Family of Dead El Toro Colonel Gets Day in Court

TIMES STAFF WRITER

It's a decade-old mystery that didn't rest even after the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station closed its gates last year.

The body of a high-ranking colonel is found by his wife shot in the head at their home, just a week into the Persian Gulf War in 1991. After two investigations, the military ruled Col. James E. Sabow's death a suicide.

But his family was never convinced. They say the Marines did sloppy investigation and that Sabow was probably murdered. The family also charged that instead of hearing out their claims, the military brass resorted to intimidation.

Today in U.S. District Court, Sabow's widow, two children and brother will finally get a chance to air their perspective in open court as their civil suit against the Pentagon begins.

The family is seeking $10 million from the military in compensation for the emotional distress they say they suffered because of the Marines' handling of Sabow's death.

Sabow's family said they will use the Santa Ana court as a forum to clear Sabow's reputation as a respected Marine pilot who served during the Vietnam War.

"We just know the type of person he was: loyal to the military and his family," said Sabow's son David Nicholas Sabow, 29.

Government attorneys, however, dismiss the claims and remain firm that the family's case and theories are frivolous. They point to previous court rulings that threw out many of the family's claims against the government.

Sabow's death occurred in the midst of an investigation at the base over allegations that officers were using planes for unauthorized personal use. It touched off a scandal that led to the early retirement of the base's chief of staff and the relocation of the base commander.

Sabow, a 51-year-old assistant chief of staff in charge of air operations, was one of two senior officers suspended early in the investigation. Shortly after the suspension, Sabow's body was found by his wife on the patio of his El Toro base home. Military officials concluded that he had killed himself with a shotgun because he was upset over his suspension.

But the family, led by Sabow's brother, North Dakota neurosurgeon John David Sabow, disputed the theory from the start. They say the Marines didn't look into forensic evidence that they say shows Sabow was murdered.

They allege that instead of hearing out their theories, the military tried to quash them. Central to their case is what they say occurred at a meeting with a base general after Sabow's death.

The general allegedly warned them against "going public" with their allegations and threatened to release information that would portray Sabow as a "crook" and a "felon," court documents show. After the meeting, the lawsuit contends, the general threatened to get John Sabow's medical license revoked unless he stopped all questioning of the investigation.

The Sabows' Boston-based attorney, Daniel Sheehan, said their case will hinge largely on the testimony of an original investigator on the case who now believes that Sabow's death was a homicide.

Though the lawsuit does not demand another investigation, the family hopes that the trial will expose the military's alleged poor handling of the case and provide a different view of Sabow.

"With so many unanswered questions and with enough pressure, they would have to reconsider," said David Sabow, the son.

The trial is expected to last six days.

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