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Ft. Lewis soldier charged in teen's drug death

A 19-year-old private at the Washington state Army base is charged with involuntary manslaughter. A 16-year-old student died shortly after she was discovered in a barracks.

March 11, 2009|Kim Murphy

SEATTLE — Military prosecutors Tuesday filed involuntary manslaughter charges against a Ft. Lewis, Wash., soldier in the late-night, drug-related death of a 16-year-old girl -- a case that has prompted strict new policies on civilian access to the base.

Pvt. Timothy E. Bennitt, a 19-year-old heavy equipment operator who had been dating the girl, also was charged with wrongful use and distribution of controlled substances and conspiracy.

The investigation began after high school student Leah King and another teenage girl were found unconscious last month in a barracks on the base. The second girl, also 16, was hospitalized and later recovered. But King was pronounced dead shortly after she was discovered.

The case drew widespread publicity in Seattle, with reports of late-night partying involving underage girls at the sprawling Army base southeast of Tacoma.

"As the commanding general of Ft. Lewis, and as a father of teenage sons who go to school in the local area, we are deeply saddened by the death of a young lady in our barracks," base commander Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby Jr. told reporters.

"I am greatly concerned about the circumstances surrounding her death, and I want you to know that we are committed to working with local law enforcement to have a thorough, complete and rapid investigation of the circumstances."

Military officials said King died from a toxic combination of alprazolam, an antidepressant marketed as Xanax, and oxymorphone, a painkiller marketed as Opana.

"There are indications at least some of these drugs were crushed and inhaled in powder form, denying any time-release protection that a pill form might provide," the Army said in a statement Tuesday.

Army spokesman Joseph Piek said the investigation showed that Bennitt had driven both girls onto the post in a friend's pickup. Complying with Ft. Lewis' access policy, the girls presented their high school identity cards and were allowed to proceed to Bennitt's barracks.

Since the incident, the Army has announced stepped-up security procedures that require staff at the visitors center to screen all minors entering the base and deny access to those who do not appear to have a legitimate reason to visit.

Random checks of vehicles and routine inspections of barracks also will be increased. Visitors to barracks under the age of 18 who are not members of a resident soldier's immediate family must be accompanied by a parent or guardian, Piek said.

"Soldiers can no longer drive up to the gate and say, 'These are my 16-, 17-year-old friends,' and go through the gate," he said.

But, he said, the base is too big and too diverse to place a complete lockdown on access.

"Ft. Lewis is a city. We have 4,500 families who live on Ft. Lewis. We have children of families who live on Ft. Lewis that might want to have their friends from their schools come and visit them. This is not a locked-down, totally closed and secure installation," he said.

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kim.murphy@latimes.com

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