Tomorrow, the Maricopa County Medical Examiner's Office officially will rule that the bizarre shooting death of Phoenix Sergeant Sean Drenth was a suicide -- more than a year after Drenth's body was found fatally shot in a parking lot near the State Capitol in October 2010.
The Phoenix Police Department, however, still is calling the Drenth case a "death unknown" and says it's still an open case. However, the department says it's out of leads and the investigation is over unless some additional information is uncovered.
Phoenix Sergeant Trent Crump wouldn't say the P.P.D. disagrees with the ME's expected ruling -- he wouldn't even say the department doesn't accept the findings. He insists there is no conflict between the ME's ruling and how the department is classifying the case -- despite the P.P.D.'s holding off on calling the death a suicide.
"Because there are still several unanswered questions from the scene...unexplained DNA, unexplained shoe prints, location of firearms -- the original police report will remain titled a 'death unknown' until these questions are satisfactorily explained to our investigators," Crump says.
Crump goes on to point out that "there isn't anybody in this case that has as much information as [the Phoenix Police Department has] gathered." He says, however, that the ME took much of the unexplained questions about the case into account before determining the death was a suicide.
Crump says the Phoenix P.D. enlisted the help of four forensic experts to look at individual elements of the case. None of those experts came to the conclusion that Drenth's death was a homicide, and the majority, Crump says, believe the fatal wound was self-inflicted.
If that's the case, Drenth left detectives with one of the most confusing crime scenes imaginable. Even Lieutenant Joe Knott, head of the P.P.D.'s homicide unit, commented in May that he "started at 50/50 [in terms of whether it was murder or suicide]. Throughout the investigation, that's shifted in both directions...it's extremely frustrating."
Detectives were able to track Drenth's movements for the two hours before his body was discovered on October 18, 2010, via-a GPS device in his squad car. According to Knott, Drenth was doing routine patrol in an area bounded by 7th Avenue, Interstate 17, Buckeye Road, and Jefferson Street during the two hours before his death.
About 10:26 p.m., Drenth's vehicle pulled into a parking lot near railroad tracks across from the state capitol. The spot is popular amongst cops who often park there to do paperwork. Drenth activated a computer device in his cruiser that showed when he'd stopped someone, which suggests he'd encountered someone near the parking lot.
About 30 minutes later, his body was discovered next to the open passenger door of his squad car with a shotgun wound under his chin and his shotgun resting on his chest as he lay on his back.
"The biggest question is the position of the shotgun," Knott said in May. He noted that it's very possible someone staged the crime scene and placed the shotgun on Drenth's dead body, so finding the gun on his chest doesn't necessarily mean that he killed himself.
Adding to the mystery is that Drenth's service weapon was found on the other side of a fence on the west side of the parking lot where his body was discovered. Another of Drenth's weapons was found next to his body. One bullet had been fired in the direction of where the other gun was found.
Adding further to the mystery surrounding Drenth's death is that he and two-dozen other Phoenix police officers were getting investigated for fraud charges at the time of his death. The theory was that one of the other officers getting investigated offed Drenth to keep him from talking to investigators.
Nearly 200 officers were forced to turn over their DNA to detectives investigating Drenth's death. None of the DNA matched DNA found at the scene of the shooting. Since then, the theory that Drenth was killed by a fellow officer has been abandoned by those most familiar with the case.
Although rare, Crump says he knows of at least one other case where the M.E.'s Office made a ruling on a death and the Phoenix P.D. continued to deem the case a "death unknown."
It remains unclear how the M.E.'s ruling will affect the benefits Drenth's family is to receive from the department. Crump directed those questions to other city officials, who were not available for comment at the time of this writing.
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