The Curious Death of Sergeant Sean Drenth

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Hoenigman later told a detective that the hair on the back of his neck stood up as he stared across the fence at Sean Drenth's covered body.

He said he thought that Sean might have committed suicide because of the off-duty imbroglio and its repercussions.

He also wondered to himself whether someone had killed the sergeant.

"All I know is Sean is dead," Hoenigman told a detective. "Either this is pure coincidence that this [suicide] happened right now or someone killed him."

"What I knew when I got there," Detective Warren Brewer recalls, "is that an officer is dead."

One person who knew more than the lead detective just after midnight on October 19 was George Contreras.

He and Drenth had stayed in touch even after the off-duty scandal arose in 2008.

They mostly were linked by a love of loud guitars — the older Contreras was more a Kiss fan while Drenth favored the thrash of bands such as Black Label Society.

Contreras later told detectives that Drenth had stopped by his shop, Raptor Guitars, two days before he died. Contreras said he had handled Drenth's ankle handgun during that visit — the .38 that someone fired once at the crime scene.

At 12:29 a.m., Contreras published this Facebook post: "Sergeant Sean Drenth, may you rock out in heaven. I love you."

That post, which Contreras removed within a few days, was written even before Lieutenant Moore and another officer did next-of-kin notifications to Drenth's wife and mother.

"Do you know where I was the night Sean was murdered?" Contreras asked New Times during a recent Facebook exchange. "At my [now-closed] store, Raptor Guitars, practicing with Blue Steel, which consisted of two Phoenix police officers and one friend of mine."

He says he learned about Drenth's death from Phoenix PD officers through texts and cell-phone calls.

Phone records show he spoke with Phoenix officers continually until 12:46 a.m. Then, all cell communications involving Contreras, at least on the phone that Phoenix police examined, ceased for seven hours.

In the days afterward, especially when word went public about Contreras' pivotal role in the off-duty scandal, he became the focus of innuendo inside and outside the Phoenix PD about his possible involvement in a murder plot.

That speculation continues to this day. But (see part two of this series), police never even named Contreras a "person of interest," much less a suspect.

Contreras has insisted in interviews with detectives that Drenth was murdered and that it would have taken two or three men to subdue the sergeant.

"There was nothing indicating that this was coming down," he told police a few weeks after Drenth died. "It has to be a hit. I don't know why this happened. God needed another police officer; that's all I can say."

At the crime scene that night, officers found a possible earwitness to the shooting, Thomas Keeler. The homeless man had been in a sleeping bag over the fence about 50 yards south of the alley when, he said, he heard the first of two gunshots.

Ten to 15 seconds later came a more muffled shot, "like someone covered it up with a pillow or something. [The shots] weren't back-to-back but not far apart, either," Keeler says.

Keeler's account raised even more questions:

Which weapon had been discharged first, the .38 or the shotgun that killed Drenth?

Obviously, if someone fired the handgun after the long gun, it was murder, not suicide.

Would the shotgun, normally louder than a .38, have been "muffled" by contact with Sergeant Drenth's throat?

Definitive answers remain elusive, with experts contacted by New Times offering opinions on this and other forensic issues.

Detectives eventually pieced together much of what Sean Drenth did in his final hours.

He had a late breakfast at a restaurant with Colleen and drove home afterward to change into his police uniform.

He then went by his pal Tom Kilstrom's home to deliver a quirky gift that had just arrived at the post office.

It was a leather wallet (one of several that Drenth had ordered for friends and colleagues) embroidered with the words "Bad Mother Fucker," a tribute to the iconic Samuel L. Jackson character in Pulp Fiction.

Drenth then drove to the South Mountain precinct for his 10-hour shift, which started about 2 p.m.

Nothing much happened on the street until about 6 p.m., when the sergeant responded to the barricade near 10th Avenue and Yuma.

Audio recordings during the situation depict Drenth as calm and professional. He told troops after things ended peacefully that "the residence is clear — thank you, everyone, for playing."

Afterward, Drenth drove to a pizza joint at 24th Street and Baseline Road, where he ordered a personal-size pie and a soft drink. It is uncertain whether he was alone, though a receipt in his pocket was for one person.

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Paul Rubin
Contact: Paul Rubin