Longform

The Curious Death of Sergeant Sean Drenth

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.

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?"

No.

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."

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin