Cocaine Airways

A former CIA pilot says secret flights to El Toro could explain a Marine officers suicide

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El Toro Marine Corps Air Station is closed now, its runways headed for the shredder, its acres of residential homes and amenities slated for civilian conversion or the bulldozer. The question of whether drugs and weapons were secretly flown through El Toro is central to a mysterious death at the base more than 15 years ago. On Jan. 20, 1991, Colonel James E. Sabow, assistant chief of staff at the base, was relieved of command while investigators weighed evidence that he had diverted military aircraft for personal use. Investigations by the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the U.S. Department of Defense concluded that, two days later, a despondent Sabow walked into his back yard, put a shotgun barrel in his mouth and blew his head off.

But South Dakota neurologist Dr. David Sabow, the colonel's brother, didn't buy the suicide theory. 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.

Tosh in Santa Elena, Costa Rica, mid-1980s
Tosh in Santa Elena, Costa Rica, mid-1980s
Tosh near Lake Havasu, Arizona, 1979
Tosh near Lake Havasu, Arizona, 1979

Dr. Sabow is certain that a rogue element at the base whacked his brother over the head with a blunt weapon, rendering him unconscious, then placed the gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. He believes his brother was about to blow the whistle on illegal drug flights at the base. He points to a Defense Department Inspector General report that included statements by a military policeman (MP) at El Toro who claimed to have witnessed unmarked C-130 cargo aircraft landing and taking off in the middle of the night just months before Sabow died. "Through binoculars, the crew appeared to have shoulder-length hair," the report quoted one MP as saying. "He assumed they were civilians."

In 1993, two years after Colonel Sabow's death, Dr. Sabow appeared on Connie Chung's Eye to Eye. "I think my brother was murdered," Sabow told CBS reporter Bernard Goldberg. "Cold-blooded, calculated, premeditated murder . . . There's no question in my mind that this was ordered by the military, [and] it was carried out by the military."

Also appearing on the program were Gene Wheaton, a retired U.S. Army intelligence officer who also believed Sabow was murdered—and who offered to help Dr. Sabow prove it in court—and Tosh Plumlee. "I flew into three separate military bases that I can recall," Plumlee told Goldberg.

"You're flying cocaine?"

"We're flying cocaine. . . . These are all military bases."

"Does it sound plausible to you that if a high-ranking Marine knew something about covert operations and somebody was afraid he might go public with it—is it plausible that somebody might try to kill him?"

"Well, to me, yes," Plumlee answered. "It would be extremely—I mean, it would really be plausible."

In January 2000, with Wheaton's help, Dr. Sabow sued the Marine Corps at the Ronald Reagan Federal Courthouse in Santa Ana. His lawyer was Daniel Sheehan, a crusading attorney who, in the 1980s, had unsuccessfully sued the CIA for its ties to drug traffickers. I covered the trial and watched as a federal judge tossed the case out of court (see "Who Killed Col. James Sabow?" Feb. 7, 2000).

Sheehan needed only to prove the very narrow claim that Marine Corps officials had threatened Dr. Sabow—intentionally inflicting severe emotional stress. But he was after bigger game, a chance to redeem himself, and used the Sabow trial to go public again with his assertion that the CIA was running drugs to raise cash for the Contras.

Plumlee waited at a Santa Ana hotel, thinking he would be called to the stand. That never happened. He says he later grew to regret having anything to do with the case, and thinks that Wheaton and Sheehan derailed it. "I haven't talked to Wheaton in years," he said. But given that Colonel Sabow was stationed at El Toro from 1984 to 1986 (he returned to the base in 1989 after a stint in Arizona), Plumlee remains suspicious about the colonel's death.

As a high-ranking Marine officer in charge of an entire air wing, Plumlee says, Sabow would have known about takeoffs and landings at El Toro and other air bases. "I dropped drugs into areas around Borrego Springs [in San Diego County], Lake Havasu, and outside Eagle Pass, Texas," Plumlee says. "I never saw drugs being unloaded in El Toro," he adds. "The only thing I saw being offloaded from our aircraft were crates with weapons, but there could have been kilos in there too. There was talk about drugs going into El Toro. A lot of pilots talked about it. But I know for a fact that Colonel Sabow was in command at El Toro when this happened. There is no way he could not have known about it. He would have to sign off on refueling of these C-130s. He would have to have been briefed, because he was a wing commander at El Toro. . . . I think he was murdered."

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