First of two parts

Sean Drenth died instantly and violently on the evening of October 18, 2010, in a quiet alley a half-mile south of the Arizona Capitol building.

This is how Capitol Police say they found Sergeant Sean Drenth, with his shotgun in a position that some experts say would have been highly unlikely had he committed suicide.
This is how Capitol Police say they found Sergeant Sean Drenth, with his shotgun in a position that some experts say would have been highly unlikely had he committed suicide.
A long view at the crime scene taken from the eastern one-way entry to the alley on October 19, 2010.
A long view at the crime scene taken from the eastern one-way entry to the alley on October 19, 2010.
Someone tossed Drenth's duty weapon, a Glock, about 15 yards over a chain-link fence at the scene.
Someone tossed Drenth's duty weapon, a Glock, about 15 yards over a chain-link fence at the scene.
The Drenths, not long before Sean's death.
Courtesy of Colleen Drenth
The Drenths, not long before Sean's death.
Sean and Colleen Drenth were high school sweethearts who married in 1997.
Courtesy of Colleen Drenth
Sean and Colleen Drenth were high school sweethearts who married in 1997.
An overhead view of the crime scene just west of downtown Phoenix, near the state Capitol building.
An overhead view of the crime scene just west of downtown Phoenix, near the state Capitol building.
Left: Ex-Phoenix cop George Contreras (here performing with his band Blue Steel) was implicated in an off-duty security scandal that also was about to ensnare Sean Drenth. Inset: Investigators failed to ask Lieutenant Chris Moore, one of Drenth's best friends in the department, several critical questions.
Left: Ex-Phoenix cop George Contreras (here performing with his band Blue Steel) was implicated in an off-duty security scandal that also was about to ensnare Sean Drenth. Inset: Investigators failed to ask Lieutenant Chris Moore, one of Drenth's best friends in the department, several critical questions.
One of Sean Drenth's greatest pleasures was hanging with his beloved dogs.
Courtesy of Colleen Drenth
One of Sean Drenth's greatest pleasures was hanging with his beloved dogs.

The cause of death was a single shotgun shell, whose contents entered just under the Phoenix police sergeant's chin and burst through the top of his skull.

A Capitol Police assistant discovered Drenth on his back on the weathered asphalt near 18th Avenue and Jackson. A 38-inch-long Remington 870 shotgun was lying lengthwise on Drenth's body, centered on his chest.

The assistant and other first responders noted that the muzzle of the weapon was but a few inches above the contact wound, a detail that continues to loom large to those closest to the case.

One detective described the crime scene as "extremely quirky, troubling, totally upside down."

It included Sergeant Drenth's unfired service gun, a .45-caliber Glock, which police found on the other side of a chain-link fence near a railroad right-of-way, about 15 yards southwest of the body.

Drenth's snub-nose .38-caliber revolver, which he carried as backup in an ankle holster, was on the ground near his feet. Someone had fired one bullet from that weapon through the lower part of the same chain-link fence.

("Sean always told me that if he had to pull that snub-nose out, he was having a really bad day; everything had gone to hell," a pal of Drenth's says.)

The sergeant's flashlight, personal cell phone, and handcuffs were strewn on the ground, also near his body. His uniform was dirty, and it appeared as if he had been kneeling.

Fresh abrasions and dirt on the back of both of Drenth's hands implied a clash with someone.

But the notion of anyone (or even more than one person) wresting the holstered Glock from Drenth and sticking the sergeant's own shotgun up against his chin and firing seemed improbable to many.

Sean Drenth was a savvy 34-year-old street cop whose advice to peers was "Don't get captured!"

For it to be murder meant Drenth's killer or killers probably had to retrieve the shotgun from his police cruiser during the clash.

But why would anyone have fetched the shotgun instead of using either of the sergeant's handguns to finish him off?

Even in those wild first hours after the discovery of Drenth's body, opinions at the scene differed about whether it was murder or suicide.

Several sources say Michael Lanning, a homicide sergeant assigned to the case, leaned toward suicide from the start and actually left his investigators at the scene within hours to attend a seminar. (Lanning declined the opportunity to speak for himself for this story.)

However, the lead investigator, respected veteran Warren Brewer, says he considered Sean Drenth a murder victim from the start.

This much was clear:

If it was a murder, Drenth's killer or killers sought to make it look like suicide.

And vice versa; if the sergeant did kill himself, he tried to disguise it as a murder.

Now, two years after the fact, the circumstances of Sean Drenth's death — one of the most high-profile cases in Phoenix Police Department history — remain shrouded in mystery and speculation.

Mention the case to just about any news junkie in the Valley and the inevitable reply is, "Did they ever figure out what happened?"


What happened in the alley that October night — other than that Sean Drenth died tragically of a shotgun blast to his head — is uncertain.

The Phoenix Police Department still considers the Sean Drenth case an open investigation of a "death unknown."

But the trail has gone cold in the case that Detective Brewer calls "the most frustrating I've ever worked on."

Brewer says he's "more 50-50 now" on the issue of suicide versus murder, telling New Times that his current thinking stems from the lack of viable murder suspects and anything new to support a homicide theory.

But Brewer remains convinced that as much evidence suggests a homicide as a suicide.

Many close to the Drenth investigation say they expected the Maricopa County Office of the Medical Examiner to rule the manner of Drenth's death "undetermined," not suicide or murder.

But in December 2011, pathologist Dr. Robert Lyon concluded that Sean Drenth killed himself.

"It was a WTF moment," the sergeant's mother, Diane, says of her initial reaction to Lyon's ruling.

"My son did not kill himself. There would have been no doubt in anyone's mind that this was a murder if Sean had planned [to make it look that way]. This was a murder. Sean never would have put himself in a position like that, and he never, ever would have killed himself. The first thing I thought was, 'Oh, my God. It had to be someone he knew! It had to be a meeting!' A transient wouldn't have snuck up on him."

Diane Drenth adds, "I'd like to know what Dr. Lyon was thinking, but he wouldn't tell us." Other officials at the Medical Examiner's Office canceled a meeting earlier this year after Diane and Drenth's widow, Colleen, showed up with a lawyer in tow.

Lyon issued his highly controversial ruling a day before what would have been Drenth's 35th birthday.

(The Medical Examiner's Office continues to decline comment, both to the Drenths and to New Times. Dr. Lyon recently left the office for an unspecified job out of state.)

Diane Drenth is right that if Sean had tried to simulate a murder, he surely could have made it appear as though a more serious struggle had taken place. As it was, the body had only a few scratches and there was some dirt on the back of the hands and on parts of Drenth's uniform.

The sergeant also could have maintained radio contact with dispatchers until the very last moment (he didn't) and then informed them, perhaps, that something suspicious was happening down the alley and he was going to investigate.

He still would have had the time to kill himself before backup arrived and made it appear to be a murder.

Vincent DiMaio, a storied pathologist from Houston who consulted with the Phoenix PD on the case, is not nearly as certain as Diane Drenth that it was a murder.

But, DiMaio tells New Times, "I don't agree with the assessment that this was a suicide. Suicide seems, initially, the obvious choice, due to the nature of the wound, the contact under the chin, and so on. But there are all kinds of reasons not to call it that. It is totally undetermined.

"Too many things happened out there to make this a clear-cut ruling. If you're going to commit suicide, why bother getting the shotgun out? You've got two guns on your body.

"If you went there to commit suicide, this is a bizarre way to . . . try to make it look like a murder. [It would be] a really inferior job of pulling it off. And the shotgun lying like it was on this officer's body? With the recoil factor, that would have been highly, highly unlikely."

That "recoil factor" is a key piece of the complex puzzle that is the Sean Drenth case.

The shotgun ended up on Drenth's body with the muzzle about four inches from the entry wound, as if the 12-gauge pump-action weapon, loaded with powerful law enforcement ammunition, had little or no recoil.

But it decidedly does, ballistic experts say, especially when its shooter instantaneously loses muscle control (as Drenth would have if he fired the gun) upon being killed,

(New Times recently tested a replica of Drenth's powerful shotgun at the Ben Avery Shooting Range. It had a kick of about 18 inches, which was even less than it could be under other circumstances.)

"The shotgun was not in a final resting place consistent with having been discharged by [Drenth]," writes Dean Beers, a Colorado private investigator retained by Colleen Drenth.

That jibes with what the first responders from the Capitol Police later told investigators.

"[The] whole thing, when I first saw the body, struck me as odd," Corporal Nathan Clark told a Phoenix PD detective hours after Drenth's body was discovered.

"It didn't look like it was natural to me. It looked like it may have been manipulated or placed in that position. It was too perfect."

Lucien Haag, a top ballistics expert later retained by the Phoenix PD in the case, wrote in a June 2011 report that Sergeant Drenth "was down on the ground or nearly so when the fatal shot took place."

But no one, including Haag, adequately has explained the recoil issue and how the shotgun could have ended up like it did and still be a suicide.

Nor has anyone satisfactorily explained why, if Drenth shot himself (or was shot) lying down, investigators found no "biological material" — brain matter or pieces of skull — directly behind him on the ground, in the desert debris, or on the chain-link fence mere feet away. (The police did find some brain matter in a paloverde tree about 12 feet northeast of the body.)

"No one can explain it because it wasn't a suicide and Sean didn't die lying down," says Jon Colvin, a Phoenix private investigator who worked on the Drenth case (much of it at no charge).

"He was murdered while kneeling or standing by people he had gone out there to meet for reasons we still don't know. Then they placed the shotgun on his body, which is how it was found.

But Lucien Haag doesn't seem to be that sure about anything.

As for the biggest question, he concluded his report with these frustratingly ambivalent words:

"The fatal injury could be self-inflicted or at the hands of another and satisfy the factors of contact wound, wound path, supine subject [Drenth], and the post-injury flight path of the plastic wad.

"Regrettably, the central issue of suicide vs. homicide was not answerable as of this writing."

Questions of motive and opportunity always arise first in investigations of violent deaths.

Those who insist that Sean Drenth was murdered have been unable to provide any viable motive for homicide other than the speculative.

Those who lean toward a suicide theory also lack sound evidence.

If Sean Drenth did kill himself, his sole known motivation may have been his role in an off-duty scandal that originally ensnared more than 25 Phoenix PD officers.

In 2008, the state Attorney General's Office started a criminal investigation of allegations that the cops were paid for security work they didn't perform in full at a Phoenix housing complex.

The probe seemed to go dormant until it re-emerged shortly before Drenth's death with a pared-down suspect list of four officers, including Drenth.

Clearly, the state's prime target was George Contreras, coordinator of the off-duty officers, who abruptly quit the Phoenix PD after 17 years on the force as the investigation moved forward in 2008.

Drenth almost certainly knew he was about to be indicted. Rumors about the off-duty case were flying around the department, and a close friend of the sergeant's, Lieutenant Chris Moore, had firsthand information that an indictment was coming down soon.

Still, no one has confirmed that Drenth was aware of the pending indictment, much less was expressing trepidation about it. (He would have been charged with "stealing" $1,065 allegedly paid to him through Contreras.)

To the contrary, everyone interviewed by police after Drenth's death claimed that the sergeant — a cheerful man with a distinctly offbeat sense of humor — was especially positive in his last days after a transfer back to the South Mountain Precinct.

"I know Sean would have said something to me about that off-duty bullshit bugging him if it was," says his lifelong friend Tom Kilstrom. "But he was fine. He was fine."

Had Drenth donned what police suicide expert and retired cop John Violanti calls the "mask of contentment," when he resolved, for whatever reason, to end his own life?

No way, says his mother, a straight-talking woman who is a project manager for a large bank.

"Sean would have been pissed if he got indicted," Diane Drenth says. "But he hadn't done anything wrong other than to trust George Contreras on that stupid off-duty thing. It wouldn't have been the end of his world."

In November 2010, a grand jury indicted the three surviving officers and Contreras on felony theft charges within weeks of Sean Drenth's death.

But state prosecutors dropped the case against three of the officers months later after a county judge remanded it to the grand jury. (Earlier this year, the trio sued the Attorney General's Office and others for what they contend were bogus charges against them.)

Contreras still faces charges of theft and illegal control of an enterprise — the off-duty operation he was running.

Steve Vernier had just gone on duty on the evening of October 18, 2010.

It was about 10:30, the Phoenix sky was clear and crisp, and the moon was almost full.

Within minutes, Vernier, an assistant with the Capitol Police, came upon Sean Drenth's body in the secluded alley at 18th Avenue and Jackson.

Vernier is not a sworn officer and wasn't carrying a weapon. His job included patrolling around state government buildings.

As he began his rounds, Vernier heard over his radio that an on-duty Phoenix officer wasn't responding to communications calls from dispatchers.

At 10:54 p.m., he drove toward the alley, still on routine patrol. The alley is north of fenced-in railroad tracks and south of a state-employee parking lot, which also is fenced in.

During his normal 10-hour shift, Vernier might patrol that area three or four times.

Accessible only from the east, the V-shaped alley begins at a volleyball court, narrows, and dead-ends about 100 yards west at the tip.

The floor of the eastern half of the alley is dirt and sand. Much of the west half is paved with cracked asphalt and is very dusty.

Police said later that homeless people used to frequent the immediate area. But Vernier hadn't seen anyone other than Phoenix police officers in the alley in years.

On-duty cops favored the site as a seemingly safe place to write a report or relax for a few minutes. It appeared secure because of the six-foot-high chain-link fences topped with barbed and concertina wire on the north and south sides.

Vernier spotted a Phoenix police cruiser parked next to two paloverde trees near the north-side fence, about 15 yards from the tip of the "V."

He later told a detective that two things struck him as peculiar:

Vernier said police always back in near the end of the V, for safety reasons. But this cop car — a four-door Chevy Impala — had pulled in straight (tires slightly canted to the left), which meant the driver would have had to back up and turn around to leave the area, a basic tactical error.

("A cop's instinct is, don't ever, ever go in that way unless you're meeting someone," says Heston Silbert, a mentor of Drenth's at the Phoenix PD who now is Mesa's assistant police chief. "It is ingrained in you. It's about always being prepared for the fight. Sean always was prepared for the fight, believe me.")

Second, both front doors of the patrol car were open, another first in Vernier's experience.

"It looked weird to me," he said.

He parked his vehicle about 30 feet east of the police car, stepped out, and turned on his flashlight.

Vernier didn't see anyone at first and hollered "hello" so not to startle the officer.

He took a few steps forward after nobody replied and saw a uniformed officer on his back on the ground, just north of the patrol car.

The officer was still, and Vernier saw a large puddle of blood seeping from the rear of his head.

A onetime Army medic in Iraq, Vernier stayed cool. He immediately called in on his police radio and later told investigators that he didn't move any closer to the body before supervisors arrived.

It was 10:56 p.m.

"One of your officers has been shot at 18th Avenue and Jackson, just south," a Capitol Police dispatcher told a counterpart at the Phoenix PD. "We need officers and supervisors."

"Has he been shot, and did he shoot someone?"

"He's shot. My officer is saying he's dead."

Phoenix PD dispatchers had known for about a half-hour that Drenth didn't respond to officers trying to contact him.

One of many rumors that soon materialized was that the GPS unit inside Drenth's patrol car had been shut off before he died.

The rumor was not true.

A dispatcher issued an alert with Drenth's last GPS location, near 18th and Jackson, five minutes before Steve Vernier found the body.

Two Phoenix cops, Aaron Lentz and Clinton Swick, were working off-duty at a homeless shelter less than a mile east of where Drenth died.

They rushed to a police car after they heard the alert and were on their way there when a "999" call, the dreaded code for "officer down," came over the police radio.

Two of Vernier's supervisors arrived a minute or two before officers Lentz and Swick.

Corporal Nathan Clark approached the sergeant's body. He was the officer whose first reaction was that the shotgun on Drenth's body looked "staged."

Clark noted the officer's sidearm was missing from its holster and a snub-nose .38 was on the ground near the body.

Police handcuffs, a flashlight, and a cell phone also were splayed on the ground nearby.

Drenth's vehicle still was running, and Corporal Clark peered in to ensure no one was in it.

He and the other Capitol cops then retreated to await the arrival of the Phoenix PD. Lentz and Swick were the first from the agency to pull in.

Sean Drenth had stopped by the homeless shelter twice that night to see Lentz.

The first visit, at 6 p.m., was interrupted by a barricade situation that the sergeant had to cover. The second visit, for 40 minutes, ended about 9:30 p.m. — a little more than an hour before the "officer down" call.

Lentz later told Detective Brewer at the crime scene that he and Drenth just had been joking around at the shelter, nothing serious.

Brewer didn't yet know about the Lentz/Drenth connection in the off-duty security case (both men were about to be indicted) when he interviewed the officer that night.

But even after the detective finally did learn about the state investigation days later, he never re-interviewed Lentz about what the two men actually may have discussed at the shelter — the pending criminal case against them would have been an obvious topic.

Officer Swick, who wasn't present for much of Drenth's second, longer visit to the shelter, said he had bumped into Drenth as the sergeant was leaving about 9:30.

"He said, 'I'm gonna find some trouble to get into,'" Swick recalled.

What Aaron Lentz did at the crime scene that night continues to concern many people close to the case.

First, Lentz told Detective Brewer that he didn't immediately recognize Sean Drenth because of the trauma caused by the shotgun blast.

He said he identified Drenth by the pin on the sergeant's shirt that said "MOB." It stands for Major Offenders Bureau, one of Drenth's previous stints with the agency.

Lentz said Drenth had told him at the shelter that he needed to get a pin to reflect his new assignment at the South Mountain precinct, also known as 400.

Lentz said he decided within seconds after getting to the scene to look for the missing duty weapon inside the sergeant's patrol car. It wasn't there.

By his account, Lentz pressed a button on the computer panel inside the car to see whether any messages were on the screen (he said there were none) and then decided to expand his search, which was conducted outside of police policy.

Lentz turned off the engine, grabbed the car keys, stepped around to the trunk, and opened it in Officer Swick's presence, insisting later that he still was looking for the missing gun.

Again finding nothing, he left the keys on the driver's front seat.

Lentz and, separately, Officer Swick insisted that Drenth's shotgun was slung across his body, with the barrel pointed down and to the left.

Those accounts differed radically from everyone else's, who said they saw the weapon as depicted in police photos, lengthwise on Drenth's body.

Just four minutes after Steve Vernier found Drenth's body, a Phoenix dispatcher announced, "It might be a suicide. They do not have any suspects out there. Information is still coming."

Still, dozens of Phoenix police cars swept in, overhead lights flashing.

Many officers ran into the immediate area, touching items they shouldn't have (including Sean Drenth's patrol car) and generally "contaminating" the scene.

"It was chaos out there; we're the first to admit that," says Lieutenant Joe Knott, the lieutenant supervising the homicide unit at the time.

