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The Curious Death of Sergeant Sean Drenth

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Diane Drenth adds, "I'd like to know what Dr. Lyon was thinking, but he wouldn't tell us." Other officials at the Medical Examiner's Office canceled a meeting earlier this year after Diane and Drenth's widow, Colleen, showed up with a lawyer in tow.

Lyon issued his highly controversial ruling a day before what would have been Drenth's 35th birthday.

(The Medical Examiner's Office continues to decline comment, both to the Drenths and to New Times. Dr. Lyon recently left the office for an unspecified job out of state.)

Diane Drenth is right that if Sean had tried to simulate a murder, he surely could have made it appear as though a more serious struggle had taken place. As it was, the body had only a few scratches and there was some dirt on the back of the hands and on parts of Drenth's uniform.

The sergeant also could have maintained radio contact with dispatchers until the very last moment (he didn't) and then informed them, perhaps, that something suspicious was happening down the alley and he was going to investigate.

He still would have had the time to kill himself before backup arrived and made it appear to be a murder.

Vincent DiMaio, a storied pathologist from Houston who consulted with the Phoenix PD on the case, is not nearly as certain as Diane Drenth that it was a murder.

But, DiMaio tells New Times, "I don't agree with the assessment that this was a suicide. Suicide seems, initially, the obvious choice, due to the nature of the wound, the contact under the chin, and so on. But there are all kinds of reasons not to call it that. It is totally undetermined.

"Too many things happened out there to make this a clear-cut ruling. If you're going to commit suicide, why bother getting the shotgun out? You've got two guns on your body.

"If you went there to commit suicide, this is a bizarre way to . . . try to make it look like a murder. [It would be] a really inferior job of pulling it off. And the shotgun lying like it was on this officer's body? With the recoil factor, that would have been highly, highly unlikely."

That "recoil factor" is a key piece of the complex puzzle that is the Sean Drenth case.

The shotgun ended up on Drenth's body with the muzzle about four inches from the entry wound, as if the 12-gauge pump-action weapon, loaded with powerful law enforcement ammunition, had little or no recoil.

But it decidedly does, ballistic experts say, especially when its shooter instantaneously loses muscle control (as Drenth would have if he fired the gun) upon being killed,

(New Times recently tested a replica of Drenth's powerful shotgun at the Ben Avery Shooting Range. It had a kick of about 18 inches, which was even less than it could be under other circumstances.)

"The shotgun was not in a final resting place consistent with having been discharged by [Drenth]," writes Dean Beers, a Colorado private investigator retained by Colleen Drenth.

That jibes with what the first responders from the Capitol Police later told investigators.

"[The] whole thing, when I first saw the body, struck me as odd," Corporal Nathan Clark told a Phoenix PD detective hours after Drenth's body was discovered.

"It didn't look like it was natural to me. It looked like it may have been manipulated or placed in that position. It was too perfect."

Lucien Haag, a top ballistics expert later retained by the Phoenix PD in the case, wrote in a June 2011 report that Sergeant Drenth "was down on the ground or nearly so when the fatal shot took place."

But no one, including Haag, adequately has explained the recoil issue and how the shotgun could have ended up like it did and still be a suicide.

Nor has anyone satisfactorily explained why, if Drenth shot himself (or was shot) lying down, investigators found no "biological material" — brain matter or pieces of skull — directly behind him on the ground, in the desert debris, or on the chain-link fence mere feet away. (The police did find some brain matter in a paloverde tree about 12 feet northeast of the body.)

"No one can explain it because it wasn't a suicide and Sean didn't die lying down," says Jon Colvin, a Phoenix private investigator who worked on the Drenth case (much of it at no charge).

"He was murdered while kneeling or standing by people he had gone out there to meet for reasons we still don't know. Then they placed the shotgun on his body, which is how it was found.

But Lucien Haag doesn't seem to be that sure about anything.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin