Ten months ago, David Sabow stood tearfully in the Marine chapel here, a beaten man bent over his older brother's flag-draped coffin. To all who would listen, he vowed: "Justice will come."
To David Sabow and other relatives, these were not idle words, uttered in grief and soon forgotten. Instead, the vindication of Col. James E. Sabow has become a life's crusade for the family of the 51-year-old colonel at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station who apparently killed himself with a .12-gauge shotgun last January amid a military investigation into plane misuse. The newspaper stories on the scandal have become sparser. So too have the family's contacts with Sabow's fellow officers. But the passage of time has done nothing to dim the family's determination to right what it characterizes as the military's slander of "Jimmy" Sabow.
Family members talk of back-room deals and broken promises, of hidden agendas and secret memos, of slipshod investigations and unfair accusations. And mostly, they talk of betrayal.
"How could any organization that lives by the motto semper fidelis --always be faithful--be so unfaithful to one of their own?" David Sabow asks bitterly. "Semper fidelis was a one-way street."
An inquiry into military aircraft misuse at the El Toro base produced allegations that Col. Sabow used a C-12 turboprop cargo plane to ferry furniture to his son at college in Washington, among other questionable trips. The military suspended Sabow on Jan. 17, pending the outcome of the probe. But it reached no formal conclusions because Sabow's death five days later cut short the inquiry.
The chief of staff at El Toro at the time--Col. Joseph E. Underwood--was also alleged to have used planes for golfing jaunts and was forced out of the Marine Corps. And after a Times investigation, the scandal enveloped Brig. Gen. Wayne T. Adams, the commanding general who had suspended both Sabow and Underwood, leading to Adams' removal in May and to a Marine Corps review of plane-use policies.
But Sabow's survivors maintain he did nothing wrong. So impassioned is the defense that family members even assert that he did not shoot himself, as the military has maintained.
"I believe that he was murdered," said Sally Sabow, the colonel's widow, who now lives in Tucson, Ariz., with her teen-age daughter. "Some days I'm 100% sure; some days, 99%. . . . In grief, there are those stages you have to go through--and we're stuck at acceptance. We can't accept it. It's a nightmare I can't wake out of."
Her brother-in-law, David Sabow, a 51-year-old neurologist in South Dakota who carries a briefcase filled with military documents with him much of the time, has led the fight.
"This has commandeered my life. I have a commitment to find out what happened," he said.
In an October letter to Secretary of the Navy H. Lawrence Garrett III, David Sabow demanded that investigators reopen the Sabow investigation to correct initial findings that he called "slanted."
Based on in-house Marine Corps documents that the family says it has obtained through sources, the Sabows charge that James Sabow was unfairly suspended as assistant chief of staff at El Toro; that military officials then broke promises of confidentiality both to Sabow and, later, to his family; and that officials in Washington violated agreements that had been struck with targets of the flight-use investigation.
While military sources rate the chances of a new review as slim, Navy spokesmen say they expect a response to the Sabows' request any day from Garrett's office.
The family is now accelerating other efforts to vindicate Sabow, exploring legal challenges, using information-gathering tactics that have come under fire from some military quarters, and pitting themselves against a military establishment that was once the family's backbone.
Military officials, while reluctant to discuss details of a scandal that rocked the El Toro base, defend the handling of the Sabow case. And those familiar with it generally dismiss the family's allegations as the sad fantasies of relatives unwilling to put Sabow's memory to rest.
"They're so hurt by all this, you can't blame them," said retired Gen. J. K. Davis, a former commander of Sabow's who lives in Orange County and who spoke with the colonel about the charges against him 12 hours before his death. "But I think they're pursuing something that just isn't there."
Undeterred, the Sabow family won its first major victory last week. It learned that the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs, after initially rejecting Sally Sabow's claim for death benefits, has now decided to award her $1,094 a month, non-taxable, until her death or remarriage.
"We took a second look. There are times we make mistakes," said William Parker, an administrator in the VA's Los Angeles office.
The new review was prompted by an irate letter from Stephen Chavez, an Orange County representative of the American Legion who began meeting with the Sabows after the colonel's death and counseled them on available benefits.
"The veteran (Sabow) had a spotless Marine Corps record over almost 30 years as a career Marine," Chavez wrote. "The (plane use) allegations which had been made against Col. Sabow were only allegations and were never substantiated."
Parker said that after reviewing these objections and reopening the case, VA officials came across a memorandum--apparently overlooked in the first review--that prompted a new conclusion. Ironically, the memo was written by Adams, the former El Toro commander who suspended Sabow and has been a principal target of the Sabow family's animosity.
VA officials had initially rejected the death benefits because it was believed that Sabow's own alleged misconduct had played a part in his death, Parker said.
But Adams' memo showed that the general had rejected that conclusion soon after Sabow's death.
Adams noted an investigator's conclusion that Sabow killed himself because he could not "cope with the pressures" of the probe into his conduct. But Adams wrote: "It is illogical that Colonel Sabow would take his life solely on the basis of events in the very early stages of an investigation. Perhaps there were (other) life circumstances which were known only to him that led to his tragic decision. I suspect we will never know."
Because the memo cast doubt on the motive in Sabow's death, the VA decided to grant the death benefits, as is the norm in military suicides, Parker said.
Even after winning the reversal, Sally Sabow remains bitter.
"This shows how careless (government officials) are--and it shows why Jimmy died," she said. "They just botch everything up." She promised to press ahead with efforts to clear her husband's name.
David Sabow said he has flown several times to Orange County and Arizona to pursue his brother's case and estimates he has spent about $20,000 of his own money in phone and travel expenses.
His methods have been unorthodox, angering many in the military, he admitted.
There were, for instance, the phone calls that David Sabow and his medical secretary made in the spring to Gen. Adams' civilian doctor in Arizona, saying that Dr. Sabow needed to see Adams' medical files immediately.
David Sabow said he was trying to show that Adams--the man who suspended his brother--had been violating military regulations himself by flying an F/A-18 fighter while on heart medication. He passed this allegation along to the Marine Corps inspector general's office, which later verified the claim in its probe of Adams.
David Sabow defends the call, saying that he never gave a medical reason for needing the file. Rather, he said, "it was just urgent that I have it."
Outraged by the incident, Adams said he drafted a letter to the South Dakota Board of Medical Examiners, charging Dr. Sabow with "criminal and ethical misconduct." However, he never sent the letter, he said.
"I've tried to put all this behind me and go on with my life," said Adams, now based at Quantico, Va., after losing his western air-bases command at El Toro. "I think Dr. Sabow ought to try to do the same."
Adams has not been the Sabows' only target.
The family has also contacted other officers past and present at El Toro, questioning them sharply on the investigation into Sabow's flights and his death. The aim here, David Sabow said, was to uncover possible inconsistencies and get the personnel to "panic" and reveal more about the case.
Are such tactics productive, or mere bullying and harassment? What are the Sabows trying to prove? These are questions many military people familiar with the case have been asking.
To them, David Sabow says: "I'm not trying to canonize my brother. . . . I believe Jimmy was sacrificed because he was going to defend himself and his honor and his career, and in doing so he would have brought to light major felonies of high-ranking officers. This led to his death.
"They would have been kinder to him if they'd just put him in front of a firing squad."
Much of the family's theory is based on evidence that it admits is circumstantial--particularly the claim that Sabow was murdered.
The Sabows have no physical evidence to support such an assertion. But they have re-created that fatal morning over and over--from the angle of the body on the ground, to the activated "mute" function on the TV--in the search for inconsistencies in the military's official version of events. In making their case, they point to conversations Sabow had in the hours before his death, telling fellow officers he would beat the charges; to his high spirits that morning; and even to apparently trivial details that jar the memory.
"What really haunts me is that back gate," said Sally Sabow, recounting the morning that she returned home from Mass to find her husband's body on the back yard lawn, a shotgun and a toppled chair beside it. "The gate was open. And it was never open."
But at its core, the Sabows' murder theory is driven by the gut feeling that Jimmy Sabow--described as a dedicated, disciplined Marine and family man--would not kill himself.
"He was a fighter, and I don't see how he could just change like that," said his 17-year-old daughter, Deirdre.
More tangible is the evidence offered by the Sabows in claiming that the colonel was unfairly suspended by Adams and that the Marine Corps mishandled its probe into the affair.
The Marine Corps inspector general's office began investigating allegations of misuse of military aircraft at El Toro in late 1990, after an anonymous tip about Col. Underwood to a Pentagon fraud hot line. During the probe, testimony from El Toro pilots pointed to Sabow and Underwood as members of an unofficial "fliers' club" who abused their rank to take personal trips, according to transcripts of the investigation.
But Sabow family members maintain that Sabow's practice of flying to spots where he had friends or relatives in order to log air time is the norm--a belief widely held among military people. And the Sabows assert that the military's singling out of Sabow and Underwood was the result of a power struggle between Washington and El Toro.
As evidence, the family points to a revealing memo from Col. William Lucas, the staff judge advocate at El Toro, which was obtained by David Sabow.
Titled "Three Broken Agreements," the memo complains that the Marine Corps inspector general's office in Washington exerted "unlawful" pressure on El Toro in investigating the case. And it asserts that military officials in Washington reneged on three separate deals that had been struck with Underwood to resolve the misconduct allegations quietly earlier this year.
(Under the initial agreement, Underwood would have been allowed to retire rather than face formal charges of misconduct. He ultimately wound up being fined and reprimanded in a non-judicial military hearing before being allowed to retire.)
While the Sabows are also pursuing possible legal action against the Marine Corps, they say that what they want may not be found in any courtroom.
Said James Sabow's son, 21-year-old David: "What I want is for the Marine Corps to clear my dad's name, to admit they screwed up and that my dad was not a criminal. That's what I want."