When Good People Do Bad Things: Alex

Following Orders

Alex, a former Army Ranger, explains, "When you're in the Army, the Ranger battalion, the absolute standard is to follow your superior without any question. If the specialist says, ‘I need you to go into this room, there's a guy with an AK-47, and kill him,' you do it without thinking.

"Our job is to hit buildings. Whenever you go into a structure, you're constantly analyzing it. We would go to a Dairy Queen, and my superior, Specialist Sommer, would say, ‘Well, how do you hit this place?' When Specialist Sommer brought the bank up, it was a very intricate and detailed process over months. We cased the bank ahead of time. This was an exercise that I thought, oh, great, I have a superior who will take me out, and I get to learn my job that much better. He kept me in the dark for a good deal of things. He was very, very careful about his wording with me. So we referred to the money as the package, the bank robbery as a hit, he's using military terminology. There were times in the whole process where, OK, something is fishy here, but at the same time, it was, OK, you're questioning your superior.

[AD]"The day of the robbery, what was different from the other days was weapons came out from the trunk, body armor got put on. There was just this tension in the car: Something is going to go down. My position in the robbery was the getaway driver. They came out and piled into the car. We got to the barracks and unloaded the car of all the weapons, all the gear. Specialist Sommer handed me $10,000, and he said, ‘I need you to hold onto this,' so I put it in one of my drawers, and that was that. I flew out the next morning to Colorado, to home. The FBI and the SWAT were in my neighborhood, setting up roadblocks and everything like that. When we got pulled over, my dad got out of the car, we were surrounded by SWAT team, and I was arrested."

Dr. Phil tries to wrap his mind around what happened to Alex. "What you're telling me is you did not know that you were involved in an armed robbery of a bank?"

"At the time when it happened, there was definitely that tension that I was thinking about, something's wrong here, but ultimately, my entire mindset was conflicted between there's something wrong, but a tab would never tell me to do something wrong," he says.

"What's a tab?" Dr. Zimbardo asks.

"A tab is a guy who's been to ranger school," Alex explains. "These guys are revered by the privates. These guys are God. And I want to be everything I can to please him," he says.

"You want to be him," Dr. Zimbardo says.

"I want to be him, yeah. Exactly," Alex says.

"You said it took you eight months to realize that this was actually a bank robbery?" Dr. Phil asks.

"Yeah. When I went to prison, it was eight months before I was able to sit there by myself and finally say, ‘I robbed a bank. We were part of a bank robbery,' and get away from that Ranger mindset of ‘This is who I am; we wouldn't do anything wrong,'" Alex says.

"Because they told you, ‘We're doing this as rehearsals because we might have to rob banks behind enemy lines,'" Dr. Phil surmises. "So, you pull up to the bank that day. This is just a bank on the street in civilian land. All of a sudden people are getting out, they're putting on masks, they've got machine guns, they're going into this bank, and they're coming out with big bags of money."

[AD]"Absolutely, yes," Alex says. "When I pulled up, I still had that sense of comfort and there was this thought in me that said this isn't going to happen, it's just Specialist Sommer playing these Ranger games, doing what he always does, just to push it to the limit. And as soon as they got out, I locked eyes with this woman in a cherry red Dodge Durango, and right then and there, I saw how scared she was, and right then I said, ‘Something is wrong here.'" Alex says he turned the car around and started to leave but then Specialist Sommer came out of the bank. "The first thing I thought when I saw him was, I just left my superior," he says.

Alex explains how Specialist Sommer tested his willingness to follow orders.

"You give him real props for manipulating you the way he did," Dr. Phil says.

"Yeah, he was very, very masterful at it," Alex says.

Dr. Phil turns to Alex's father, Norm, in the audience. He was shocked at the difference he saw in his son after Ranger training.

"When he came back from Ranger training, Alex was a jerk," Norm says. "He was very brash, very cocky, and his attitude was almost ‘We live in the real world,' meaning ‘us soldiers' and everyone else can't really relate to it. So it was a stark change from the lovable easy kid that had left the house to go into his training."

Amanda Lee is Alex's lawyer. She contacted Dr. Zimbardo for help in Alex's defense. "I had spoken to Alex many times and to members of his family, and what I kept hearing from family and friends was ‘This just doesn't make sense. This doesn't fit. Nothing about Alex's history would suggest that he would do that.' And in my time with him when he was in custody, I could see he was going through enormous emotional turmoil trying to reconcile what he believed about the rangers and what he knew he had done," she says.

Alex was facing a mandatory minimum sentence of 30 years in prison. He spent 16 months in jail and had eight months of house arrest. Specialist Sommer was sentenced to 24 years in prison.

[AD]"Are you proud of your Ranger training?" Dr. Phil asks.

"I'm immensely proud that I made it through, and I followed a dream," he says. "I recognize it went wrong. It's still sometimes difficult to sit there and realize I based my life around this Ranger creed that I lived by, and it took me to a place where I never thought I'd go."