"I'm not aware of any other Phoenix cop killing himself on duty or even alleged to do so," Detective Brewer adds. "Patrol [officers] forgot what to do and how to secure a scene. Sean was well liked, and all of a sudden, 'He killed himself?' And it just compounded."

Among the first Phoenix supervisors to arrive at the scene was Sean Drenth's close friend, Lieutenant Chris Moore.

Colleen Drenth says (and records confirm) that she and her husband last communicated in a short call at 9:59 p.m. Drenth told her that he and Moore planned to meet between 10:30 and 11 p.m.

That call, 57 minutes before Steve Vernier found Drenth's body, was the sergeant's last known communication with anyone.

(Colleen tells New Times the couple spoke about "silly things." "I was boiling an egg, and he was making fun of me for having to Google boiling eggs. He said, 'Oh, my domestic wife.' It was a small conversation.")

Moore called Drenth's personal cell phone at 10:30 p.m., four minutes after GPS data showed the sergeant's car was parked in the alley.

Drenth didn't answer.

About 11:30, Moore lifted the light-blue blanket covering his deceased friend, whose body would remain where it was found until well after daybreak as investigators continued their work.

Moore was keenly aware of the upcoming indictments against Drenth and the other cops, and his friendship with the sergeant was well known.

What he had to say was potentially vital to the investigators.

But Detective Brewer didn't interview the lieutenant until three weeks later — and only then for a less-than-revelatory half-hour in a parked pickup truck.

Brewer never asked Moore where and when the two had planned to meet, whether anyone was to join them, or whether they had an agenda for the meeting. (Moore declined numerous requests to be interviewed for this story.)

Moore did insist to the detective that he and Drenth hadn't spoken about the off-duty probe since late 2009, just before Drenth won promotion to sergeant.

That seems improbable, given that Moore had met with Officer Andrew Hoenigman (the state's star witness in the soon-to-be-filed off-duty case) just two days before Drenth's death.

Hoenigman requested the session at the South Mountain precinct after agreeing to be a prosecution witness in the pending criminal case. At the October 16 meeting, the officer told Moore and a sergeant that he feared unspecified reprisals from fellow officers once it became known he was turning state's evidence.

Hoenigman said later he bumped into Sean Drenth at the precinct immediately after the meeting, their first interaction in more than a year.

They said hello, the officer recalled, but that was it, in part because of Hoenigman's displeasure over Drenth's continued friendship with George Contreras, the ex-Phoenix cop whom Hoenigman considered "a scumbag" at fault for the whole mess.

Hoenigman, too, got to the Drenth crime scene soon after the "officer down" call. On assignment with the K-9 unit, he was ordered to stand watch over Drenth's service weapon (the Glock), which another cop had found over the chain-link fence to the south.

Hoenigman later told a detective that the hair on the back of his neck stood up as he stared across the fence at Sean Drenth's covered body.

He said he thought that Sean might have committed suicide because of the off-duty imbroglio and its repercussions.

He also wondered to himself whether someone had killed the sergeant.

"All I know is Sean is dead," Hoenigman told a detective. "Either this is pure coincidence that this [suicide] happened right now or someone killed him."

"What I knew when I got there," Detective Warren Brewer recalls, "is that an officer is dead."

One person who knew more than the lead detective just after midnight on October 19 was George Contreras.

He and Drenth had stayed in touch even after the off-duty scandal arose in 2008.

They mostly were linked by a love of loud guitars — the older Contreras was more a Kiss fan while Drenth favored the thrash of bands such as Black Label Society.

Contreras later told detectives that Drenth had stopped by his shop, Raptor Guitars, two days before he died. Contreras said he had handled Drenth's ankle handgun during that visit — the .38 that someone fired once at the crime scene.

At 12:29 a.m., Contreras published this Facebook post: "Sergeant Sean Drenth, may you rock out in heaven. I love you."

That post, which Contreras removed within a few days, was written even before Lieutenant Moore and another officer did next-of-kin notifications to Drenth's wife and mother.

"Do you know where I was the night Sean was murdered?" Contreras asked New Times during a recent Facebook exchange. "At my [now-closed] store, Raptor Guitars, practicing with Blue Steel, which consisted of two Phoenix police officers and one friend of mine."

He says he learned about Drenth's death from Phoenix PD officers through texts and cell-phone calls.

Phone records show he spoke with Phoenix officers continually until 12:46 a.m. Then, all cell communications involving Contreras, at least on the phone that Phoenix police examined, ceased for seven hours.

In the days afterward, especially when word went public about Contreras' pivotal role in the off-duty scandal, he became the focus of innuendo inside and outside the Phoenix PD about his possible involvement in a murder plot.

That speculation continues to this day. But (see part two of this series), police never even named Contreras a "person of interest," much less a suspect.

Contreras has insisted in interviews with detectives that Drenth was murdered and that it would have taken two or three men to subdue the sergeant.

"There was nothing indicating that this was coming down," he told police a few weeks after Drenth died. "It has to be a hit. I don't know why this happened. God needed another police officer; that's all I can say."

At the crime scene that night, officers found a possible earwitness to the shooting, Thomas Keeler. The homeless man had been in a sleeping bag over the fence about 50 yards south of the alley when, he said, he heard the first of two gunshots.

Ten to 15 seconds later came a more muffled shot, "like someone covered it up with a pillow or something. [The shots] weren't back-to-back but not far apart, either," Keeler says.

Keeler's account raised even more questions:

Which weapon had been discharged first, the .38 or the shotgun that killed Drenth?

Obviously, if someone fired the handgun after the long gun, it was murder, not suicide.

Would the shotgun, normally louder than a .38, have been "muffled" by contact with Sergeant Drenth's throat?

Definitive answers remain elusive, with experts contacted by New Times offering opinions on this and other forensic issues.

Detectives eventually pieced together much of what Sean Drenth did in his final hours.

He had a late breakfast at a restaurant with Colleen and drove home afterward to change into his police uniform.

He then went by his pal Tom Kilstrom's home to deliver a quirky gift that had just arrived at the post office.

It was a leather wallet (one of several that Drenth had ordered for friends and colleagues) embroidered with the words "Bad Mother Fucker," a tribute to the iconic Samuel L. Jackson character in Pulp Fiction.

Drenth then drove to the South Mountain precinct for his 10-hour shift, which started about 2 p.m.

