Family Charges Cover-Up in Colonel's Death

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The family of a Marine Corps colonel whose death last year caused a scandal at the El Toro air base 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. planes 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. In its claim, the family is seeking $10 million in damages from the military.

"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. Master Sgt. Don Long, a spokesman at the El Toro base, said officials there were not aware of the claim.

Alston and John David Sabow, who has led the family's battle against the Marines, said they expect the military to reject the claim. That would clear the way for a civil suit 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 Col. Sabow's death."

Experts in military law say the family's attempts to hold the Marine Corps liable in the case could be hindered by federal law. The government has long maintained that it may not be sued over activities involving active military personnel, whether they are on or off duty when they are injured or killed.

The claim alleges that about 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.

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.

The military ruled Sabow's death a suicide 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 unsatisfied because of the absence of Sabow's fingerprints on the shotgun, conflicting testimony about the colonel's demeanor on the morning of his death, and other evidence.

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