Tuesday, Jan. 22, 1991, began as a particularly busy day at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station. Earlier that month, U.S. and allied forces in Saudi Arabia had begun the bloody air war that turned Operation Desert Shield into Operation Desert Storm.
El Toro was on high alert, but all was quiet on F Street, a narrow lane of modest ranch houses for base officers and their families. One of those officers was Colonel James E. Sabow, a 51-year-old, no-nonsense, straight-as-a-ramrod Marine Corps jet pilot.
His wife, Sally, a devout Catholic, rose early to dress for church. Normally, Sabow would already be at work, performing his duties as El Toro's assistant chief of staff. But he hadn't worked for two days, ever since the base's commanding officer, General Wayne T. Adams, had temporarily relieved him and another officer, Chief of Staff Colonel Joseph Underwood, from their respective commands.
The two officers were charged with bringing extra luggage on training missions, using those missions to fly themselves on weekend excursions, and falsifying flight records to conceal their activity. While the Marine Corps regarded the allegations as career-threatening, Sabow told friends and family the charges were petty and would amount to nothing more than a slap on the wrist.
Sheehan outside El Toro:
Still Chasing the CIA
Despite the frenzied activity surrounding Desert Storm, Marine Corps Inspector General Hollis Davison flew nonstop to El Toro to supervise the investigation firsthand. By the end of the year, the scandal had spread to Adams himself, and both he and a disgraced Underwood had retired from the military.
Sabow wasn't nearly as lucky.
At 7:30 a.m., Sabow's daughter, Deirdre, a sophomore at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, left for the day. Sabow made a point of kissing his daughter goodbye. Deirdre would later recall that he seemed to be in a rather cheerful mood, given the circumstances.
As Sally prepared to leave for St. John Neumann's Catholic Church in nearby Irvine, Sabow was still sitting on the living-room couch in his pajamas, drinking coffee and watching CNN. The family's dogs—one of them a notoriously aggressive German shepherd called Nika—played in the back yard.
At about 8:30 a.m., Sally walked to the front door. As she started to close it behind her, she heard the telephone ring inside the house. Sabow put the television on mute and then picked up the phone.
“This is Colonel Sabow,” he said.
Sally paused, but there appeared to be no response.
“This is Colonel Sabow,” he repeated, now slightly annoyed.
Sally heard him utter the phrase a third time before she shut the door. It was the last time she saw her husband alive.
Sally returned an hour later. Opening the door, she noticed the television was still on mute. The family's two dogs, which had been playing happily in the back yard, were now locked in the garage. Sabow's glasses were lying folded next to the phone.
She walked through her living room and looked outside. Her husband, still pajama-clad, was lying stiffly on his side in the middle of the back yard, next to an overturned lawn chair. As she approached him, she could see that both of his hands were frozen in a haunting grasp, fingers curled neatly together about five inches from his gaping mouth. His face was swollen and had turned a chalky blue color. Beneath his lifeless body was his Ithaca 12-gauge shotgun.
“I had worked in hospitals because I was a social worker,” said Sally, now a registered nurse. “I looked at him and thought about trying CPR. Then I thought, 'No, he's dead.'”
She knelt down and silently cradled his head in her hands. Then she noticed something strange: a pear-sized bulge just above the base of her husband's skull. A small pool of blood had poured from his right ear onto the lawn, but otherwise the scene seemed completely sterile. Besides the small puddle on the grass, there wasn't much blood, not even on the shotgun—no telltale splatter of gore that typically accompanies a self-inflicted shotgun wound to the head, except for a small trace on his forearm.
“I ran through the house,” Sally said. “I think I broke the screen door because I was shaking so hard. I can remember this like it was this morning.”
She ran next door to Underwood's house. Running into the house, Sally found Underwood, who was wearing golf clothes, and his bathrobe-clad wife, Jean, who suffered from a brain tumor and therefore rarely left the house, standing in their living room.
“Jimmy's dead! Jimmy's dead!” she remembers screaming hysterically before she collapsed in shock on the floor of the Underwoods' living room.
According to Sally, Jean then blurted, “Joe, this has gone too far.”
As Sally remembers it, Underwood said nothing. He calmly walked over to the Sabows' back yard, returning a few moments later. “Well,” he said finally, “we've got to call General Adams.”
According to the Orange County coroner's report, Sabow perished from a self-inflicted shotgun blast to the mouth. That finding was included in a U.S. Navy Criminal Investigations Service (NCIS) crime-scene investigation that took place at El Toro. Two successive 1991 Navy Judge Advocate General Manual (JAGMAN) investigations also reached the conclusion that Sabow committed suicide. Five years later, the Marine Corps' Office of the Inspector General (OIG) conducted a separate investigation that the Sabow family had requested. It, too, found that Sabow killed himself.
At first, it seemed obvious Sabow had committed suicide. He had every reason to think his military days were over, and his family readily acknowledges that Sabow felt abandoned by the Marine Corps, which he had served loyally for three decades and had grown to love. On the other hand, his wife says Sabow spent the weekend before he died typing up his rsum. And according to both Sally and retired Marine Corps Colonel Bill Callahan, Sabow's best friend, he planned to become a pilot for America West Airlines, where Callahan already worked.
Dr. John David Sabow, Sabow's brother and a South Dakota neurologist, had both the medical background and the tenacity to mount his own investigation. His increasingly pointed questions about his brother's death led to a March 9, 1991, meeting with El Toro's commanding officer and Sabow's boss, General Adams. During that meeting, the Sabows have alleged, the military used scare tactics to prevent them from going to the press with their doubts about the suicide, referring to the late colonel as “a felon and a crook.”
This meeting—and that phrase—eventually produced a lawsuit filed by the Sabow family in an Orange County federal court in 1996. Three weeks ago, the suit was thrown out of court by U.S. District Judge Alicemarie Stotler. According to the lawsuit, Sabow was murdered because he threatened to expose an illegal covert operation at El Toro involving Sabow's fellow officers, CIA-sponsored airlifts to Central and South America, black cargo planes landing in the middle of the night and drugs.
Just a few weeks before Sabow's death, his mother had fallen ill in Minneapolis. The colonel joined his brother at her bedside, and they used the time to catch up on their lives. Sabow told his brother about the charges against him and Underwood, dismissing them as “no big deal,” Dr. Sabow recalled.
The last thing Dr. Sabow expected was the telephone call he received Jan. 22. He was treating a patient at his Rapid City office when he heard the news from an El Toro base chaplain. His brother had been found dead within the hour, apparently a suicide.
Had Sabow's state of mind changed so dramatically in a matter of weeks that, without warning, he would blow his brains out in his back yard?
“Let me explain that anyone would have some doubts if they knew my brother,” Sabow said. Those doubts prompted him to call Underwood that afternoon. Had Underwood or his wife heard the shotgun? According to Sabow, Underwood said he hadn't. “No, my wife was having seizures—epileptic seizures—all morning,” Dr. Sabow said Underwood told him. “She has been totally out.”
Two days later, Dr. Sabow flew to Orange County, troubled by doubts about the suicide.
That evening, a rosary was held for Sabow at El Toro. Both Underwood and Jean were there. So was Adams, who never introduced himself to Dr. Sabow and stayed conspicuously away from the family, according to Bill Callahan.
The next day, Callahan escorted Sabow's body to Arizona for burial. A Marine Corps honor guard from nearby Fort Huachuca arrived at the service in full-dress uniforms. But despite the fact that Sabow was third-in-command at El Toro, the only officer from the base to show up for the funeral was Underwood, who came without his wife. After the ceremony, Underwood returned to El Toro.
Along with Callahan, the Sabow family regrouped that evening at Sally's sister's house near Fort Huachuca. Dr. Sabow said he drove to a nearby Kmart, bought a small tape recorder, and brought it back to the house. One by one, he recorded every question that entered his brain. “Something stinks in Denmark,” Dr. Sabow remembered announcing at the time. “I began my investigation right there.”
Dr. Sabow had been receiving telephone calls from Eric Lichtblau, a Times Orange County reporter eager to speak with him. But he wanted to give the military a final opportunity to open a new investigation into Sabow's death before he went public with his doubts.
Dr. Sabow called Adams, El Toro's base commander, who, Sabow later testified, grew upset upon learning that Sabow intended to go to the press. “If you do that,” Adams allegedly warned, “it would not be good for Colonel Sabow's reputation. It would not be good for his family, and it would definitely not be good for the Marine Corps.”
Adams promised Dr. Sabow that he would arrange an urgent meeting at El Toro to help assuage the doctor's doubts. “It was (and still is) my opinion that to try the Sabow case in the media is not in the best interests of the Marine Corps or the Sabow family,” Adams wrote in an undated letter to Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, D.C. On March 9, 1991, the meeting took place. Adams and Colonel Wayne Rich, a judge advocate, were present, as were Burt Nakasone, a Navy forensics investigator, and Mike Barrett, NCIS supervisor.
Instead of getting concrete answers to his questions about Sabow's death, Dr. Sabow testified last month that he was told to file a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request. The autopsy report, crime-scene photographs and other materials weren't yet available, but both Barrett and Nakasone reminded Dr. Sabow that it was the Orange County coroner—not the Navy—that had officially ruled Sabow's death a suicide.
Dr. Sabow also wanted to know about the charges that had led to the recent investigation of his brother and Underwood. Dr. Sabow would later testify that Adams angrily jabbed his finger in the air and called Sabow “a felon and a crook.”
the fruitless March 9, 1991, meeting apparently triggered Dr. Sabow's sense of outrage. He filed FOIA requests for the military's various death investigations and even got flight records from El Toro. Contrary to a military investigator's assertion that “the jets were taking off so frequently” the morning Sabow died—thereby explaining why nobody heard the shotgun blast—records indicated only two departures during the estimated time of Sabow's death, at 8:35 a.m. and 9:03 a.m.
Dr. Sabow also got a copy of the Orange County coroner's report. That report—and the photos that accompanied it—became the core of Dr. Sabow's campaign against the Marine Corps.
Informed by Sally of the strange swelling she discovered on the back of the colonel's head, Dr. Sabow looked for evidence in the coroner's report that might support her observation. While the report documented a “massive fracture of the skull” caused by the shotgun blast, it didn't mention any lump on the rear of his head. However, a report on the death scene by the NCIS reported that “the posterior surfaces of the head and neck appeared to be swollen.” The swelling was isolated from the head wound caused by the shotgun, which destroyed much of Sabow's brain but produced no exit wound whatsoever.
This mystery was compounded by the fact that the coroner had inexplicably found a large amount of aspirated blood in Sabow's lungs. According to Navy experts, Sabow had somehow taken one or two deep breaths before he died. But according to Dr. Sabow and other neurologists who have examined the evidence, this 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.
Furthermore, crime-scene photographs and reports made it clear that almost no blood had spilled from the body. If the colonel was still alive when he pulled the trigger, why hadn't blood spilled everywhere? The only sizable spray of blood on Sabow's body had coated a patch of his left forearm and palm, ending abruptly in a neat line across his skin. To Dr. Sabow, this seemed to suggest his brother was already lying on the ground on his right side when the shotgun went off.
The military also found that Sabow had fallen forward and to his side after the shotgun went off. This meant he would have had to be leaning far forward over the shotgun when he pulled the trigger. However, Sabow was only 5 feet 10 inches tall, while his shotgun was about a yard long. Dr. Sabow reckoned that if his brother was seated in the lawn chair at the time of his death (as claimed by the military), the relatively short colonel would have had to be leaning back—not forward—in order to fit the barrel deep into his mouth, as shown by the coroner's report. So why hadn't his body been launched backward by the force of the blast?
There was one last critical point, raised not by the coroner's report but by the Navy Department's investigation: How did Sabow retrieve his shotgun from the closet, load it, shoot himself in the head—and leave the weapon completely devoid of his fingerprints? According to the Navy, Sabow's hands were oil-free because he had just bathed. The only print on the shotgun turned out to belong to Sabow's son, David Nicholas, who had cleaned the shotgun months earlier. The Navy failed to test the tipped-over lawn chair—or anything else at the Sabow residence—for fingerprints that might have been left by Sabow that morning, thereby highlighting the mystery of the print-free shotgun.
To Dr. Sabow, if not the Marine Corps or the Orange County coroner's office, the medical and crime-scene evidence suggested not only that Sabow hadn't committed suicide, but also that somebody had struck him violently on the back of the head with a blunt object, knocking him unconscious. The assailant then posed Sabow's body, jammed the shotgun deep into the colonel's mouth, pulled the trigger, and wiped the gun clean.
Dr. Sabow provided the medical reports and photographs to several other doctors, including a team of neurologists and neuroradiologists at the University of Minnesota School of Medicine, and asked them to review the evidence. Dr. Kent B. Remley, an assistant professor of radiology and otolaryngology at the university, wrote that the “direction of the skull fracture is inconsistent with the effects of a shotgun wound.” Remley also found that the swelling was caused by an external blunt-force instrument. “The degree of soft tissue swelling in the occipital region on the right indicated that the blunt force to the head occurred prior to death,” he noted.
Jack Feldman, chairman of the department of physiological science at UCLA, also reviewed the evidence. He summarized his conclusions in a June 20, 1994, written statement included in a Marine Corps report on Sabow's death. “Colonel Sabow was rendered unconscious or immobile by a blow to the head that fractured the base of the skull, causing bleeding into the pharynx. Breathing continued after the injury, aspirating blood into the lung. At some time later, a shotgun was placed in the mouth and triggered (by another party) causing death and obscuring any evidence of prior injury. . . . I conclude that the preponderance of evidence does not support the finding that Colonel James E. Sabow died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.”
In April 1994, the Sabow family filed a claim against the military at the Orange County Federal Courthouse. Assigned to the case was U.S. District Judge Alicemarie Stotler, who promptly dismissed it because, she declared, families of servicemen have no right to sue the military.
At that point, the case looked lost. The Sabows' first attorney refused to appeal but mentioned in passing a case that eerily paralleled their own. Dr. Sabow would soon discover the lawyer was speaking about the now-defunct, Washington, D.C.-based Christic Institute and referring to Daniel Sheehan, the group's founder and former guiding light. Dr. Sabow was intrigued; he offered the case to Sheehan, who agreed to handle the appeal. A panel of federal judges in Sacramento heard Sheehan's appeal and upheld the lawsuit, sending the Sabow case back to Stotler for trial.
But the case was delayed for months when the Justice Department's U.S. Attorney's Office, which represented the Marine Corps, challenged Sheehan's request to practice law in California. Though Stotler ultimately allowed Sheehan to proceed, the government's protest is worth considering because it begins to address an important question: Who is Dan Sheehan?
In seeking to bar Sheehan from participating in the Sabow trial, the government's attorneys noted, “Mr. Sheehan's application materially misrepresents his status and omits information required to be submitted as part of this application.” Sheehan had failed to report that the Christic Institute had been fined more than $1 million by a federal judge in Miami. According to the government's motion, the judge fined Sheehan after he submitted “an affidavit with unknown, nonexistent, deceased sources,” using a “deceptive style used to mask its shortcomings, which ultimately resulted in two years of vexations and fruitless discovery in furtherance of a frivolous lawsuit.”
The case in question, Avirgan v. Hull, is better known as the Christic Institute lawsuit. It concerned a still-unresolved May 30, 1984, assassination attempt against Nicaraguan contra leader Eden Pastora at a press conference in La Penca, Costa Rica. Tony Avirgan, one of the journalists injured in the bombing, and his wife, investigative reporter Martha Honey, began investigating the incident, convinced it was carried out by Cuban exiles working for the CIA in the Reagan administration's secret war against Nicaragua. Their hunch was based on a simple fact: just moments before the bombing, Pastora, a former Sandinista, had criticized the CIA's favored contra wing, the National Democratic Front, or FDN, which had been set up by former members of ousted dictator Anastasio Somoza's National Guard.
