Marine’s Murder Ignored by ‘Scientific Journals’ (Part III)


by Bryan Burnett


Convincing evidence in a scientific paper by two forensic experts of the murder of Colonel James E. Sabow rejected by leading forensic journals.

(SAN DIEGO, CA) – This is Part III of the story of the forensic evidence supporting the murder of Marine Colonel James E. Sabow on the morning of January 22, 1991 at MCAS El Toro, CA. Part I covered the pathology of the murder was written by Dr. John David Sabow, forensic neurologist and published earlier on Part II and Part III cover the crime scene analysis.

The violent death of Marine Colonel James E. Sabow at MCAS El Toro on January 22, 1991, was a clear case of homicide. For those with knowledge of the cold case, this isn’t even a close call.At least that’s the view of many non-government experts who have reviewed the evidence, including Dr. John David Sabow, a board certified neurologist and practicing neurologist, and Bryan Burnett, a crime scene reconstructionist expert from San Diego.

A scientific paper submitted by Dr. John David Sabow, forensic neurologist, and me provides convincing evidence of homicide and support for ‘ a rush to judgment’ by the Orange County Medical Examiner. The OC Medical Examier found suicide as the manner of death. Dr. Werner Spitz, an internationally known pathologist, reported to the NCIS in 2011 that there’s considerable discrepancies between the written reports and the photographs, considerable doubt about the Coroner’s certification of death as suicide, and the certification of suicide was a rush to judgment based on erroneous assumptions. Dr. Spitz concluded that Colonel Sabow was murdered.

The Investigative Science Journal editor or the alleged reviewers (the editor never released the reviewers’ comments despite twice being requested for them) did not take the time to read the paper while the Journal of Forensic Science’s reviewers who “apparently had not read the manuscript came up with a criticism that was outrageous,” which resulted my filing a complaint with the Ethics Committee of the American Academy of Forensic Sciences (AAFS). The chairman of the Ethics Committee just before the AAFS meeting last year apparently decided on his own that the committee did not have jurisdiction in the matter. There was no comment on the issues presented by the reviewer’s comments

Part III of the analysis of the manner of death of Colonel Sabow will cover the crime scene bloodstains/spatter, the evidence for staging of the body and a reconstruction of the attack and murder of Colonel Sabow. The references cited for part II are included in this part. The combined and complete submission (Parts II and III) to the Investigative Science Journal can be downloaded from

The bloodstains in the grass – Stains G & H.

Mentioned previously and illustrated in the scene drawing (Part II, Fig. 2) are the bloodstains G and H in the lawn near the Colonel’s body. A number of first-generation scene photographs were made available to this study include the location of these two stains, but with all (except one) close examinations and image enhancements, the alleged bloodstains could not be identified. The two scene photographs

Figure 10. Death scene images of the area of grass bloodstain G. A. The criminalist’s pen can be seen in this photograph of the area of stain G. B. The stain is made up of small droplets of blood (arrows) that can be discerned on the blades of grass. The origin of this blood is likely expirated which was deposited prior to the intraoral shotgun blast. Both images globally enhanced with Photoshop.



Figure 11. Analysis of the bloodstain in the grass under and in front of the head of the victim. A. The bloodstain showing where the forehead, nose and left forefinger were in relation to the stain. The position of the head over the stain was estimated comparing features of the grass and leaves in the photographs before and after the body was turned over. B. The hands of the victim. The left hand appears to have blocked the blowblack in that no bloodstain is apparent between the left and right hands. C. From the same photograph as A, but enlarge and Photoshop globally enhanced to show the distribution of the types of bloodstains. D. Map of the bloodstain showing the likely origin of the regions of the stain (See text ). Red rectangle: the region shown in E. E. Region of the back spatter part of this bloodstain showing diffuse bloodstaining of the grass (arrows).

of a criminalist pointing to the stains (e.g., Fig. 10A of stain G), proved impossible to discern the alleged stains for these images. These stains could occur with expirated blood, which was verified by one exceptional image (Fig. 10B, arrows) where, with global enhancement in Photoshop, small apparent bloodstains can be seen which are consistent with expiration blood (James et al., 2005) on the grass blades.

