Colonel's Survivors File Claim Against Military : Dispute: James Sabow family alleges that Marines hid information on his death after suspension for unauthorized use of U.S. aircraft.


The family of a Marine Corps colonel whose death last year caused a scandal at the base here is filing a claim against the military, alleging that officials conspired to conceal information about the case.

Marine Corps officials concluded that Col. James E. Sabow, 51, killed himself with a .12-gauge, double-barreled shotgun on Jan. 22, 1991, because he was upset over his suspension for allegedly using U.S. aircraft for personal trips.

Sabow's death brought to light a series of allegations about personal use of government planes, leading to the early retirement of the chief of staff at El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and the relocation of the base commander.

But Sabow's survivors have been pressing to vindicate the decorated aviator, even maintaining that he may have been murdered. And the family is now seeking $10 million in damages against the military in its claim.

"We want to bring those who are responsible (for Sabow's death) to justice," said John David Sabow, a South Dakota neurologist and the victim's younger brother. "This is going to restore the reputation of the colonel."

Elaine Alston, an Irvine attorney representing the Sabows, said the administrative claim was sent by registered mail to military officials in Washington and El Toro last Friday. The military had not acknowledged receipt of the claim as of Monday, but she expected confirmation this week.

Master Sgt. Don Long, a spokesman at the El Toro base, said officials there were not aware of the claim. In the past, the Marine Corps has maintained that it completed a thorough investigation before ruling Sabow's death a suicide and that it sought to work with the family to quell any doubts.

Alston and John David Sabow, who has led the family's battle against the Marines, said they expect the military to reject their claim. That would clear the way for a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court.

In their claim, dated Oct. 30, Sabow's brother, his widow and his two children charge that military officials took part in "a conspiracy to conceal the facts and circumstances of Colonel Sabow's death and to falsify official government reports." A copy of the claim was provided to The Times.

The family also charges that Marine officials tried to intimidate them and discourage them from pursuing "the true facts surrounding the death of Colonel Sabow," and managed to disqualify widow Sally Sabow from some military benefits.

Experts in military law say the family's attempts to hold the Marine Corps liable in the case could be hindered by a federal law known as the Feres Doctrine. The government has long maintained that it cannot be sued over activities involving its active military personnel, whether they are on or off duty when they are injured or killed. As a result, Alston said the family's complaint will focus not on the colonel's death itself, but rather on the military's treatment of the family in the weeks and months afterward.

For instance, the claim alleges that in a meeting some six weeks after Sabow's death, top Marine officials wrongly told his survivors that the colonel had falsified government flight records, leading to his suspension. The military dropped its investigation after Sabow's death, and there was never a formal conclusion on the allegations.

The Marine officials also failed to disclose key elements of their investigation into Sabow's death, including the fact that his fingerprints were not found on the gun, the claim alleges. Investigators' reports have shown that only his son's prints were found.

More allegations will follow, Alston said.

"There will be a lot more specific incidents in a brief we'll file (with the military) in about two weeks," she said. "We're just trying to get down the names and dates and places."

Alston said the family's claim will probably avoid the question of how the colonel died. "I don't think at this point we're taking a position," she said.

The military ruled Sabow's death a suicide immediately after the January, 1991, incident, and came to the same conclusion a year later after it reopened its investigation because of lingering questions by the survivors.

But John David Sabow says he is still unsatisfied, because of the absence of Sabow's fingerprints on the gun, conflicting testimony about the colonel's demeanor on the morning of his death, and other evidence.

"In my estimation, it was unquestionably a murder. And we will prove that eventually," he said. He believes his brother may have been killed because of what he knew about the widening plane scandal.

Sabow's body was found on the back porch of his base home five days after he had been suspended for allegedly flying base planes to ferry furniture to his son at college and to go on golfing jaunts and other personal trips. Sabow was an assistant chief of staff of the base at the time.

Col. Joseph E. Underwood, the chief of staff at the base and a friend of Sabow's, was fired and forced into early retirement over similar allegations.

An investigation by The Times found that the man who had taken the disciplinary action against Sabow and Underwood--Brig. Gen. Wayne T. Adams, the base commander--had himself used base planes to sign his divorce papers in Florida, meet his fiancee off base, and take several other questionable trips.

The Marine Corps stripped Adams of his command at El Toro in May, 1991, after it acknowledged that he had used a base plane improperly on at least one trip, and the general has since retired from the military.

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