Owens, alumni plead for support

The Baltimore Sun

Supporters of former Naval Academy quarterback Lamar S. Owens Jr. are mounting a furious campaign to persuade the Pentagon not to expel the midshipman, who was acquitted of rape but deemed unfit for command by the academy superintendent.

The effort includes what appear to be Owens' first public comments about the accusations against him: a plea for support on the social networking site Facebook.com. An organized cadre of academy graduates has also launched a letter-writing and lobbying effort directed at Assistant Navy Secretary William Navas, who will decide Owens' fate.

Meanwhile, his legal team has until Thursday to counter Vice Adm. Rodney P. Rempt's recommendation to expel Owens.

"We love the academy, and we tried to let the process unfold without any kind of outside influence," said Kennon Artis, a 1988 graduate who is one of about 30 alumni backing Owens. "We thought we'd try to let the system work, but we've seen that the system has not worked in this case. We want to step forward to ensure that the right, fair and just thing is accomplished in this case."

The Naval Academy and the family of Owens' accuser have declined to make any public comment on the case.

In the post on a Facebook "group" called "Free Lamar Owens," which its president confirmed yesterday was written by the former football player, Owens solicits the help of classmates, asking them to send in three or four lines that "positively critique my character."

"If any of you have ever desired to help my cause or in some fashion facilitate this tedious process then I urge you to read further and take action," he wrote, noting that any positive comments would be put in the package collected by his legal team and sent to Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter. "Thank you in advance, bless you, and keep pushing!"

Owens echoes a common refrain of his lawyers and supporters throughout the trial, saying that Rempt "did not want me to graduate or be commissioned" despite the not-guilty verdict and "wanted me in the brig" - or military prison. Rempt, according to Owens' posting, alleged that "my peers thought so poorly of my character and aptitude as an officer."

Owens asks for opinions from people with whom he interacted in his company of about 130 midshipmen to counter the peer rankings, in which he was sometimes labeled "apathetic."

Another item the academy "is using as ammunition to puncture my credible character" is 185 demerits he racked up in his four years, which he says "was pretty average." He asks for help in comparing that number with the numbers for others who have been allowed to graduate.

Darin Porter, a close friend to Owens, said he created the Facebook group "so people could discuss the topic and how they feel about it."

"Not many people want to talk about, but it shows that people do support his cause," he said, noting that Owens was happy to find out that 400 people had joined the Facebook group.

Porter said some midshipmen, however, removed their names when the academy "chastised" them, saying they were supposed to remain neutral about the case.

"You can only hope that it will make everybody think about the decision the superintendent has made," he said. "If this many people support him, I don't think he can be that bad a person. But hey, you can only hope."

Two convictions stemming from Owens' court-martial, as well as his alleged viewing of pornography on his computer, make up the academy's rationale for expelling him, according to a memo Rempt wrote for the Navy secretary and delivered Monday to Owens.

Owens was acquitted in July of raping a female midshipman in her dorm room Jan. 29, 2006, but was convicted of conduct unbecoming an officer because he had sex in the academy dormitory, and violating a protective order when he walked past her room.

Although relatively minor, the convictions will register as felonies and will remain a part of his civilian record.

If expelled, Owens would not have to repay the $130,000 cost of his education, but he would not be allowed to graduate or granted a commission. Reid Weingarten, Owens' top defense attorney, said this week that Owens still wants a diploma and commission.

If his appeal to Navas fails, Owens has two long-shot options left: He can file a claim with the Board for Correction of Naval Records, which could overturn Navas, or he can file a lawsuit.

Owens initially won the support of alumni - who helped procure Weingarten for Owens - for his exploits on the gridiron. Elected co-captain by his teammates, Owens led the football team to an 8-4 season that included a 51-30 victory over Colorado State in the Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego. Owens rushed and passed for a combined 2,179 yards and 17 touchdowns last season.

Owens was the third Navy quarterback to run for more than 100 yards in his first career start and set school single-season records for average gain per pass attempt and average gain per pass completion, and a career record for average gain per play.

An economics major who chose to be a surface warfare officer after graduation, Owens was considered a natural leader by coaches and teammates.

For the most part, the alumni backing Owens are relying on many of the points brought up at his trial: that Rempt has been overzealous in bringing the charges and that the accuser and several other prosecution witnesses were immunized for the same kind of behavior that is now the basis for Owens' expulsion.

These are key points in a 1,600-word "Fact Sheet" being circulated among the group of self-described "powerful, diverse" alumni actively supporting Owens. Their goals, Artis said, are to seek a congressman who will champion Owens' cause, reach out to the media and "leverage" them, lobby Navas and "expand our sphere of influence."

In a new turn, some alumni are also beginning to discuss Owens' race and whether the case might hurt the academy's efforts to recruit African-Americans.

Pete Optekar, a 1963 graduate who played football during the Navy's glory days in the early 1960s, has been convinced that Rempt is biased against Owens ever since he spoke with the superintendent during a dinner with other alumni held four days after the acquittal at Optekar's Idaho home.

The Naval Academy has declined to comment on any conversation Rempt might have had at that dinner. Still, Optekar and others swore in affidavits that Rempt defended Owens' accuser and said the former quarterback "was guilty of sexual assault."

Optekar said he held back on bringing up race because Owens "didn't want to play the race card." But he said he can't help but worry that the case could hurt recruiting efforts with African-Americans.

"This [case] is going to polarize the brigade," he said, hinting that it could harm how men and women interact at the Annapolis military college. "We are depriving the Navy of one of its finest leaders. He's been described as one of the best team captains since Roger Staubach. It could also make it difficult to attract qualified black future naval officers. This is a sad day for the Navy."

bradley.olson@baltsun.com

For more information on this article, including a copy of Owens' Facebook entry, go to www.baltimoresun.com/owens.

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