The bloodstains in the grass – Stain under and in front of victim’s head. The large bloodstain under and in front of the colonel’s head was examined. The high resolution of these photographs played an important part in the analysis of this bloodstain. By enlarging areas of the grass around the head with images both before and after the body was turned over on its back it is possible to position the head and left hand in relation to the bloodstain (Fig. 11A). The positioning of the left hand in relation to the stain indicates this hand acted as a barrier for the bloodstain (Fig. 11B). In the gap between the left and right hand (Fig. 11B), there is no evidence of blood. The bloodstain itself (Fig. 11C) can be divided into regions (Fig 11D) according to origin. At the 3 o’clock margin of this stain the bathrobe on the victim’s shoulder absorbed mostly serum from this stain (“BATHROBE WICKING”, Fig. 11D).

This stain is composed mostly of blood that emanated from the mouth and nose. The blood had coagulated in the central part of the bloodstain on the left palm. The lower part of the stain in the image (“BLOWBACK(MOUTH)”, Fig. 11D), although also emanating from the mouth was created by the bloody blowback from the intraoral shotgun blast. Figure 11E, is an enlargement from the scene photograph of part of that stain. The blood on the grass blades has a mosaic coverage. If this stain had its origin as the adjoining stain, i.e., flowing blood from the mouth and nose, the bloodstain would be solid and continuous. The blowback bloodstain will be discussed in more detail below.

The left hand and arm. There are a variety of different bloodstains on the left arm and hand (Fig. 12).

The region on the radial wrist shows a splotchy bloodstain with an irregular margin (Fig. 12A, “EXPRIATED BLOOD” and Fig. 11B). The radial side of the forearm was not in contact with any obstructing surface as indicated by the irregular margin of the bloodstain. This is in contrast to the ulnar side of the forearm where the bloodstain has a linear margin. The bloodstain on the ulnar side was limited by the flexor carpi radialis tendon which indicates that the ulnar forearm was rotated away from the mouth when the bloodstain was deposited. This blood was deposited by a “spray” so that overall it is a thin coating. Bubbles are seen (Fig. 12B, arrows) throughout the stain as well as streak-like features that resemble mucus mixed with blood. This stain is expirated blood.

The left hand of the victim also has a thick bloodstain that covers the entire palm area as well as most of the distal dorsal fingers (Fig. 12). The origin of this bloodstain is indicated by the patterned bloodstain on the forefinger (Figs. 8 (circle), 12A (Circle) and 12A(inset)) and the palm bloodstain itself. The forefinger was shielded by the thumb and finger three of the projected blood from the mouth and occurred by the left hand being directly in line with the bloody blowback. This stain is the back spatter from the bloody blowback event. In addition, the blood on the radial portion of the ventral palm is smeared (Fig. 12C) where the smear is directed proximally from the palm to the distal margin of the wrist. The transfer occurred when the blood on the palm had coagulated and partially dried.

The two large bloodstains on the left wrist (Fig. 12A, green arrows) both have spines and satellite spatter that indicate a proximal directional vector of deposition on the ventral arm (Fig. 12A, smaller pink arrows). These two stains originated from the mouth either during the bloody expiration period or as part of the bloody blowback.

The right hand. Images of the victim’s right hand from three different scene photographs are shown in Fig. 13. These photographs show two types of bloodstains: projected and transferred. The right palm and the nail of finger four show small blood spatters (Figs. 13A and 13B, arrows). Because of the small size and location of these bloodstains, they were generated either during the period of blood expiration or the by the bloody blowback. Significantly, no blood spatter was noted on the right forearm, which would be expected if the right hand was at the trigger in the suicide scenario.

