A Death in the Family

Former DA homicide chief says El Toro officer was murdered


Despite the courtroom fiasco, Dr. Sabow has never given up, and his suspicions aren't only rooted in conspiracy theories. He's compiled an array of medical and physical evidence that he says proves someone hit his brother in the back of the head with a blunt object and then staged his death to appear as if it was caused by a self-inflected shotgun wound. He says the Orange County coroner's report provides the best evidence of foul play.

The coroner's discovery of a large amount of aspirated blood in Sabow's lungs led Navy experts to theorize that Sabow had taken a few deep breaths after shooting himself in the head. But according to Dr. Sabow and other neurologists who reviewed the evidence on his behalf, those breaths 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.

Suicides involving shotguns are notoriously sanguinary, but crime-scene photographs and reports reveal Sabow's death was almost bloodless. The only sizable spray of blood on Sabow's body coated a patch of his left forearm and palm, ending abruptly in a neat line across his skin, suggesting that his brother was lying on the ground on his right side when the shotgun went off. But Sabow's biggest suspicions involve a depressed fracture on the rear of his brother's skull that was depicted in X-rays and autopsy photographs, suggesting that the fracture had caused a large swelling of blood.

In August 1998, Dr. Sabow asked then Orange County DA homicide supervisor Jacobs to review the case. After reviewing the evidence, Jacobs says he concluded the colonel was murdered. "There was a blow to the right side of the skull that resulted in an indented [fracture] with a bleeding contusion underneath the scalp," he said. "That would only be consistent with injury prior to death. The other thing I thought was extremely important was that he had aspirated blood in his lungs. That's not consistent with suicide."

Speaking from experience working roughly 250 homicide cases in his decade-long career with the DA's homicide unit, Jacobs adds that the crime scene photographs also suggest foul play. "Even an amateur would view the scene as staged," he said. "I've seen a lot of crime scenes and talked to a lot of detectives. A person who shoots himself with a shotgun would not fall forward. The manner in which the weapon was found underneath him and the positioning of the hands and the chair—the whole thing looked staged."

One of Jacobs' former detectives, a Marine Corps veteran with decades of experience investigating homicides, also believes Sabow was murdered. He asked to remain anonymous because he still works for Orange County law enforcement. "There was no suicide note," he said. "There's no evidence Sabow was suicidal. But nobody at Naval Investigative Services conducted the investigation as a homicide. They immediately treated it as a suicide. They didn't go into the mode of collecting evidence properly."

Despite his suspicions, Jacobs says he wasn't able to convince the county coroner to reexamine the autopsy report, and says his office had no jurisdiction to question anybody about Sabow's death since it took place on federal property. One person who does have such jurisdiction, however, is U.S. Congressman Duncan Hunter (R-San Diego). Last year, he ordered the Department of Defense to pay for a review of the medical evidence. Working for the Pentagon, forensic expert Jon J. Nordby of the Seattle-based Final Analysis firm did a new study, but upheld the suicide finding.

Nordby asserted that the aspirated blood in the colonel's lungs came from gas from the shotgun's discharge. But Nordby failed to use a similar shotgun in his tests, and used plywood boxes to simulate a human skull. He also included lengthy personal attacks against Dr. Sabow in his report. Meanwhile, Dr. Sabow hired San Diego-based forensics expert Dr. Bryan Burnett to conduct his own investigation—and Burnett concluded that the blood spatter evidence and lack of gunshot residue on Sabow's hands, pajamas or bathrobe were clear evidence of murder.

Two months ago, Burnett released a second report citing further forensic tests with electron microscopes that he says conclusively prove Colonel Sabow's hands and clothing would have been coated with gunshot residue if he had shot himself. "One of the big questions was whether the shotgun leaks gunshot residue," Burnett said in a recent interview. "My tests proved it does. There's absolutely no gunshot residue showing the shotgun was against the colonel's leg when he pulled the trigger. . . . The bottom line is there is no evidence for suicide."

Nordby refused to discuss either Burnett's report or his own work, but confirmed that the Pentagon has asked him to compile a second study on Sabow's death, which he plans to submit at the end of this month. "I'm afraid that all I am allowed to say at this point is I am under contract to the Department of Defense to conduct further medical and forensic reviews of elements of the evidence not available during the original, congressionally directed independent review of Colonel Sabow's death," he said.

For Dr. Sabow, the waiting game could be almost over. Already in a wheelchair during the 2000 trial in Orange County due to back complications, his health has continued to decline, partly a result of the strain of his obsession with his brother's death. He wasn't available to comment because shortly after agreeing to talk, he was rushed to the hospital for spinal surgery. But in a recent e-mail, he claimed Nordby has had all the evidence necessary to complete his findings for several months—and that the Pentagon is still covering up a murder.

"I cannot understand how the [Pentagon] is again disobeying the most recent directive," he says. "Actually, I do understand, and it is because I am on the verge of exposing Gestapo tactics used by a criminal element within my government. And, no, I am not a conspiracy nut, just a brother who will never, never stop before I finish the job, even if it costs me my life."


nschou@ocweekly.com

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