Longform

The Curious Death of Sergeant Sean Drenth

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He said he identified Drenth by the pin on the sergeant's shirt that said "MOB." It stands for Major Offenders Bureau, one of Drenth's previous stints with the agency.

Lentz said Drenth had told him at the shelter that he needed to get a pin to reflect his new assignment at the South Mountain precinct, also known as 400.

Lentz said he decided within seconds after getting to the scene to look for the missing duty weapon inside the sergeant's patrol car. It wasn't there.

By his account, Lentz pressed a button on the computer panel inside the car to see whether any messages were on the screen (he said there were none) and then decided to expand his search, which was conducted outside of police policy.

Lentz turned off the engine, grabbed the car keys, stepped around to the trunk, and opened it in Officer Swick's presence, insisting later that he still was looking for the missing gun.

Again finding nothing, he left the keys on the driver's front seat.

Lentz and, separately, Officer Swick insisted that Drenth's shotgun was slung across his body, with the barrel pointed down and to the left.

Those accounts differed radically from everyone else's, who said they saw the weapon as depicted in police photos, lengthwise on Drenth's body.

Just four minutes after Steve Vernier found Drenth's body, a Phoenix dispatcher announced, "It might be a suicide. They do not have any suspects out there. Information is still coming."

Still, dozens of Phoenix police cars swept in, overhead lights flashing.

Many officers ran into the immediate area, touching items they shouldn't have (including Sean Drenth's patrol car) and generally "contaminating" the scene.

"It was chaos out there; we're the first to admit that," says Lieutenant Joe Knott, the lieutenant supervising the homicide unit at the time.

"I'm not aware of any other Phoenix cop killing himself on duty or even alleged to do so," Detective Brewer adds. "Patrol [officers] forgot what to do and how to secure a scene. Sean was well liked, and all of a sudden, 'He killed himself?' And it just compounded."

Among the first Phoenix supervisors to arrive at the scene was Sean Drenth's close friend, Lieutenant Chris Moore.

Colleen Drenth says (and records confirm) that she and her husband last communicated in a short call at 9:59 p.m. Drenth told her that he and Moore planned to meet between 10:30 and 11 p.m.

That call, 57 minutes before Steve Vernier found Drenth's body, was the sergeant's last known communication with anyone.

(Colleen tells New Times the couple spoke about "silly things." "I was boiling an egg, and he was making fun of me for having to Google boiling eggs. He said, 'Oh, my domestic wife.' It was a small conversation.")

Moore called Drenth's personal cell phone at 10:30 p.m., four minutes after GPS data showed the sergeant's car was parked in the alley.

Drenth didn't answer.

About 11:30, Moore lifted the light-blue blanket covering his deceased friend, whose body would remain where it was found until well after daybreak as investigators continued their work.

Moore was keenly aware of the upcoming indictments against Drenth and the other cops, and his friendship with the sergeant was well known.

What he had to say was potentially vital to the investigators.

But Detective Brewer didn't interview the lieutenant until three weeks later — and only then for a less-than-revelatory half-hour in a parked pickup truck.

Brewer never asked Moore where and when the two had planned to meet, whether anyone was to join them, or whether they had an agenda for the meeting. (Moore declined numerous requests to be interviewed for this story.)

Moore did insist to the detective that he and Drenth hadn't spoken about the off-duty probe since late 2009, just before Drenth won promotion to sergeant.

That seems improbable, given that Moore had met with Officer Andrew Hoenigman (the state's star witness in the soon-to-be-filed off-duty case) just two days before Drenth's death.

Hoenigman requested the session at the South Mountain precinct after agreeing to be a prosecution witness in the pending criminal case. At the October 16 meeting, the officer told Moore and a sergeant that he feared unspecified reprisals from fellow officers once it became known he was turning state's evidence.

Hoenigman said later he bumped into Sean Drenth at the precinct immediately after the meeting, their first interaction in more than a year.

They said hello, the officer recalled, but that was it, in part because of Hoenigman's displeasure over Drenth's continued friendship with George Contreras, the ex-Phoenix cop whom Hoenigman considered "a scumbag" at fault for the whole mess.

Hoenigman, too, got to the Drenth crime scene soon after the "officer down" call. On assignment with the K-9 unit, he was ordered to stand watch over Drenth's service weapon (the Glock), which another cop had found over the chain-link fence to the south.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin