Man on Quest to Unearth Clues to Brother's Death

Times Staff Writer

Dr. David Sabow stared vacantly at the Arizona desert unfolding through the windshield, unable to take his mind off the small wooden box on the car's back seat.

Inside the box were the shattered remains of his brother's skull. Sabow and a forensic anthropologist were heading to a medical laboratory in Tucson, where the fragments would be glued back together and digitally analyzed.

Sabow, a neurologist, had faith that analysis would show that his brother -- a highly decorated Vietnam fighter pilot -- could not have shot himself to death in 1991, as the Marine Corps insisted. But he also knew that almost nobody agreed with him.

"I had Jimmy literally in the back seat of the car with me. It was terrible. I wondered what ... I was doing. I was even starting to question my own sanity," Sabow recalled. "But I just felt I had to do it."

The trip through the desert marked one of the strangest turns in an odyssey that began more than 13 years ago, when Sabow put his life on hold and resolved to prove that his older brother was a murder victim, not a suicide.

The cause has consumed him. He has lost his medical practice, most of his savings and nearly his marriage. He has missed Christmases, family vacations, his kids' birthdays -- their childhoods.

Government officials, legislators and others who have dealt with Sabow describe a man obsessed, convinced that a dark conspiracy lies behind his brother's death, unable to accept overwhelming evidence that it was self-inflicted. Over the years, the Navy, the Marines, the Defense Department and the FBI have all reexamined the evidence in response to Sabow's prodding. Each time, investigators reaffirmed that the death was a suicide.

Undaunted, the South Dakota man managed this year to convince a powerful California congressman that yet another review was warranted. Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, inserted a provision in the 2004 defense appropriations bill requiring the Pentagon to take a fresh look at the death of Marine Col. James E. Sabow.

What has renewed David Sabow's hope is that for the first time, an independent forensic expert is examining the evidence. His report is expected by year's end.

"This is, without question, the closest I have come to opening up the truth for everybody to see," he said.

*

Sally Sabow found her husband's body in their backyard at the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station's military housing compound when she returned from Mass around 9:30 a.m. on Jan. 22, 1991.

The colonel was lying on his right side in the grass, near an overturned patio chair. The barrel of a 12-gauge Ithaca shotgun, a gift from his father, rested between his knees.

Five days earlier, James Sabow had been quietly relieved of his duties while Navy investigators looked into accusations that he and other high-ranking officers had taken unauthorized personal trips in military planes.

The inquiry threatened to end a stellar career. Sabow, 51, had flown hundreds of combat missions in Vietnam. His bravery had been recognized with the Bronze Star and other medals.

In the days before his death, he confided in his wife about the investigation. "I've shamed you, my loving wife and beautiful children," he told her, according to a statement she gave Navy investigators. "What of my honor? What will I ever tell my brothers?"

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, which interviewed 39 people and reviewed autopsy findings, photos of the death scene and lab reports on gunshot residue, concluded that the colonel killed himself because he couldn't face the disgrace of letting down his country and his family.

Within weeks of his brother's death, David Sabow rented a home in Santa Barbara to be close to the lawyer he had hired to help him look into the case. He drove to the Marine base in south Orange County to interview his brother's friends and colleagues. He hired private investigators to help him get military documents and track down clues to why someone might have wanted his brother dead.

He read textbooks about forensics, autopsies, blood evidence and gunshot wounds. He wrote to medical experts, military officials and lawmakers, asking for their help. He filed suit against the Marine Corps to get classified material.

Sabow seized on details that seemed contradictory or puzzling.

For instance, the only fingerprints found on the gun were from the colonel's son, who had last cleaned the weapon. No prints were found on the ammunition boxes from which the colonel had supposedly gotten the round of birdshot that pulverized his brain.

Sabow also was suspicious of an autopsy finding that James Sabow had inhaled blood into his right lung -- something he thought unlikely. When the brain stem is destroyed, bodily functions cease, he said, so his brother could not have taken even a single breath after the blast.

More likely, he said, is that his brother was struck on the head so sharply that blood drained into his nasal cavity and, as he gasped for breath, it was sucked into his lung. Why would anyone want the colonel dead? David Sabow developed a theory. His lawyers and private investigators had told him that El Toro was a hub for planes carrying drugs to Central America for sting operations tied to the Iran-Contra scandal.

He believed that personnel at the now-closed El Toro had diverted those drugs for illegal trafficking. His brother, he says, was killed to prevent him from blowing the whistle.

Military investigators say David Sabow's suspicions are groundless. The allegations of drug-running have never been substantiated. It's not unusual to find fingerprints missing in such a case, they say. And the colonel might easily have taken a breath or two after the gunshot, accounting for blood in his right lung. "The death of Col. James E. Sabow has been thoroughly investigated, examined and reviewed," said Maj. Douglas Powell, a spokesman at Marine headquarters. "Col. Sabow's death was ruled a suicide, and all subsequent reviews support that finding."

*

Despite repeated findings of suicide, Sabow pushed on. He figured he owed his brother -- whom he had considered his best friend -- nothing less.

But his fixation frightened his family. His wife, Andrea, begged him to give up. Their marriage was crumbling. He missed vacations, school plays, high school proms, his children's birthdays and holidays.

"He was not there for us," said his eldest, Heidi, now 30. "He was not there for our mom. And financially, he was using up all our resources."

His medical practice dwindled as one neglected patient after another went elsewhere. He remortgaged his home twice, drained a family inheritance and sold off hundreds of acres in downtown Rapid City and the Black Hills of South Dakota, land he was saving for his retirement. So far, he estimates he's spent nearly $2 million on his crusade.

His remaining brother, Tom, was so irritated that the family's inheritance had been exhausted that he hasn't talked to Sabow in years. Though he also believes James Sabow's death was a murder that has been covered up, he said his brother's obsession with the case has torn apart what once was a tightknit family.

"At some point in time you have to put all these things behind you and move on," Tom Sabow said. "No doubt about it. It has turned this family upside down."

In the spring of 1999, David Sabow visited his sister-in-law in Arizona. Sally Sabow was remarried, trying to move on with her life. He asked her for permission to exhume his brother's remains from a hillside grave in Arizona.

During a tearful conversation at the kitchen table, he told her of his latest plan. He wanted to scan images of every piece of his brother's skull and construct a 3-D picture. The image, he believed, would prove that the wound to his brother's head left a depression. Had the wound come from a gun, his skull would have been pushed outward.

When she agreed, he hired a forensic anthropologist and set up a chain of custody with Arizona medical examiners and a University of Arizona laboratory to forestall accusations of evidence-tampering. As they drove through the desert to the lab, he wondered -- for the first time -- about his sanity.

*

Sabow had all but run out of people to lean on -- politicians, military brass, cops -- when Tony Battista dropped into his life four years ago.

Battista had been a science advisor to the House Armed Services Committee before going back to school to complete his doctorate in public administration at the University of Oklahoma. A former peer from Capitol Hill told him about the Sabow case.

Battista got in touch with David Sabow and began poring over the doctor's files. He came to share Sabow's view that someone had killed the colonel and made it look like a suicide.

Battista, who had worked with Rep. Hunter in Washington, D.C., presented the congressman with a package of documents and other materials Sabow had compiled, including military reports, independent medical opinions and the 3-D image of the colonel's skull, which he said confirmed his hypothesis.

Hunter was convinced that the military should take a fresh look at the evidence. He wrote the legislative provision that forced the Defense Department to reopen the case. The new inquiry, launched last spring, will focus on the narrow question of cause of death. And in recognition of Sabow's concern that it be an independent probe, Hunter made sure outside experts would be involved this time.

As he waits for the results of the latest investigation, Sabow today is trying to temper his obsession. He takes trips with his wife to the mountains and finds time for his children. His two daughters, who had moved away years ago, are back in Rapid City. He has given up his medical practice and is running out of money, and possibly time. But if the latest inquiry concludes that his brother killed himself, Sabow said, he will resume his crusade -- somehow.

"I see him lying out there, and nobody wants to bring his body home. The Marines ... always bring the wounded and dead home. And he's still out there on the grass, hemorrhaging away. Do you think if I live for a thousand years, I could ever erase that image?"

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