Longform

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."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin