Cold Case at the Marine base

Everyone agrees on one thing: Colonel James E. Sabow, assistant chief of staff at the former El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, died from a shotgun blast to the head.

After that, everything about Sabow's death on the morning of Jan. 22, 1991, is morbid, murky and controversial. Within days, the Orange County coroner performed an autopsy and declared the shooting self-inflicted. Four separate military investigations have reached the same conclusion.

But David Sabow, the colonel's brother and a South Dakota neurologist, believes his brother was murdered. He says military officials executed his brother to keep him from revealing covert operations that allowed illegal drug shipments to move through the base.

Now, Dr. Sabow wants to force Sheriff Mike Carona to re-open the 12-year-old case. He has powerful friends on his side, including Representative Duncan Hunter (R-San Diego), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. It was Hunter who wrote into 2004's massive National Defense Authorization Act a line item directing the Secretary of Defense to conduct a new investigation into Col. Sabow's death. Acknowledging Dr. Sabow's frustration with the military, not to mention the obvious conflicts of interest, Hunter's item requires the participation this time of “medical and forensic experts outside the Department of Defense.”

Relying on his own medical training, Dr. Sabow began mounting his own investigation into his brother's death even before the first official inquiries had been completed. 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. 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. Dr. Sabow's conclusion: an assailant knocked Col. Sabow unconscious, and then placed the shotgun in the colonel's mouth and pulled the trigger.

Suicides involving shotguns are notoriously bloody, 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 (to Dr. Sabow at least) that his brother was lying on the ground on his right side when the shotgun went off.

This isn't the first time Dr. Sabow has sought help in proving his brother was murdered. In January 2000, he lost a federal lawsuit charging the military with mistreating and threatening him and other family members when they first raised questions about Sabow's death (see “Who Killed Col. James Sabow?” Feb. 18, 2000). That suit was supposed to focus on the narrow question of whether military officials intimidated the Sabow family following Col. Sabow's death. But crusading attorney and conspiracy hunter Daniel Sheehan used it to argue that the military covered up Sabow's murder.

Just days before Sabow's death, he and two other high-ranking officers at El Toro had been charged with illegally using aircraft at the base—a career-threatening allegation. Sheehan argued that Sabow, incensed at being brought up on charges, had been murdered because he threatened to expose much more serious crimes. Sheehan's legal briefs include numerous assertions from mostly anonymous sources who claim that black-painted cargo planes were secretly landing at El Toro after midnight, and that the flights, which had something to do with drug-running, had produced a federal drug investigation of the base, Operation Emerald Clipper.

Dr. Sabow still believes in the conspiracy, but says he should have stayed away from Sheehan, the attorney who directed the unsuccessful 1986 Christic Institute lawsuit charging several members of the Reagan administration with involvement in a still-unresolved 1984 bombing in Nicaragua. “Now I believe that all the people who warned me about [Sheehan] were correct,” Sabow said. “I think there was a lot of duplicity involved. I don't lose any sleep over using the people that offered to help me, but I am disappointed in their character.”

Dr. Sabow now hopes the 2004 defense bill will force Sheriff Carona to re-examine the case. But so far, Carona has refused to get involved, saying he has no jurisdiction because Sabow died on a military base. Dr. Sabow points out that the Orange County coroner's office didn't see that as a problem in 1991 when it quickly jumped into the case to declare Sabow's death a suicide.

“The moment Orange County accepted that body, they at least shared jurisdiction,” he said. “They sent out an investigator from the coroner who took custody of the body. That was involvement, no matter how you cut it up. Then to just walk away from the case is totally illegal and wrong.”

The sheriff's department declined to comment.

“Mike Carona could turn this case right around,” Dr. Sabow said. “He could be a hero. Maybe he'd rather investigate now, than to wait for the House Armed Services Committee to subject him to an unfavorable inquiry. If Carona would get on the case, I know we're going to pull it off.”

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