Nothing much happened on the street until about 6 p.m., when the sergeant responded to the barricade near 10th Avenue and Yuma.

Audio recordings during the situation depict Drenth as calm and professional. He told troops after things ended peacefully that "the residence is clear — thank you, everyone, for playing."

Afterward, Drenth drove to a pizza joint at 24th Street and Baseline Road, where he ordered a personal-size pie and a soft drink. It is uncertain whether he was alone, though a receipt in his pocket was for one person.

He spoke to his wife by phone for a few minutes at 8:30. Colleen says she was at the grocery store during that call (the couple had no children) and asked him if he needed anything.

Her husband, who would be dead in about two hours, requested chocolate pudding.

As noted, Drenth visited Officer Aaron Lentz at the homeless shelter twice that night. The barricade call interrupted the first visit, and his return visit of about 40 minutes began about 8:50.

The sergeant then returned to patrol, again based on GPS readings and videotape from cameras mounted on state buildings west of 15th Avenue and south of Washington Street.

Over the next hour or so, Drenth shined his car searchlight at locations west of Seventh Avenue and south of Washington, not far from where he died.

He drove slowly, stopping occasionally for a minute or two as he traversed the mostly non-residential area.

"He engaged in behavior that is consistent with routine police work," a Phoenix PD investigator wrote later.

"After ending the [9:59 p.m.] cell-phone conversation with his wife, Drenth appears to be actively patrolling an area known for criminal activity . . . While it is possible to see his vehicle [on some cameras], it is not possible to determine if there was anyone else in the vehicle with him."

One camera momentarily picked up Drenth's patrol car at 10:25 p.m. traveling south near the alley at 18th and Jackson. Its headlights were off, not unusual when an officer is on patrol.

Also at 10:25, the sergeant engaged the "subject stop" screen on his control monitor. The push of a button enables officers to enter information about a potential suspect.

But the sergeant apparently never typed in anything, adding to the intrigue.

Citing GPS data, a police report says Drenth's car was "relatively stationary" for 40 seconds near the volleyball court before it headed to the rear of the alley at 10:26 p.m.

The car wasn't seen again until Capitol Police assistant Steve Vernier spotted it a half-hour later.

But investigators learned that the cameras would not have detected the sergeant's car in the alley had he not touched his brakes as he drove into it.

Detective Brewer confirms that other vehicles or anyone on foot could have entered and left the alley without getting detected by the nearest camera.

It's unknown whether Drenth picked up someone for a pre-planned meeting or what he may have been up to at that critical moment.

By the time he stopped at the end of the alley, he officially had been incommunicado for about an hour.

Sometime within 28 minutes after he parked his patrol car, Sergeant Sean Drenth died violently.

The homicide investigators continued their work into the late morning, even after more than 10 hours at the scene.

Among the findings were 93 latent fingerprints on Sean Drenth's patrol car and 53 sets of footprints belonging to police officers, many whom had rushed into the crime scene.

Of possible significance, crime-scene specialists found the footprint of an unknown person on a notebook binder on the front floorboard inside Drenth's vehicle.

The print did not come from footwear that Drenth or any other on-duty officer would have been wearing.

Investigators also collected unidentified DNA from somewhere inside the scene that Phoenix PD never publicly revealed.

Detective Brewer says his initial feeling that night was that Sean Drenth had been murdered.

"If there's a person on this department who's killing people, I want to know about it," Brewer says. "So a cop kills him? Why does he want to kill him? There needs to be a motive.

The attorney general [case]? Could be. But is that enough for another officer to kill Sean?"

Lieutenant Joe Knott, says: "We researched [the off-duty case] well enough, I think, to establish that there is no link. We found nothing to indicate that any of those people were involved."

New Times spoke extensively about the case with Scottsdale forensic psychiatrist Steven Pitt, who has consulted with the Phoenix PD on several cases, though not on Drenth.

"At the end of the day," Dr. Pitt says, "we are dealing with either an incompetent or incomplete investigation by the Phoenix police and/or falsehoods promulgated by the Drenth camp.

"The Drenth camp wants you to believe that Sean was a saint, and the police want you believe that they have done a thorough investigation. It can't be."

As for the ultimate question, Pitt says, "I'm not impressed with the data that supports this being a suicide. Suicide runs counter to everything we know about this officer. But the police just scratched the surface of the psychological 'autopsy' that should have been done on Sean — and still should be done."

Colleen Drenth, a sweet, haunted woman, says this:

"I've questioned everything and everybody in my mind. I've tried to take the approach of being nice and friendly to everyone. If it makes them feel more comfortable or guilty, then maybe they'll talk and the truth will come out. I don't trust any of them."

Next: Who was Sean Drenth?

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Miami Valley Cold Case - Dayton Police Kevin Brame Killed: 11/1/1999 Status: Unsolved. sample image The Dayton Police Homicide Squad needs information regarding the violent shooting ...


You have to go with the logic on this one -  1. The Sgt was facing an indictment 2. Suicide would disqualify life insurence 3. The family gets the pension benefits.  


All of the details like the firearm tossed over the fence and back-up pistol location is all about # 2 above. Don't  "over-think" this one folks...


Mr. Pulsifer---Please contact me at, as I don't work for Phoenix New Times anymore since being laid off a few months ago. Thanks.


Murder,  " He engaged in behavior that is consistent with routine police work," a Phoenix PD investigator wrote later.  This observation, and his "pudding" request is most telling. 


this explains the warning shot (so the suspect technically didnt shoot anyone), the kneeling, and the gun over the fence. and its the only rational idea to the obviously failed attempt at suicide coverup. could have been a man he picked up, was chasing, someone on the side of the street. a friend, lover, anyone. there was dirt...... no footprints?


the suspect go the glock off of drenth, drenth tried to pull the ankle gun and didnt make it while he turned to the vehicle to get the shotgun, brings the shotgun to drenth, makes him shoot himself, walks away, throws the gun over the fense never to be found.

ExpertShot topcommenter

It wasn't the investigation of the charges of overtime abuse that was worrying this officer, it was the investigation of his activities, and other officers, into their jacking drug dealers, pimps and hos and stealing from them.  There is a lot of this type of activity going on in police departments across the nation.  You know just like the movie "Training Day."  They didn't make that up - it's real and it exists in our Cities and Towns.  Cops misusing their authority under the constitution and citizens, who, because their non-violent activities are declared "illegal" by society, feel they have to give up their inalienable rights to stay out of jail.  I guess the Cops feel that if society in the United States can abuse the constitution and interfere in the free association and contract rights of citizens to engage in commerce, they can abuse the Constitution too.  This type of corruption is rooted in this cognitive dissonance created by the War on Drugs and the natural tendency of humans to want to interfere in the sexual activities of their fellow humans - even if it NONE OF THEIR GOD DANNED BUSINESS!


I have it on good authority from a number of "snitchs" for the PPD that this officer was offed because he was getting too caught up in the security service overcharge investigation and was the one most likely to spill the beans on the widespread "jacking" going on within the Phoenix Police Department in order to cut a deal on his upcoming indictment.  I'm wondering why the FBI isn't is involved in this? 


I don't think the investigation/charges would have done much to him as he was at best collecting the money from someone else who was suppose to be tabbing the hours. RIP I think he was  stone cold murdered, and by someone he knew and probably 2 people involved and probably cops at that. I'd be lookin at the main guy getting indicted and who he was on the phone with most as well as any other phones or laptops he could have been on at that point in time, nothing else would make logical sense, either the after set up was sloppy by the killers are they did it that way to let everyone know they just got away with something and a message


Pretty crazy stuff, but getting shot at comes with the job!


I wonder if Sergeant Drenth had any enemies, either within the Phoenix Police or in general?


The AG indictments would have destroyed his career as a police officer had the Assistant AG not fucked up as badly as he/she did.


RIP Sergeant Drenth.


(cont. from previous comment)


(12) As to why Drenth's shotgun was used rather than his service Glock or his backup pistol, presumably a single shot from the shotgun, fired correctly, would be more likely to cause instantaneous death.  A lot can go wrong with the trajectory of a bullet, and serious injury could prevent a second shot while failing to kill.  This seems consistent with the suicide theory, yet his Glock was found 15 yards from the body and his backup pistol had been fired; and while the latter two facts could be used by Drenth to frame a homicide, the use of his own service shotgun in such a scenario, held in his own hands, would strike anyone as stupid and unconvincing of homicide, including Drenth himself.   


(13) Would Drenth's widow receive benefits from the police department and/or insurance companies if he committed suicide?  If not, and Drenth was concerned to provide for his wife, why create such an awkward, unconvincing, and inconsistent crime scene? 


(14) Why would Drenth's handcuffs and personal cellphone be strewn on the ground near the body, as well as his flashlight?  It makes sense that he might have had the flashlight out, but cuffs are not indicated until a suspect is under control and ready for formal arrest.  


(15) Could some of the evidence in this case involve someone (e.g., kids, crazy or drug-addled transients) finding Drenth's body after death but before Vernier's discovery, and fiddling around with things before leaving?  How reliable is the testimony of the homeless man who was camped out just 50 yards away and heard two shots fired in close succession (with perhaps 15 seconds between)?  What did he do after hearing these shots, and when and how did his involvement come to the attention of investigators? 


(16) The inconsistency between Vernier's version of the resting position of the shotgun, and that of Lentz and Swick (who were also the first departmental officers to arrive), seems important.  Yet, Vernier says he did not closely approach the body after discovering it.  When did he see the shotgun in the position he reported, from how far away, and under what conditions? 


(17) Did Vernier have a police-band (specifically, PPD frequency tunable) radio?  Was this standard issue for capitol police? 


 (18) Do we have any independent evidence that Vernier first came across the body when he did and under the circumstances he reported?


(19) As a security officer Vernier would have knowledge of weapons and possibly of investigation methods; working for the capitol police he would have an extensive knowledge of the area and the habits and working methods of regulars (e.g., policemen such as Drenth); as a former army medic he would have knowledge of anatomy and pharmaceuticals; and as someone who served duty in Iraq in this capacity he would have developed an intimate and extensive experience of injury and death.  Could any of this be relevant to the case, in terms of either method or psychology/motive?  (I know this is fanciful speculation, but all questions should be considered in a persistently puzzling case.) 


(20) If Drenth was incapacitated prior to being shot, how was this done and why were there no marks (e.g., taser burns)?  If a handheld taser was applied at a point later to receive the shotgun blast, would this obliterate the evidence? What about a blow to the back of the head?   Was a toxicology report on Drenth undertaken? 


(21) The article suggests that either a homicide or a suicide was framed.  But what if the confusing evidence found at the scene was created specifically for that purpose: to confuse investigators?



Thank you for this fascinating piece of investigative journalism, Mr. Rubin.  Phoenix New Times had been a bit barren lately, notwithstanding some of Stephen Lemons' short but frequently interesting columns. 


There seem to be more questions than answers here, but a few more questions might contribute to a discussion of possible answers: 


(1) Leaving both front doors open isn't suggestive of a framed suicide, nor is it suggestive of an attempt by Drenth to frame a homicide (unless he intended to suggest the presence of an unauthorized passenger).  So why were they both open with the engine left running?   


(2) Why "throw" Drenth's service Glock anywhere?  How would such an act contribute either to a frame suicide or a framed homicide? 


(3) Why would either Drenth use his backup gun to frame a homicide, or someone else use it to frame a suicide, since his service revolver would be the first weapon of choice used by Officer Drenth unless deprived of it at gunpoint, and since firing the backup gun would not contribute to the appearance of a suicide? 


(4) The back of Drenth's hands were abraded and dirty.  Could Drenth have been dragged by his feet, face up and with his hands dragging behind him and most of his body not in contact with the ground, after being incapacitated or killed?  If so, why shift the position of his body a short distance at the scene, unless he was dragged out of his car after being incapacitated?  Could someone attempting to position his body after dragging it out, temporarily support it by resting it on its knees, perhaps even holding it with one hand while so balanced and holding a weapon with the free hand? 


(5) Why was a "notebook binder" on the front floorboard of Drenth's patrol car?  Were there contents?  If so, what kind; if not, why?  Was this on the passenger side, as seems likely given the driver's feet and pedals and the fact that a footprint (inconsistent with the type of footwear worn by an on-duty policeman) was found on the binder? 


(6) Vernier was "not a sworn officer"; what kind of shoes was he wearing?  Shoes can be changed.  Would someone cognizant of standard forensic investigation techniques be likely to wear their own shoes to a planned crime scene, or wear them (or keep possession of them) afer the commission of the crime? 


(7) Vernier said that police "always" back down the alley rather than go in head first as Drenth's patrol car did.  Could the driver at that point have been a non-policeman? 


(8) From roughly 10:25 pm to 10:26 pm Drenth stopped or slowed to a crawl near the volleyball court, according to GPS data, during which time the "subject stop" screen in Drenth's patrol car was activated by someone.  No information was subsequently entered, however, indicating either that Drenth changed his mind or that he was interrupted by someone or something; and by 10:26 pm his car was moving again towards the back of the "alley".  Under what circumstances is the "subject stop" screen on a patrol car activated?  Is it easy to do by accident?  How long was this screen up?  Was it ever cancelled, either automatically or manually, and if the latter, by whom and when? 


(9) Drenth's patrol car headlights were off at 10:25 pm driving south of the alley, just before or at the time when the "subject stop" screen was activated.  Would Drenth have turned on the headlights and/or his prowl spotlight if he saw a "suspect" in a dark alley?  If so, were either or both of these lights on at the time he left the vehicle with the engine running and the door(s) left open?


 (10) Could Drenth have seen a dark figure loitering, engaged the "subject stop" screen, then recognized someone he knew flagging him down?  Could he have allowed this hypothetical individual in the passenger side before proceeding down the alley for a discussion? 


(11) Drenth started duty at 2:00 pm, yet engaged in two extended personal meetings with Lentz (at 6:00 pm and at 8:50 pm) -- also "bumping into" Swick at the end of the latter -- and also told his wife in a 10:00pm telephone call that he planned to meet with a third officer (Moore) between 10:30 pm and 11:00 pm.  What was so critical that required him to meet these officers while still on duty that night?  Why inform his wife at the late hour of 10:00 pm of a planned meeting with Moore scheduled to take place within the next hour, unless, first, it had only just been arranged (perhaps during or after the meeting with Lentz that ended at 9:30 pm), and second, unless Drenth had reason to be concerned enough to share the name of Moore and the time of the proposed meeting with his wife, who says that the rest of the call was about "silly things" such as boiling an egg?




The only thing that a cop can't get away with is rape. Does anybody think I'm wrong?


This was not a suicide in the least.  The recoil from the 870 would have thrown it well off the body of the Sgt.


who gives a shit if this cop is dead. Is this not the SAME precinct that produced the likes of Shawn Crismon??? He murdered, in cold blood, a man and his dog, shot them dead while hyped up on god knows what. how many of you PIGS went to that murdered guys funeral and cried your pathetic tears?? remember when his partner tried to do the right thing and report to his supervisors how Mr Crismon murdered that man only to be turned on boy all the other boys in blue for ratting out a fellow brother???? oh and remember the youtube video that showed not only Shawn Crismon, but a few fat hookers who still are currently employed by the Sounth Mountain Precinct laughing, just laughing their fat asses off as Officer Shawn Crismon planted a crack pipe on some homeless lady, just to impress the  fat hooker cops whom probably gave him blow jobs on their lunch breaks...fuck cops.


how many other injustices have the citizens suffered at the hands of these pigs, that no one will ever know about simply because those crimes are shielded by the likes of other dirty pigs?? fuck pigs


I grew up in a time when, if there was a problem, you could call the police and they would come and do what it took to help right the wrongsd, they were ...well...heroes..


Boy oh boy have times changed. Cops, ALL COPS, are bigger crooks than drug dealers. They will be damned if they go out on a call and someone doesnt get arrested. Its all about the money. Remember mJack Harris and his BULLSHIT kidnapping statistics, just so he could come up on some grant money. Cops make me sick, if you want to help people, and be a heroe, become a fire fighter..If you want to be a baby humping bully, be a cop


Oink, Oink. Another Piggy bites the dust.


I agree with farwalker7 I have allways thought that is what happend.....


Note this is my opinion and NOT fact: It is likely he was murdered by other cops who then decided to try and make it look like an accident - possibly because of the impact a suicide would have on his wife's benefits. Drenth lived for his job but was under investigation and likely to face dismissal. This would make him vulnerable to internal affairs pressure to name others involved in the wide reaching scandal that has tainted the South Mountain police department. Perhaps he was approached by Internal Affairs, maybe not, but the risk was considered too high. Consequently my guess would be that a couple of cops staged the suicide then discharged his gun and threw it over a fence in a clumsy attempt to make it look like he was killed by persons unknown. If this happened it was probably done with the connivance of a senior officer with knowledge about the investigation. As for proof, one of the best ways is to determine whether he had "prepared" for the suicide. Even if he didn't leave a note, a man typically does some personal "clean up" before taking his own life. Of course I have no idea if the police are smart enough to consider that avenue of investigation (probably not) but to me it is kinda clear that he was murdered by fellow officers.


Who cares, just another dead pig.


Should have been brain, skull, etc. all around the deceased. To find it in a palo verde 12 feet away is the biggest "huh" to me.


What is even more curious is the fact that Chris Smith was killed in the same area by an unknown assailant.  But then, poor Chris was a crackhead and no one but his family even thinks of him anymore.  Nothing to see here...  just a dead man with a drug problem.  What is happening near the capitol?  Drenth knew of dirty cops.  Smith knew of dirty politicians...  Nothing to see here...

Kimberlynn Hall Tovrea
Kimberlynn Hall Tovrea

Great job New Times! I am entranced - cannot wait for the next installment on this tragic story. Prayers for peace of heart and mind for Sgt. Drenth's family and friends....


Suicide, don't forget he was a cop. He knows what a murder scene looks like and a suicide scene looks like. He was about to be indicted, which meant he would have lost his peace officer certification. Which would have meant he would have lost his benefits and gone to jail. Make it look like murder and his wife would have received FULL benefits for life or until she married someone else. Also, his cop friends arrived first, which means they also know what a murder scene looks like and a suicide scene looks like... They know if he committed suicide, his wife wouldn't receive benefits... 

Brian Kern
Brian Kern

I was on the freeway getting passed by a zillion cop cars. I was freaking out thinking some really serious shit was going down.

Dapper Gatsby
Dapper Gatsby

i was blocks away when this happened. the response and shut down of my hood was insane!


a fingerprint on the shotgun trigger????



 @ExpertShot Okay - I get it.  So, while these officers were supposed to be employed by the non-profit event producer or guarding some event somewhere, instead they were out holding up criminals?  That's ingenious - those cops are smart.  Just go and check in to the event where they were to be working a four hour shift, hang around for a half an hour and then off for fun and games with the monied elite of the Phoenix underworld, completely covered as to their whereabouts - guarding the event!  I think you've got the "modus operandi" of the gang and the motive for killing Drenth.  He was going to have to testify about what the cops involved in the overtime violations were doing when they weren't at their assigned job!  The overtime violations (e.g., saying they were working an event as security and getting paid for four hours but only working a short amount of time) covers for their gang activities.  Face it, there are some cliques (Gangs?) of officers which actually do this type of crime - and it is a crime.  Only thing is, the criminals (drug dealers, pimps and hos) can't report it without going to jail.  Well, if the cop gang killed Drenth, which is what I suspect, then they must have been sure that he was the only potential rat for their operations.  Even if there are more officers which might be ready to speak to the county attorney's office (which is also probably getting payoffs) they are now frightened into silence lest they also get their face blown off!


lingus, you are a clueless idiot. Not one piece of filth that you wrote is supported by the truth. See what happens when the truth comes out in the Crismon trial, if it even gets to that point. Your alleged hero whistle blower cop? His wife was convicted of a felony for shipping dope as a postal employee while he worked in the department's drug bureau.....hmmm. The crack pipe that Crismon "planted?" It was never charged....the officers never intended to charge it. The kidnapping stats? When the feds investigated, they actually found hundreds more kidnapping cases. You don't have a clue about the issues that you are commenting upon. But rest assured, the fine men and women of the Phoenix P.D. will respond to help you when your door gets kicked in, or your baby is choking.@lingus233


@OinkOink you don't need to be so insensitive and rude. this was my cousin. please have respect for the death of a man no matter what type of job he had.


@farwalker7 I agree with you as well. Lentz? possible.


 @farwalker7 You are a brainless idiot.  Go back to watching CSI you moron.  You don't have a clue.  


david_saint01 topcommenter

 @WhoCares ive had my fair share of run ins with bad cops...but they arent all bad some respect for those that put their lives on the line to protect us. 


 @WhoCares Why don't you SHUT UP you stupid PUNK!!   You'll be the FIRST one to call a cop when you need one!!  It's MORONS like you that DISGUST the rest of us!!

ExpertShot topcommenter

@EvMechamLives Where is our police-community committee?  What the heck are they doing to make sure our police officers are not out on the take or jacking dealers, pimps and hos? 


 @mgibbons8019 That sounds really amazing and awesome, except Drenth wasn't the only one subjected to the off duty job investigation (which ultimately was nothing more then a couple guys leaving 10 minutes early) and yet no one lost their certifications or their jobs.  So I guess your "motive" lacks merit.  


 @bluline  @lingus233 Since the former cop's name is Richard Chrisman, I betting that neither one of you know what you are talking about.


 @bluline17  @farwalker7

 Bluline, I would differ with you. I believe farwalker has it pretty close to accurate. I was held for 5 hours because I happened to be driving down the wrong street at the wrong time. I was questioned by the lead investigator two days after Sgt Drenth's murder. The questions kept coming back to, "Who could have "mistakingly" been seen as wearing a uniform that was in my group?" Mine are not simply "supposition." I am 100% convinced somebody witnessed someone or multiple someones, in uniform, there that night.........then he was dead....


It doesn't take rocket science to put 2 & 2 together. You keep believing in the "proud blue line", I don't!


 @bluline17  @farwalker7

 Bluline, I would differ with you. I believe farwalker has it pretty close to accurate. I was held for 5 hours because I happened to be driving down the wrong street at the wrong time. I was questioned by the lead investigator two days after Sgt Drenth's murder. The questions kept coming back to, "Who could have "mistakingly" been seen as wearing a uniform that was in my group?" Mine are not simply "supposition." I am 100% convinced somebody witnessed someone or multiple someones, in uniform, there that night.........then he was dead.... It doesn't take rocket science to put 2 & 2 together. You keep believing in the "proud blue line", I don't anymore, Arizona has cured me of that!



 Your insults are water off a duck's back. I have seen many suicide by gun scenes and nothing about this one adds up. Nothing. I would love the opportunity to actively investigate this crime. Anyhow, I do have an active murder investigation to get back to, so have a nice day.


 @yourproductsucks The indictments were thrown out only to be sent back to the A.G.  Drenth knew he was going to be indicted on felony counts. People do crazy things like this.  so my "motive" doesn't lack merit..... Investigation is still ongoing.



It's entirely possible that Sergeant Drenth was killed by someone in uniform. I am just pointing out how ridiculous it is, however, for arm chair investigators who have never seen any of the evidence, nor interviewed any potential witnesses to pretend that they (farwalker) have the answers.@justaspectator1 @bluline17 @farwalker7

david_saint01 topcommenter

 @bluline17  @farwalker7 blueline, whats with all the attacks? sounds like you are being overly defensive about peoples opinions..relax man, they are just peoples opinions..


 @farwalker7 Your comments are nothing but supposition.  I'm amused by the fact that you feel that you know more than highly experienced homicide investigators that were "at the scene" and were able to "examine the evidence" firsthand, as well as conduct thorough interviews.  I also find it amusing that instead of attending to your "active murder investigation" (read: pushing the play button on my remote so that I can get back to my episode of CSI) you find the time to insert your ignorant commentary into this unsolved "real life" murder.

david_saint01 topcommenter

 @bluline17  @mgibbons8019  @yourproductsucks lmao you mean like you blueline..spewing your hateful and antagonistic opinions because you cant handle others with one that doesnt vibe with yours? Over defensive, usually equals guilty conscience...just saying


 @mgibbons8019  @yourproductsucks The investigation is over, and the AG that initiated it and spread falsehoods is about to lose her job.  A judge thrashed her report, noting that 1st year law students would not have made many of the mistakes that she did.  The AG's office is also getting sued by the 4 whose reputations were irreparably damaged by their shoddy investigation.  People love to spout off about their opinions, but very seldom have the facts to support their position.  Educate yourselves. 

david_saint01 topcommenter

 @mgibbons8019  @yourproductsucks you ever fired a shotgun Mgibbons? no way it ended up like that on his chest if he fired the shot himself. Im not investigator, but that much i do know. I have to say though, from what ive read it sounds like the scene was staged by someone who knew investigative procedures...only they made a few very small errors. Namely, the shotgun on his chest. 

Question though about that Paul Rubin, was it lying on his chest or was it in his hands? 

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