to kill my dog, he had the devil in him," and later added, "The devil was in my dog. I had to get the devil out."

Agonizingly, Nickel the dog did not die immediately but survived until Monday morning before being euthanized.

Velardo said that Byrnes is bipolar, and has has been subjected to several "5150" involuntary psychiatric holds in the past. He added that Byrnes' condition seemed to be worsening of late; after a dozen years of cohabiting, Velardo and Byrnes recently parted company when Byrnes stopped paying rent.

A friend of Byrnes' of more than 20 years who asked his name not be used in this article said he's not sure what story to believe -- but blames Byrnes' behavior, either way, on mental illness.

"The Joe I know would never, ever injure anyone -- in his right mind," the friend said. "Whatever happened, you can definitely chalk it up to mental illness. He's been having problems for a while now with mental health issues."

Byrnes has two more dogs. It is not certain who, if anyone, is looking after them.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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