Doctored Photo In Marine Murder Probe (PART1)


Fraudulent  autopsy photo supports murder of Marine Corps Colonel and cover-up by DOD.


First in a three part series. 


 (IRVINE, CA) –  The death of Marine Colonel James E. Sabow in his quarters at Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, California, has taken a new twist with the discovery of a fraudulent autopsy photograph in DOD’s death investigation report to the House Armed Service Committee, hiding the tramline bruise to the back of Colonel Sabow’s head, a tell tale sign of a violent blow by a blunt object like a lead pipe or baseball bat. 

The evidence supports a staged suicide with a shotgun blast in the mouth to prevent the disclosure of covert activities at former Marine Corps Air Station (MCAS) El Toro, CA. 

These include the transport of weapons to Central and South American on CIA proprietary airlines and use of these same aircraft to bring cocaine into the U.S.

The fraudulent autopsy photo was discovered earlier this month by Bryan Burnett, Cardiff, CA, a criminalist and crime scene analyst with over 20 year experience in crime scene reconstruction.

According to Burnett only DOD had the capability to alter the autopsy photo.  The DOD investigation report to Congress in November 2004 made no mention of the tramline bruise.

The fraudulent photo hides the tramline bruise caused by a violent blow to the right side of the head with a blunt object, resulting in loss of consciousness and immediate death.  

The forensic evidence support that this was followed by a shotgun blast into the mouth to stage a suicide.

As far as the government was concerned, the death of Colonel Sabow was suicide.  The autopsy was done by Dr.Aruna Singhania, a board certified pathologist under contract with the Orange County/Sheriff Office.   Thirty-eight (38) photos were taken during the autopsy.

In addition to Dr. Singhania, two OCSCO and two Naval Criminal Investigative (NIS) agents were in attendance.  A communiqué from the MCAS El Toro Commanding General reporting suicide was sent to the Commandant of the Marine Corps within hours of the discovery of the body.  The suicide death certificate was signed by the Orange County Sheriff/Coroner on January 23, 1991, the day following the autopsy.

The fraudulent autopsy photo and an affidavit to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) from a forensic pathologist in late 2010 reporting homicide and crime scene tampering should be sufficient for the California Attorney General to require the Orange County Sherriff/Coroner to conduct a formal inquest by jury, open to the public and media.

A Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) cold case investigation in late 2010 confirmed suicide as the manner of death.  However, no mention was made of the sworn affidavit to the NCIS by an internationally known pathologist who reported homicide and crime scene tampering.  The pathologist later orally withdrew his affidavit, citing new evidence from an X-ray that confirmed suicide.

But, there are no new X-rays; only 3 X-rays were taken during the autopsy and other independent medical authorities over the years found homicide as the manner of death, according to Dr. David Sabow, the younger brother of the dead colonel and a board certified and practicing forensic neurologist.

The NCIS cold case special agent was part of the original crime scene investigation in January 1991, never mentioned this fact to the Sabow family.  There is no evidence to support the cold case special agent knew of any tampering, but the pathologist’s report raises questions of NCIS’s independence in pursuing this investigation.  In the end, it may not have mattered since the pathologist orally withdrew his sworn affidavit without amending the original affidavit.

The motive for murder was to prevent Colonel Sabow from talking about the use of MCAS El Toro to fly cocaine and weapons from Central America into the U.S. The cocaine fueled the crack epidemic in the 1980s and was according to some the primary source of funding for the Nicaragua Contras who were waging an insurgency with the Reagan’s administration’s support against the Sandinista government in Managua.

The weapons were repaired, retrofitted at China Lakes and then shipped back to Costa Rico for Contra’s southern front, according to Robert Tosh Plumlee, one the CIA contract pilots who flew these aircraft.

The fraudulent autopsy photo was included in the DOD report of the investigation of the death of Colonel Sabow, dated November 8, 2004, submitted by Charles S. Abell, Principal Deputy, Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Personnel and Readiness) to Congressman Duncan L. Hunter, Chairman, House Committee on Armed Services. The DOD report was mandated by Section 584 of P.L. 108-136.

The report written by Dr. Jon Nordby of Final Analysis Forensics, University Place, Washington, concluded that Colonel Sabow’s death was a suicide.


The two images in Figure 1 are scans of second generation (prints from the original negatives) autopsy photographs provided in discovery by the United States Department of Defense in 1993 which were ultimately used for submission in the investigation of the death of Colonel Sabow to the United States Congress.

Bryan Burnett’s crime scene reconstruction supports the hypothesis that Colonel Sabow was hit with a club with considerable force on the right occipital region of his head prior to an intraoral shotgun discharge. An autopsy X-ray shows a depressed skull fracture in the right occipital skull. A massive hematoma was also discovered over the skull fracture.

There are many other aspects of the death scene and autopsy photographs and reports that question the determination of suicide on the death certificate (Sabow & Burnett, 2011). At least four of the autopsy photographs show extraordinary swelling on the right side of the Colonel’s head consistent with the pathological findings (Sabow & Burnett, 2011). The death scene photographs and reports support a homicide scenario for the Colonel’s death (Burnett, & Sabow, 2011), not suicide.

THE QUESTIONED PHOTOGRAPH.  Two images in Fig. 1 show discrepancies between each other. Figure 1A was enlarged from an autopsy photograph which was taken prior to the body being cleaned. This photograph is notable not only for showing an apparent heavy tramline bruising (see Cox, 2011) that outlines the impact area from a likely club strike to the back of the Colonel’s head, but also displays the extraordinary swelling in the same region.

Other autopsy images as well as skull X-rays support the club strike to the back of Colonel Sabow’s head prior to the intraoral shotgun discharge.

Photograph shown in Fig. 1B, which was part of the discovery released by the Department of Defense in 1993, shows a normal posterior head (no swelling or bruising Fig. 1C). This image was also used by Nordby (2004) in his report to the United States Congress. The photograph shown in Fig. 1B is inconsistent from the photograph of the Colonel Sabow’s head (Fig. 1A) in a number of features which casts suspicion on its veracity, especially considering other autopsy images (see below).

When these two photographs are placed side-by-side (Fig. 1A and 1B), one can only conclude these images are either not from the same autopsy or one is fraudulent.

Figure 1. The back of the head of Colonel Sabow. A. Image taken from a half body photograph before the cleaning of the body; a tramline bruise outlines a probable club strike. Massive swelling on the right side of the head is notable. B. Photograph of the alleged back of the Colonel’s head that was with the discovery associated with the Colonel Sabow autopsy; no swelling of the right side of the head is or present. The reason for the mismatch between these two images is explained below.  C. From B, but an enlarged right lower head and neck. 

The large amount of shadow surrounding the head and the overexposed part of the back and neck as well as the peculiar light reflection by the head hair above the hair line suggest the image shown in Fig. 1B that could either be from a different autopsy or fraudulent. The tag displayed in the questioned photograph indicates the latter. It reads “Sabow James.”

Figure 2. Other autopsy images showing the extraordinary swelling on the right side of Colonel Sabow’s head. A. Photograph of the anterior head and upper body after the cleaning in preparation for autopsy. B. Photograph of the right side of the Colonel’s face prior to cleaning. C. Photograph of the anterior head and upper body prior to cleaning; the swelling of the right occipital region of the head is readily seen. Arrow points to the central part of the swelling. Photo retouching in area of the tramline bruising (Fig. 1A) appears likely.

Figure 3. Comparison of hair lines and left ear attachment. A. Left ear enlargement from Fig. 1A; note also hair overlays the ear base. B. The left ear of the questioned image sized and aligned with the ear in A; the ear base at the head (arrow) has a discreet border which extends proximately into the neck. No hair overlaps the border of the ear with the head. The black smudges under the ear are ink from a Bates stamp. 

Hair Line and left ear. Figure 3 shows the posterior left head from the two images shown in Fig. 1 aligned and sized to match. The hair pattern and hair line do not match. The latter issue cannot be attributed to differences in the lens angels when the two photographs were taken – the orientations of the ears in the two images are almost identical.

In addition, the base of the ear shown in Fig. 3B has no overlying hair like that seen in Fig. 3A. The left ear in the questioned photograph (Fig. 3B) appears to have been “pasted” onto the photograph. 


The autopsy showed a 2.5 cm diameter, depressed occipital skull fracture was present. Dr. Sabow’s review of the autopsy report and photos (Fig. 2) taken before the autopsy and cleaning, demonstrates massive swelling of the right posterior head and neck. A hematoma was discovered immediately under that swollen area and immediately over the depressed skull fracture.

All the shotgun pellets were located within the confines of the skull. There were no bone fragments or shotgun pellets within the hematoma. The x-ray shows the fractured bone protruding inwardly not outwardly as would occur if the fracture was the result of the intraoral shotgun wound.

Furthermore, since the victim was right handed, the pellets should have been directed from right to left and any localized shattering of the skull should have been on the left side.

The unexpected blow to the right side of the head was violent, resulting in unconsciousness.  The blow caused “a massive depressed occipital skull fracture along with one or more fractures extending through the base of his skull (basilar skull fractures). Occipital skull fragments penetrated into the back of Colonel Sabow’s brain.