The ulnar aspect of the right palm, extending around to the back of the hand, is a blood transfer (Figs. 13A, 13B and shown in its entirety in Fig. 13C). The size and shape of this stain indicate it is a transfer from the left hand palm area that occurred after the blowback blood went into the palm and dorsal fingers of the left hand. The solid part of the stain is at the back of the hand with the streaks toward the palm.

If the right hand depressed the trigger in the suicide scenario, its palm would be turned away from the mouth (see Figs. 2B, 5A, 5B and 5C), and not be exposed to intercept blood spatter.

The face and bathrobe. There are a number of bloodstains on the face of the colonel. Most of the blood deposits that are around the nose and the mouth (Figs. 14A and 14B), appear to have been deposited by transfer from the lateral part of the left hand (no images available). There are two blood drops on the chin of the victim (Fig. 14B, arrows) where the origin of these blood drops is indicated by arrows. The flow of the blood is toward the mouth and is consistent with the found position of the body and not consistent in the suicide scenario, where in the suicide scenario these blood droplets should have flowed toward the feet, while the victim was sitting (Part II, Fig. 3A) and then changed direction to correspond to the final position of the body (Part II, Fig. 1). Another drop hit the anterior left pinna (ear lobe, Fig. 14C) and flowed anteriorly in concordance with the position of the body, also without a change in direction which would be predicted with the suicide scenario.

There are small bloodstains on the chest area of the bathrobe (Fig. 15A) and a blood spatter on the left sleeve (Fig. 15B).

Figure 12. A. The bloodstains of the left hand and arm. The red arrows indicate the direction from which the stain was deposited. The blood droplets at the green arrows originated either from expirated or projected blood from blowback. Circle: the forefinger tip was shielded by the thumb. Inset: The forefinger in a more ventral view revealing a shielding by finger three. These images show that the blood on the palm and dorsal distal fingers originated from the direction of the mouth, i.e., from the blowback event. Massive blowback after the shotgun blast was directed into the palm as indicated by the larger pink arrow. Scale at the lower right corner of the image was made at the wrist and was derived from a simulation scaling; Back spatter = blowback material. B. Enlargement of the expirated bloodstain on the wrist. Arrows: air bubbles. C. Bloodstain smear (arrow) that was likely caused by the victim’s right ulnar palm when there was postmortem manipulation of the body. The circular dark bloodstain (above the arrow) is the dried margin of a portion of the blowback bloodstain. The center portion of this bloodstain participated in the transfer to the right hand.

The bathrobe – wicked bloodstain. The bathrobe that was in contact with the large bloodstain in front of the face, absorbed blood serum in a wicking manner (Fig. 15C).

Discussion of the blood evidence

Ear bleeding and expirated blood. The blow to the head not only caused the depressed skull fracture but a severe basilar skull fracture (Part I; Sabow and Burnett, 2011). It was the basilar skull fracture that lacerated the mucosa of the nasopharynx (Singhania, 1991) that was the major blood source in the aspiration and expiration of blood. Blood from a basilar skull fracture often invades the middle ear and if severe enough, there is bleeding from the ear canal (Wyngaarden and Smith, 1985), as happened in this case.

Figure 13 . The right hand of the victim from death scene photographs; all of the images are enhanced. A: The two types of bloodstains are shown. The red arrows point to projected blood spatter. B: The two types of bloodstains are shown. The red arrows point to projected blood spatter. Blood spatter on the nail of the fourth finger is clearly visible; green arrows point to thin transfer bloodstains on fingers 4 and 5. C: The entire transfer bloodstain on the back of the hand is shown (image enhanced by Photoshop).

Figure 14. A. Blood spatter on the left side of the face that likely originated from deflected blowback blood off the left palm and dorsal distal fingers. This is additional evidence that places the left hand in front of the mouth at blowback. Such deposition could not happen in the suicide scenario. B. Blood smearing and two spatter drops on the chin (origins at arrows). The flow of blood from the chin toward the ground is consistent with the victim’s head as originally found and with the shotgun blast delivered when the victim was on the ground. C. Enlargement of a scene photograph showing the reflected blood blowback on the anterior pinna of the victim which flowed toward the top of the head.

Figure 15 . A & B. Blood spatter on the bathrobe at arrows that likely occurred as splash-back on the left hand from the blowback event. C. The bloodstain on the bathrobe shoulder. There was little, if any, direct blood deposition from the source (the mouth and nose). The stain appears to be mostly serum that was wicked from the large bloodstain under and in front of the victim’s head.

Bloodstains G and H. Bloodstains “G” and “H” are consistent with the homicide scenario where the colonel was first struck with a club and fell to the ground lying on his right side. In extremis, he exhibited brainstem seizures (decerebrate and decorticate postures—see Posner, et al., 2007) and hyperventilation during which time he forcefully expirated and inhaled blood into the right lung (Feldman, 1994) resulting in this lung accumulating a large amount of blood (Singhania, 1991). The grass stains labeled “G” and “H” are small blood droplets on the grass blades of the grass (Fig. 10B) that resulted from the expiration of blood. These stains also indicate the colonel’s body/head had repositioned at least twice prior to the final body position shown in the scene images. For the suicide scenario, “G” and “H” would have had to result from blowback because expiration would be impossible without a brainstem (Posner, et al. 2007; see Part I). In the suicide scenario (Part II, Fig. 3A), the colonel would be sitting at least six feet distant from these bloodstains. These bloodstains would have been more massive and covered more area if they were the result of projection by blowback in the suicide scenario.

Figure 16. Positions of the hands at the scene. The left hand likely has the same position that it had at the major blowback event. However, both the thumb and the forefinger became more extended after blowback. Note the patterned bloodstain on the forefinger is away from the mouth – it could not have received this stain at this position. The right hand was closer to the mouth at the shotgun discharge and behind the left. The left hand shielded the right at the bloody blowback (see text). Manipulation of the hands occurred post shotgun discharge/blowback .

The hands. The left wrist shows expirated blood (Fig. 12A) which is consistent with the victim being initially incapacitated by a severe blow to the back of his head (see Part I). Blood was expirated through the nose and mouth and deposited on the left wrist while the victim was in a decorticate posture, with his hands near his mouth.

The palm and the dorsal distal fingers of the left hand are stained with a coating of blood (Figs. 12A and 12C). This is the result of the left hand being within centimeters of the mouth to intercept much of the blowback effluent following the intraoral shotgun blast. The left index finger, however, is bloodstained with a distinctive pattern, where both the thumb and finger three shielded this finger (inset, Fig. 12A).  These blood patterns and soot (Part II, Fig 8) on the left hand indicate the position and proximity of the left palm and fingers at the time of the shooting and blowback.

The right hand was not involved in the depressing of the shotgun trigger as would occur with the suicide scenario, but was in a position to intercept airborne blood (Fig. 13) from the mouth and nose, the only sources of projected blood at the scene. The blood spatter on finger four’s nail (Fig. 13B) indicates that the hand was partially closed when that spatter hit. The blood projection event to the right hand was either during the time of the expiration of blood or at the blowback event.

The radial part of the proximal left palm (Fig. 12C), is a smear that starts at the base of the palm and goes toward the wrist. The size of the smear and its location suggest that the transfer stain on the right hand is from the smeared area on the left hand’s palm (Fig. 12C).

When the area of soot deposition on the left hand is included in the homicide scenario (Part II, Fig. 8), it indicates an assailant placed the victim’s left hand over the barrel as shown in the simulation (Part II, Fig. 3B) before firing the shotgun. The stock of the shotgun was unsupported and when it was discharged, the recoil tore the muzzle out of the mouth. The left hand immediately dropped to the grass while rotating 90 degrees counterclockwise so that the palm was juxtaposed to the mouth by the time of the bloody blowback. This supports the observation of a short delay from a contact or near contact gunshot into a skull to the bloody blowback event (Burnett, 1991).

The right hand was likely within centimeters of the mouth, behind the left hand (Part II, Figs. 1A and 1B), at the time of receipt of its blood spatter. Regardless of the source of the blood, either from expiration or the bloody blowback event, the right hand was shielded by the victim’s left hand. This spatter only could have occurred in the homicide scenario, since in the suicide scenario the right hand would be at the trigger of the shotgun (Part II, Fig. 3A), a position where blood deposition such as seen on the right hand could not have occurred. In addition, no blood spatter was observed on the right arm.

Post shotgun/blowback events. After the shotgun blast and blowback, passive bleeding from the mouth and nose continued for some time creating the majority of the stain in the grass beneath and in front of the victim’s head (Figs. 11A, 11C and 11D). The position of this stain in relation to the head indicates that bleeding from the mouth and nose was more substantial than from the ear. In addition, part of the stain in the grass is from the blowback event itself (Figs. 11C and 11D). The accumulation of blood contacted the right shoulder of the bathrobe, where there was serum wicking (Fig. 15C).

The assailants, during the staging of the colonel’s body, manipulated his arms and hands. There was a postmortem modification of the scene in regards to forefinger and thumb of the left hand and the position of the right hand (Fig. 16). During the manipulation of the body, likely in the process of adjusting the bathrobe and pajama bottom to the positions seen in Part II, Fig. 1, the upper part of the body was lifted bringing the right hand under and into the palm of the left hand. Blood was transferred from the left hand palm (arrow, Fig. 12C) to the right hand (Fig. 13C). When the upper body was released, the right and left hands attained positions different than their premanipulation positions. Bloodstains on the Colonel’s face (Fig. 14B) was likely transfer from the left hand to the face during this postmortem staging of the body .

Figure 17. Death scene photograph showing the colonel’s bathrobe tucked between his legs at the crotch (arrow).

The body position, clothing and the shotgun

The body position. The massive blow to the back of the colonel’s head is documented (Part I; Sabow and Burnett, 2011). The brainstem was severely injured by the blow. It is well known that such an injury has a high probability of causing decerebrate and decorticate posturing (Posner et al., 2007). Lip and tongue biting, which occur with decerebrate and decorticate posturing (Posner et al., 2007), were documented for the colonel (Part I; Sabow and Burnett, 2011). Decerebrate and decorticate posturings were expressed prior to the intraoral shotgun blast. The expirated bloodstains G and H in the grass (Part II, Fig. 2; Fig 10) occurred when the colonel was shifting between decerebrate and decorticate posturings. His mouth, the source of expirated blood, had shifted positions as the colonel transitioned between these seizures. The body of the colonel (Part II, Fig. 1; Fig. 17) was found in a decorticate posture, the position he was in when death occurred.

The bathrobe. The initial perception by an inexperienced person of the colonel’s bathrobe’s position and configuration when the scene photographs are first examined is that it adheres to a suicide scenario. That is, the colonel was sitting in that patio chair, inserted the shotgun in his mouth placed his left hand around the barrel at his mouth, and with his right hand depressed the trigger (Part II, Fig. 3A). It is unusual he would tuck the bathrobe between his legs to his crotch (Fig. 17) prior to the shotgun discharge, but this feature did not initially contribute to the suspicion of body staging. However, several other scene images with the patio chair on top of the colonel revealed an extraordinary feature of the bathrobe: it was also tucked between the legs at the buttock (Fig. 18).

The anterior of the body shows the tuck in the bathrobe from the knees to the crotch (Fig. 17, arrow). The posterior of the body (Fig. 18A), the bathrobe has the initial appearance of having been snagged by the patio chair when the victim fell backward as alleged to have occurred in the suicide scenario. However, enhancement of this image (Fig. 18B) reveals the folds in the

Figure 18. Scene photographs of the showing the bathrobe tucked between the colonel’s posterior legs to his buttocks. A. Photograph of the colonel from the rear; the red dashed lined approximates the lower hem of the bathrobe under the chair seat. B. Enlargement of A (enhanced in Photoshop; the bathrobe folds into the buttocks. C. An anterior view of the colonel showing the configuration of the bathrobe under the patio chair. D. Enlarge from C; the bathrobe can be seen clinging to the buttock (enhanced in Photoshop); this documents the folding of the bathrobe into the buttocks and not a snagging by the chair of the bathrobe. E. A simulation using a mannequin that approximates the rear folding of the bathrobe into the buttock of the victim. No images of the body with the chair removed are available.

