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May-01-2010 18:08printcomments

Murder of Marine Colonel Demands Justice

A Marine Corps Colonel was murdered at MCAS El Toro, California. His brother has relentlessly pursued the investigation of his death for over 19 years. Guns, drugs, and a government cover-up make this a perfect crime.
People who knew Col. James Sabow, a Marine Corps fighter pilot with hundreds of missions in Vietnam and a spotless record, say he was considered 'General Officer material' by his peers.

(IRVINE, Calif.) - Marine Colonel James E. Sabow, age 51, was found dead by his wife in the backyard of his quarters at MCAS El Toro, California. The Orange County Coroner ruled the death a suicide.

This was a direct violation of Navy regulations, which required that a post-mortem examination be conducted at the nearest Armed Forces Medical Examination Facility. Balboa Naval Hospital, San Diego, was the nearest AFMEF, only a short distance from El Toro. There’s no explanation of why Navy regulations were ignored.

Within weeks of his death, Dr. David Sabow, brother of the deceased Colonel and Sally Sabow, his widow, were asked to attend a meeting on base by BG Tom Adams, Commanding General, MCAS El Toro.

The “meeting” lasted 5 hours. According to Dr. Sabow, both General Adams and Colonel Wayne Rich, legal counsel on temporary orders from Washington, DC, “accused Colonel Sabow of being a crook and felon while two other Marine Corps Generals attendance, David Shuter and J.K. Davis remained silent. This, in spite of their glowing “Fitness Reports” of Colonel Sabow during his almost three decade career.”

Dr. Sabow expressed his concerns about the lack of crime scene blood and the noise of the shotgun blast not heard by his brother’s next door neighbor but received the repeated response from the two NCIS agents at the meeting, as well as from General Adams and Colonel Rich, “There was not one shred of evidence, other than that proving, that Colonel Sabow committed suicide.”

The official investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS) reported suicide as the cause of death. A subsequent Department of Defense investigation requested by former Congressman Duncan Hunter and conducted by Dr. Jon Nordby confirmed suicide as the cause of death.

Dr. Sabow said that DOD agreed to comply with Congressman Hunter’s request to contract with a Board Certified Forensic Pathologist not associated with the government to head the investigation, all experts identified in Dr. Sabow’s investigation would be identified, interviewed, and written reports of their opinions included in the final report. It was understood that Dr. Sabow would included as part of the investigation.

Not one of these directives was followed, according to Dr. Sabow. Dr. Sabow told us that Dr. Nordby has a Ph.D. in Philosophy and was recommended to DOD by the FBI, none of Dr. Sabow’s experts were involved in the investigation, and Dr. Sabow excluded from the DOD investigation, attacked in the final report as a fanatic who was unable to come to terms with his brother’s death.

The facts are that the official cause of death as suicide is disputed by many independent experts, including forensic experts, medical professionals and the former head of the Orange County District Attorney’s Homicide Trial Division.

Instead, there’s convincing evidence that Colonel Sabow was clubbed to death and then shot in the head with his own shotgun to stage a suicide. No suicide note was found. There were two shells loaded into the gun, only one fired. The other shell was meant for Sally Sabow to stage a murder/suicide. According to Dr. Sabow this failed since Sally went to early Mass in Santa Ana, a factor not considered by the assailants.

As a devout Catholic, Colonel Sabow’s family is firmly convinced that he would never take his own life. This Marine fighter pilot had faced death many times in Vietnam. With no history of PTSD or any other depression, it was totally illogical to believe that he would take his life. Several days before his death, he had been relieved of his official duties as Assistant Chief of Staff. The charges were for some minor infraction of rules for the transport of personal items on military flights. Senior Marine Corps officers scoffed at the charges as unwarranted and not supporting any reason for him to retire early.

Pressure was put on Colonel Sabow to retire to contain a scandal over the illegal use of former military aircraft and MCAS facilities to fly cocaine into the country to fund the Contra War in Nicaragua.

Colonel Sabow had to know of the “legal shipment of weapons” on these aircraft to the Contras, but according to his family was shocked to learn that the same aircraft were used to ship cocaine into the country, fueling the craft cocaine epidemic.. He refused to accept early retirement, requesting a courts martial to clear his name. In doing so, many believe that he unknowingly signed his own death warrant.

Dr. David Sabow, a retired neurologist from Rapid City, South Dakota, has devoted much of the past 19 years and hundreds of thousands of dollars of his personal finances in the pursuit of justice for his dead brother.

The U.S. Department of Justice ruled several years ago that jurisdiction of the Colonel Sabow cases rests with the state of California.

The key to opening an investigation by the Orange County District Attorney is a review of the cause of death which finds homicide as the actual cause of death. Indictments by a grand jury could bring down all the dominoes.

After hearing this story from another Marine veteran, I have to admit at first that I was skeptical and unconvinced of a government cover-up of the murder of a highly decorated Marine Corps officer. My view of government conspiracies had been they’re mostly grist for cheap paperback novels.

Now, I’m convinced that if all of the facts were presented to an Orange County grand jury, there would be indictments for murder. How far the ensuring scandal would go is anyone’s guess. I seriously doubt that it would be contained to the chain of command at El Toro. After talking with Dr. Sabow and others, I’m convinced that his brother was murdered and that our elements within our government were involved. There’s no other logical explanation.

Here’s What We Know

Robert 'Tosh' Plumlee as he appeared in the OC Weekly article

Former military aircraft leased to CIA proprietary companies were used to transport guns to Central American. On the return trips, these aircraft carried cocaine into the U.S. MCAS El Toro was one of the bases in the ‘80s and early ‘90s used to offload the cocaine and service these aircraft. This information was confirmed by Tosh Plumlee, a former CIA pilot who flew into El Toro and other military bases in the southwest.

Based on interviews with William Robert “Tosh” Plumlee, a former CIA contract pilot, Nick Schou, OC Weekly reporter, wrote about the secret flights into El Toro and the ‘suicide’ of Colonel Sabow in September 2006. See “Cocaine Airways” for more details: Cocaine Airways OC Weekly Nick Schou.

According to Schou, “All of Plumlee’s landings were late at night, and the unmarked airplanes—massive C-130 cargo carriers—were painted dark green. And though Plumlee landed at military installations, the men who unloaded his planes were dressed just as he was—in civilian attire, sporting long hair. Plumlee says he guesses they could have easily passed for drug dealers.”

The Marine Corps Inspector General knew something about the misuse of former government aircraft, too. In January 1991, Lieutenant General Davison, the Marine Corps IG, arrived at MCAS El Toro, skipped the entrance conference with Brigadier General Tom Adams, El Toro’s Commanding General, and went immediately to Building No. 53 where the data processing files were maintained.

The IG asked for the data processing file for civilian aircraft, containing records for refueling and other servicing at El Toro. The file had been purged.

Tom Wade, the young Marine sergeant who reported the file purged to the IG, was subsequently transferred to a base in Jacksonville, Florida, and killed on early Christmas morning in 1994. Lisa, his three year old daughter, was found crying in the back seat of her father’s car the next morning, an eye witness to the murder. NCIS and Jacksonville police are still investigating this murder.

Dr. Sabow followed-up with a telephone call to the local police in who told him that the military cordoned off Wade’s apartment, citing national security as the reasons. Could Tom Wade’s murder be connected to the El Toro purged data processing file? Or, was this just a senseless, random murder?

Why would a Marine Colonel, happily married and the father of two children, with 28 years in the Marine Corps who had faced death countless times with 221 combat missions in an A-6 Intruder in Vietnam and no medical history of depression or PTSD take his own life and not even leave a suicide note?

Dr. David Sabow, brother of the death colonel, and other officers described him as a straight-as-an-arrow Marine, a devout Catholic who would never take his own life. Dr. Sabow said that his brother was murdered because he objected to the illegal transit of drugs on unmarked C-130 aircraft.

Relieved of his duties by Brigadier General Tom Adams, Commanding General, MCAS El Toro, for some minor infraction of the rules and pressured to retire from the Marines, he told senior Marine officers that he would disclose all he knew about the shipment of guns for drugs at a courts martial.

The unmarked C-130's unloaded their drug cargo in the Marine Wing Support Group 37 area in the southwest quadrant of the base in the early morning hours. This is the most industrialized portion of the base, the primary source of the trichloroethylene (TCE) plume spreading into Orange County which drove the decision to close the base in ’99 and move the 3rd Marine Aircraft Wing to Miramar.

I know the area well. As a young Marine, I worked in a huge maintenance hangar used to service Marine C-130s. Even after 40 plus years, I still remember the distinctive sound of the C-130 turboprops keeping me awake in the early morning hours on duty watch in the hangar.

David Hoffman reported that a Sgt. Robinson, a former El Toro Marine MP, and Captain Harries, the El Toro Provost Marshall, were told by Colonel Joseph Underwood, Chief of Staff, MCAS El Toro, on the subject of C-130's landing at the base late at night to: “Keep your ass off the airstrip at night. Leave those airplanes alone. Don’t go near them. Don’t worry about them.”[2]

Dr. Sabow said that his brother was “Chief of Operations for Marine Air, Western Area. Shortly before his death, he learned of criminal activity by higher officials at El Toro Marine Air Base and others, involving illegal weapon shipments to Latin America, and drug shipments into various military bases on the return flights. He was intent on exposing these activities. The cover-up involves the DOD, the FBI and others.”

Michael A. Jacobs spent fifteen years assigned to the Orange County District Attorney’s Homicide Trial Division, three years as supervisor of the unit.. He said the he had reviewed over 300 or 400 homicides, including a dozen cases that were classified as suicides. After reviewing the evidence, Jacobs, retired and an attorney in private practice, wrote Congressman Duncan Hunter in December 2006 that Colonel Sabow’s death “could not have been suicide but had to have been a homicide inflicted by the hands of another.”

There’s more than enough precedence for government sanctioned murders. One grim example is the CIA’s Phoenix Program from the Vietnam War. The brainchild of William Colby, the Phoenix Program may have resulted in the elimination (read “murder”) of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians.

Was Colonel Sabow’s death a government sanctioned murder? One thing is for sure. Dead men don’t talk.

Forensic Evidence Supporting Murder

I’m not a trained forensic expert or even an amateur ‘Sherlock Holmes', but the evidence to support murder as presented by Dr. David Sabow appears overwhelming[5].

Some of the damning forensic evidence supporting the murder are:

