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Sergeant remembered for sense of duty — and humor

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By Gabrielle Porter

Sean Renfro built a reputation as a person of character who valued his family, faith and his duty as a member of the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office.

But it was Renfro’s sense of humor and his smile that defined him, according to friends and family who spoke at his funeral Monday at Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada.

Renfro, a 15-year veteran of the department, was off duty Jan. 2 when he pulled over at an accident scene on southbound U.S. 285 near Windy Point during a severe snowstorm.  Renfro was struck by another vehicle and killed.

About two-thirds of the church’s auditorium was filled for the service, mostly with men and women in uniform.

Stories at the funeral ranged from Renfro’s conviction during his youth that “one good kick” was all that stood between him and a position as a kicker for the Broncos, to the time that he and a high school football buddy had to climb out of Renfro’s Chevy Blazer after they’d mired it up to the doors in a mud puddle — all to the soundtrack of “Top Gun.”

Conifer resident Samual Yesurantnam, who was with Renfro when he died, said his last moments with Renfro were much like many of the other moments they’d shared together — filled with jokes, laughing and ribbing each other. Yesurantman said he teased Renfro about his vanity about “that perfectly groomed head of hair,” and how Renfro never wore a hat. The weather was frigid as the two stood along U.S. 285.

“We joked about everything from the balmy Colorado weather that day to the topic of shrinkage,” Yesurantnam said to laughter. “It was really cold.”

Sean’s son Igor called his father “a hero.” Igor, as well as two of Renfro’s other three children, was adopted. Igor recalled when his parents first took him and his brother on an outing from the orphanage in 2005. It was snowing, and while they waited for a table at a restaurant, Sean took the kids outside and started a snowball fight.

Sean’s daughter Nadia said he loved to tease her and tease her friends.

“The thing I will miss most is his happy temper and his boyish sillyness,” said Nadia, who also was adopted. “From the first moment I met my mom and dad, I knew that they would be good parents.”

Sean’s son Denny spoke about his dad coaching his football team and how together they loved to “laugh and make jokes about my mom.”

Denny said Sean sometimes told him that being a cop was scary, but it gave him pride.

“I always dreamed of me and him going on calls together,” Denny said. 

Sean’s oldest son, Alex, thanked everyone who has supported the family since their father’s death.

Three crashes

Denver brother and sister Chauncey and Kenny Tate and Chauncey’s 9-month-old son Angus were in a one-car crash on U.S. 285 during a severe snowstorm early on the afternoon of Jan. 2. Renfro and Yesurantnam stopped to help, and invited the three to sit in Renfro’s truck while he waited for Colorado State Patrol troopers to arrive. After the State Patrol arrived, a second car heading south struck Renfro’s parked truck. 

The Tates said at a news conference that they were shaken but not injured in the first two crashes.

Then a Ford Escape traveling north went out of control and crossed into the southbound lanes, hitting and killing Renfro and injuring Yesurantnam and a State Patrol officer. The driver, 22-year-old Blair Gledhill of Denver, was taken to St. Anthony Hospital with minor injuries.

The father of Chauncey and Kenny, Durwood Tate, spoke at the funeral, thanking Renfro again.

“You didn’t have to stop,” he said. “How many people would’ve driven by?”

‘I wasn’t surprised that he had done that’

Jeffco Sheriff Ted Mink said in an interview that the entire department is “devastated,” and was still reeling from the January 2014 death of Sgt. David Baldwin, who was 50 when he was killed while on duty driving his Harley-Davidson patrol motorcycle on Colorado 93.

“It’s tough, it’s very devastating and it’s hard on us. … Not just the uniformed guys, but think about this, the actual dispatcher that had to dispatch that call,” Mink said, adding that responders appeared fairly quickly, as the State Patrol officer was already there. “That’s tough to see a fellow deputy lying on the side of the street. … That’s the side of law enforcement a lot of people don’t realize — we hurt, too.”

During his 15-year tenure at the Sheriff’s Office, Renfro received two lifesaving awards for helping to save jail inmates who were attempting suicide, according to sheriff’s spokesman Mark Techmeyer. The first was in 2003 and the second in 2010.

Mink said Renfro’s last actions were completely in character with the man he knew.

“Of all the people I know, I wasn’t surprised that he had done that; I really wasn’t,” Mink said. “That’s just the kind of person he was. I would think he had probably done that many times before without incident.”

Through talking to Renfro’s family since his death, Mink learned that “a genuine desire to help people” motivated Renfro to work in law enforcement.

“I think that because of his strong faith and his strong character, he felt a duty to be a … public servant and carry out that mission,” Mink said. “He did a great job of it, which was certainly evident when he stopped to help those people.”

Mink recalled that, over the years that Renfro was working for the Sheriff’s Office, he was rebuilding an old BMW at home for fun.

“When I first saw it, it was just junk. I said, ‘Sean, are you driving that?’ and he goes, ‘Oh, yeah, I’m fixing it up,’” Mink said, laughing. “The last time I saw it, a few years back, it was incredible the job he did on that old BMW. He was beaming with pride, and I had no idea he had that kind of talent.”

Mink said Renfro was a dedicated cop, but also a devoted family man.

“When you talk about character with people, I’ve never met a person that had … a finer character than him,” Mink said. “He was completely involved with his family, he was completely involved with the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, (he was) very strong in his faith. … He was just a great guy.”

Scott Zorno met Renfro at church several years ago through a men’s group. His first impressions were of a “quiet, funny cop.” But, with events like the 2007 shooting at New Life Church in Colorado Springs fresh in everybody’s mind, seeing Renfro at the services “gave me a lot of confidence.”

“Knowing that we basically had an off-duty cop hanging around was really nice,” he said.

The two got to know each other much better during the 2013 floods, when Zorno went to help at Jeffco’s emergency operations center as a logistics coordinator. He learned that Renfro was willing to go the extra mile under pressure. Zorno recalled one particular situation in which Renfro arranged a deputy escort for logistics team members who were trying to take food to a remote fire department. 

“It showed me the professionalism side, because he was always cooperative, he was always willing to take up a special assignment and always willing to give you a genuine human-to-human smile,” Zorno said. “He was a genuinely good cop and a genuinely caring person.”

Benefits

Mink said the process to pay out benefits to the Renfro family is already under way.

“Unfortunately, as a result of Sgt. Baldwin, we know all the ins and outs of getting that done,” he said. “The county’s being very, very helpful.”

Renfro was off duty when he died, which could complicate matters, but Mink said the department will make a case to the federal government to give his family line-of-duty death benefits.

“We’re going to make our best effort to show them that he was acting in his official capacity. He wasn’t on duty, but … he’s on duty 24 hours, and he was performing a law enforcement function,” Mink said. “At the end of the entire process, I think that no stone will be left unturned as far as getting financial support, not only short-term but long-term for the family, including setting up scholarship funds for the kids.”