An Army Ranger was sentenced to 20 years in prison by a Washington judge on May 10 for the murder of a security guard in 2021.

Patrick Philip Byrne pleaded guilty on March 15 in Pierce County Superior Court to the first-degree murder of 42-year-old Denise Smith. Byrne, who was 26 at the time, strangled the woman to death after drinking heavily at a nearby bar.

The defendant said he was punched in the head in a bar fight before the attack, and doesn’t remember anything that occurred between the fight and waking up in the hospital after he killed Smith.

After the altercation at the bar, Byrne ran to the building where Smith worked and beat her for 10 minutes, according to the Tacoma Police Department. He punched her, pulled her by her braids, and “dragged her around like a rag doll,” detectives wrote in an affidavit.

Byrne used Smith’s keys to repeatedly stab her in the face, the affidavit said. One detective said it appeared from surveillance footage that Byrne was trying to blind Smith. He then choked her until she died, and continued to strangle her for several minutes.

Byrne had no motive for the attack, the defense said in a sentencing memo.

He then walked away from the victim, down some stairs, and stopped on a landing. Detectives believe he fell off the landing and sustained a brain injury at that point, though what happened is unclear because he disappeared from a surveillance camera’s view.

He was eventually arrested and transported to a hospital. There, he told detectives he had been stabbed, but doctors determined he hadn’t. He also said he was sexually assaulted but wouldn’t let doctors examine him for evidence.

Byrne said he had no recollection of the murder.

Smith was a new hire and had only worked a few shifts, according to the affidavit.

Her father, Charles Reagins, described in court documents how proud he was of his daughter for being a hard-working woman trying to make a living on her own. Reagins said he was a U.S. military veteran as well.

“The actions of Byrne toward my daughter were brutal, savage, harsh, cruel, unnecessary and worthless,” Reagins wrote.

Pierce County Prosecuting Attorney Thomas Howe said in a statement that he expected the defense to claim the defendant suffered a head injury during the bar brawl that rendered him unconscious and not legally responsible for the murder.

The prosecution argued that Byrne willingly got drunk and acted out in “not fully understood anger” after he ran into Smith.

David Katayama, Byrne’s attorney, argued in court documents the crime was the result of multiple traumatic brain injuries, including the bar fight and injuries sustained before and during his military service. The defense said Byrne was admitted to the hospital after the murder for “inpatient care with a diagnosis of traumatic subarachnoid hemorrhage with loss of consciousness.”

In court documents, Katayama referred to a forensic psychiatric evaluation of Byrne which indicated his aggression and decision-making were negatively influenced by the injuries. He also argued Byrne wasn’t at risk for future violence.

Katayama declined to comment on behalf of his client.

Spc. Patrick Byrne remained on active duty with 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, until his civilian criminal trial ended, a regiment spokesperson said. The Army is in the process of separating Byrne from military service.

“Mr. Byrne took responsibility for his devastating actions, but no amount of punishment can make up for the value of Denise Smith’s life and humanity,” said Howe, the Pierce County prosecutor. “Cases like this don’t end with ‘winners,’ just different people who own a piece of the sadness.”

Riley Ceder is an editorial fellow at Military Times, where he covers breaking news, criminal justice and human interest stories. He previously worked as an investigative practicum student at The Washington Post, where he contributed to the ongoing Abused by the Badge investigation.

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