  • Head Contusion: The body of Colonel Sabow showed “an orange-sized contusion existed behind the right ear and extended downward to the neck.” The autopsy showed a massive blood clot…within that swollen area and between the scalp and skull. Skull x-rays were taken and showed a large depressed skull fracture under the blood clot with the fragment pressed inward over 3/4 in. deep. Since the victim was alleged to have shot himself in the mouth, any displaced fragments should have been blown outward not inward.” And, “X-rays showed that there were no shotgun pellets nor bone spicules within the blood clot.” The conclusion was “the swelling (contusion) on the back of the head and the depressed skull fracture is characteristic of an external blunt force applied to the right occipital area of the skull. It is inconsistent with an intra-oral shotgun wound.” In short, Colonel Sabow was hit on the head by someone intent on killing him or at the very least knocking him unconscious.
  • Skull X-Rays: Skull x-rays taken at the Orange County Medical Examiner's facility show a “large depressed occipital skull fracture.” The x-rays were reviewed by university medical specialists. “A conference at the University of Minnesota consisting of three Professors of Neuroradiology and three Professors of Neurosurgery evaluated these x-rays and corresponding autopsy photos. Their conclusions were: the fracture was from blunt force inflicted to the right posterior skull; the fracture could not have occurred as a result of the gunshot; from a review of the photos, it was apparent that the blunt force occurred prior to death.”
  • Fingerprints: There are no fingerprints on the 12 gauge Ithaca shotgun found under the body of Colonel Sabow. As related by Dr. Sabow, the “gun was stored in a scabbard-style gun case on a shelf in a vacant bedroom.” If Colonel Sabow shot himself, he would have had to remove the gun from the scabbard, carry the gun through the house from the garage to the backyard, place the gun on a counter in the garage, open a cabinet and remove a box filled with ammunition and place it on the counter; select two shells from one of boxes; break open the shotgun and load the shells into the chamber; close the shotgun and place it on the counter; replace the box of ammunition in the cabinet and reclasp the cabinet; carry the gun across the yard; place the butt of the shotgun on the ground and grasp the barrel with his left hand while reaching down with his right to depress the trigger. All of these activities would have left Colonel Sabow’s fingerprints on the shotgun. A dead man doesn’t wipe clean the weapon used to kill himself. The only reasonable conclusion is that Colonel Sabow did not pull the trigger of the shotgun.
  • Blood Filled Lungs: the autopsy report, in part, stated that “no intact brainstem could be identified” and the right lung contained “large amount of aspirated blood...hemorrhage more marked on the right side...lumens of trachea and bronchii have large amount of aspirated blood.” Dr. Sabow observed that “it is absolutely impossible to breathe without an intact brainstem. Not even a gasp! This victim was not only brain dead but, was actually, "brain absent". Furthermore, there was "disintegration of the superior end of the spinal cord.” The victim could not have aspirated blood after being shot! The conclusion was the Colonel Sabow had to “have been very actively breathing blood while he was still alive and, obviously, before he was shot, for death would have been instantaneous after the shot.”
  • Blow to Head: Dr. Jack Feldman, Professor of Neuroscience and Chairman of the Department of Physiologic Science at UCLA concluded: "Col. Sabow was rendered unconscious or immobile by a blow to the head that fractured the base of the skull, causing bleeding into the pharynx. Breathing continued after the injury, aspirating blood into the lung. At sometime later, a shotgun was placed in the mouth and triggered (by another party), causing death and obscuring any evidence of prior injury. I conclude that the evidence does not support... a self-inflicted gunshot wound."

We don’t know the names of the killers. There are no witnesses. At least none that have come forward. The perfect crime. Hardly.

If this homicide had been committed on a civilian outside the confides of a military base, the guilty would have been prosecuted years ago.

There’s no statute of limitation on murder. A hearing on the cause of death and a finding of homicide needs to be made by Orange County authorities. Following an official change in the cause of death to homicide, the Orange County District Attorney needs to initiate an investigation and based on the findings pursue indictments. Will the murders be found? The case grows colder with each passing year.

Edmund Burke, (1729–1797), Irish political philosopher, Whig politician and statesman, said it best, “All it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”

Here is a list of some of the articles that have been generated on the contamination of the former Marine Base at El Toro and at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina:

Follow this link to all of our stories about the Marine Corps and TCE

Bob O’Dowd is a former U.S. Marine with thirty years of experience on the east coast as an auditor, accountant, and financial manager with the Federal government. Half of that time was spent with the Defense Logistics Agency in Philadelphia. Originally from Pennsylvania, he enlisted in the Marine Corps at age 19, served in the 1st, 3rd, and 4th Marine Aircraft Wings in 52 months of active duty in the 1960s. A graduate of Temple University, Bob has been married to Grace for 31 years. He is the father of two adult children and the grandfather of two boys. Bob has a blog site on former MCAS El Toro at This subject is where Bob intersected with Bob served in the exact same Marine Aviation Squadron that Salem-News founder Tim King served in, twenty years earlier. With their combined on-site knowledge and research ability, Bob and Tim and a handful of other ex-Marines, have put the contamination of MCAS El Toro on the map. The base is highly contaminated with TCE, trichloroethelyne

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