Who Killed Col. James Sabow?

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

Dr. Sabow also wanted to know about the charges that had led to the recent investigation of his brother and Underwood. Dr. Sabow would later testify that Adams angrily jabbed his finger in the air and called Sabow "a felon and a crook."

the fruitless March 9, 1991, meeting apparently triggered Dr. Sabow's sense of outrage. He filed FOIA requests for the military's various death investigations and even got flight records from El Toro. Contrary to a military investigator's assertion that "the jets were taking off so frequently" the morning Sabow died—thereby explaining why nobody heard the shotgun blast—records indicated only two departures during the estimated time of Sabow's death, at 8:35 a.m. and 9:03 a.m.

Dr. Sabow also got a copy of the Orange County coroner's report. That report—and the photos that accompanied it—became the core of Dr. Sabow's campaign against the Marine Corps.

Informed by Sally of the strange swelling she discovered on the back of the colonel's head, Dr. Sabow looked for evidence in the coroner's report that might support her observation. While the report documented a "massive fracture of the skull" caused by the shotgun blast, it didn't mention any lump on the rear of his head. However, a report on the death scene by the NCIS reported that "the posterior surfaces of the head and neck appeared to be swollen." The swelling was isolated from the head wound caused by the shotgun, which destroyed much of Sabow's brain but produced no exit wound whatsoever.

This mystery was compounded by the fact that the coroner had inexplicably found a large amount of aspirated blood in Sabow's lungs. According to Navy experts, Sabow had somehow taken one or two deep breaths before he died. But according to Dr. Sabow and other neurologists who have examined the evidence, this would have been impossible for a man whose brain stem—including the medulla, which regulates breathing and other bodily functions—had been vaporized by the shotgun blast.

Furthermore, crime-scene photographs and reports made it clear that almost no blood had spilled from the body. If the colonel was still alive when he pulled the trigger, why hadn't blood spilled everywhere? The only sizable spray of blood on Sabow's body had coated a patch of his left forearm and palm, ending abruptly in a neat line across his skin. To Dr. Sabow, this seemed to suggest his brother was already lying on the ground on his right side when the shotgun went off.

The military also found that Sabow had fallen forward and to his side after the shotgun went off. This meant he would have had to be leaning far forward over the shotgun when he pulled the trigger. However, Sabow was only 5 feet 10 inches tall, while his shotgun was about a yard long. Dr. Sabow reckoned that if his brother was seated in the lawn chair at the time of his death (as claimed by the military), the relatively short colonel would have had to be leaning back—not forward—in order to fit the barrel deep into his mouth, as shown by the coroner's report. So why hadn't his body been launched backward by the force of the blast?

There was one last critical point, raised not by the coroner's report but by the Navy Department's investigation: How did Sabow retrieve his shotgun from the closet, load it, shoot himself in the head—and leave the weapon completely devoid of his fingerprints? According to the Navy, Sabow's hands were oil-free because he had just bathed. The only print on the shotgun turned out to belong to Sabow's son, David Nicholas, who had cleaned the shotgun months earlier. The Navy failed to test the tipped-over lawn chair—or anything else at the Sabow residence—for fingerprints that might have been left by Sabow that morning, thereby highlighting the mystery of the print-free shotgun.

To Dr. Sabow, if not the Marine Corps or the Orange County coroner's office, the medical and crime-scene evidence suggested not only that Sabow hadn't committed suicide, but also that somebody had struck him violently on the back of the head with a blunt object, knocking him unconscious. The assailant then posed Sabow's body, jammed the shotgun deep into the colonel's mouth, pulled the trigger, and wiped the gun clean.

Dr. Sabow provided the medical reports and photographs to several other doctors, including a team of neurologists and neuroradiologists at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine, and asked them to review the evidence. Dr. Kent B. Remley, an assistant professor of radiology and otolaryngology at the university, wrote that the "direction of the skull fracture is inconsistent with the effects of a shotgun wound." Remley also found that the swelling was caused by an external blunt-force instrument. "The degree of soft tissue swelling in the occipital region on the right indicated that the blunt force to the head occurred prior to death," he noted.

Jack Feldman, chairman of the department of physiological science at UCLA, also reviewed the evidence. He summarized his conclusions in a June 20, 1994, written statement included in a Marine Corps report on Sabow's death. "Colonel Sabow was rendered unconscious or immobile by a blow to the head that fractured the base of the skull, causing bleeding into the pharynx. Breathing continued after the injury, aspirating blood into the lung. At some time later, a shotgun was placed in the mouth and triggered (by another party) causing death and obscuring any evidence of prior injury. . . . I conclude that the preponderance of evidence does not support the finding that Colonel James E. Sabow died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound."

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