PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) – Homicide or suicide? It’s a debate that has haunted Phoenix for years – how Phoenix Police Officer Sean Drenth died while on duty. After years of getting no answers, his family makes a pointed claim about what they believe happened.
Thirty-four-year-old Sean Drenth lived for his job. Passion and policing went hand in hand for the young cop. “Everybody should love their job that much in their lifetime. Everybody should,” his mom Diane Drenth said.
Diane was proud of her only child. He had just been promoted to sergeant and was happily married to his wife and high school sweetheart Colleen. Things were going as well as possible. In an instant, that changed.
“I was at home, and it was about 1 or 2 o’clock in the morning when the doorbell rang,” Diane reminisced.
Death ruled a suicide
On Oct. 18, 2010, Sean was found dead in a parking lot near the state Capitol with a gunshot wound under his chin. His shotgun was lying on his stomach and his handgun was thrown over a fence nearby. Though he had no scratches or bruises, the knees of his uniform were dirty. Officers told Diane it looked like he had been involved in some kind of fight. The race was on to find his killer, but then the conversation changed.
“We turned on the news that night and I saw a reporter saying apparently it was suicide. And I was like, what? Because that had never come up. In all the guys that were here that never came up,” Diane said. “There wasn’t even one little bit of me for a nanosecond that believed it was a suicide. I mean, I knew my son. He was very happy.”
Diane believed her son was gunned down due to evidence at the scene, but why would Sean have committed suicide in a random public parking lot? She and his widow Colleen share the same feelings about a potential killer. “They tried to make the scene look like a suicide,” she said.
Arizona’s Family took the case to retired police Sgt. Kevin Boontjer. He looked at the case from start to finish from an objective point of view. “So you start to look at where the guns were found,” he said. Boontjer worked for Tempe Police and now is a private investigator.
The first oddity about the scene was which guns were used and where they were found. “The fact that the shotgun was used, which is typically, and I can’t say for sure, but typically secured inside the patrol car. How did that shotgun get unsecured and out?” Boontjer said.
He noticed another bizarre factor — the fact that Sean may have been in a fight but only had dirt on his knees. “Just a fight that goes to the ground, you have more than just scratches on your uniform pants. Stuff is torn up. You’ve got scrapes, elbow scratches. If they hit you, then you have bruises and abrasions on your face. And if you are fighting for your life, I think it would be much more severe than dirt on your knees,” he said.
Boontjer said just minutes after Sean died, the investigation went downhill too. “I think the biggest problem overall with the scene was it was completely destroyed and contaminated. It was terrible,” Boontjer said.
Dozens of officers stormed the scene, tainting the entire area with footsteps and DNA of other police officers. “Would you go as far as to say Phoenix PD botched that initial investigation from the start in terms of the crime scene itself?” asked reporter Briana Whitney. “Botched is a strong word, and I hate to use it, but I think any Phoenix person or supervisor would admit that that’s exactly what happened,” Boontjer said.
He still came to the same conclusion reviewing the case. “I do believe it was a suicide staged to look like a homicide, and the shotgun is one of the elements that leads me to that conclusion,” he said.
Boontjer said it would have been extremely difficult for another person to assumably get the shotgun out of Sean’s car, and why would they when he had a handgun and a backup handgun on him. He said officers know there’s a chance you can survive with a handgun shot to the head. A shotgun wound will be fatal every time, especially with a shot under the chin.
But there is still a factor fairly unexplainable. “What about the recoil of the shotgun? When they found him, the shotgun was laying (sic) like this (shows it on camera) wound is right here. There’s only about 4 inches between the gun and that wound. So many people have asked, ‘Well if he shot himself, how could the gun lay so perfectly found right where it was?’ Can you give some insight on if that’s even possible?” asked Whitney.
“Was he kneeling? Was he laying (sic) down? Was he standing up? I don’t know. We have no idea, but all those combinations of things could lend themselves to that gun going any different direction,” Boontjer said.
The question becomes did he have any motive to commit suicide. His family said no. Others said yes. “There were criminal charges pending against this police sergeant for some crimes that were committed within the police department,” Boontjer said. Several Phoenix Police officers were involved in a fraud case for being paid thousands of dollars for work they didn’t do.
“Sgt. Sean Drenth was part of the investigation, and as I understand it, he would have met the (attorney general’s) office criteria for grand jury consideration,” said a Phoenix Police officer in file video years ago, when talking about the case. Right before an indictment was expected to come down, Sean died. “Do we have police officers as suspects? Absolutely not. Do we have police officers who we are looking at as leads in this case? Yes,” the officer said in the file video.
Many believed another officer was responsible for Sean’s murder, related to the fraud case. No evidence ever came of that. “When your persona and whole being is being a cop who is this great person, but you know this serious issue is coming down the pipe and it’s going to definitely blacken your reputation, that makes people do things,” said Boontjer. Cop suicide is a huge problem and it’s really pushed under the rug.”
“Do you believe that incident was involved in his death?” Whitney asked his mom Diane. “I really don’t. I think it was put out there — here’s the thing, that investigation had been going on for years. We knew about it. Sean knew about it. It wasn’t new. Sean was promoted to sergeant even though that investigation was going on,” Diane said. “I feel like somebody who knew about it made sure it to put there as the only motive for suicide.”
Phoenix Police said the case is closed. “If you really thought it was suicide, maybe you would have interviewed his mother. Because they never interviewed me,” Diane said.
Years later, the City of Phoenix ruled in favor of Sean’s widow Colleen, that she would receive full line-of-duty death benefits. “That wouldn’t happen in full if it was a suicide, right?” asked Whitney. “That is my understanding,” said Boontjer. “If there is a suicide, the family does not receive full line-of-duty death benefits. If the widow is pulling full line-of-duty death benefits, then the conclusion would be that it was labeled as a homicide. But if it’s labeled as a homicide that hasn’t been solved, then I don’t know how that could be closed.”
“He knew something”
That brings us back to a possible homicide. “Do you think he was killed by somebody he knew?” Whitney asked Diane. “Yes,” she said. His mom is staying true to a pointed theory. “To this day, I still believe very strongly and that he knew something and he was meeting with someone to tell them, ‘Look, this can’t go on. I’m not going to cover this. You’ve got to fix this.’ Unfortunately, we don’t know what that is, and we never figured that out,” she said.
But meeting up with who? “I do believe it was somebody in law enforcement and I do believe they knew how to stage the scene,” Diane said. “It’s not even that I want somebody punished or sent to prison for the rest of their life. I just want to know why. I want to know what was so bad that I lost all the rest of those years with my son.”
With no clear answers for over a decade, Diane’s accusations go a step further, against the place where her son found his purpose.
“So just to be clear, do you believe it was somebody within the Phoenix Police Department that killed Sean?” Whitney asked Diane. “I do. I believe it was somebody he knew at the Phoenix Police Department,” she said.
Phoenix Police declined our request for an interview about the facts of this case and whether it was still an open investigation. They replied to our request: “The case status is closed at this time, and we are not available for interviews on it.”