He was near death due to the massive brainstem trauma in which agonal hyperventilation characteristic of this type of injury occurs. Sabow was aspirating blood from a wound in his pharynx that resulted from a basilar skull fracture. In fact, the tracheae, bronchi, bronchioles and alveoli were filled with blood, doubling the weight of the right lung. There was swelling behind the right ear covering the back of the skull.  [2]


Colonel Sabow was described by his wife as being relaxed and after breakfast was watching TV coverage of Desert Storm.  At about 0830 on January 22, 1991, Sally Sabow, upset by the many phone calls that morning (to and from the Marine attorney assigned to Colonel Sabow) and decided to attend the morning Mass at the nearby Catholic Church.

Bill Taylor, a former Marine Corps CID and private the investigator working for Dr. Sabow, received information from a Pentagon contact. A meeting was arranged with a source that was stationed at Camp Pendleton.

Taylor was given access to computer records, which indicated that on January 22, 1991 the helicopter that made the routine daily rounds of Marine and Naval bases carried four men from Pendleton to El Toro. These were members of an IRT team (International Response Team).

The helicopter that routinely landed next to the tower at El Toro, on that day landed across the airfield at a point that was nearest to the colonel’s housing. The four men got out and then the helicopter flew over to the tower. The helicopter landing near the Sabow’s residence was reported in a February 1991 JAGMAN report (Judge Advocate General Manual investigation) without any commentary.

Four members of the International Response Team (IRT), a sanctioned government assassin team working for the military, disembarked the helicopter and headed for the Sabow residence.

Burnett concluded that Colonel Sabow was subdued and murdered by three persons. 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. The person who administered the blow took care to be sure the edge of the club was not in a position to abrade the scalp. A depressed cranial fracture on the right occipital skull 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).


Figure 4. In this 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.

Other non-government scientists found strong evidence for homicide, too.  In September 5, 2010, a sworn affidavit from Dr. Werner Spitz, an internationally known pathologist, reported the death as a homicide, together with crime scene tampering.  The affidavit was provided to Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) as part of an NCIS cold case investigation.

Dr. Sptiz’s sworn affidavit was orally withdrawn, according to Dr. David Sabow, a practicing forensic neurologist and brother of Colonel Sabow.  In an email to Dr. Sabow in late 2010, NCIS confirmed suicide as the manner of death but made no mention of Dr. Spitz’s affidavit.

The inclusion of fraudulent Fig.1B in an official report to Congress raises serious questions about the veracity  of the DOD report and other Marine Corps, Navy and DOD investigations, all of which found suicide as the manner of death.

The doctored photo and nongovernment findings of homicide lend support to allegations that Colonel Sabow was murdered by a DOD assassination team to prevent him from talking about the use of MCAS El Toro as a transit point for weapon shipments to the Central and South America and cocaine into the U.S.  


In 2003 Congressman Duncan Hunter, then Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, was apprised of the suspicious nature of Colonel Sabow’s death by congressional consultant Dr. Anthony Battista. Congressman Hunter amended the Defense Authorization Bill for 2004 to require DOD to re-investigate Colonel Sabow’s death.

A meeting occurred on the investigation of the death of Colonel Sabow on March 12, 2004 at Congressman Hunter’s office in the Rayburn Building in Washington. This meeting was attended by Congressman Hunter, Vicki Middleton (Hunter’s office manager), Charles Abell (Chief Deputy Assistant to the Secretary of Defense), three assistants to Mr. Abell, Dr. J. David Sabow (brother of the Colonel) and several of Dr. Sabow’s associates.

According to Dr. Sabow, the decisions made in the March 12th meeting were that the  analysis of the evidence, both physical and photographic would be performed by forensic scientists at Iowa State University; Congressman Hunter would expect clear proof of the nature of the Colonel’s death, homicide or suicide; all consultants that Dr. Sabow had retained during the years since the Colonel’s death would participate in the new investigation; and Dr. Sabow, would be an active participant in the investigation.

For reasons that are not clear the scientists at Iowa State University backed out after originally agreeing to take the case. The DOD then selected Dr. Jon Nordby of Seattle, Washington to do the analysis without permission from either Congressman Hunter or Dr. Sabow. Dr. Nordby, whose Ph.D. is in Philosophy produced a massive (80+ pages) report ( in November 2004.

The Nordby report could never pass formal scientific peer review nor has there been any effort made to subject it to peer review, according to Dr. Sabow and Bryan Burnett. 

The continuing story of the murder of Colonel Sabow and the use of MCAS El Toro to fly drugs into the U.S. on unmarked CIA proprietary aircraft continues in Parts 2 and 3 of this news series.

[1] BURNETT’S ANALYSIS SUPPORTS HOMICIDE:  Bryan Burnett’s complete scientific analysis of the fraudulent photo is shown on his company’s website at:

[2]Blow to the right side of Colonel Sabow’s head:  “Semper Fidelis:  An American Tragedy, Part I,” J. D.  Sabow, MD, Forensic Neurologist,


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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: