Determined Family Seeks to Clear Marine : Military: Relatives of officer, who apparently killed himself while under investigation, say he did nothing wrong.


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 James E. Sabow--a 51-year-old colonel at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station who was the subject of a military investigation when he apparently killed himself in January--has become a life's crusade for his family.

The newspaper stories about allegations of misusing military planes have become more sparse. But the passage of time has done nothing to diminish 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. Most of all, 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 misuse of military aircraft 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, D.C., among other questionable trips. The military suspended Sabow on Jan. 17, pending the outcome of the inquiry. But it reached no formal conclusions because the death of the officer--who apparently killed himself with a 12-gauge shotgun--cut the inquiry short.

The chief of staff at El Toro at the time--Col. Joseph E. Underwood--also was accused of improperly using military planes for golfing jaunts and was forced out of the Marine Corps. After a Times investigation, the scandal enveloped Brig. Gen. Wayne T. Adams, the commanding general who had suspended Sabow and Underwood, leading to Adams' removal in May, and to a Marine Corps review of policies on plane use.

But Sabow's survivors maintain that 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 lives in Tucson 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."

The fight has been led by her brother-in-law, David Sabow, a 51-year-old South Dakota neurologist who often carries a briefcase filled with military documents. "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 his brother's case to correct initial findings that he called slanted.

Based on internal Marine Corps documents obtained by his family, the Sabows charge that James Sabow was unfairly suspended as assistant chief of staff at El Toro; that military officials broke promises of confidentiality to Sabow and, after his death, to his family; and that officials in Washington violated agreements that had been struck with targets of the investigation.

The family is accelerating other efforts to vindicate Sabow. Pitting themselves against a military Establishment that was once the family's backbone, they are exploring legal challenges and using information-gathering tactics that have come under fire in some military quarters.

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 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 charge.

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, who was 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."

The Sabows won their first major victory last week. They learned that the U.S. Department of Veterans' Affairs, after initially rejecting Sally Sabow's claim for death benefits, has decided to award her $1,094 a month, non-taxable, until her death or remarriage.

The review was prompted by an irate letter from Stephen Chavez, an Orange County representative of the American Legion.

VA officials had initially rejected the death benefits because it was believed that Sabow's alleged misconduct had played a part in his death, said William Parker, an administrator in the VA's Los Angeles office. The VA reversed its decision after coming across a memorandum that apparently had been overlooked, Parker said.

Written by Gen. Adams, the former El Toro commander who suspended Sabow, the memo showed that the general had rejected an investigator's conclusion that Sabow killed himself because he could not "cope with the pressures" of the investigation.

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."

Military officials defend their handling of the Sabow case and 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 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."

The Sabows are pursuing possible legal action against the Marine Corps. But they say that what they want may not be found in any courtroom.

"What I want," said James Sabow's son, 21-year-old David, "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."

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