Army Ranger who tortured and killed a security guard while out drinking with fellow Rangers will go to prison


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Peter Talbot
The News Tribune (Tacoma, Wash.)
(TNS)

May 12—A U.S. Army Ranger formerly stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord was sentenced Friday to 20 years in prison for beating a security guard to death in downtown Tacoma after he went out drinking with other Rangers.

Spc. Patrick Philip Byrne pleaded guilty in March to first-degree murder in the July 18, 2021 death of 41-year-old Denise Smith. The woman had worked just five shifts at the 12-story Frank Russel Building, 909 A St., before Byrne attacked her.

Surveillance video showed the soldier assault Smith for 8 to 10 minutes, according to court records, dragging her by the hair and repeatedly punching her before using the guard’s keys to stab her in the face, apparently attempting to gouge her eyes out, records state. He then flipped Smith onto her stomach and choked her until she went limp, then continued to choke her for another minute or two.

After the attack, Byrne tried to smash a window in a conference room and threw around furniture in the lobby. He then exited, and according to charging documents fell or jumped from a ledge 14-feet above street level. He eventually was brought to a hospital, where he told detectives he had no memory of what happened.

Six of Smith’s relatives spoke during the hearing, and more sat in the courtroom gallery with a sign that included a photo of the woman in her security officer uniform. Smith’s sister, Tina Renee Mack, wore all green. She said it was her sister’s favorite color, and she wanted Byrne to think of Smith’s name whenever he saw it.

“I just wanted Patrick to know that he destroyed our lives, and abruptly took a life and made it very hard to continue on with life,” Mack said.

Smith grew up in Seattle, where she graduated from Rainier Beach High School in 1998, but her family hails from Indiana. Her eldest brother, Dennis Mack, told the court he was brought up in the Midwest, and he protects his sisters. He also believes in an eye for an eye, and he said if this happened where he came from, it would be him sitting in court.

“I’m trying not to be on Court TV, choking his eyeballs out his head. But that’s what I want to do,” Dennis Mack said. “I’m never going to forgive him for what he did.”

Byrne said in court Friday he still cannot remember any details from that night.

His attorney from the Department of Assigned Counsel, David Katayama, wrote in court filings that before the murder, Byrne became involved in a physical altercation at The Office Bar & Grill where he was punched in the head and knocked to the concrete. Minutes after gaining consciousness, Byrne was forcibly trying to enter the building where Smith was working.

Before handing down the sentence, Pierce County Superior Court Judge Stanley Rumbaugh said there was legitimacy to the defense attorney’s statements, which led him to believe Byrne had some element of loss of capacity when he committed the crime.

But Rumbaugh also said he believed that Byrne needed to understand that getting intoxicated to the point of becoming belligerent and uncontrollable in a public place is a choice. The judge said the defendant also knew he had prior head injuries from his time in the military and from car wrecks, but he chose to exacerbate those problems by drinking alcohol in excess.

“It’s interesting to hear you talk about the future and your future plans because Denise Smith has no future,” Rumbaugh said. “She was brutally murdered in an act that is as callous and as cruel as this court has ever had the misfortune of dealing with. It, it’s really just unspeakably cruel.”

A brain scan showed Byrne had a brain bleed in the area of the organ that controls morality and judgment, according to Katayama, and he wrote in court filings that two doctors who reviewed Byrne’s medical records independently concluded that the brain injury was caused by a blow to the head such as the one described by witnesses to the bar fight.

The punishment Rumbaugh imposed was in line with a recommended sentence agreed on by prosecutors and the defense, the low end of the standard sentencing range for defendants prosecuted in similar cases, which is 20 to 26 years in prison. Byrne had no prior criminal convictions.

Deputy Prosecuting Attorney Thomas Howe wrote in court filings that had the case gone to trial, a jury would conclude based on surveillance video that Byrne caused Smith’s death, but there was a real issue of fact in regard to his mental state. And the fact that a motive is not well understood is a factor that could make a unanimous decision difficult for a jury.

“He’s pleading a murder-one, so it was my belief that when someone, whatever their motivation is, comes forward, pleads to basically the top half, which is where I think we’d end up after trial, that I’m going to agree to a low-end recommendation,” Howe said in court.

Byrne wrote in court filings that he was accepting a plea agreement to not cause more pain to his family and the family of the victim.

The defendant remained on active duty Thursday pending the completion of his civilian criminal trial, a spokesperson for his unit, the 75th Ranger Regiment, told The News Tribune. But the Army has started the administrative separation process, and it was expected to be completed soon.

Byrne was raised in New York and North Carolina in an Irish Catholic family, and he joined the military at age 23 following the events of Sept. 11, 2001, according to the defense’s sentencing memorandum. He has a history of serious head injuries, including two auto accidents he survived as a young man, as well as injuries in the military. He reportedly suffered a “blast concussion” and a major fall after his parachute failed to deploy in an airplane jump.

Prior to Smith’s murder, Byrne had recently returned to JBLM after a two-month deployment to Afghanistan.

When it was his time to address the court, Byrne said he could never describe how truly sorry he was, and he prayed that Smith’s family would accept his deepest apology. Speaking through tears, he said this never would have happened if not for the head injury he sustained from being assaulted.

“I wish I had never gone to that bar, that I had never gone out at all that night,” Byrne said. “I wish I had never ever even been out here, then none of this would have happened. And Denise Smith, a great and wonderful woman, to be sure, she would still be alive and part of the world for much much longer.”

Outside the courtroom, Tina Mack told The News Tribune that it was hard to say if Byrne had received a fair sentence. A life is gone, she said, and he still has one. But at the same time, she said, justice has been served. Mack said the man’s apology seemed genuine.

“I feel he is sorry for what he’s done. I’m a forgiving person. It’s going to take a while, but my heart does go out to him. It does. I don’t think he’s a bad person, I just think it was a bad situation.”

This story was originally published May 10, 2024, 6:24 PM.

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