El Toro Colonel, Inquiry Target, Kills Himself


A high-ranking officer at the Marine Corps Air Station, suspended last week amid allegations of taking out a base plane for personal use, shot and killed himself Tuesday morning, officials said.

The body of Col. James E. Sabow, 51, an assistant chief of staff in charge of air operations, was found by his wife on the patio of his El Toro base home about 10 a.m., according to military sources. No note was found, the sources added.

"He apparently took his own life," said Capt. Betsy Sweatt, El Toro Marine spokeswoman.

Sabow was one of two senior officers at the base 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.

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."

But a military source in Washington said the allegations against Sabow centered on the personal use of a twin-engine military plane on out-of-state trips. The source said it was unclear exactly how many unauthorized trips were made in the C-12 Beechcraft plane or why they were made.

Sabow 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. A Georgetown University graduate, Sabow worked directly under Underwood. The two were also neighbors.

Underwood, a 29-year Marine veteran who on base operations was second only to the commanding general, 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.

Underwood's wife, Jean, confirmed that her husband also was accused of having wrongly used the C-12 Beechcraft on weekends to take golf jaunts in such places as Northern California, Reno and Las Vegas.

Jean Underwood acknowledged that her husband made these and other trips in the C-12 and did play golf once at his destinations, but she insisted that the purpose of the trips was to keep his active status as a pilot.

"My husband plays golf--he's always played golf," she said. "But that was secondary; he needed to get in the flight time because he was in the office all week. . . . This is just awful, just terrible. It's all just so ridiculous--we did nothing wrong."

The same held true for Sabow, Jean Underwood said, although she said she did not know where he went on his flights.

"He (Sabow) was such a straight arrow, you wouldn't know what a straight arrow he is," she said. "He was so despondent over all this, I think he just did it (killed himself). If he thought about his wife or his two kids, he would not have done it."

The investigation into the conduct of Sabow and Underwood 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.

More than 5,000 Marines from the air station's 3rd Aircraft Wing have been sent to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield, but officials said the investigation is unrelated to the Persian Gulf buildup.

With base troops already on edge over the deployment of about half of the local Marines, news of the military's investigation and the death of Sabow appeared to jolt El Toro personnel still 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."

Retired Marine Col. Dave Underwood, no relation to Joseph, said he was friends with both targets of the investigation 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," Underwood said. "But he's also an excellent officer, as was (Col. Sabow). This is a grievous loss for the Marine Corps."

A family friend at Sabow's home Tuesday evening said the family would have no comment. Some base neighbors, meanwhile, also declined to talk about the investigation and Sabow's death, while others reacted angrily.

Cheryl Gurule, 35, a neighbor of the Sabows, said there was no credence to reports of wrongdoing by the colonel.

"They're a good clean-cut family, and as far as (Col. Sabow's) being under investigation, I don't think there's anything in that," she said. "If you ask me, I think the press is beating the bush."

Gen. Wayne T. Adams, who took over base operations in September, 1990, 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.

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.

Officials from the Orange County coroner's office and the Naval Investigative Services, which oversees such matters for the Marines, were called in to investigate Sabow's death. The coroner's office said a single gunshot wound to the head was the preliminary cause of death.

As officials investigated the death, friends and colleagues of Sabow 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 25 years of his life is down the drain. . . . I guess he just couldn't face it."

Times staff writers James M. Gomez, Nora Zamichow, Henry Chu and Dan Weikel contributed to this report.

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