Where Are They Now?

I got a text message at an ungodly hour this morning. I wasn’t allowed to say anything until the news was released to the press; Phoenix police officer Sean Drenth, whom I knew and had talked guitars with while out on duty, was found alone, outside his police cruiser, shot to death. I have heard other things but I won’t elaborate. I think it would be unfair to keep rumors going and would prefer to show respect to his wife, Colleen, and his mother (not to mention the other officers who loved him and would have done anything for him).

In 2007, a very old friend was gunned down while on duty. Just a few months prior to his death Tony Holly and I had had a long discussion about why I wasn’t going where I wanted to go in life. He challenged me to get into regular EMS work. He dared me to pick one book I was writing – one of the many I had started and left unfinished two chapters in after realizing I needed to do more research – and buckle down and finish it. Since then I have lived up to one challenge. I’ve been in a regular EMT-B position for two years now and I’m getting ready to start paramedic school. I’ve picked one of the books I had begun and am planning to start doing research (in the form of police ridealongs, sessions with detectives and prosecutors, and poring over legal books).

In that time I have gotten to know a lot of police officers, Sgt. Drenth among them. Earlier this year, another officer I had been on a few calls with, Travis Murphy, was shot and killed. A DPS officer I had seen once on a call, Chris Marano, was hit and killed while trying to stop an intoxicated driver. Another officer I’d gone to church with before he graduated high school, George Cortez, was shot and killed as well. I have learned something in all of this that has been proven over and over again: if a police officer is accused – not convicted, merely accused – of any manner of wrongdoing, he’s guilty until proven innocent. Yet if a police officer dies, all of a sudden the media sings a completely different tune.

Where are all of the low-lifes who committed these crimes? I’ll start from the beginning.

Tony Holly responded to a request for backup during a “routine” traffic stop early in the morning on February 19, 2007. Officer Dave Goitia had pulled over a silver sedan with expired tags and three occupants, all of whom had warrants out for their arrest. Tony arrived and talked to the two passengers while officer Goitia arrested the driver. When he returned, the backseat occupant, Bryan Wayne Hulsey, pulled a .357 magnum revolver from the waistband of his pants and opened fire, killing Tony. Officer Goitia returned fire and hit Hulsey twice. Hulsey, a convicted felon prohibited from possessing a firearm, had only been out of prison for three short months that day and tried to run away but succumbed to his injuries and was arrested as he lay bleeding on the sidewalk just around the corner from where he’d murdered Tony. Hulsey is currently on his third set of defense attorneys and, after filing pro per twice, has managed to push his trial back four times. His trial is now set to begin on April 25, 2011, barring any further acrobatics. Tony’s girlfriend, family and fellow officers continue to hold their breath for justice to finally be done.

George Cortez was called to a check-cashing store in West Phoenix on the evening of July 27, 2007 (just six months after Tony died). Gang member and career criminal Edward James Rose had tried to pass a forged check. While George tried to put Rose in handcuffs, Rose’s girlfriend Norma Lisa Lopez distracted George just long enough for Rose to pull a handgun and shoot George. He likely died instantly. Rose and Lopez ran, at one point stopping to cut the handcuffs dangling from one wrist – which Rose gave to Lopez as a twisted gift. This past April, Lopez pleaded guilty and was sentenced to 22 years. On the first day of his trial, Rose suddenly had a change of heart and changed his plea. Today, thankfully, George’s widow Tiffany was spared a trial and pictures of evidence. Rose was sentenced to death by a jury.

On December 17, 2009, DPS officers spotted an SUV bearing stolen plates on the Northeast Loop 101. Attempts to pull the driver over failed. Officer Chris Marano was trying to lay down stop sticks when the driver, Georgia Lynn Baker, swerved to avoid the sticks. Chris jumped out of the way of the SUV and was hit by one of the pursuing DPS vehicles. I will not name the officer driving the vehicle here because he was one of Chris’s best friends and no matter what he does or what anyone says, he will never be the same. Baker later pulled off the freeway and tried to hide on the balcony of a condominium and had even unscrewed the light bulb to remain undetected. A police canine found her and bit her, then she was taken into custody. She had to be forced by court order to give fingerprints after refusing to do so. After one setback with her attorney, her trial is currently set to begin on December 13 of this year.

On January 28 of this year, Gilbert police Lt. Eric Shuhandler was in the middle of another “routine” traffic stop when the passenger suddenly opened fire, killing him. Eric had taken ID from both the driver and the passenger of a small pickup truck and had run the information before returning to the vehicle when he was shot. He keyed his radio several times as he lay dying; the ID’s and the driver’s insurance card were found on the sidewalk in a pool of his blood. Officers from Gilbert, Mesa, MCSO and DPS gave chase. After 50 miles, driver Damien Irizarry was forced to stop when the vehicle ran out of gas. He and his passenger, shooter Christopher Redondo, shot it out with officers before begging officers to stop shooting. It was later learned that Redondo had bragged he would kill any cop who tried to arrest him. On October 15, just a few days ago, Irizarry was sentenced to 107.5 years in prison. Redondo, whose lower leg was hit by so many bullets that it was nearly severed, had a warrant out for his arrest that night – is awaiting trial, set to begin June 27, 2011.

On May 26 of this year, Phoenix officer Travis Murphy and his partner, Jillian Mahlmeister, were investigating a call about a suspicious person very early in the morning when shots rang out. A man had been seen trying to lay a tarp over a Ford Mustang with heavy front-end damage in the carport of an abandoned house after hitting a parked car in the neighborhood. Believing it had something to do with a call for shots fired outside a nearby bar, Travis and Jillian went to the house to investigate. They split up – one around one side of the house, one around the other. Multiple shots were fired and Travis was hit ten times in the legs and lower abdomen. With her partner bleeding profusely, Jillian and other officers decided they didn’t have time to wait for a rescue; they piled him in a cruiser and rushed him to St. Joseph’s Hospital, where he died. He had two small children, one of them only two weeks old. After sealing off the neighborhood officers found Danny Ledezma Martinez hiding as naked as the day he was born in a shed nearby. He was also a convicted felon and not allowed to possess a firearm, yet he had a so-called “assault rifle” anyway. He has refused to take an IQ test. The current last day for trial is March 11, 2011, but I can almost guarantee that will change.

Sean Drenth had an easy smile and loved to play guitar (and talk about playing guitar). Every time something like this happens, I hope that it will be the last. Yet every time it happens I also realize that because this is the life I’ve been called to, I will continue to see the faces of those I respect in the news and watch their families agonize over their loss. Those who honestly believe that war is never the answer and we need to be more lenient on criminals need to look at animals like these and ask themselves a simple question: if human kind is intrinsically good, then why do tragedies like this persist?