bathrobe converge toward the proximal legs at the buttocks. Another image (Fig. 18C) shows the bathrobe tightly applied to the buttock and upper left leg through the webbing of the patio chair (Fig. 18D). A simulation of the bathrobe on a mannequin (Fig. 18E) shows in order to have the configuration of the folds as shown on the victim (Figs. 18A and 18B), the bathrobe must have been tucked between the legs at the buttocks.

It is impossible for the colonel to have tucked in his bathrobe both front and back prior to the alleged suicide in a patio chair. These features must have been performed by somebody else. The body was staged.

It is unfortunate that pictures of the colonel at the scene were not taken with the patio chair removed. The video recording of the scene processing showed there were no photographs taken of the rear of the body from the removal of the chair to turning the body onto its back. If those pictures had been taken, the staging of the body would have been obvious. Perhaps if Nordby (2004 and 2006) had discovered this feature of the body, he would not have concluded the colonel died by suicide.

The shotgun. The discovery for this case had scant information concerning the shotgun except for the comment, “…the muzzle of the shotgun was visually examined which disclosed what appeared to be minute amounts of tissue blowback within the barrels” (NIS, 1991). Apparently no blood deposits or anything else connected to the colonel’s death was noted on the shotgun. In the suicide scenario, extensive blooding of the shotgun should have occurred. The lack of any blood on the shotgun and the lack of fingerprints on the exterior surface of the shotgun (NIS, 1991) indicate the shotgun was cleaned prior to being placed under the colonel’s legs.

Figure 18. A: Simulation of the club blow to the back of the Colonel’s head. The “club” in this depiction is a field hockey stick. It is more likely that the weapon utilized was a cricket bat (or similar-shaped club) where the flat part and end of the bat is similar to the hockey stick depicted here. In order to avoid abrasions during the hit, it is necessary to have the club wide enough so that an edge does not catch and abrade the scalp and the club needs to be flat or with a slight curvature so that there is no focusing of the kinetic energy in the impact that will cause abrasion. A baseball bat could not have been used to create this wound. B: The posterior of the victim’s head showing the patterned massive swelling, as outlined by blood, caused by the club blow. C: Same as B, but a dashed line indicates the likely shape of the end of the club.

Reconstruction of the Homicide.

The colonel was subdued by three persons (Fig. 18A). The attackers planned to stage a suicide. In order for this plan to work, they had to be certain that their victim did not show signs of their attack (bruises, abrasions, grass stains on the clothing, etc.). While the victim was being held, likely by a person holding each arm, his head was forced down and a cricket bat or a similarly constructed club was brought down with considerable force on the right occiput of the colonel’s skull (Fig. 18A). The person who administered the blow took care to be sure the edge of the club (the outline of the club can be seen in Fig 18B and shown by dashed line in Fig. 18C) was not in a position to abrade the scalp. A depressed cranial fracture on the right occipital skull (Part I; Sabow and Burnett, 2011) is evident. The victim fell to the ground and lay on his right side, severely wounded but still alive. He continued to breathe for at least several minutes and aspirated over one-half liter of blood into his right lung (Singhania, 1991). While in this unconscious state, he exhibited brainstem convulsions (decerebrate and decorticate posturing, see Posner et al., 2007) during which time he lacerated and bruised his upper and lower lips as well as his tongue (Part I; Sabow and Burnett, 2011). In this condition and near death, the victim had “central neurogenic hyperventilation” which characteristically occurs with severe brainstem trauma (Posner et al., 2007) and during which he expirated blood (also see Feldman, 1994) onto his left forearm (Fig. 12B) and onto the grass (bloodstains “G” and “H” (Part II, Fig. 2; Fig. 10). Because he continued to live during this period, there was sufficient time elapse for a hematoma to form over the depressed skull fracture (Part I; Sabow and Burnett, 2011) as well as swelling (Sabow and Burnett, 2011; Remley, 1996). From the time of the initial attack until the time he expired, bleeding was occurring from the right ear, the lacerated lips, the lacerated tongue and the posterior pharynx. The bleeding from the lips, tongue and especially the pharynx was both expirated and inhaled. The trauma to the brainstem that would have resulted from a blow to the back of the skull also caused a depressed skull fracture. The injury to the brainstem, would have been extensive and irreversible (Posner et al., 2007). In all likelihood the blow caused hemorrhage within the substance of the brainstem, in addition to having caused laceration of the blood vessels supplying the brainstem.

While the victim lay on his right side with his upper extremities bent in front of him (decorticate posture), an assailant jammed the barrel of the colonel’s 12 gauge shotgun into his mouth as simulated in Part II, Fig. 3B. The placement of the barrel required a left rotation of the dead victim’s head, simply because of his position on the ground with the arms and hands situated in front of his face. The left barrel was fired with the muzzle in contact with the soft palate. Because the line of fire was directed through the soft palate, the bony architecture of the skull base absorbed a significant amount of the explosive energy and prevented an exit wound, although there is a possibility that the cartridge powder was reduced to assure no exit wound. If there was an exit wound, that would have indicated the location of the shotgun blast, a scene feature the assailants could not hide in the staging of a suicide. The shotgun blast was an attempt to obscure the evidence of the blow to the back of the head and for one forensic examiner (Nordby, 2004 and 2006), it worked. In most intraoral shotgun wounds, the line of fire is directed upward (simulated in Part II, Fig. 3A) to the very thin hard palate and the top of the head is usually blown off (DiMaio, 1999) which should have occurred in the suicide scenario. The preference for hard palate placement is due to the gag reflex that originates in the soft palate which prevents intimate placement of threatening objects (Wyngaarden and Smith, 1985). The volume of blood resulting from the shotgun blast which otherwise would have been heavy (blowback and passive bleeding), was relatively scant. The Navy physician at the scene estimated the blood loss at 50 cc (Gibbs, 1991). The low blood loss was likely due to the victim’s death prior to the shotgun blast where blood circulation had stopped.

The blowback blood that stained the victim’s left hand and the grass exited from the entrance wound, the mouth. It has been shown that the mouth was directly in front of the palms of both hands, with the left hand shielding the right (Fig. 16). The anterior left forearm intercepted expirated blood from the nose and the left palm intercepted blowback blood (Fig. 12). The bathrobe and pajama were at 90 degreesfrom the trajectory of blowback and thus both were devoid of direct blowback effluent, although the bathrobe as well as the face received some reflected blowback blood (Figs. 14 and 15).

The shotgun was discharged into the colonel’s mouth without bracing. This resulted in the rapid muzzle withdraw in recoil from the colonel’s mouth. The left hand received soot through the sides of the mouth while the barrel of the shotgun was still in the victim’s mouth. There was a two-phase blowback: the initial blowback involved primarily soot which deposited on the medial aspects of the forefinger and thumb (Part II, Fig 8 ) followed by the blood-laden blowback, which deposited blood on the palm of the left hand (Fig. 12A). After the rapid removal of the shotgun muzzle from the colonel’s mouth, the unsupported left hand rotated counterclockwise 90 degrees while dropping to the grass to a position in front of the mouth and the colonel’s head rotated back to its original position where the bloody blowback occurred. The bloody blowback hit the left palm, dorsal distal fingers (Fig. 12A) and the grass in front of the left hand (Fig. 11).

