Investigation of the Death of Colonel James Sabow, USMC

Investigation of the Death of Colonel James Sabow, USMC

by Bryan R. Burnett


Colonel James Sabow was the victim of homicide and an attempt was made to stage the body to appear he committed suicide. The Colonel was rendered unconscious and mortally wounded by a devastating blow to the right occipital of his skull prior to the intraoral shotgun blast. The reconstruction of the homicide indicates three or more assailants were likely. The homicide appears to have been carefully planned. However, even with this apparent planning, errors were made in the staging of the suicide that an observant forensic scientist could not miss. All the physical evidence supports homicide.

There is no evidence of suicide:

1. The shotgun found under the feet and legs of Colonel Sabow at the death scene.was tested by two independent forensic laboratories and both determined the shotgun leaks gunshot residue (GSR) from its breech and trigger housing.

2. The GSR samplers taken from the bathrobe and pajama bottom Colonel Sabow was wearing at the time of death were analyzed by automated scanning electron microscopy. Results show the Colonel’s pajama bottom was in the environment of GSR. However, no focal concentrations of GSR on any of these samples were found that would support a suicide scenario. The samplers from the bathrobe have either insignificant GSR burdens (2 samplers) or no evidence of GSR exposure (7 samplers).

3. The right hand lacks detectable GSR and has blood spatter on the palm and the nail of finger 4. The right hand would not be in a position to receive blood spatter at these locations if the Colonel, while sitting in a patio chair, committed suicide by a finger or thumb of his right hand depressing the shotgun trigger. The right hand was likely near the Colonel’s mouth, but shielded from detectable GSR deposition by the grass and the left hand.

4. There is compelling evidence Colonel Sabow was struck on the back of his head by a powerful blow from a club prior to the intraoral shotgun blast:

a) A severely depressed right occipital fracture with a bone fragment penetrating deep into the brain.

b) A large hematoma over the depressed skull fracture.

c) Inhaled blood in the right lung.

d) Bruising of the upper and lower lips as well as the tongue secondary to biting by the opposing incisors is indicative of seizure-type activity. The extended legs and flexed arms are characteristic of brainstem seizure reflexes (decortication). This occurred prior to the intraoral shotgun blast.

e) The bludgeoning resulted in bleeding from the nasopharynx secondary to associated basilar skull fractures. Expirated blood likely caused bloodstains G and H in the grass near the body.

f) The radial aspect of the left wrist also has an expirated bloodstain. The bloodstain appears to be a mixture of blood and mucus and was the result of terminal hyperventilation through the nose and mouth. Central neurogenic hyperventilation is characteristic of severe brainstem trauma and accompanies brainstem seizure-like reflex activity.

g) Disintegration of the entire brainstem by the shotgun blast would result in instantaneous death with cessation of skeletal muscular activity including breathing.

5. A rapid withdraw (recoil) of the shotgun muzzle from the Colonel’s mouth occurred between the firing (soot deposition on the lateral aspect of the left hand) and bloody blowback. The left hand rotated 90 degrees counter clockwise (supination) and dropped to the grass from its initial position of assisted grasping the shotgun barrel at the mouth. The bloody blowback hit the Colonel’s left palm, dorsal distal parts of the fingers and grass. The shotgun was not in the suicide position (stock on the ground), but free to move away from the body in recoil when it discharged.

6. The shotgun’s exterior surface had neither blood nor the victim’s fingerprints on it. It should have both in the suicide scenario. It is likely the shotgun’s exterior surface had been cleaned prior to examination by the Naval Investigative Service (now Naval Criminal Investigative Service).

7. The bathrobe had no evidence of bloody blowback either on the chest area or the thighs, except for several blood drops and droplets on the left upper chest. The suicide scenario would have extensive blood and tissue debris on the bathrobe.

8. Colonel Sabow’s body was staged. The bathrobe was tucked between the Colonel’s legs, both front and rear – clearly an impossible feat to be performed by him before or after the shotgun blast. The bathrobe was repositioned on the body, the shotgun placed under the Colonel’s legs and the patio chair placed on top of the Colonel’s body so it would appear to the casual observer these are features consistent with suicide.

Complete forensic report below on the murder of Col. James Sabow (available to download).

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