In 1985, Honey and Avirgan published a book linking the bombing to a group of Cuban exiles and American civilians operating on behalf of the contras, including John Hull, a right-wing, larger-than-life American expatriate who lived on a sprawling ranch along Costa Rica's northern border with Nicaragua. Hull's ranch doubled as a drop-off point for CIA-sponsored flights to and from, among other locations, El Salvador's Ilopango Airport, a key link in the contra-support operation. Hull didn't appreciate the publicity and sued the couple for defamation, demanding $1 million in damages.
Honey and Avirgan were clients desperately in need of a lawyer; Sheehan's Christic Institute was a crusading nonprofit law firm in need of a high-profile case. The most intriguing evidence came from Jack Terrell, an employee of Rob Owen, who reported directly to Oliver North at the White House National Security Council. Terrell, who later testified in congressional hearings, told Sheehan he witnessed Hull admitting responsibility for the bombing during a meeting in Costa Rica with FDN leader Adolfo Calero.
In Sheehan's mind, however, that testimony was just one small part of a much larger puzzle. Sheehan saw the La Penca incident as a perfect vehicle to expose a covert team he believed was operating on the fringes of the CIA and the White House, a crew that went all the way back to the Bay of Pigs and the CIA's war in Laos. In May 1986, Sheehan filed suit on behalf of Avirgan and Honey against Hull and several other Reagan administration officials, charging them with negligence in the bombing injuries suffered by Avirgan.
Named in the lawsuit were more than two dozen defendants, including several who later turned up as conspirators in the Iran-contra affair, Sheehan is proud to point out. But he also named a broad array of expatriates, terrorists and drug dealers.
In the midst of the La Penca lawsuit, a CIA cargo plane was shot down over Nicaragua in October 1986, quickly thrusting the Iran-contra scandal into living rooms—and courtrooms—around the world.
Despite the fact that Sheehan had named high-ranking Reagan officials, Judge James L. King granted Sheehan discovery power, and Sheehan furiously began collecting additional affidavits. But somewhere in all the excitement, it became unclear what Sheehan's lawsuit had to do with the La Penca bombing. After two years of increasingly wild-sounding allegations, King threw the case out of court. Sheehan appealed King's ruling, lost, and was ordered to pay the legal fees for the defendants: $1,034,381.35.
The Christic Institute declared bankruptcy, and Sheehan moved on to other causes. Avirgan, Honey and several other journalists later reinvestigated the La Penca bombing and came to the conclusion that the CIA most likely had nothing to do with it. Instead, they blamed the bombing on a newly discovered Argentinean who appeared to have ties to the Sandinistas. Honey, now the peace and security program director for the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, told the Weekly that Sheehan single-handedly ruined the La Penca case.
“Sheehan's a lousy, lousy lawyer,” she said. “None of the good legal work was done by him.” Honey stated that she has unsuccessfully tried to get Sheehan disbarred as an attorney and has even sued him to recover investigative material and other records from the unsuccessful lawsuit. “After we found out about the Sandinista connection, we realized we had wasted millions of dollars and a decade with Sheehan,” Honey concluded.
Sheehan still defends the Christic Institute's lawsuit. In an interview the day after he lost the Sabow case, he argued that Honey and Avirgan were the ones who claimed that the CIA was responsible for the bombing, not him. “[Honey's] theory has never been proved one way or the other,” said Sheehan. “The attorney general of Nicaragua said that he investigated the entire case and was completely convinced that the bomber was the same guy we had identified as being in the meeting with John Hull. Martha changed her mind about the bombing more than a year after the case lost in court. So how does this come out to my doing anything wrong?”
The Ronald Reagan Federal Building in downtown Santa Ana is one of Orange County's tallest, an ironic testament to a man who talked so often about limited government. And there is this historical irony: the Sabow case would pit Sheehan against the ghost of the Reagan administration. Call it La Penca II. That's not how Stotler saw it, of course. Though Stotler had thrown out the Sabows' claim in 1996, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals sent it back to her, and on Jan. 18, 2000, the case began in Stotler's courtroom on the 10th floor of the Reagan Building.
By the time Stotler and U.S. Justice Department attorneys had finished their pretrial slicing and dicing, the Sabow case was limited to one rather innocuous-sounding question—not “Was Colonel Sabow murdered, and if so, by whom?” but a far less compelling one: Had Marine Corps officers intentionally caused severe emotional distress to the Sabow family in the March 9 meeting, three months after the death?
On that narrow question, Sheehan had impressive evidence—not just the Sabows' testimony that they felt threatened but a package of official Marine Corps documents mailed secretly to Dr. Sabow from someone at El Toro. The package included hand-written notes by Colonel Wayne Rich detailing how he and Adams—who had proposed the meeting to Dr. Sabow—planned to persuade the Sabows to abandon their interest in pursuing the investigation into Sabow's death. In that memo, Rich suggested that the pair would “try to convince Sabow's brother that his brother was a crook and so big a crook that he [committed suicide].”
As in La Penca, Sheehan took a narrowly defined case and leveraged it into something grand; as in La Penca, he was ultimately blown out of court. He started out smoothly enough on the first day of the trial, casually expanding the narrow case into something a little bigger. In his opening remarks, Sheehan referred obliquely to “black box” evidence contained in the lawsuit—none of which the court would allow him to discuss. One of Sheehan's briefs shows that the “black box” contained numerous assertions from mostly anonymous sources that Sabow's death had something to do with midnight, covert flights into El Toro rumored to involve drug running —activities that had allegedly produced a federal drug investigation of the base, Operation Emerald Clipper.
Because Sally and Dr. Sabow had discussed their suspicions about Sabow's death in the March 9 meeting at issue, Sheehan used their time in the witness box to go through each of the accusations they made at the meeting. The trial's early high point: Dr. Sabow's assertion that he believed “Underwood had participated in the murder of Colonel Sabow” and that Adams was a “co-conspirator.”
Sheehan was brilliant at crowbarring his little case into a big one, but then he got derailed—or, more accurately, he derailed himself. Witness Anthony Verducci—then a Marine Corps captain who performed the original JAGMAN investigation into Sabow's death—was supposed to tell the court that his investigation had no merit because it was based entirely on secondhand information already collected by the NCIS. Sheehan also would have liked Verducci to repeat what he had told the Long Beach Press-Telegram one year ago: that Sabow had been murdered. But this had nothing to do with the March 9 meeting; Stotler prevented Sheehan from asking either question. (Now a lieutenant colonel stationed at the Marine Corps headquarters in Quantico, Virginia, Verducci told reporters outside the courtroom only that he believes “there is a possibility it was a murder.”)
Witness testimony that might have shown Marine Corps officers lied to the Sabows about their official investigation into the death was either excluded by the court as irrelevant or was obscured by Sheehan's habit of asking interminable, speculative and, in some cases, unintelligible questions. Indeed, toward the end of the six-day trial, the government's lawyers needed only to look as if they might object to Sheehan's questions—to lean forward, look annoyed or raise a hand—and Stotler would stop him.
The increasingly testy Stotler occasionally challenged Sheehan's skills as a lawyer, at one point observing, “Counsel, that is literally the worst question I have ever heard in my life.” When Sheehan repeatedly pressed NCIS agent Mike Barrett about the quality of the Navy's original death investigation, Stotler intervened again. “That has nothing to do with this case,” she told Sheehan. “Do you have any other questions for this witness?”
On the fifth day, the Justice Department asked Stotler to end the trial; the plaintiffs had called all their witnesses and hadn't proved a thing, the government attorneys argued. Stotler said she would consider it; 24 hours later, on the afternoon of Jan. 27, it was clear that she had had enough. “I am prepared to grant the defense's motion. I don't need to hear any further testimony at this point,” she announced with finality, just moments before Adams was supposed to take the stand. “It's pretty apparent that, looking only at the plaintiff's testimony, their allegations have not been met by the evidence.”
Sheehan hadn't just failed to prove a vast conspiracy involving drug running, covert flights and murder. He had also failed to prove the government acted maliciously in a death investigation. Well before Stotler finished her concluding remarks, Dr. Sabow was outside the courtroom. In the hallway, he confronted Adams, who was leaving the witness room with his lawyer.
“General Adams, you killer!” he snarled.
Adams didn't even turn around, disappearing around the curve of the building.
“You fucking bastard! You killed him! You bunch of fucking fascists!”
Shaking with anger, Dr. Sabow hadn't quite finished. He let out one final roar.
“This is not over yet, you killer!”
After being convicted of misuse of government aircraft as a result of the investigation that preceded Sabow's death, Marine Corps General Wayne Adams, who spent a brief tour in Quantico after leaving El Toro, quickly retired, taking a job at a private military school—but not before he fired Colonel Joe Underwood. Underwood paid a $3,000 fine, pleaded guilty to the charges, and quickly left the Marine Corps and moved to Florida. Neither Underwood nor Adams was available to be interviewed for this story.
Both men have steadfastly maintained their innocence in the death of Sabow. In June 1996, the OIG reviewed the Navy's original investigation into Sabow's death, reaffirming its finding of suicide and officially rebutting the Sabow family's allegations that the Marine Corps covered up Sabow's murder after he threatened to expose covert operations at El Toro.
The OIG interviewed Adams and Underwood for its report. “Colonel Underwood denied any knowledge or involvement in covert activities of any kind,” the report stated. “He also denied involvement in or knowledge of unannounced landings of C-130 aircraft at MCAS El Toro during his assignment there. . . . During our interview, we specifically asked Colonel Underwood if he had murdered Colonel Sabow or if he had any knowledge of foul play in the death of Colonel Sabow. Colonel Underwood denied all allegations that he had anything to do with the death of Colonel Sabow.”
The OIG report also claimed to have found no credible evidence to support any allegations that Underwood or anyone else at El Toro was involved in covert operations. This claim was based on interviews with 21 Marine Corps personnel at El Toro, including Sergeant Randall Robinson. Robinson, a military policeman (MP), told OIG investigators that one day, he had gone to Underwood's office to brief him on an investigation, accompanied by another MP identified only by her last name, Harries. “During the conversation, the topic of aircraft landing late at night came up,” the OIG report stated. According to Robinson, Underwood told them, “Keep your ass off the airstrip at night. Leave those airplanes alone. Don't go near them. Don't worry about them. Don't go near them.”
Robinson also told OIG investigators that because of his often late-night schedule, “sometimes he would see an aircraft taking off at 4 a.m. He told us the aircraft were C-130s that were painted black with no markings on the tail, wings, fuselage, or anywhere else. He stated that, through binoculars, the crew appeared to have shoulder-length hair and that he assumed they were civilians. The flights began about four to six months prior to Colonel Sabow's death. Mr. Robinson stated that prior to that, he had worked regular daytime hours and may not have noticed the aircraft since they operated only at night. He told us that junior troops had told him they saw aircraft landing at night, parking at the end of the runway and taking off shortly after they arrived.”
OIG investigators interviewed Robinson's eyewitness to Underwood's alleged tirade, Captain Harries. According to the report, Harries hadn't heard anything about “any strange aircraft using the airfield late at night under unusual circumstances” but “stated that Colonel Underwood had placed a number of unreasonable restrictions on her and the MPs. However,” the report concluded, “she did not remember any incident in his office when she was ordered to keep MPs away from any aircraft.”
While the OIG said it found no evidence to support the conclusion that Sabow was murdered, Sheehan's lawsuit contains what purports to be unassailable direct eyewitness testimony showing that Sabow was murdered. That allegation is based on the claims of “Mr. X,” whom Dr. Sabow identified as an ex-Marine Corps official, now a law-enforcement officer somewhere in the southwestern United States. Sheehan refused to identify Mr. X or produce him for interviews either with military investigators or the media.
In his court brief, Sheehan listed Mr. X's assertions as Nos. 113-116 of 155 “factual contentions.” According to that brief, Mr. X saw “three civilian-dressed employees of the defendant United States” enter Sabow's back yard. The trio “then altered the Sabow death crime scene” by “removing a blood-spattered wooden club” that lay in the grass. Sheehan alleged two of the three “then exited the back yard of the Sabow home through the front gate.” The third man “exited the Sabow back yard with the blood-spattered wooden club, through the back yard of chief of staff Underwood.”
Dr. Sabow's obsession with his brother's death didn't end with the dismissal of his lawsuit. A few years ago, Dr. Sabow broke his leg after collapsing from exhaustion he says was brought on by his years-long investigation, resulting in his confinement to a wheelchair. He no longer practices medicine. He stays at home, does some medical consulting—and ruthlessly follows a trail of evidence he says leads to only one conclusion: his brother was murdered, and the U.S. government is covering it up.
No piece of evidence, no inconsistency in testimony is too small to escape his attention. While his body slows, his mind is exercised by a single overwhelming obsession: proving his brother was murdered.
Just a simple phone call to touch base with Dr. Sabow can turn into a marathon monologue in which the doctor piles up the minutiae of evidence into a mountainous conspiracy that casts its shadow across the republic.
Take, for example, a story that involves one of Sabow's friends, Lieutenant Colonel Gary Albin. Fifteen minutes after Sally left for church at 8:30 on the morning of Jan. 22, Albin showed up at the Sabows' to return a flight-test booklet he had borrowed. Albin's visit occurred at the estimated time of Sabow's death—8:45 a.m. When Albin knocked, he heard no answer. Seeing Sabow's Corvette parked in the driveway, Albin says, he lingered, figuring Sabow was taking a shower. After standing on the front porch for 10 minutes, Albin saw Underwood come out of his front door, holding a cup of coffee.
In Dr. Sabow's version of the chance meeting, Underwood told Albin that the Sabows had left to go to the base exchange. To Dr. Sabow, this is revealing because Underwood told NCIS investigators that he had bumped into Albin while on his way to have coffee with Sabow. Why, Dr. Sabow asks, would Underwood say that if he told Albin the couple had already left?
Dr. Sabow says this inconsistency clearly shows that Underwood was lying, and moreover that the colonel had played some role in his brother's death. As Dr. Sabow sees it, Underwood lied to Albin about Colonel Sabow's whereabouts because he had to come up with a pretext to get Albin away from the murder scene.
But there's a much less ominous explanation for Underwood's behavior on the morning of Sabow's death. It is provided by Albin himself, who retired from the Marine Corps in 1991. In a recent interview with the Weekly, Albin stated that Underwood didn't seem nervous, nor did he appear to be in any kind of rush when Albin saw him coming out of his house. More important, Albin says, he remembers Underwood telling him only that Sabow and Sally “might” have gone to the base exchange—a reasonable guess in Albin's mind, given that her car was missing from the driveway.
Albin doesn't believe Underwood had anything to do with Sabow's death. “Knowing Colonel Sabow, I personally think he committed suicide,” he explained. “He was that kind of a Napoleonic-type guy. Even though the charges against him weren't so egregious, they would have ended his career in the military. I think that he felt dejected to a point where he felt committing suicide would be the manly thing to do.”
Sitting in a friend's house on Balboa Island during a break from the recent trial, Sally watched as the yachts of the idle rich floated by just yards from the window. Not once during the interview did her face, hollowed out by years of grief, crack into a smile. While Dr. Sabow's obsession with his brother's death has all but taken over his life, Sally constantly struggles to put the past behind her.
After her husband's death nine years ago, Sally left El Toro and moved to Arizona. Last year, she completed 12 months of training and got her license to work as a registered nurse. She said those classes kept her from staying as involved in the family's lawsuit as her brother-in-law did. But Sally said she also lacks the mental energy to keep pursuing events and memories that so violently turned her world upside-down.
Once a self-described “staunch Republican” and “one of America's 10 most patriotic wives,” Sally now says she has lost all faith in the system. “I will never salute the flag again,” she declared, shaking her head. “Now I can't stand to look at people in uniform. I think the military is a mockery. They brainwash people. It's the most pathetic organization in the world.”
While Sally says she is saddest for her children, she admits that her own recovery is still a long way off. “Every day, I wake up and there's such pain,” she said. “It's a very quiet, seeping sore. It just goes and goes. . . . It's a very secret misery.”
Research assistance provided by Marcelo C. Imbert.
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).