Who Killed Col. James Sabow?

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

At first, it seemed obvious Sabow had committed suicide. He had every reason to think his military days were over, and his family readily acknowledges that Sabow felt abandoned by the Marine Corps, which he had served loyally for three decades and had grown to love. On the other hand, his wife says Sabow spent the weekend before he died typing up his résumé. And according to both Sally and retired Marine Corps Colonel Bill Callahan, Sabow's best friend, he planned to become a pilot for America West Airlines, where Callahan already worked.

Dr. John David Sabow, Sabow's brother and a South Dakota neurologist, had both the medical background and the tenacity to mount his own investigation. His increasingly pointed questions about his brother's death led to a March 9, 1991, meeting with El Toro's commanding officer and Sabow's boss, General Adams. During that meeting, the Sabows have alleged, the military used scare tactics to prevent them from going to the press with their doubts about the suicide, referring to the late colonel as "a felon and a crook."

This meeting—and that phrase—eventually produced a lawsuit filed by the Sabow family in an Orange County federal court in 1996. Three weeks ago, the suit was thrown out of court by U.S. District Judge Alicemarie Stotler. According to the lawsuit, Sabow was murdered because he threatened to expose an illegal covert operation at El Toro involving Sabow's fellow officers, CIA-sponsored airlifts to Central and South America, black cargo planes landing in the middle of the night and drugs.

Just a few weeks before Sabow's death, his mother had fallen ill in Minneapolis. The colonel joined his brother at her bedside, and they used the time to catch up on their lives. Sabow told his brother about the charges against him and Underwood, dismissing them as "no big deal," Dr. Sabow recalled.

The last thing Dr. Sabow expected was the telephone call he received Jan. 22. He was treating a patient at his Rapid City office when he heard the news from an El Toro base chaplain. His brother had been found dead within the hour, apparently a suicide.

Had Sabow's state of mind changed so dramatically in a matter of weeks that, without warning, he would blow his brains out in his back yard?

"Let me explain that anyone would have some doubts if they knew my brother," Sabow said. Those doubts prompted him to call Underwood that afternoon. Had Underwood or his wife heard the shotgun? According to Sabow, Underwood said he hadn't. "No, my wife was having seizures—epileptic seizures—all morning," Dr. Sabow said Underwood told him. "She has been totally out."

Two days later, Dr. Sabow flew to Orange County, troubled by doubts about the suicide.

That evening, a rosary was held for Sabow at El Toro. Both Underwood and Jean were there. So was Adams, who never introduced himself to Dr. Sabow and stayed conspicuously away from the family, according to Bill Callahan.

The next day, Callahan escorted Sabow's body to Arizona for burial. A Marine Corps honor guard from nearby Fort Huachuca arrived at the service in full-dress uniforms. But despite the fact that Sabow was third-in-command at El Toro, the only officer from the base to show up for the funeral was Underwood, who came without his wife. After the ceremony, Underwood returned to El Toro.

Along with Callahan, the Sabow family regrouped that evening at Sally's sister's house near Fort Huachuca. Dr. Sabow said he drove to a nearby Kmart, bought a small tape recorder, and brought it back to the house. One by one, he recorded every question that entered his brain. "Something stinks in Denmark," Dr. Sabow remembered announcing at the time. "I began my investigation right there."

Dr. Sabow had been receiving telephone calls from Eric Lichtblau, a Times Orange County reporter eager to speak with him. But he wanted to give the military a final opportunity to open a new investigation into Sabow's death before he went public with his doubts.

Dr. Sabow called Adams, El Toro's base commander, who, Sabow later testified, grew upset upon learning that Sabow intended to go to the press. "If you do that," Adams allegedly warned, "it would not be good for Colonel Sabow's reputation. It would not be good for his family, and it would definitely not be good for the Marine Corps."

Adams promised Dr. Sabow that he would arrange an urgent meeting at El Toro to help assuage the doctor's doubts. "It was (and still is) my opinion that to try the Sabow case in the media is not in the best interests of the Marine Corps or the Sabow family," Adams wrote in an undated letter to Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. On March 9, 1991, the meeting took place. Adams and Colonel Wayne Rich, a judge advocate, were present, as were Burt Nakasone, a Navy forensics investigator, and Mike Barrett, NCIS supervisor.

Instead of getting concrete answers to his questions about Sabow's death, Dr. Sabow testified last month that he was told to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The autopsy report, crime-scene photographs and other materials weren't yet available, but both Barrett and Nakasone reminded Dr. Sabow that it was the Orange County coroner—not the Navy—that had officially ruled Sabow's death a suicide.

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