Dr. David Sabow has always believed that his brother, Marine Corps Colonel James Sabow was murdered by the military to cover up drug trafficking at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Sabow was discovered in his backyard on Jan. 22, 1991, his head blown apart from what the Orange County Coroner ruled was a self-inflicted shotgun wound. The military claims he killed himself out of shame shortly after being accused of illegal personal use of aircraft at the since-closed El Toro.
But Dr. Sabow says his brother, a devout Catholic, would never have committed suicide, and was murdered to prevent him from going public about much more serious offenses taking place at the base. Among the evidence he points to comes from a Marine Corps Inspector General report which quoted sightings—which the report sought to discredit—by base security at El Toro regarding late-night takoffs and landings of unmarked cargo planes which Sabow believes were part of a top-secret smuggling operation bringing guns and drugs to and from Latin America.
Three separate military investigations upheld the finding of suicide, as did a recent forensic evaluation that, following years of agitation by Dr. Sabow, was ordered by Represenatative Duncan Hunter (R-San Diego). That report was authored by forensic expert Jon J. Nordby, of the Seattle-based Final Analysis firm (see "His Brother's Keeper," April 1). But now, a San Diego gunshot residue expert who has examined the evidence has blown the case wide open.
"I am 99.9 percent certain it was a homicide," said Dr. Bryan Burnett in a recent interview with the Weekly."There are so many directions that point to a homicide. . . . When you put everything together, that's what you have."
In the summary of his report, Burnett concluded that gunshot residue and bloodspatter evidence does not fit with the conclusion that Sabow shot himself. "Based on my analysis a suicide scenario is untenable in the death of Colonel Sabow," he wrote. "The body of Colonel Sabow was staged to appear that the death was suicide by an intraoral shotgun blast. The death of the Colonel was by homicide."
In his study, Nordby wrote that gas from the shotgun blast explained the presence of oxygen bubbles found in Sabow's lungs, evidence that Dr. Sabow believes is proof that his brother took several deep breaths before he died, something that would seem impossible for a man who had just blown his brains out with a shotgun. Sabow's theory that a depressed skull fracture at the base of his brother's skull proves someone struck him in the back of the head before placing the shotgun in his mouth and pulling the trigger. Nordby's explanation: the shotgun's recoil effect caused that fracture. While Nordby did write that the Navy's crime scene investigation failed to preserve important evidence—and provided incomplete photography of the body—he concluded that none of the available evidence supported Dr. Sabow's allegations.
In an e-mail, Nordby refused to discuss his report, citing the possibility of future involvement in further analysis of Col. Sabow's death. His reluctance to talk may stem from the fact that Burnett, who like Nordby is a respected forensics expert, also claims that Nordby's report is full of flaws. In particular, Burnett savaged Nordby for his personal attacks on Dr. Sabow, his failure to use the same type of shotgun in his simulation of Sabow's death, and most of all his use of plywood boxes to simulate a human skull, something that Burnett claims has no basis in scientific literature.
"I am just astounded, absolutely flabbergasted that [Nordby] could do something like that and not provide any foundation for it," Burnett said of Nordby's plywood box simulation. "I am familiar with Dr. Nordby and he has done some really fine work, but none of this makes any sense to me." While Nordby claimed he didn't use an identical Ithaca 12-gauge shotgun in his simulation because Dr. Sabow refused to provide him with his brother's actual shotgun—thus making it impossible for him to exactly simulate the crime scene—Burnett said it took him only five minutes on the Internet to find a replica, one of which he used in his report.
But what concerns Burnett most of all, he said, is Nordby's "offhand dismissal" of what he says provides ready evidence that Sabow was murdered: blood spatter patterns and a total lack of gunshot residue on Sabow's hands. Crime scene photographs used by both Burnett and Nordby include close-up shots of Sabow's right hand, which, assuming he committed suicide, pulled the trigger of his Ithaca 12-gauge shotgun. Burnett says that smearing on Sabow's hand suggests someone moved it after the trigger was pulled.
"There had to be two movements of the hand after the blood was on the grass," he said. "The hand was definitely moved before the photographs were taken. . . . If you look at the images of the reconstruction of the suicide, you will see the palm of the hand is turned away from the mouth. For that to happen—to get blood on that—the palm had to be facing the mouth of the victim. And that does not compute with the suicide scenario."
Burnett also claims the total absence of gunshot residue on Sabow's hands provides additional evidence that Sabow was murdered.
"How can the hand not get gunshot residue on it?" he asked. "It can't. It has to be in another position, and that supports the homicide [scenario]."
Despite Burnett's attacks on Nordby's report, he agreed with Nordby on one issue: Dr. Sabow is so obsessed with proving his brother was murdered that his passion tends to get in the way of any objective analysis of the investigation. In his report, Nordby dedicated an entire chapter to Dr. Sabow, concluding that he is not "capable of the independent rational detachment necessary to appreciate medical and scientific facts concerning his brother's death."
"One of the things that was an obvious hindrance to my work was Dr. Sabow's extraordinary bias," Burnett said. "I could tell him anything as long as it was positive in his case. But I happen to think he's probably right that his brother was killed because all these factors I bring up in my report tend to show that."
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