The GSR evidence which was presented in Part II showed that the shotgun leaks GSR from the trigger housing and breech. There were no GSR focal concentrations that would occur with the breech in close proximity to the bathrobe or pajama bottom in the suicide scenario. Indeed, the bathrobe did not have significant GSR association despite being the article of clothing that would be exposed to GSR contamination regardless of the death scenario. The shotgun breech was away from the clothing as the homicide scenario would predict. In addition, the pajama bottom of the victim, although mostly covered by the bathrobe when the body was found, had significant levels of GSR associated in areas that were under the bathrobe cover. The pajama buttocks were GSR contaminated which could be due to either the GSR-laden cloud from the shotgun’s breech leakage over the lower half of the victim or the shooter, who was contaminated with GSR, participated in staging of the body. It is apparent the bathrobe was partially folded over itself and likely hiked up on the body when the shotgun discharged. The front upper chest of the bathrobe was exposed at the time of the shotgun blast because some blood spatter was observed in this area (Figs. 15A and 15B). The bathrobe of the upper chest was not contaminated with GSR. This suggests during initial soot-laden blowback that the left hand did not deflect to the chest, unlike the blood-laden blowback which hit the left palm and dorsal distal fingers and deflected some blood back onto the bathrobe and face.

The behavior of the shotgun would be quite different in the suicide scenario in that it would be stationary with the stock on the ground upon discharge into the mouth. The kinetic energy of the blast would jerk the head back from the muzzle due to there being no exit wound. At the time of the head jerking back, blowback would occur and contaminate the bathrobe and shotgun with GSR, BSR, blood, bone and other tissue. The left hand would immediately begin its drop from the shotgun barrel and would be in a position to receive little, if any blood or if it did, the blocking effect of the shotgun barrel would be apparent in the bloodstains on the left hand. In addition, there was no mention in any of the discovery that the shotgun had bloodstains on its exterior surfaces. Within seconds after the shotgun blast in the suicide scenario, the colonel would fall backward and to his right from the chair. The final position of the body (Fig. 2) in relationship to the location of the patio chair that the colonel allegedly sat for the suicide (Fig. 3A) also makes the suicide scenario completely untenable. Brainstem destruction, as had to have occurred in this case, causes all muscles to immediately become flaccid (Posner et al., 2007) and would not allow for the victim essentially “jumping” into a fully stretched-out position (Fig. 1A).

After the intraoral shotgun blast, postmortem manipulation of the colonel’s bathrobe took place. The assailants cleaned the exterior of the shotgun and placed it under the decedent’s legs in order to appear that he shot himself while sitting in a patio chair, falling backward and to his right and on top of the shotgun. The lawn chair was placed on top of the body to complete the suicide image.

The assailants, in an apparent assassin faux pas, tucked the bathrobe between the legs both front and rear. The rear tuck could have been done to support the appearance of the pull by the patio chair (Fig. 18A). The setup of the homicide and body staging shows there was a sophisticated plan for the homicide and postmortem manipulation of the body with the intent to hide the circumstances of the colonel’s death.


Many thanks to Dr. Jozef Lebiedzik for his extraordinarily valuable assistance (see Part II) in this project.


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Robert O’Dowd served in the 1st, 3rd and 4th Marine Aircraft Wings during 52 months of active duty in the 1960s. While at MCAS El Toro for two years, O'Dowd worked and slept in a Radium 226 contaminated work space in Hangar 296 in MWSG-37, the most industrialized and contaminated acreage on the base. Robert is a two time cancer survivor and disabled veteran. Robert graduated from Temple University in 1973 with a bachelor’s of business administration, majoring in accounting, and worked with a number of federal agencies, including the EPA Office of Inspector General and the Defense Logistics Agency. After retiring from the Department of Defense, he teamed up with Tim King of to write about the environmental contamination at two Marine Corps bases (MCAS El Toro and MCB Camp Lejeune), the use of El Toro to ship weapons to the Contras and cocaine into the US on CIA proprietary aircraft, and the murder of Marine Colonel James E. Sabow and others who were a threat to blow the whistle on the illegal narcotrafficking activity. O'Dowd and King co-authored BETRAYAL: Toxic Exposure of U.S. Marines, Murder and Government Cover-Up. The book is available as a soft cover copy and eBook from See: