Ever since Colonel James Sabow perished 14 years ago in the back yard of his house at the since-closed El Toro Marine Corps Air Station, Dr. David Sabow has tried to prove the military murdered his brother. His efforts finally paid off in September 2003, when the House Armed Services Committee ordered the Secretary of Defense, who had already investigated the death, to authorize an outside probe that—at Dr. Sabow's request—would rely on forensic experts with no ties to the military.
After more than a year of sifting through the evidence, Seattle-based forensic expert Jon J. Nordby concurred with the previous investigations and concluded that Colonel Sabow died from a self-inflicted shotgun wound on Jan. 22, 1991. But Nordby did find evidence of something Dr. Sabow had suspected all along: somebody behind-the-scenes was trying to manipulate the evidence and cover up the truth.
The only problem: that person, according to Nordby, wasn't a high-placed Pentagon official, but rather Dr. Sabow himself.
Dr. Sabow's suspicions began immediately after his brother died. A neurologist who lives in Rapid City, South Dakota, he took issue with the original Orange County Coroner's report, which, while finding Sabow shot himself, also discovered a large amount of aspirated blood in Sabow's lungs. He theorized that it would have been impossible for someone who had just shot himself in the head to have taken several deep breaths.
Dr. Sabow also claimed that autopsy photographs included in that investigation show a depressed skull fracture at the base of his brother's skull—a wound he says proves someone hit his brother with a blunt object, rendering him unconscious before placing the shotgun in the colonel's mouth and pulling the trigger. Sabow also took issue with the fact that the only sizable spray of blood on his brother's body coated a patch of his left forearm and palm, ending abruptly in a neat line across his skin. This suggested (to Dr. Sabow, at least) his brother was lying on the ground on his right side when the shotgun went off.
His doubts about the medical evidence were fueled by his suspicions regarding the military's explanation for why Colonel Sabow committed suicide: just days before his death, he had been suspended for illegally using aircraft at El Toro. Dr. Sabow says his brother was so incensed at being reprimanded by his superiors that he had threatened to uncover far-more-serious offenses taking place at the base. Furthermore, Dr. Sabow claimed, Navy investigators told him an eyewitness saw an unidentified person remove a club from the crime scene and that a lawn chair was placed over the body to make it appear that Colonel Sabow was sitting down when he shot himself.
Dr. Sabow also says Marine Corps officials threatened him and other members of the Sabow family in a meeting shortly after his brother's death. Based on that, he sued the Marine Corps at the Ronald Reagan courthouse in Santa Ana but lost the case in January 2000, when a judge ruled that Sabow's attorney, crusading lawyer Daniel Sheehan, had wasted courtroom resources trying to prove a vast drug-smuggling conspiracy at El Toro (see “Who Killed Col. James Sabow?” Feb. 18, 2000).
The latest official investigation into Sabow's death made no effort to address such issues, focusing instead on the medical evidence. Among other things, Nordby wrote that gas from the shotgun blast explained the presence of oxygen bubbles in the blood found in Colonel Sabow's lungs and that the shotgun's recoil effect was responsible for the fracture at the base of his skull—not blunt-force trauma. While Nordby did criticize the Navy's original crime-scene report for failure to preserve evidence and incomplete crime-scene photography, he concluded that none of the medical evidence cited by Sabow proved anything other than that his brother killed himself.
While the bulk of his 62-page report focused on the medical evidence, Nordby did dedicate an entire chapter to Dr. Sabow. “I received absolutely no pressure to reach any particular conclusion in this work from my employers in the [Defense Department], from the House Armed Services Committee members, or from any member or official from any branch of the U.S. Armed services,” Nordby wrote in his report. Meanwhile, Nordby continued, Dr. Sabow—who identified himself to Nordby as his “co-investigator”—refused to provide him with his brother's Ithaca 12-gauge shotgun for forensic tests yet repeatedly tried to browbeat him into writing that Colonel Sabow had been struck unconscious with a blow to the back of the head before being murdered with his own shotgun.
“Of course, I felt insulted, manipulated and consequently very angry at this unjustifiably arrogant, unbecoming, unprofessional, single-minded and methodologically abhorrent fanaticism,” Nordby wrote. “For the record, I do not believe that Dr. David Sabow is capable of the independent rational detachment necessary to appreciate medical and scientific facts concerning his brother's death—especially if those medical and scientific facts point toward a conclusion differing in any way from his own preordained, received and revered position that his brother was murdered.”
In a rebuttal to Nordby's report that he provided to the Weekly,Dr. Sabow reiterated his belief that his brother was murdered and said he refused to provide the shotgun to Nordby after he became convinced Nordby was only going to reaffirm the finding of suicide. He believes the latest inquiry is just the most recent phase of a 15-year cover-up. “The cover-up involves the [Defense Department], the FBI and others,” Dr. Sabow stated. “This is perhaps not the first time the U.S. government has failed to seek justice for its citizens. But Colonel Sabow's murder and the subsequent cover-up by high military officials should be brought to light, if not for Colonel Sabow's family to receive justice, then for the American citizenry who deserve much better from their officials.”
In a later message, he vowed, “I do not intend to quit.”
“Please understand that I am not convinced my brother was murdered. I KNOW that he was murdered, and so does everyone else. You are looking at one of the biggest cover-ups that has ever occurred in this country because if they told the truth, more than you can imagine would come tumbling down.”
Award-winning investigative journalist Nick Schou is Editor of OC Weekly. He is the author of Kill the Messenger: How the CIA’s Crack Cocaine Controversy Destroyed Journalist Gary Webb (Nation Books 2006), which provided the basis for the 2014 Focus Features release starring Jeremy Renner and the L.A. Times-bestseller Orange Sunshine: The Brotherhood of Eternal Love’s Quest to bring Peace, Love and Acid to the World, (Thomas Dunne 2009). He is also the author of The Weed Runners (2013) and Spooked: How the CIA Manipulates the Media and Hoodwinks Hollywood (2016).