Tough to Say Whether the Punishment Fit His Crime
By Fred Dickey
May 2, 2016
Alexander Petit is a guy on the make.
Saying that gives us more ways to go than an L.A. freeway interchange. It seeks interpretation, so I’ll give you two options. Neither is simple.
Alex Petit (pe-TEE) is 27. He would smile through a root canal. He would slap a wolf on the back. He’s articulate, handsome, friendly, ambitious--OK so far?--He’s also a convicted sexual harasser/abuser.
Hold on, hold on. Let’s just ease into this.
Alex is a New Orleans Cajun whose family took a pounding from hurricane Katrina. It changed his education plans and put him into a historical black college, Southern University, where he smiled his way into the student body and earned a degree. He paid his way with the help of the Navy ROTC, and went active upon graduation.
In 2013, the 24-year-old Navy ensign was PR officer on the amphibious assault ship, “U.S.S. Bonhomme Richard,” operating out of Japan. That doesn’t sound like a John Wayne role, I know, but Alex is more of a lover than a fighter. Yes, indeed.
During his three and a half years in the Navy, Alex was a veteran of many landings on the beaches of virtue. Finally, he was convicted of violating Navy regs by having sex with female Navy enlisted women, and, most damning, surreptiously videotaping the act with one of them. There are words for men who admit to such things, all of them blunt.
He pled guilty in a general court-martial in Japan and was sentenced to 14 months. He served 10 months in the brig at Miramar air station in San Diego. He was then released on good behavior in September of last year. He is not a California registered sex offender, nothing like that.
Alex admits most of the facts of his conviction. However, if he is to be believed, facts are only a quart in a gallon of truth, especially of the videotaping rap, the secrecy of which he denies.
“I didn't want to roll the dice and get 3 to 5 years. I figured I'd plead guilty, say ‘I'm sorry,’ and fall on my sword. I had 25 letters of recommendation. I had gone to therapy for over a year. I had a lot of stuff working for me.
“While I was standing in the courtroom waiting to go to the brig, one of the women (who testified against him) comes by and apologizes. She says to me, ‘Alex, I’m so sorry,’ and ‘I really wish you the best. I didn’t know you took care of your sick mom, and now she has no income.’ She was, like, ‘I really wish it didn’t have to be this way. I just did what I had to do.’ All of that was not what I wanted to hear.”
After 6 weeks in the brig in Japan, he was flown to Miramar and joined other inmates under Marine guard.
“In Miramar, they got like 400 prisoners there. It was Disneyland. Oh, my god. We’re talking volleyball one day, basketball the next day, an hour of weight lifting every day. We’ve got crocheting--“
“Yeah, crocheting. We had cable TV, exercise machines, sunlight. I was in paradise. There was Toastmasters where you could go and tell jokes and give speeches. A vast library with all the best sellers. I had my own cell.”
There must be some bad guys in there.
“There was a murderer in there.”
He gets to crochet too?
“She does, yes. She’s got a life sentence. Yeah, and we have movie nights once a month where you get to go get a candy bar, a bag of chips and a Gatorade and watch a new release.
Is the idea just to keep everyone cool?
“Exactly. It’s a military facility, so we get the same meal plan as the Navy guys do in the chow hall. We had cheese cake and cookies and crackers and cereal. Every morning I was eating Special K and Mini Wheats and Fruit Loops.
“You’ll go to segregation and get locked in a cell if you’re dumb enough to start a fight, or you’re doing some bad stuff. It was like retirement. We had dinner at 4 p.m. Everyone is crocheting. It’s embarrassing. Every blanket you crochet, you get a day (sentence reduction). It goes to disabled vets. I always got small infractions because I’m a smart ass and I like goofing around.”
However, life behind bars hit Alex with a reality that’s absent at Disneyland.
“Every day you feel like you’re less than a human being. You’re used laundry. You’re no good. Whenever you make a call to a loved one, the message says, ‘You have a call from a prisoner.’ You’re constantly reminded that some 19-year-old kid gets to boss you around, and you’re a grown man who as an officer used to lead them. It’s very humiliating.”
Alex was young, right out of college, and thrown into a small shipboard area filled with dozens of nubile young women. He says that fraternization between officers and enlisted women was common, but that fellow officers who indulged did so more discreetly than he.
“You see it (fraternization) everywhere and on every level of the chain of command. I’ll give you an example, the captain on my ship, he’s in federal prison right now, 5 years. Look him up, Dan Dusek. Bribery scandal. He sold out for prostitutes.
“It’s a culture. Some officers got away with it by keeping it cool, and everyone looks the other way. But there’s a difference between stealing a stick of gum and robbing a bank. I robbed a bank. I was fast and loose and didn’t care. I thought they’d just let me out with a discharge.”
I take it you didn’t like the Navy.
“It was very stressful to me. It’s not my thing. In the Navy, you get trained for 10 years before you have an important job. I had years ahead of me before anything I did actually mattered.”
You were too young to know how to mark time.
“You’re right. I had a real good thing going and I blew it. I did what everyone else was doing. One (female) sailor hit me up on Facebook one time. She started messaging me and I started flirting back. The next thing you know we had a little secret relationship going and that happened a number of times, including at sea.”
How many times? You were convicted of four incidents.
“How about four times four? Thinking with the wrong head.”
In what age range?
“I was 22 to 24, and they were anywhere from 19 and 20, up to 30. They were adult women who consented to sex with an adult man.”
What about the secret sex tape?
“I pled guilty to it so that’s on my record forever. The reason was because there was no way I could get around it. We made the sex tape for her birthday. When they asked her about it, she was told: You need to be a victim. You can get victim’s pay and a counselor and a lawyer and all that stuff.”
To borrow an ancient Navy phrase, Alex was a loose cannon. He tried to conceal nothing. Everything--computer, phone--told the story that put him in the brig. Maybe the easiest court-martial conviction ever.
“Did I do something wrong? Yes. I knew there were rules and I broke them. It’s pretty damning, right? You’re like ‘Geeze, this guy is a dirt bag.’ I was, but I never filmed anyone without their consent, honestly. I never sexually assaulted anyone. I never slept with anyone in my direct chain of command.
“I got myself in that situation. I got no one to blame but me.”
Alex says his rebound started when La Jolla entrepreneur Neil Senturia gave a talk to Miramar inmates, and reached him with a you-can-do-it message.
Consequently, now eight months a free man, Alex has a job as manager of brokers for a direct-marketer of small business loans in Carlsbad. He has a small apartment in San Diego.
It’s likely you came to the fork of the road on Alex several paragraphs ago, and chose your direction. You either think of him as a sexist louse, or as the victim of a hypocritical system, and a guy with enough grit to shoulder his guilt and try to push ahead into a worthwhile life.
Figuring this out is a tough call. We could wish life weren’t so complicated, but, as was said long ago, if wishes were horses, beggars would ride.
Alex is at the very least an interesting guy. I can’t see him deliberately stepping on an ant, or maliciously hurting a young woman, though his past is peopled with females who survived the encounter. I certainly can’t say he wouldn’t recklessly break rules, because that’s exactly what he did--and copped to.
He knows his conviction will cause large companies to sidestep him like a man with a hacking cough. But to him, that controlled life would be as bad as a ship in the middle of the ocean. He’d be bored to death and drive his corporate bosses crazy.
However, the guy has a lot of bounce-back in him. I wouldn’t be surprised if he becomes rich by direct marketing or by selling Lincolns to people shopping for Fords. He’s got the gift.
I can see him maybe getting rich three times, and going broke twice.
When maturity finally puts a bridle and bit on his snorting hormones, I can see him as a kindly husband and father. But does Alex look forward to a home-and-hearth relationship?
“Yeah. I realize I was basically a sex addict, and I was trying to fill all these holes in my life with sex. I had never had a good relationship. I had never had someone I was in love with.”
Do you have a relationship now?
“I don’t, but I definitely have the tools to do it.”
No one would argue that.
I will not comment on the facts or justice of Alex’s specific case, because I barely got my toe wet in a deep pool.
However, there are bigger and broader issues involved than Alex’s id that raise questions.
He was on a ship not a lot bigger than double the size of a football field, holding many men and more than a few women. All were young and crammed into sardine-can quarters with an abundance of dark, cozy spaces. There were also enough hormones present that, were they flammable, one match could blow up the ship.
He would freely admit to testesterone gone wild, and it wasn’t helped by his boring job--writing press releases floating around the middle of the Pacific. Not exactly the challenge of a Seal. No hunter-killer he.
I have zero art talent, but I can paint this picture. Newton’s third law is that every action causes an equal reaction. Physics exhausts me, but I get that.
I agree that if a ship’s senior officer coerced or sweet-talked some young sailor into his bunk, a la Bill Clinton, then his ribbons should be stripped.
However, Alex Petit was barely out of college and his rank was bottom rung for an officer. And if he had sexual liaisons with enlisted women not under his command, well, we can’t excuse it. We can kick him out of the Navy. But prison? Argument anyone?
Was the Navy trying to address a spreading problem by making Alex a statement, or a warning?
I don’t condone what Alex did. However, there are larger issued involved that go beyond his nether-region impulses. I was once his age and an enthusiastic observer of women in their 20th year. I can attest that those young lovelies can be both chasors and chasees, though my experience was almost exclusively with the latter.
If a female sailor can escape punishment by claiming victimhood, as Alex claims, even though the male involved had no authority over her and no coercion was involved, well, if an example were made of her, too, that might give rise to a lot of cold showers.
The question we must eventually address is--What role should “chivalry” play in a unisex military?
I’m just asking. In our society we can still do that--and should.