View Full Version : The death of Col. James E. Sabow suicide or murder?

03-30-04, 02:22 PM
Issue Date: April 05, 2004

The death of Col. James E. Sabow suicide or murder?

The Corps says a colonel killed himself. His brother calls the ruling a cover-up. Now, Congress wants to know the truth.

By Rod Hafemeister
Times staff writers

Thirteen years ago, Col. James E. Sabow was found dead behind his home at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, Calif., a shotgun blast to his head, blood splattered across the backyard.
Navy and Marine officials soon after ruled the death a suicide, telling Sabow’s stunned family that the colonel, relieved as the air station’s assistant chief of staff days earlier, was distraught over allegations that he had misused government aircraft.

His family picked up the pieces of their lives and tried to move on. But the official explanation of his death never sat right with Sabow’s younger brother David, 63, a retired neurologist. Evidence at the scene indicated murder, not suicide, according to Sabow, who believes his brother was killed because of his knowledge of drug smuggling at El Toro and that the murder was covered up to protect others. Dr. Sabow even claims to know who killed his brother.

“The person was in the military and retired around the same time as the death,” Sabow said in a March 16 telephone interview from his home in Rapid City, S.D.

For 13 years, Sabow’s contention has been dismissed by the Marine Corps, the Pentagon and some lawmakers as B-movie fodder, nothing more than a conspiracy theory about what happened that January morning in 1991.

Then, Sabow learned that Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., who chairs the powerful House Armed Services Committee, pushed the Pentagon to conduct an independent review of the case and had agreed to meet with him.

Sabow, who has been to Washington several times over the years regarding the case, met with Hunter and Charles Abell, deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, at Hunter’s office March 11. Unlike his previous meetings, in which Sabow felt no one was listening to him, he said he walked out of the nearly two-hour meeting feeling the best he has since his brother died.

“I must say that this is the first time in 13 years of my investigation that I have had any meeting of this type,” Sabow said. “And I’ve had a lot of meetings.”

Controversial coroner

Sabow argues that “hard evidence, not the circumstantial evidence” is at the heart of his belief that his brother was murdered. One of the key arguments Sabow makes is that the gunshot wound and blood-splatter pattern are inconsistent with a suicide.

But there is another reason Sabow suspects foul play. Documents examined by Marine Corps Times shows the military’s suicide ruling relies on testimony of an outside medical examiner who ruled another mysterious death a suicide.

Vincent DiMaio, a medical examiner in Bexar County, Texas, and recognized expert on gunshot wounds, ruled that Air Force Col. Philip Shue killed himself in April 2003.

Shue’s family disputes the ruling, and his wife Tracy accused DiMaio of blocking both an outside autopsy and FBI review of the death by not providing written reports her lawyer has requested as well as body fluids the FBI lab wants.

The FBI is investigating evidence in the Air Force colonel’s death. Shue’s clothing has been shipped to the FBI labs in Virginia for tests. Federal agents also will review the methods and findings of toxicology tests on Shue’s blood by the Bexar County medical examiner’s office.

“We requested some further testing to make sure that we left no stones unturned,” Kendall County Sheriff Henry Hodge told the San Antonio Express-News for the paper’s March 22 online edition.

DiMaio did not return calls seeking comment.

Shue’s mutilated body was found behind the wheel of his car after he was seen driving erratically, then left the highway and crashed into some trees near his home in Boerne, a small town north of San Antonio.

Shue, who was a psychiatrist at Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, had received death threats and reported them to his superiors, but according to his family, no investigation was ever initiated.

DiMaio supervised an autopsy and declared Shue had apparently mutilated himself, including cutting off his own nipples and cutting his chest, as part of a suicide plan.

Years before, DiMaio also played a role in the Sabow case as a consultant to Navy officials who solicited his opinion in a 1996 follow-up investigation. Although DiMaio was not involved in the original autopsy of James Sabow in 1991, the medical examiner’s opinion was solicited because he is a gunshotwound and forensics expert. DiMaio supported the suicide ruling on Sabow, despite statements from other doctors, neurologists and weapons experts who, according to Sabow, believe the evidence suggests murder.

Investigator raises questions

One of those who raised questions about the Sabow suicide ruling is one of the original Marine investigators in the case. Five years ago — eight years after James Sabow died — Lt. Col. Anthony Verducci reversed his findings.

Verducci, who as a captain serving as a judge advocate conducted the first Judge Advocate General Manual investigation, later stated that the findings are not consistent with the facts.

In a March 25, 1999, letter to David Sabow, Verducci said he no longer agreed with the medical examiner’s findings. The Marine said evidence and other information he’s seen since that time “led me to believe that the evidence indicates Sabow did not die of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.

“As a Marine, former prosecutor, a citizen, I believe that an impartial law-enforcement agency must review this case. Under the best of circumstances, it is contrary to human nature and fairness to believe the [Naval Criminal Investigative Service] will be fair in reviewing their own work.”

Verducci, reached at his Northern Virginia home March 25 — exactly five years after he wrote the letter, said he stands by what he wrote in 1999. But Sabow promised to provide Verducci evidence that would prove his brother was murdered and he has never done that, Verducci said. It’s hard for him to support an “additional allocation of resources” to reopen the case absent the evidence he’s never seen.

“I remain utterly respectful of the tremendous persistence he has shown, but I have not seen anything since I retired in the fall of 2000 that would cause me to believe the results are going to be anything other than what they were the first time around,” said Verducci, who now works for the Navy in the general counsel’s office.

There was little movement on the case until last year. Sabow’s big break came when a Capitol Hill staff member working for the House Armed Services Committee convinced Hunter that the Pentagon needs to better address the Sabow death.

The 2004 Defense Authorization Act includes language introduced by Hunter ordering the Pentagon to convene a panel of outside medical and forensics experts to “determine the cause of the death of Colonel Sabow, given the medical and forensic factors associated with that death.”

A spokesman for Hunter confirmed the March 11 meeting, but would say little more.

“Mr. Hunter inserted the language because he thought the additional information would be warranted,” said spokesman Michael Harrison.

The language in the authorization act requires the Pentagon to initiate an independent investigation of the matter and stipulates that a report is due by May.

A troubling case

There may be much in dispute about the Sabow case, but most agree on the basic facts.

James Sabow, 51, died sometime between 8:30 a.m. and 9:20 a.m. on Jan. 22, 1991. His wife, Sally, left for church at 8:20 a.m. that Tuesday morning. According to investigation reports, Sally Sabow last saw her husband talking on the phone, clad in his bathrobe. She remembered it was strange because her husband kept saying “hello” while on the phone, as if no one was answering him. Then she walked out the door.

The colonel had been relieved as assistant chief of staff at El Toro after allegations arose that he had misused government aircraft for personal reasons, including carrying golf clubs or other personal items for his son in a plane, David Sabow said.

As a result, Sabow did not have to go to the office that day, and was watching television news coverage of the Persian Gulf War.

Sally Sabow returned home about 9:20 a.m. to find the house empty, the television muted.


03-30-04, 02:23 PM
Then, she looked behind the house, seeing her husband lying on the ground, still in his bathrobe, his Winchester double-barreled 12-gauge shotgun nearby. She rushed next door to the home of Col....

03-30-04, 03:43 PM
Wow, What a story. We should be watching this, because one of our own may have been the victim of a murder. Thanks, Ellie. charlie222 over & out.

03-30-04, 06:52 PM
I don't have much faith in NIS. I remember in 89 they were going to charge their own drug informant with torching his own car, based on inconsistancies in his polygraph. It was high profile because...