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03-30-04, 03:22 PM #1
The death of Col. James E. Sabow suicide or murder?
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.”
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, 03:23 PM #2
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. Joseph Underwood, El Toro’s chief of staff — who also had been relieved of duty because of the alleged misuse of aircraft.
Naval investigators and the Orange County coroner determined in the ensuing investigation that Sabow died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Before the year was out, both Underwood and the base commander, Maj. Gen. Wayne T. Adams, would be forced to retire because of the aircraft investigation.
The Marine’s family has maintained from early on that he was innocent and was not sufficiently upset by the allegations to commit suicide.
“My brother was a devout Roman Catholic. He wouldn’t commit suicide,” Dr. Sabow said. “Besides, he’d made it very clear he intended to fight.”
Sabow believes his brother was murdered because he was planning to request court-martial on the aircraft-misuse charges. That would have given the colonel a chance to fight the charges publicly, potentially giving him an opportunity to voice his belief that military bases and aircraft had been used to smuggle weapons into and drugs out of Latin America, including smuggling missions for the Nicaraguan Contras in the 1980s.
Sally Sabow, who since has remarried, said, “I agree with everything my brother-in-law says. This has really destroyed my faith in my country.”
But whether the smuggling theory is right or wrong, Sabow argues that the case was poorly investigated — and that the evidence clearly shows his brother was murdered.
Sabow’s skull was intact despite the shotgun blast, though one part of his head was fractured and another had a depression. Sabow believes the fracture and depression suggest his brother suffered blunt-force trauma before he died.
Then, someone went into the house, got the shotgun out of its case, went to the garage for shotgun shells, and returned to the yard to kill him, Sabow argues.
Sabow also believes the evidence suggests the shotgun barrel was inserted into his brother’s mouth by someone else. If the colonel did so himself, he would have stuck the shotgun against what’s known as the “hard palate.”
“The muzzle of the shotgun was pressed deep against the soft palate. Normal suicides press it against the hard palate — if you’re conscious and you press against the soft palate, you gag,” Sabow said.
Sabow says he has the letters and other documentation to prove it, including a letter from Martin Fackler, the former director of the Wound Ballistics Laboratory at the Letterman Army Institute of Research, which supports his claim of murder rather than suicide.
He dismisses the four previous military investigations as “shams.”
Such findings are why Sabow presses on.
In his earliest fights with the military, Sabow quoted extensively from DiMaio’s 1985 book “Gunshot Wounds: Practical Aspects of Firearms, Ballistics and Forensic Techniques.” DiMaio’s book is considered a bible of the forensics field.
But when DiMaio was brought in to look at the Sabow case, many of his findings contradicted his own book, Sabow said.
Debate over evidence
DiMaio in 1996 told Defense Department investigators that his book offered “general observations” that had no bearing on the Sabow case. But it has raised questions.
For example, DiMaio’s book states that a contact wound from a shotgun is extremely destructive, usually quite bloody and often results in blood on the muzzle and in the bore. But he told investigators that the lack of blood on Sabow’s front or on the gun was because, with no exit wound, the blood and tissue destroyed by the blast arced out of the mouth and nose, over the gun and completely missing Sabow.
And although his book says that gunshot wounds to the brain stem “produce instant incapacitation” — echoing the opinions of the neurologists who looked at the case and dispute the official findings — DiMaio told investigators that Sabow could have had “one or two” gasps that could explain the large quantity of blood in his lungs.
In explaining his suicide ruling, DiMaio told investigators that if the colonel had been shot while lying on his back, the blood spatter would have covered his front. But David Sabow points out the death scene photos show James Sabow lying on his right side, not his back.
‘It’s an evil’
As Internet “bloggers” and other armchair investigators declare their belief that James Sabow was murdered, David Sabow has fought tirelessly to change the official record and to persuade Defense Department investigators to go after his brother’s killers.
Sabow said his hope now is that, with the Defense Authorization Act laying the responsibility for a new investigation at the desk of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, this time the truth will come out.
“It’s a mess. Worse, it’s a cancer — it’s an evil,” David Sabow said. “Colonel Sabow was assassinated.
“It was harder for me to believe that the Marine Corps could be involved, that the government could be involved, than it was to believe that he committed suicide. But over the last 13 years, my naivete has disappeared.”
Rod Hafemeister covers the Air Force.
The debate over evidence
David Sabow, a retired neurologist, believes the evidence clearly shows that his brother, Col. James E. Sabow, was murdered. His evidence includes:
• Blood spatter. Despite the violence of the shotgun blast in the mouth, only a small amount of blood was found on Sabow’s palms and forearms and none anywhere else on his body.
Since the official investigation states the colonel was sitting in a chair when he shot himself — and the shot never exited his head — Sabow argues that his brother’s entire front should be covered in the blood that would have exited through the mouth and nose.
The limited blood spatter, plus the finding of gunpowder residue but no blood on the back of the left hand, is consistent with what would be found if the Marine was lying on his side on the ground, Sabow argues.
Sabow’s interpretation is supported in a June 16, 1994, letter by Dr. Martin L. Fackler, a gunshot wound expert and former director of the Wound Ballistics Laboratory at the Letterman Army Institute of Research.
• The significant fracture and depression in the right rear of the skull. Several neurologists who examined the X-rays and photos agree with Sabow’s contention that the fracture was not caused by the shotgun blast and appears to have come from an outside blow to the back of the colonel’s head.
• Blood in the lungs. The Marine had aspirated nearly a half-liter of blood into his right lung and a smaller amount into his left. Sabow and other neurologists agree that this could not have occurred after the shotgun blast, because the blast destroyed the brain stem, which would have stopped all breathing immediately.
• The lack of fingerprints on the shotgun. The only fingerprints found on the shotgun were those of Sabow’s son, who had last cleaned it — and they were only found on inside mechanisms. The outside of the gun was clean of prints.
Military investigators decided the heat of the blast would have burned off the prints. Fackler calls such a theory “simply absurd.”
03-30-04, 04:43 PM #3
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, 07:52 PM #4yellowwingGuest Free Member
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 the arson was in the BN parking lot.
At the last minute they found out that 3 other Marines torched the informant's car because they lost their drug dealer buddy. They needed a quick resolution and to hell with what really happened.
Misuse of aircraft? In 85 as a command driver in El Toro I remember how some of the senior staff got their monthly flight hours. They'd fly to Arizona, play some golf, and fly back. Even the helo crews would use flight hours to hunt deer up in the mountains.
Someone had a stick up his arse to press these officers on this matter. That's where the 'investigation' should look.
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