Who Killed Col. James Sabow?

Was Marine Corps Col. James Sabow the victim of a military cover-up?

Tuesday, Jan. 22, 1991, began as a particularly busy day at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Earlier that month, U.S. and allied forces in Saudi Arabia had begun the bloody air war that turned Operation Desert Shield into Operation Desert Storm.

El Toro was on high alert, but all was quiet on F Street, a narrow lane of modest ranch houses for base officers and their families. One of those officers was Colonel James E. Sabow, a 51-year-old, no-nonsense, straight-as-a-ramrod Marine Corps jet pilot.

His wife, Sally, a devout Catholic, rose early to dress for church. Normally, Sabow would already be at work, performing his duties as El Toro's assistant chief of staff. But he hadn't worked for two days, ever since the base's commanding officer, General Wayne T. Adams, had temporarily relieved him and another officer, Chief of Staff Colonel Joseph Underwood, from their respective commands.

The two officers were charged with bringing extra luggage on training missions, using those missions to fly themselves on weekend excursions, and falsifying flight records to conceal their activity. While the Marine Corps regarded the allegations as career-threatening, Sabow told friends and family the charges were petty and would amount to nothing more than a slap on the wrist.


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Despite the frenzied activity surrounding Desert Storm, Marine Corps Inspector General Hollis Davison flew nonstop to El Toro to supervise the investigation firsthand. By the end of the year, the scandal had spread to Adams himself, and both he and a disgraced Underwood had retired from the military.

Sabow wasn't nearly as lucky.

At 7:30 a.m., Sabow's daughter, Deirdre, a sophomore at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, left for the day. Sabow made a point of kissing his daughter goodbye. Deirdre would later recall that he seemed to be in a rather cheerful mood, given the circumstances.

As Sally prepared to leave for St. John Neumann's Catholic Church in nearby Irvine, Sabow was still sitting on the living-room couch in his pajamas, drinking coffee and watching CNN. The family's dogs—one of them a notoriously aggressive German shepherd called Nika—played in the back yard.

At about 8:30 a.m., Sally walked to the front door. As she started to close it behind her, she heard the telephone ring inside the house. Sabow put the television on mute and then picked up the phone.

"This is Colonel Sabow," he said.

Sally paused, but there appeared to be no response.

"This is Colonel Sabow," he repeated, now slightly annoyed.

Sally heard him utter the phrase a third time before she shut the door. It was the last time she saw her husband alive.

Sally returned an hour later. Opening the door, she noticed the television was still on mute. The family's two dogs, which had been playing happily in the back yard, were now locked in the garage. Sabow's glasses were lying folded next to the phone.

She walked through her living room and looked outside. Her husband, still pajama-clad, was lying stiffly on his side in the middle of the back yard, next to an overturned lawn chair. As she approached him, she could see that both of his hands were frozen in a haunting grasp, fingers curled neatly together about five inches from his gaping mouth. His face was swollen and had turned a chalky blue color. Beneath his lifeless body was his Ithaca 12-gauge shotgun.

"I had worked in hospitals because I was a social worker," said Sally, now a registered nurse. "I looked at him and thought about trying CPR. Then I thought, 'No, he's dead.'"

She knelt down and silently cradled his head in her hands. Then she noticed something strange: a pear-sized bulge just above the base of her husband's skull. A small pool of blood had poured from his right ear onto the lawn, but otherwise the scene seemed completely sterile. Besides the small puddle on the grass, there wasn't much blood, not even on the shotgun—no telltale splatter of gore that typically accompanies a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head, except for a small trace on his forearm.

"I ran through the house," Sally said. "I think I broke the screen door because I was shaking so hard. I can remember this like it was this morning."

She ran next door to Underwood's house. Running into the house, Sally found Underwood, who was wearing golf clothes, and his bathrobe-clad wife, Jean, who suffered from a brain tumor and therefore rarely left the house, standing in their living room.

"Jimmy's dead! Jimmy's dead!" she remembers screaming hysterically before she collapsed in shock on the floor of the Underwoods' living room.

According to Sally, Jean then blurted, "Joe, this has gone too far."

As Sally remembers it, Underwood said nothing. He calmly walked over to the Sabows' back yard, returning a few moments later. "Well," he said finally, "we've got to call General Adams."

According to the Orange County coroner's report, Sabow perished from a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the mouth. That finding was included in a U.S. Navy Criminal Investigations Service (NCIS) crime-scene investigation that took place at El Toro. Two successive 1991 Navy Judge Advocate General Manual (JAGMAN) investigations also reached the conclusion that Sabow committed suicide. Five years later, the Marine Corps' Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conducted a separate investigation that the Sabow family had requested. It, too, found that Sabow killed himself.

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