Inside Drenth: A Look at What Made a Fallen Cop Tick
Second of two parts. Read Part One: The Curious Death of Sergeant Sean Drenth
Heston Silbert stepped to the pulpit and got straight to the point.
The veteran Phoenix police lieutenant had rehearsed his eulogy for Sergeant Sean Drenth to himself a dozen times and didn't want emotions to overwhelm him.
"I was eulogizing a hardcore cop who practically everybody thought had been murdered," says Silbert, now an assistant chief with the Mesa Police Department.
"He was one of our most-loved cops, the Ferris Bueller of the Phoenix Police Department. No one knew how to grieve at that point because everything was such a mystery. But I wanted to do right by him."
Drenth's violent death a few days earlier, October 18, 2010, had stunned and saddened his police agency and the community. Cops die in the line of duty all too often (174 nationally in 2011) in situations that usually are explainable.
But how the 34-year-old sergeant died — a contact blast from his own shotgun that entered beneath his chin and tore through his head in a quiet alley west of downtown Phoenix — left everyone grasping for answers.
Heston Silbert was wrong about one thing: Many inside the Phoenix Police Department had been whispering from the start that it surely was a suicide.
No way in hell, they were saying, would Drenth have gotten himself into such a predicament (see part one of this series), shot dead with his own weapon by someone next to his patrol car.
Others, especially those who knew Drenth as an officer and as a person, stood firm. They thoroughly were, and are, convinced that the 13-year Phoenix PD veteran was the victim of a homicide probably perpetrated by individuals he knew well enough to let down his guard.
Those who packed into Christ's Church of the Valley in Peoria stared up at Silbert, an imposing ex-college football player who worked Phoenix's streets for years as a supervisor of the Special Assignments Unit (the SWAT team).
Silbert was known as the ultimate "street monster" — usually a term of endearment, and in turn he embraced kindred spirits such as the scrappy Drenth, whom he respected for having a similar "warrior mentality."
The vibe inside the church was dense with nuance and layered histories:
Sergeant Drenth's widow, Colleen, was surrounded by family, including his mother, Diane, with whom she had stayed since getting the terrible news.
She and Sean had been inseparable since their days at Glendale's Ironwood High. Though irreverent much of the time, the couple were deeply loyal to what counted most to them — family, friends, jobs, their dogs, and each other.
Drenth's lifelong friend, Tom Kilstrom, embraced the irony of the moment. He knew the flag-draped casket sitting in front of him was empty — the sergeant was cremated — and that his pal would have found the exercise absurd.
"Sean would have called that church the 'Cult of the Valley,'" Kilstrom said later. "Not exactly religious. He'd have hated the music, especially the Bon Jovi. But nothing would have pissed him off more than getting killed with his own gun by people he had to have known."
Also in attendance that day was George Contreras, the ex-Phoenix PD officer and friend of Drenth's who had been ubiquitous on news shows in the preceding days. Contreras' connection to Drenth in an off-duty money scandal had yet to be publicly revealed, but he was one of the last people Colleen Drenth wanted to see there.
She reviled the ex-cop turned guitar-shop owner because of his key role in the mini-scandal, which already had caused the Drenths tax woes and (though Colleen says she yet didn't know it) was about to escalate with a criminal indictment against her husband.
Contreras had infuriated Colleen by telling reporters that Sean would be alive had he been at a band rehearsal with him that night instead of patrolling. (Contreras, two Phoenix PD cops, and another man allegedly were just finishing a rehearsal for an upcoming show at Cooper'stown as Drenth died miles away. But Colleen knew her husband hadn't played music with Contreras for years.)
Heston Silbert's speech began with the usual fare, about police work having been a mission for Sean Drenth, not just a job. But Silbert then did something, he tells New Times, "to demonstrate that Sean was a cop's cop who also had the most twisted sense of humor around."
Hours before he died, Silbert said, a typically upbeat Sean Drenth had handed him a present.
Silbert reached into his pocket, pulled out a wallet, and showed it to the audience.
Stitched into one side were the words "Bad Mother Fucker," a tribute to the Samuel L. Jackson character in the movie Pulp Fiction.
Without saying the expletive aloud, Silbert let the churchgoers know what it said on the wallet — "Bad MFer."
Many in attendance were visibly appalled by the breach of protocol.
Then-Phoenix public safety manager (Police Chief) Jack Harris, who earlier had spoken eloquently about the loss, looked — as another cop described it — as if he wanted to vomit.
But the Drenth clan burst into laughter.
"Sean would have loved it," Colleen Drenth said later. "Whoever was offended was offended by Sean because that's who he was."
Silbert finished by spelling out an acronym whose definition would symbolize the complexity that has continued to mark this maddening case:
The letters were Sergeant Drenth's calling card.
Silbert later suggested the acronym was a term of endearment that stood for "Sean Drenth My Friend."
But others knew what SDMF really meant.
Two of the meanings were the creation of the Black Label Society, a heavy-metal band from Los Angeles. The sergeant adored the band and its mottos: "Strength Determination Merciless Forever" and "Society Dwelling Mother Fucker."
The third was somewhat more obvious: "Sean Drenth Mother Fucker."
Even before Sean Drenth died, these were the worst of times for the Phoenix PD.
A few weeks earlier, Officer Richard Chrisman had been charged with second-degree murder in the shooting death of an unarmed South Phoenix man during a domestic-violence call.
The key eyewitness against Chrisman was a fellow cop whose crossing of the so-called "thin blue line" had deeply polarized officers who considered the arrest of one of their own outrageous and those who didn't.
Tensions were high inside the agency, especially at the South Mountain Precinct, where Chrisman spent his career and where Sean Drenth was transferred shortly before he died.
(The Chrisman murder case has yet to be resolved in court.)
In a broader scope, Drenth's death exposed the schism between a command staff headed by Harris and a highly politicized police union.
The divisiveness ran so deep that several cops refused, on the advice of their union bosses, to cooperate with investigators in the Drenth case by providing DNA samples or submitting to interviews until forced by court order.
Layered atop the dysfunction at the Phoenix PD was the undisputed fact that panicky cops had "compromised" the crime scene and no potential murder suspects were emerging other than possibly George Contreras, the ringleader of the off-duty scandal.
Some officers at the scene later expressed outrage when discussion among the troops centered on suicide.
"It completely, absolutely pissed me off," says Officer Jed Fisher, Drenth's patrol partner earlier in their careers.
"You'd have to show me a note that got signed under duress to prove to me that Sean committed suicide. I was thinking out there, 'It's almost like he knew the person [who killed him] and whoever took him on knew what the hell they were doing.' I like being a cop — Sean loved being a cop. I want to know who did this."
Heston Silbert hit on something when he spoke about his fellow cops not knowing how to grieve.
"Sean was the single most dedicated, passionate cop I ever worked with in my 19-year career. He was a stellar human being," Phoenix PD Detective John Hobbs wrote after Drenth's death. "The theory of [the off-duty] 'scandal' being a motive for a suicide is silly. Any of us who were close to him knew he was not stressed about it, nor ashamed. Of the officers still on the department, all were cleared of wrongdoing.
"There are other theories that abound, such as his ties to dirty cops or former cops having something to do with his demise. In the end, it's all conjecture based on mere hunch. Assuming it's a suicide, when the possibility exists of a cop-killing murderer lurking undetected, is truly wrong."
One officer told a detective that "the streets will eventually talk" about what happened to Sergeant Drenth.
But they haven't.
At best, the extraordinarily strange crime scene told conflicting stories, including a shotgun shell from Drenth's own weapon that entered just under his chin (suggesting suicide), concurrent evidence of a struggle of some magnitude (suggesting murder), and the improbable manner in which the shotgun laid perfectly on Drenth's body (suggesting someone placed it there).
Warren Brewer, the Phoenix PD detective who led the investigation, tells New Times that he's awakened untold times in the middle of the night trying to make sense of the incomprehensible.
Brewer says he looked hard into Drenth's background, checking the state of his finances (they were sound), whether the sergeant had a girlfriend on the side (none could be identified), or how things were going at work (great).
The only known possible stress in the sergeant's life was the state of Arizona's ongoing criminal investigation involving about 30 Phoenix PD cops, including Drenth. A grand jury later indicted three officers and George Contreras, but only Contreras still faces charges.
It remains unsubstantiated whether Drenth knew an indictment against him would've been forthcoming, too, though odds are that he did.
"The only thing that came up later that could potentially lean [toward suicide] was the pending indictment," Brewer says. "Sean loved being a cop and all that. But he loved playing music, too, and it wouldn't be fair to say that being a cop was his whole world, because he had other interests."
"What makes this case so interesting," says forensic psychiatrist Steven Pitt, "is the huge disconnect between the behavioral and physical evidence. Is that because the crime scene was tampered with, or is it because a person or persons are not telling us everything they know about Sean's behavior during the days and hours leading up to his death? I don't know. What I do know is that this story is like reading a book with two different covers and with two different endings. What I also know is that if the Phoenix Police Department ever wants to solve this case, they are going to have to go back and start from scratch."
Sean Thomas Drenth was born in Tacoma, Washington, where his father, Greg, was stationed at a U.S. Army base.
The Drenths returned to Phoenix when Sean was 1 year old — Greg Drenth was the longtime head of building maintenance at the Arizona Republic, and his wife, Diane, began a career in the banking industry.
The family settled in the West Valley, where Sean soon established himself as a character to be reckoned with. As a kid, he adopted the persona of Batman and wouldn't answer to his given name for years.
Drenth was smaller than most of his peers, but he was plucky and blessed with a goofy sense of humor that often worked as a survival tactic.
When he was about 5 years old, Drenth befriended Tom Kilstrom at Manzanita Elementary School.
The pals later would be each other's best man at their weddings, and they shared a love of music that endured.
"Poison and Mötley Crüe when we were 11, and it went from there," Kilstrom says. "Sean was my brother, my twin."
The pair started playing music as teens — Drenth on guitar and Kilstrom on bass — with Drenth composing a slew of heavy-metal tunes.
Drenth attended Glendale Ironwood High, where as a sophomore, he met a cute freshman named Colleen Olson. The two were friends for months before taking the next step as boyfriend and girlfriend.
After Sean graduated, he took a job for almost four years as a clerk at the state of Arizona's Retirement System. He and Colleen got married in 1997 and settled into a life dominated by their love of movies, pets, and good times with friends and family. Over time, Sean would collect more than three-dozen guitars, some of which he bought from former cop George Contreras, who ran a guitar store.
Soon after their marriage in 1997, Sean told Colleen that he had applied to be a police officer.
"I said, 'No, that's too dangerous,'" Colleen recalls, "but that was his path."
Sean Drenth was 21 when the Phoenix Police Department hired him in 1998.
Without question, he loved being a cop from day one to the day he died.
Drenth was a spit-shine kind of guy who took deep pride in how he looked and acted in uniform.
Over time, Drenth began to study the history of the Phoenix PD and its fallen officers.
He was known for convening his various squads on the anniversaries of line-of-duty deaths of Phoenix officers. The squads would travel to crime scenes in dress-blue uniforms.
There, he briefly would recount the violent circumstances and offer each squad-mate a pin stamped with the late officer's initials and death date.
Drenth's performance ratings were exemplary. In June 2004, Chief Harris awarded him the department's coveted Medal of Valor after the officer rescued two elderly people from a burning apartment.
But cop to the core though he was, Drenth also had his personal life.
"I didn't think about Sean as a police officer," says his widow, Colleen. "It was more of his relaxing, hanging out, goofing around, watching movies, staying home on our lazy Sundays — our day. He rarely talked about work after work. And he had his music, which is where George comes in."
George Contreras, long the bad guy of choice (if not an official "person of interest") in the Sean Drenth case, says he can't fathom how anyone would suspect him of wrongdoing in the death.
"I loved Sean, one of my best friends," Contreras tells New Times. "That they linked me to his death was just wrong."
Contreras, who still faces several felony counts as the alleged kingpin of the Phoenix PD off-duty money scandal, told police shortly after Drenth's body was discovered, "There's no freaking way he committed suicide. Even if you guys said this is what it was, I wouldn't believe it."
Contreras, Drenth, and Tom Kilstrom played in a band together until the old saw — "musical differences" — ended the collaboration years before the sergeant died.
But Drenth and Contreras stayed in touch, even after the state Attorney General's Office started investigating the shenanigans that led to indictments of the three current Phoenix PD officers and Contreras.
Drenth's onetime partner, Jed Fisher, said Contreras' name "popped into my head" after he learned of his friend's death, and he visited the guitar store early the next morning.
"Something told me to go there and judge [Contreras'] initial reaction," Fisher told detectives. "Sean had told me that Colleen was pissed off he had kept in touch with George. [Contreras] was red-eyed. I looked at his arms for scratches. In my opinion, everybody's potentially a suspect until I prove otherwise. But [now] I don't think George had anything to do with it."
Contreras, whose guitar shop shut down earlier this year, told investigators in late October 2010, "We hadn't talked about the [off-duty] thing in years. Don't really care to talk about that, you know. All I know is what the media has been talking about."
Contreras is right in thinking that many people still suspect him of involvement in the murder of Sean Drenth.
"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.
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.
It was a perfect autumn evening, much like it was on October 18, 2010. Someone draped the paloverde tree under which Drenth's body was found with "Batman" crepe paper in honor of his childhood fantasy figure.
Diane Drenth, Sean's mother, tried to keep the mood as light as possible with anecdotes of happier times. But she also expressed her abiding desire to have her son's passing deemed a line-of-duty death. That would allow his name to be placed on the state and national Law Enforcement Officers Memorial walls.
"If they aren't going to work any harder to solve the murder," she said, "the least that he deserves is to be on those walls."
Colleen Drenth would benefit financially if local pension boards and other entities deemed the death a line-of-duty occurrence, including about $325,000 through the federal Bureau of Justice Assistance Public Safety Officers' Benefit program. But Colleen, director of human resources at a Scottsdale firm with about 100 employees, insists she couldn't care less about that money.
"I am about doing what is right for my husband," she says.
Heston Silbert, who caused such a stir with the wallet at Sean Drenth's church memorial service, decided to say a few words to those gathered.
"I don't know what happened out here," Chief Silbert said at the end of his poignant recollections about his friend, "but I do know that an exceptional cop died on the job, and it shouldn't have happened."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Phoenix New Times' biggest stories.