Doctored Photo In Marine Murder Probe (PART 3)

Body of Colonel Sabow found on his patio

 Motive for the murder was to prevent Colonel Sabow from talking about unmarked civilian aircraft flying drugs into MCAS El Toro.  

(IRVINE, CA) – This is the third and final part of a news series covering the murder and government cover-up of Colonel James E. Sabow, a senior Marine Corps officer at MCAS El Toro, CA.  Here is a link to Part 2 abd here is a link to Part 1.

Colonel James E. Sabow, age 51, was found dead by his wife in their backyard patio at MCAS El Toro on the morning of January 22, 1991.

The death was reported as a suicide from a self-inflicted shotgun wound.  The death certificate was signed by the Orange County Coroner on January 23rd,  following an autopsy by a pathologist under contract with the county.   A succession of reports from various government agencies over the years all reported suicide.

Just another tragic military suicide, you say. In this case, the answer is a resounding “NO.”

The forensic evidence supports homicide; a violent and brutal murder, together with a shotgun blast in the mouth to stage suicide.

Marines do not leave their dead on the field of battle but in this case, a decorated Marine Corps Colonel with 28 years of loyal service to the Marine Corps, including 122 combat missions in Vietnam was bludgeoned to death in his own backyard in the Marine Corps’ premier jet fighter base.

No one on this earth knew James Sabow better than his wife.  Responding to a DOD investigation of the death of her late husband, Sara Sabow-Olphant in a written affidavit on April 1, 2003, wrote that, “I would suggest that the truth be stated as to the circumstances leading up to Col. Sabow’s murder and the identification of those involved. This report, like the rest of this bogus investigation, is filled with lies, misquotes and cover- ups protecting the involvement of the U.S. Marine Corps and the Federal Government  of the United States in the murder of my late husband…”

So before you dismiss this story as nonsense, take a few moments to reflect on the facts presented in this three part news series.

The death of Marine Colonel James E. Sabow has taken a new twist with the discovery of a fraudulent autopsy photograph (Fig. 1B) in the official DOD investigation of his death.  Bryan Burnett, a San Diego crime scene reconstructionist, discovered the fraudulent  while reviewing the autopsy photographs earlier this month. 


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 motive for the murder was to prevent Colonel Sabow from talking about the use of unmarked civilian aircraft to fly guns to Central and South America and drugs into the U.S. to support the Nicaraguan Contra War, according to Dr. Sabow and others who are knowledgeable about what happened. 

Pressured to retire from the Corps for alleged personal misuse of government aircraft, Colonel Sabow denied any misuse of government aircraft, refusing to go quietly.    

Colonel Sabow was described by those who knew him as a no nonsense Marine Officer could not be bought or even intimidated.  He would reveal what was going on at El Toro if he found out.  Colonel Sabow apparently found out the night before his death.  According to Dr. Sabow, the use of the base to fly cocaine into the U.S. was revealed to his brother in a heated discussion with Colonel Joseph Underwood, El Toro’s Chief of Staff who had been relieved of his duties or misuse of government aircraft and forced out of the Corps the same year.   

Relieved of his duties on January 17th for an alleged misuse of military aircraft (never substantiated), Colonel Sabow told several people including Brigadier General Adams, the base commander, Colonel Joe Underwood and General J.K. Davis (retired Asst. Commandant of the Marine Corps) that he would not accept responsibility for personal misuse of aircraft and that if they persisted he, “Would demand a court marshal and he would divulge all of what he had learned and suspected of illegal and criminal use of government aircraft.” 

There are allegations of threats made, hints that a national security matter is involved or even bribery to keep an independent investigation by the U.S. Attorney from happening. So far, it’s worked.  

If the death certificate is corrected as a result of a formal inquest, then the U.S. Attorney would have loads of evidence from Dr. Sabow and others to pursue an investigation. This is not rocket science. 

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, not leave any fingerprints on his shotgun and not even leave a suicide note? 

Orange County did not have a medical examiner. The death autopsy was conducted by Dr. Singhania, a pathologist under contract with the Orange County coroner.  Dr. Singhania determined the manner of death to be suicide.  Subsequent investigations by the Navy and DOD confirmed suicide as the manner of death from a self-inflected shotgun blast. 

Oh, there was a shotgun blast alright, but this officer was rendered unconscious by a violent blow to the right side of his head and then when lying on the ground in his own background, the killers faked a suicide by putting his own shotgun into his mouth and squeezing the trigger. 

According to Dr. David Sabow, 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 Col. 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.” [1] 

The blow to the right side of the head is not mentioned in the orange county autopsy report. The admission of such a blow would automatically rule out suicide. 

Other experts like Dr. Jack Feldman, Distinguished Professor of Neurobiology at UCLA, reviewed the evidence and reported that, “Colonel 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 some time 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 preponderance of evidence does not support the finding that Colonel James E. Sabow died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound.” 

Retired Lt. Col. Anthony Verducci, a Marine Corps JAG [attorney] who was stationed at MCAS El Toro in 1991, wrote Dr. Sabow, “I have reviewed x-rays, crime scene photos, and letters submitted by forensic pathologists and other experts about Col. Sabow’s death… these materials lead me to believe that Colonel Sabow did not die of a self-inflicted gunshot wound [my emphasis]. As a Marine, former prosecutor, and citizen, I believe that an impartial law enforcement agency must review this case.” 

Michael A. Jacobs, attorney and retired supervisor of the Orange County Homicide Trial Division, met with Dr. Sabow who provided him with copies of the autopsy and coroner reports, forensic medical evaluation reports, and X-rays. Jacobs in a letter to former Congressman Duncan Hunter in December 2006 said that Colonel Sabow’s death could not have been a suicide but had to have been a homicide inflicted by the hands of another.    


Allegations of cocaine flights into El Toro during the 1980s and 1990s were the grist of several news and internet stories over the years.  Dr. David Sabow of Rapid City, South Dakota, the younger brother of the Colonel Sabow and a neurologist, said that his brother met with Lt. Col. Oliver North on several occasions, but remained clueless about the use of former military aircraft to transport cocaine into the U.S.  

In August 1996 the San Jose Mercury News published Gary Webb’s “Dark Alliance,” investigative series on Nicaraguan drug traffickers’ sales of cocaine in Los Angeles during the 1980s, and the use of drug profits fund the CIA-supported Nicaraguan Contras. 

The involvement of the CIA in drug trafficking in Central America during the Reagan Administration as part of the Contra war in Nicaragua was the subject of several official and journalistic investigations since the mid-1980s. 

In 1987, the Senate Subcommittee on Narcotics, Terrorism and International Operations, led by Senator John Kerry, launched an investigation of contra-drug links: 

“The logic of having drug money pay for pressings needs of the Contras appealed to a number of people who became involved in the covert war. Indeed, senior U.S. policy makers were not immune to the idea that drug money was a perfect solution to the Contras’ funding problems.” 

“As DEA officials testified last July before the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Lt. Col Oliver North suggested to the DEA in June 1985 that $1.5 million in drug money carried aboard a plane piloted by DEA informant Barry Seal and generated in a sting of the Medellin Cartel and Sandinista officials, be provided to the Contras. While the suggestion was rejected by the DEA, the fact that it was made highlights the potential appeal of drug profits for persons engaged in covert activity.” 

“Lots [the head of the Costa Rican Air Force and personal pilot to two presidents] said that Contra operations on the Southern Front were in fact funded by drug operations. He testified that weapons for the Contras came from Panama on small planes carrying mixed loads which included drugs. The pilots unloaded the weapons, refueled, and headed north toward the U.S. with drugs.” 


There’s eye witness testimony that MCAS  El Toro was used as a transient point for drug shipments into the United States. The DOD report on the investigation of the death of Colonel Sabow in 1996 reported that,  “Mr. [Gene] Wheaton alleged that MCAS El Toro was being used in support of a legal covert activity that had been undertaken by a U.S. intelligence agency under the cover of a U.S. Department of Agriculture program named ‘Screw Worm,’ allegedly a program to eradicate the screw worm in Mexico.”  

One person with inside knowledge of the intelligence community and the ‘shadow government’ is Gene Wheaton, born in Oklahoma in 1936, and former military criminal investigator and Iran-Contra whistle-blower.  Gene Wheaton served tours with the Marine Corps, the Air Force, and the Army, as criminal investigator and counter-intelligence agent, retiring from the Army in 1975 as a Warrant Officer.  After military service, Wheaton was “executive assistant to one of the vice presidents of the Rockwell Corporation, and director of security for the billion-dollar IBEX airborne electronic intelligence program. This program was being funded by the Iranian government and the Central Intelligence Agency. It was during this period Wheaton became very friendly with Carl Jenkins, a former senior CIA officer.”

The testimony continued, “Mr. Wheaton also alleged that the covert operation was actually legitimately providing weapons, ammunition and other material to the Government of Peru in their struggle against guerrilla forces know as the “Shining Path.” Mr. Wheaton further alleged that a number of individuals involved in this covert operation were concurrently conducting an illegal covert operation whereby they were smuggling additional weapons, ammunition and material to Peru. The individuals were allegedly selling the weapons, ammunition and material to the Shining Path as well as to the Government of Peru, for money and narcotics. The money and narcotics were then allegedly smuggled back into the United States and air dropped at remote locations on military installations in the western part of the United States… Mr. Wheaton further alleged that this operation continued until approximately the time of Col. Sabow’s death.”

Robert Tosh Plumlee flew unmarked C-130s operated by CIA proprietary airlines into El Toro during the Contra War in the 1980s and provided Congressional testimony on it. Plumlee testified about the gun/drug running to the Senate Committee on Drugs, Law Enforcement and Foreign Policy in 1990.  He told the Committee that he flew unmarked C-130s into El Toro, which contained loads of cocaine as much as 2,000 kilos.  His testimony was classified Top Secret, Committee Sensitive, but released to the media by others, according to Tosh.  Plumlee retold this story to Connie Chung and a national television audience in a 1993 segment of her news program “Eye to Eye.”  

The DOD disputed Plumlee’s report, reporting in a DOD IG report (1996) that there was no way for any aircraft to fly into El Toro after the field was closed and the runway lights were turned off.  In a follow-up telephone call with Plumlee, he said that these were convert flights, only known to a select few individuals and that the capability to automatically turn on runway lights from an airborne aircraft has existed for years. 

Plumlee said that, “I can’t remember what that automatic system of lighting the runway is called but you can ask the FAA or a flight instructor for the name and procedures to activate. It’s still in use at small airports around the country and activated by assigned radio frequencies. That system of activation for field runway lights has been around for many years now and is used throughout the FAA system for airports that are closed after midnight or night operations have been suspended.   

Plumlee “talked with two investigators that Gene Wheaton sent to interview me in Grant Colorado as well as two others from the IG’s office in Washington.  I never heard back from any of them after I told them about the night flights into El Toro.  Later I was told that my information was not considered as, “creditable”, by those investigators.” 

Here is a memory of a covert approach into El Toro at 0300, according to Plumlee:  “When we approached El Toro we were called, “Phantom” or “Dark One” and squawked a special coded transponder number for Air Traffic Control LA regional TACAN. The approach into control airspace of El Toro was radar VFR in place of IFR FAA filed flight plan… most of the time at 0300 the El Toro tower was shut down and the approach lights were turned on by approach aircraft, transmitting an assigned, ‘after tower operational hours’ VHF frequency… a click of the radio mic would automatically turn on the runway lights. All Phantom aircraft approaches to El Toro were covert and secret. Only a select few military personal were authorized to work as ground crews for loading and off loading of these covert flights from Central America and Mexico.” 

Neal Matthews’ “I Ran Drugs for Uncles Sam” published in the The San Diego Reader reported on one hair raising flight from Panama in March 1985 where a DC-3 co-piloted by Plumlee was shot up with .50 caliber machine guns but managed to make the 3 hours flight and still land in one piece at a secret airstrip at Santa Elena, Costa Rica.  Matthews’ story includes a  map with notations by Plumlee of landing fields at the Delgado Ranch, a few miles south of San Felipe, Mexico; an airstrip on the Pacific coast, just outside of Cabe San Lucas; and drop points in the Anza-Borrego, Twentynine Palms, and the old Patton bombing range east of the Salton Sea.     


A great deal of effort was made to cover-up the homicide of Colonel Sabow and the use of El Toro to fly drugs into the U.S.  Narcotrafficing and murder are felonies.  There’s no waiver from criminal prosecution, even if the trafficking and murder is sanctioned by the government.  

Despite official denials, eye witnesses like Robert Tosh Plumlee and Gene Wheaton support that MCAS El Toro was used to off-load illegal drugs.  This is a major embarrassment to the Marine Corps and may have been the reason for the alleged murder of Colonel Sabow.    

The 2010 NCIS cold case investigation  and dismissal of a sworn affidavit by Dr. Werner Spitz stating homicide and crime scene tampering raises serious questions about  the independence of NCIS and what pressure may have forced Dr. Spitz to orally withdraw his sworn affidavit.    

The DOD investigation into the death of Colonel Sabow (the Dr. Nordby report) contains a doctored photo intended to hide the head wound caused by a blunt object used to render the colonel unconscious before staging a suicide with his shotgun.  The Nordby report has not been subject to a scientific peer review would fail.  There is no reasonable explanation for the doctored photos other than to hide the wound caused by an external blunt object, which would refute suicide as the manner of death.  

Bryan Burnett said that, “Someone took a long time composing this fraudulent image. Some of my associates do not understand the implications of this – this is direct evidence of fraud by the DOD and this photograph was used to defraud both a federal court as well as an investigation mandated by Congress.  It also significantly adds to my outrage, if that is possible.”   

The California Attorney General can require the Orange County coroner to resolve the issue of suicide or murder by conducting a formal inquest with a jury and public access into the proceedings.  An inquest is important because it authorizes the Coroner to subpoena witnesses under oath and requires that an impartial jury make the determination of cause of death. 

It’s was difficult to remain objective in writing this story, especially when you know that a good man was brutally murdered to protect others involved in narcotrafficking. In this case, it appears that the potential threat was enough for someone to order his murder. Colonel Sabow was a loyal Marine. He would not have gone to the media with a story implicating the Corps in supporting government sanctioned narcotrafficking. Given his record as a straight arrow Marine, I would have expected him to report any illegal activity to the Corps’ Inspector General and let them pursue an official investigation. So much for loyalty to an organization that promotes itself with the motto, Semper Fidelis.

[1]  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: