Eleven months after a Marine Corps colonel died of a shotgun blast, the military has surprised its critics by reopening the investigation into what they had ruled a suicide, officials disclosed Friday.
The military apparently decided to reverse its position on what it considered a closed case because of pressure from the family of James E. Sabow, which maintains that the former assistant chief of staff at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station may have been murdered.
Military officials have repeatedly rejected this claim, asserting that the evidence showed Sabow killed himself with a .12-gauge shotgun last Jan. 22. He had been suspended five days earlier amid allegations that he had used base aircraft to ferry furniture to his son and take other personal trips.
But military officials are now looking again at the circumstances of Sabow's death, and a source close to the review confirmed for the first time Friday that the colonel's fingerprints were never found on the shotgun he was said to have used to shoot himself in the head in the back yard of his El Toro home.
Seeking to salvage his brother's reputation, John D. Sabow of South Dakota had appealed for a new investigation to Secretary of the Navy H. Lawrence Garrett III, who oversees the Marine Corps. Garrett told him in a Nov. 26 letter:
"In response to the issues raised in your letters, we are conducting a review of all of the investigative files concerning your brother's death. We will advise you of the outcome of this review upon its completion.
"I very much regret your brother's tragic and untimely death, as well as your continued dissatisfaction with the investigation. Thank you for bringing this matter to my personal attention," Garrett wrote.
Col. Sabow's death, coming a week after the start of the Persian Gulf War, shocked the El Toro military community. It first focused public attention on allegations that Marine pilots were using military aircraft for golfing jaunts, furniture runs and other personal trips.
Sabow and the chief of staff at El Toro, Col. Joseph E. Underwood, were each suspended from their posts because of the allegations. And the man who suspended them, Brig. Gen. Wayne T. Adams, ultimately lost his western air base command as well, after it was disclosed that he himself had taken several flights that conflicted with the military's ban on personal trips.
Marine officials would say little Friday about the new investigation. Col. William J. Lucas, the staff judge advocate at El Toro, who sources said is involved in the review at the local level, declined to discuss the case.
"No comment. I don't have time," Lucas said.
Base spokeswoman Capt. Betsy Sweatt declined to comment on the investigation as well, saying only: "It came down from on high. It didn't initiate at this base."
She referred all questions to Marine Corps headquarters in Washington, but officials there said they also could not comment. "If they've reopened this, it's news to us," said Master Sgt. Paul Earle, a Marine spokesman in Washington.
But one military source closely involved in the initial investigation last January said that an officer from Camp Pendleton spent about a day and a half at El Toro last week, poring over records on both the investigation into Sabow's flights and his death.
"Apparently, there's been some pressure brought to bear from the family, resulting in this new investigation," the source said.
Investigators are also expected to re-interview witnesses who took part in the earlier investigations involving Sabow and his death, the source added.
Marine officers involved in the review have already called Sabow's widow, Sally, in Arizona, and his brother in South Dakota in recent days about the case.
When she initially heard that the military was taking a second look at the case, Sally Sabow said: "I was quite pleased. I felt that the Marine Corps was finally giving me some recognition for what we've been through. . . . This is going to answer some questions."
But she said she was chagrined to learn earlier this week that an El Toro captain who had given her legal counsel on the case from its outset--and whom she had come to trust--has now been taken off the review. Now, she said, she is skeptical about the military's intentions.
The Sabows have no direct evidence to suggest the colonel was murdered. But they say Col. Sabow had pledged to fight the charges against him just minutes before his death in phone conversations with other officers.
Sally Sabow said she was also "taken aback" to learn from an officer this week that her husband's fingerprints were never found on the shotgun at the scene. She and David Sabow said this buttresses their claim that Sabow was murdered--perhaps because of what he knew about the plane-use scandal.
An investigative source confirmed Friday that only the fingerprints of Sabow's son, who had last cleaned the gun, were identified on the weapon. But the source added: "That's not unusual. . . . You've got fingerprints, and then you've got readable fingerprints."
Meanwhile, military officials were left Friday to speculate over the unusual probe.
"If they mean to do this sincerely, it's a real surprise to me," said one Marine lawyer who was involved in the case in January. "But this could just be lip service. They may just be mollifying the people who have caused them problems. We'll have to wait and see."