Murder, He Wrote

Brother alleges county is covering up El Toro colonels murder

A man who claims military officials at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station executed his brother and staged the murder to look like a suicide now says at least one high-ranking county investigator agrees with him.

In a Sept. 16 letter to the Orange County Sheriff-Coroner, Dr. David Sabow claims that Mike Jacobs, the former head of the Orange County District Attorney's homicide unit, concluded the 1991 death of Col. James E. Sabow was a homicide. The letter says Jacobs officially asked Jackie Brandt of the coroner's office to reopen the case in 1999, but that she refused to do so.

Col. Sabow was assistant chief of staff at El Toro in 1991 when, along with other base officers, he was investigated for illegal use of aircraft. Days later, his wife found his body in the backyard of the couple's base home. Sabow's shotgun was nearby. Although the death occurred on a military base under federal jurisdiction, the Marine Corps asked the Orange County coroner to retrieve the body and conduct an autopsy. Within days, the coroner ruled the death a suicide. Several subsequent military investigations upheld that conclusion.

But the colonel's brother believes military officials executed Sabow to keep him from revealing covert operations that allowed illegal drug shipments from South America to move through the base.

Dr. Sabow, a retired South Dakota neurologist, is now threatening to sue both the Orange County Sheriff's Department and the Orange County District Attorney's office because they refuse to reinvestigate the case.

"Since . . . Mike Jacobs investigated the death of Colonel Sabow and determined that it was a homicide, then it is now time to convene a grand jury," Sabow's letter states. "I would truly prefer a more traditional approach, but I am very tired of waiting for my rights to be respected . . . If there is no positive response, all parties should expect both a vigorous criminal and civil prosecution."

John Fleischmann, a spokesperson for the Sheriff's Department, Jackie Brandt of the coroner's office, and Lou Rosenblum, the current head of the District Attorney's homicide unit, did not respond to requests for comment on this story. Mike Jacobs, who two years ago lost his job as head of the homicide unit after flying to Sacramento to complain to the attorney general about corruption involving DA Tony Rackauckas, would say only that he had been ordered by superiors not to speak about the Sabow case.

Dr. Sabow's effort to pressure the Orange County Sheriff's Department to reopen the case stems from the fact that it was the coroner's office—which is supervised by Sheriff Michael Carona—that originally ruled the death a suicide. Fueled by his suspicions that Col. Sabow, a devout Catholic, would never kill himself, Dr. Sabow mounted his own investigation almost immediately after his brother died on Jan. 22, 1991 (see "Who Killed Col. James Sabow," Feb. 18, 2000).

He says the Orange County Coroner's original investigation provides the best evidence of foul play. Specifically, the autopsy report stated that a large amount of aspirated blood was discovered in Sabow's lungs, suggesting that he had somehow taken several deep breaths after he shot himself in the head. According to Dr. Sabow and several neurologists who reviewed the evidence on his behalf, breathing 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.

Dr. Sabow also claims that autopsy photographs show a large bruise on the back of his brother's neck—an injury unrelated to the shotgun blast. His conclusion: someone knocked Col. Sabow unconscious by striking him on the back of the neck with a blunt object, placed the gun in his mouth and then pulled the trigger.

"The death occurred in Orange County," Dr. Sabow said. "It is a homicide until proven otherwise. Consequently they are obligated to investigate it as a homicide. And because they have abrogated that responsibility, we are going to go to court and I will prosecute the crime and will do the investigation. Rackauckas knows about the death. If he knows about it, he has the responsibility to ask for a grand jury, and if he doesn't [ask for a grand jury], he is as guilty as the person who did the crime."

 
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