Who Killed Col. James Sabow?

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

In April 1994, the Sabow family filed a claim against the military at the Orange County Federal Courthouse. Assigned to the case was U.S. District Judge Alicemarie Stotler, who promptly dismissed it because, she declared, families of servicemen have no right to sue the military.

At that point, the case looked lost. The Sabows' first attorney refused to appeal but mentioned in passing a case that eerily paralleled their own. Dr. Sabow would soon discover the lawyer was speaking about the now-defunct, Washington, D.C.-based Christic Institute and referring to Daniel Sheehan, the group's founder and former guiding light. Dr. Sabow was intrigued; he offered the case to Sheehan, who agreed to handle the appeal. A panel of federal judges in Sacramento heard Sheehan's appeal and upheld the lawsuit, sending the Sabow case back to Stotler for trial.

But the case was delayed for months when the Justice Department's U.S. Attorney's Office, which represented the Marine Corps, challenged Sheehan's request to practice law in California. Though Stotler ultimately allowed Sheehan to proceed, the government's protest is worth considering because it begins to address an important question: Who is Dan Sheehan?

In seeking to bar Sheehan from participating in the Sabow trial, the government's attorneys noted, "Mr. Sheehan's application materially misrepresents his status and omits information required to be submitted as part of this application." Sheehan had failed to report that the Christic Institute had been fined more than $1 million by a federal judge in Miami. According to the government's motion, the judge fined Sheehan after he submitted "an affidavit with unknown, nonexistent, deceased sources," using a "deceptive style used to mask its shortcomings, which ultimately resulted in two years of vexations and fruitless discovery in furtherance of a frivolous lawsuit."

The case in question, Avirgan v. Hull, is better known as the Christic Institute lawsuit. It concerned a still-unresolved May 30, 1984, assassination attempt against Nicaraguan contra leader Eden Pastora at a press conference in La Penca, Costa Rica. Tony Avirgan, one of the journalists injured in the bombing, and his wife, investigative reporter Martha Honey, began investigating the incident, convinced it was carried out by Cuban exiles working for the CIA in the Reagan administration's secret war against Nicaragua. Their hunch was based on a simple fact: just moments before the bombing, Pastora, a former Sandinista, had criticized the CIA's favored contra wing, the National Democratic Front, or FDN, which had been set up by former members of ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza's National Guard.

In 1985, Honey and Avirgan published a book linking the bombing to a group of Cuban exiles and American civilians operating on behalf of the contras, including John Hull, a right-wing, larger-than-life American expatriate who lived on a sprawling ranch along Costa Rica's northern border with Nicaragua. Hull's ranch doubled as a drop-off point for CIA-sponsored flights to and from, among other locations, El Salvador's Ilopango Airport, a key link in the contra-support operation. Hull didn't appreciate the publicity and sued the couple for defamation, demanding $1 million in damages.

Honey and Avirgan were clients desperately in need of a lawyer; Sheehan's Christic Institute was a crusading nonprofit law firm in need of a high-profile case. The most intriguing evidence came from Jack Terrell, an employee of Rob Owen, who reported directly to Oliver North at the White House National Security Council. Terrell, who later testified in congressional hearings, told Sheehan he witnessed Hull admitting responsibility for the bombing during a meeting in Costa Rica with FDN leader Adolfo Calero.

In Sheehan's mind, however, that testimony was just one small part of a much larger puzzle. Sheehan saw the La Penca incident as a perfect vehicle to expose a covert team he believed was operating on the fringes of the CIA and the White House, a crew that went all the way back to the Bay of Pigs and the CIA's war in Laos. In May 1986, Sheehan filed suit on behalf of Avirgan and Honey against Hull and several other Reagan administration officials, charging them with negligence in the bombing injuries suffered by Avirgan.

Named in the lawsuit were more than two dozen defendants, including several who later turned up as conspirators in the Iran-contra affair, Sheehan is proud to point out. But he also named a broad array of expatriates, terrorists and drug dealers.

In the midst of the La Penca lawsuit, a CIA cargo plane was shot down over Nicaragua in October 1986, quickly thrusting the Iran-contra scandal into living rooms—and courtrooms—around the world.

Despite the fact that Sheehan had named high-ranking Reagan officials, Judge James L. King granted Sheehan discovery power, and Sheehan furiously began collecting additional affidavits. But somewhere in all the excitement, it became unclear what Sheehan's lawsuit had to do with the La Penca bombing. After two years of increasingly wild-sounding allegations, King threw the case out of court. Sheehan appealed King's ruling, lost, and was ordered to pay the legal fees for the defendants: $1,034,381.35.

The Christic Institute declared bankruptcy, and Sheehan moved on to other causes. Avirgan, Honey and several other journalists later reinvestigated the La Penca bombing and came to the conclusion that the CIA most likely had nothing to do with it. Instead, they blamed the bombing on a newly discovered Argentinean who appeared to have ties to the Sandinistas. Honey, now the peace and security program director for the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, told the Weekly that Sheehan single-handedly ruined the La Penca case.

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