"My life destroyed, character ruined for life, store closed, image tarnished, etc.," Contreras recently wrote to New Times. "I loved Sean; he was one of my best friends. That they linked me to his death was just wrong. Fucking assholes."

Suicides by police officers are more prevalent than commonly believed, says John Violanti, a retired cop and a professor at the University of Buffalo.

Current Mesa assistant police chief Heston Silbert stirred up things with his October 2010 eulogy of Drenth.
Current Mesa assistant police chief Heston Silbert stirred up things with his October 2010 eulogy of Drenth.
Sean Drenth was a beloved cop with a well-developed, if wacky, sense of humor.
Courtesy of Colleen Drenth
Sean Drenth was a beloved cop with a well-developed, if wacky, sense of humor.

Violanti, who has written extensively on the subject, says studies show that about 17 percent of police suicides are misdiagnosed as "unknown" or "accidental," not the suicides they really are.

"Police kind of take care of each other, along with the pathologists," he tells New Times. "There are insurance issues, the shame for the department, a lot of reasons. When the [medical examiner] called this one a suicide, that's surprising. It's so foggy and could be one way or the other — homicide or suicide. That's why they can call it 'unknown' or 'undetermined' if they want."

Violanti says his strategy is "to look back into someone's life because the vast majority of police victims — 85 to 90 percent — will give a clue that they were thinking about suicide. That is, unless people aren't talking, which police officers often don't. This one [the Drenth case] is . . . hard to figure, though the question comes back to, who did it if it wasn't him?

"But it's kind of strange — very strange — for this officer to do it this way if he was concerned about his family. And why shoot himself under the chin? I actually have never seen that before. Gung-ho cops are more likely to kill themselves in some circumstances, but police suicides are so very rarely committed while on duty. There are many factors in this one that make no sense to me. This case cries out for a complete psychological autopsy."

Thomas Joiner, a professor at Florida State University and author of the seminal books Why People Die by Suicide and Myths About Suicide, also expresses ambivalence about the Drenth case.

"The Sean that people talk about may not have been the happy guy in his internal life, which can be a much different place [than] it looks like to the outside," Joiner says. "People can feel deeply alone and isolated. Internally, it's miserable. Here's a guy who never was in trouble before, an outstanding citizen. Being indicted, no matter for what crime, certainly could have been a factor in leading him toward suicide. He could have taken steps to stage it to look like a murder, but you can't think of everything, can't really think very well, and that could be the deal here."

That said, Joiner has doubts about what really happened in that alley.

"There are so many open questions here that it's very hard to say," he says. "Still, I haven't heard anything specific that would lead me to say it was murder. That's an issue. Because if it wasn't murder, it obviously had to be a suicide."

The only person — family, friend, or police officer — to say anything to investigators that hinted toward suicide was Ryan Murphy, a young cop who worked under Sergeant Drenth for about a year and stayed in contact with him afterward.

Murphy said several months before Drenth died, "Sean came up with this idea of a suicide machine. Basically a picture booth or a phone booth on the corners of the streets, where people who decided they didn't want to live any longer would go into this booth, drop a quarter in or whatever, pick a way to die, and it would just do it for you the right way.

"A discussion went on [about] what the options were, and everyone started to chime in about the different features the thing should have. [That led to] when people decide to commit suicide and they buy a gun and they put it directly in their mouth and blow out the back side of their head. And he said, 'That's the complete wrong way to do it because all that does is put a hole in the back of the head and it doesn't guarantee to kill you.'

A more effective way, he said Drenth suggested, "was to, basically, 'use an upward angle to . . . make sure to blow out the top back of your head.' I don't know if [Sean] said, 'This is the way I would do it,' or 'This is the way to do it.'"

This is precisely how Sean Drenth died.

As for the "suicide machine" riff, Colleen Drenth can only chuckle.

"It sounds interesting until you know the story behind it," she says. "It was a joking thing. Sean would throw a lot of references out there from movies and shows, and you would think he just created it. But [he wasn't] that creative. Maybe they should just talk to Matt Groening about that Futurama episode."

Groening, co-creator of the hit animated series, first incorporated the suicide booth into his sitcom in 2008.

A few weeks ago, on the second anniversary of Sean Drenth's death, more than 100 Phoenix PD officers and dozens of the sergeant's family and civilian friends met at the alley where he lost his life.

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In May of 2009 I had been charged with misdemeanor assault arizing out of a DV incident. I was handcuffed and in police custody at the Squaw Peak Police Substation when I was attacked by 4 officers. Sean Drenth was present and like every other officer in the precinct that night failed to request medical care and even more the officers failed to mention anything about it in their reports. I was struck in the face, knocked unconscious and transported to 4th ave jail in that condition. I recieved absolutely no medical care until the next day when a nurse at the jail called me an ambulance. I have all the records and reports needed to show this happened. Out of fear I kept this incident to myself. I am a rather small female and was frequently harrassed by this group of officers. Again in Feburary 2010 I am arrested for the same bs and taken to the Squaw Peak station with Sgt. Drenth the acting supervisor. Again with my hands cuffed behind my back I was pushed to the floor by my arresting officer in plain view of other officers resulting in a gash to my eye and several broken teeth. To justify the excessive use of force I was charged with assaulting an officer and spent a month in jail. The charged was dismissed. I hired a civil attorney the second time. The two assaults have as far as I know only have two officers in common, Sgt. Drenth and Officer Ryan Murphy. Officer Murphy is mentioned in this article as being the only one who would speak out in favor of a suicide theory. He was one of the officers who beat me unconscious in May and he was my arresting officer in Feburary who pushed me face first to the cement floor of the precinct and charged me with felony assault. All this was fine with Sgt. Drenth who was a rather crappy babysitter to his young officers and indiferent to their conduct. My civil attorney was hired one month before Sgt. Drenth was found dead and about the same time he and Murphy were transfered to South Mountain. The civil attorney backed out of the case shortly before the statutes ran out and after Drenth was found dead (he took my case on contingency) saying it would cost to much for him and it was to risky because of my DV arrests.


Buh bye Drenth,  you suck started your shotgun and will not be missed. One down of many..just like the pigs Murphy, Figeroa, and Erfle. You punks won't be missed.


I have now read both parts to this sad saga.  Nowhere did it mention whether there was gunshot residue on Drenth's hands, or anywhere on his body to indicate where the shotgun was when it was fired.   I am not a homicide detective, but those two issues jumped at me.

Cops rarely commit suicide on duty. It is a slam to the department, in addition to the pain dumped on family.  I sure would like to know what the GSR tests showed.


@civilwrongs My friend has a very similar experience as you have described with Officer Ryan Murphy. What Goes Around Comes Around, Doesn't It?  I was cheering the day I read that Officer Drenth was found dead. I don't give a flying F if it was suicide or homicide. I'm just over-joyed  he's in hell.  Bless you my dear friend and survivor - CivilWrongs and that no good attorney you hired will meet his fate too. De Jure Sanjuinis Coronae!


The officers who would have been named in the complaint had it been filed are Ryan Murphy, Joel Zemaintis, Earl Erickson, Chad Moreth ( add perjury for him ) a few others I can't think of the names off hand however I never toss out any documents so I have a file collecting dust at home. One other officer who is bacteria on snail scrodum is Officer Brian Webster who's hatred for women was obvious. I looked him up in Maricopa Superior Family Court case info and it looks like his x wife has been making him her bitch for a long time now. I remember a small news blurb about officers at squaw peak having a little steroid issue during this time frame...hmmm.

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