New records obtained by the ABC15 Investigators show suicide may not be the manner of death in the on-duty killing of a Phoenix police sergeant in October 2010.
Reports filed by two Phoenix Police Department consultants, who reviewed the shooting death of Sgt. Sean Drenth, indicate they cannot prove, with certainty, that Drenth's death was a suicide.
Dr. Vincent J. M. DiMaio, a forensic pathologist in San Antonio, TX, delivered his report to the Phoenix Police Department on December 7, 2011, after Dr. Robert Lyon, a Maricopa County forensic pathologist, officially ruled the case a suicide .
Lucien C. Haag, a criminalist in Carefree completed his report in June 2011.
"Regrettably, the central issue of suicide versus homicide was not answerable as of this writing from the examinations and the tests carried out by this writer," wrote Haag in his report.
"I would be hesitant to call this death a suicide and feel it would be best to rule the manner of death as undetermined," DiMaio wrote in his report.
THE SHOOTING DEATH
Drenth was shot in the head with his own shotgun and left in a dirt lot near the Arizona state capitol.
The entry wound was below his chin.
Investigators said they found confusing clues at the scene, including Drenth's two other firearms, which had been tossed on the ground.
Homicide detectives found Drenth's police-issued handgun several yards from his body, on the other side of a fence. Drenth's personal handgun, which he kept in an ankle holster, was found next to his body. It had been fired.
THE CONSULTANTS' REPORTS
"The cause of death is obvious in this case," DiMaio wrote. "The manner of death is open to question. There are three possibilities, suicide, homicide or undetermined."
DiMaio, however, makes cases for both suicide and homicide.
"Suicide seems, initially, the obvious choice due to the nature of the wound, i.e. contact under the chin," DiMaio wrote in his report.
"There are some additional observations that can be used to challenge a ruling of suicide and point to the case as a homicide," he said, pointing to the two other guns at the scene as compelling evidence.
Haag's investigation, meanwhile, involved the examination and testing of ballistics connected to the crime scene.
In a summary of his report, Haag wrote that Drenth was on the ground, on his back "or nearly so" when he was killed.
"Positions and orientations could be achieved by this writer with this shotgun wherein the fatal injury could be self-inflicted or at the hands of another," he wrote.
THE DRENTH FAMILY REACTS
"It's frustrating. It's tiring. It hurts," said Colleen Drenth, Sean Drenth's widow. "It's exhausting to deal with everything."
She told the ABC15 Investigators she learned of Dr. Lyon's suicide ruling on the day before her deceased husband's birthday.
"I was at work," she recalled. "I cried for about an hour…and then called Diane [Drenth, Sean's mother] right away and told her."
"I was shocked. I had no idea what to say. It was kind of a numb feeling of disbelief and shock," she said, tears streaming down her face.
WAITING FOR AN EXPLANATION
For several months, Colleen Drenth has been trying to meet with Dr. Lyon about his official suicide ruling in the case. She said she would like him to explain how, after 14 months, he was able to determine her husband's death was a suicide.
"I just want to know how he made that decision," she said.
"They don't seem to be able to tell us why. Or they won't meet with us to tell us why," she said, explaining that she and Drenth's mother had a scheduled meeting with Dr. Lyon but were turned away when Colleen Drenth invited her attorney to attend.
"That's all we want is a meeting with the medical examiner for him to tell us what piece of information he has that nobody else has been able to make a decision on," she said.
Diane Drenth said she is "owed some answers."
"I can't imagine why they won't meet with me," Diane Drenth said. "I can't imagine. There are either no answers – or something to hide. Why would he not look me in the eyes and tell me what his reasoning was?"
"I'm terribly frustrated," she said, "but I'm also very angry because I feel I deserve some answers, and I deserve not to be ignored. My son was killed in the line of duty, and all I want is what's right."
Diane Drenth said she believes someone murdered her son.
DELAYED DEATH BENEFITS
Since her husband died, Colleen Drenth said many of the financial benefits that would normally be paid upon someone's death - including life insurance, pension, and accidental death and dismemberment benefits - been delayed or withheld as a result of the open police case and the Office of the Medical Examiner's suicide ruling.
"There are some life insurance benefits that paid out right away – that we had for years," Colleen Drenth said, "and the pension benefits – I get the non-line-of-duty death benefits, but everything else is still pending."
"Everyone is always taught as a police officer that the city will
be there to help you. It's a brotherhood. They'll help you," she said. "The detective has kept me as informed as possible...but besides that, I don't think I've had any support from the police department, besides his friends of course.
"We're never going to give up," she said. "He should be honored as a fallen officer. He is owed that, and he deserves it. No matter how tiring or frustrating it is…we will fight everything we can."
THE MEDICAL EXAMINER'S RESPONSE
When the ABC15 Investigators asked the Maricopa County Office of the Medical Examiner to respond to our questions about the case and explain why Dr. Robert Lyon would not meet with the family, the county spokesperson denied our request.
According to Cari Gerchick, the communications director for the county, Lyon is not legally required to speak to the Drenth family about the case.
"Dr. Lyon was confident in his ruling," she said.
Gerchick said the county is anticipating the case will end up in litigation, and if Lyon is court ordered to give a deposition, an explanation for his ruling might be revealed.
"Absent a legal case, he's not going to do that," she said.
THE MEDICAL EXAMINER'S EMAILS
About a year ago, after more than 100 days had passed since Sean Drenth's death, the ABC15 Investigators inquired why it was taking the Office of the Medical Examiner such a long time to determine the manner of Drenth's death.
The county's own goal, according to Gerchick, is to close most cases within 90 days.
An internal email obtained by the ABC15 Investigators shows Dr. Lyon reacted to our request for information by sending an email to another staff member containing the following message, "wtf."
Lyon did not make an official ruling in the case after more than 400 days had passed since Drenth's death.
"The reason the case stayed open so long was at the request of the Phoenix Police Department," Gerchick said.