A high-ranking officer at the Marine Corps Air Station here, suspended last week amid allegations of taking out a base plane for personal use, shot and killed himself Tuesday morning, officials and sources said.
The body of Col. James E. Sabow, 51, assistant chief of staff in charge of air operations, was found by his wife on the patio of his base home around 10 a.m., according to military sources. No note was found, sources said.
“He apparently took his own life,” said El Toro Marine spokeswoman Capt. Betsy Sweatt.
Sabow was one of two high-ranking base officers suspended from duty this month in the wake of allegations of administrative abuses, officials said. On Jan. 12, five days before Sabow’s suspension, Col. Joseph E. Underwood was relieved of his post as chief of staff at the base.
More than 5,000 Marines from the air station’s 3rd Aircraft Wing have been sent to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Storm, but officials said the probe is unrelated to the Persian Gulf buildup.
Underwood, a 29-year Marine veteran who was second in command to the general of base operations, allegedly billed the government improperly for hotel and car rental expenses in connection with an out-of-town military golf tournament, a source in Washington said.
A military source in Washington said the probe of Sabow centered on the alleged personal use of a twin-engine military plane on out-of-state trips. The source said it was unclear how many unauthorized trips were made in the C-12 Beechcraft plane or why they were made.
The military refused official comment on the nature of the allegations against either Sabow or Underwood, both Vietnam pilots. Sweatt would only say that the two were “under investigation for suspected misconduct in conjunction with (their) official duties.”
The investigation was apparently sparked by an anonymous call to the El Toro base, sources said. Military investigators began probing the allegations about 10 days ago, leading to the two suspensions.
While relieved of his duties, Underwood is free to move about the base, where he lives, or leave it until the investigation is completed, officials said. He could not be reached for comment Tuesday. A family friend at Sabow’s home Tuesday evening said the family would have no comment.
Gen. Wayne T. Adams, who took over base operations in September and was Underwood’s immediate commander, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. Top base officials contacted by The Times, citing the sensitivity of the issue, refused comment and referred all questions to the public affairs office.
With base troops already on edge with the deployment of about half of the local Marines to the Persian Gulf, news of the military’s investigation and the death of Sabow, a 28-year Marine veteran, appeared to jolt El Toro personnel further.
“There are millions of rumors floating around about this right now,” said one high-ranking officer at base headquarters. “This was all a shock to me.”
Dave Underwood, retired Marine colonel and no relation to Joseph, said he was friends with both men during his time at El Toro and “was dumbfounded and shocked by the whole affair” after getting a call about it at his Denver home from a base friend.
“Joe’s a golfer, a pretty avid one,” Dave Underwood said. “But he’s also an excellent officer, as was (Sabow). This is a grievous loss for the Marine Corps.”
Underwood, who had been in his post as chief of staff since May, 1987, was responsible for overseeing all elements of base operations from air flights and meals to personnel and finances.
Sabow, a Georgetown University graduate who worked directly under Underwood, became assistant chief of operations at El Toro in August, 1989, responsible for advising the base general and determining policy on airfield activities, disaster control, and the use of airspace in cooperation with the Federal Aviation Administration.
Officials from the Orange County coroner’s office were called in to investigate Sabow’s death, as were officials with the Naval Investigative Services, which oversees such matters for the Marines. The coroner’s office said a single gunshot wound to the head was the cause of death.
As officials investigated the death, Sabow’s friends and colleagues were left to look for a reason.
“You have to understand that he was a career Marine and he could not face the thought of the allegations becoming public,” said one friend and officer, who asked not to be named. “All his friends were in the military and his whole life was the military. So now (28) years of his life are down the drain. . . . I guess he just couldn’t face it.”
Times staff writers James Gomez, Nora Zamichow, Henry Chu and Dan Weikel contributed to this report.