Who Killed Col. James Sabow?

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

"Sheehan's a lousy, lousy lawyer," she said. "None of the good legal work was done by him." Honey stated that she has unsuccessfully tried to get Sheehan disbarred as an attorney and has even sued him to recover investigative material and other records from the unsuccessful lawsuit. "After we found out about the Sandinista connection, we realized we had wasted millions of dollars and a decade with Sheehan," Honey concluded.

Sheehan still defends the Christic Institute's lawsuit. In an interview the day after he lost the Sabow case, he argued that Honey and Avirgan were the ones who claimed that the CIA was responsible for the bombing, not him. "[Honey's] theory has never been proved one way or the other," said Sheehan. "The attorney general of Nicaragua said that he investigated the entire case and was completely convinced that the bomber was the same guy we had identified as being in the meeting with John Hull. Martha changed her mind about the bombing more than a year after the case lost in court. So how does this come out to my doing anything wrong?"

The Ronald Reagan Federal Building in downtown Santa Ana is one of Orange County's tallest, an ironic testament to a man who talked so often about limited government. And there is this historical irony: the Sabow case would pit Sheehan against the ghost of the Reagan administration. Call it La Penca II. That's not how Stotler saw it, of course. Though Stotler had thrown out the Sabows' claim in 1996, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sent it back to her, and on Jan. 18, 2000, the case began in Stotler's courtroom on the 10th floor of the Reagan Building.

By the time Stotler and U.S. Justice Department attorneys had finished their pretrial slicing and dicing, the Sabow case was limited to one rather innocuous-sounding question—not "Was Colonel Sabow murdered, and if so, by whom?" but a far less compelling one: Had Marine Corps officers intentionally caused severe emotional distress to the Sabow family in the March 9 meeting, three months after the death?

On that narrow question, Sheehan had impressive evidence—not just the Sabows' testimony that they felt threatened but a package of official Marine Corps documents mailed secretly to Dr. Sabow from someone at El Toro. The package included hand-written notes by Colonel Wayne Rich detailing how he and Adams—who had proposed the meeting to Dr. Sabow—planned to persuade the Sabows to abandon their interest in pursuing the investigation into Sabow's death. In that memo, Rich suggested that the pair would "try to convince Sabow's brother that his brother was a crook and so big a crook that he [committed suicide]."

As in La Penca, Sheehan took a narrowly defined case and leveraged it into something grand; as in La Penca, he was ultimately blown out of court. He started out smoothly enough on the first day of the trial, casually expanding the narrow case into something a little bigger. In his opening remarks, Sheehan referred obliquely to "black box" evidence contained in the lawsuit—none of which the court would allow him to discuss. One of Sheehan's briefs shows that the "black box" contained numerous assertions from mostly anonymous sources that Sabow's death had something to do with midnight, covert flights into El Toro rumored to involve drug running —activities that had allegedly produced a federal drug investigation of the base, Operation Emerald Clipper.

Because Sally and Dr. Sabow had discussed their suspicions about Sabow's death in the March 9 meeting at issue, Sheehan used their time in the witness box to go through each of the accusations they made at the meeting. The trial's early high point: Dr. Sabow's assertion that he believed "Underwood had participated in the murder of Colonel Sabow" and that Adams was a "co-conspirator."

Sheehan was brilliant at crowbarring his little case into a big one, but then he got derailed—or, more accurately, he derailed himself. Witness Anthony Verducci—then a Marine Corps captain who performed the original JAGMAN investigation into Sabow's death—was supposed to tell the court that his investigation had no merit because it was based entirely on secondhand information already collected by the NCIS. Sheehan also would have liked Verducci to repeat what he had told the Long Beach Press-Telegram one year ago: that Sabow had been murdered. But this had nothing to do with the March 9 meeting; Stotler prevented Sheehan from asking either question. (Now a lieutenant colonel stationed at the Marine Corps headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, Verducci told reporters outside the courtroom only that he believes "there is a possibility it was a murder.")

Witness testimony that might have shown Marine Corps officers lied to the Sabows about their official investigation into the death was either excluded by the court as irrelevant or was obscured by Sheehan's habit of asking interminable, speculative and, in some cases, unintelligible questions. Indeed, toward the end of the six-day trial, the government's lawyers needed only to look as if they might object to Sheehan's questions—to lean forward, look annoyed or raise a hand—and Stotler would stop him.

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