A Fort Lewis soldier pleaded guilty to drug-related charges and had another drug charge dismissed during the first day of his court-martial Tuesday.
But Pvt. Timothy E. Bennitt still faces an involuntary manslaughter charge stemming from the death of girlfriend Leah King, 16, at Bennitt’s North Fort Lewis barracks Feb. 15.
Tuesday also featured Bennitt’s first testimony since King’s death shocked the Fort Lewis and Lakewood communities. King and a friend overdosed on a combination of the painkiller oxymorphone and the anxiety pill Xanax; the friend recovered.
After a pre-trial proceeding last summer, Fort Lewis commanders decided there was enough evidence to bring Bennitt to court-martial.
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The drug death attracted scrutiny and new security measures at the Army post because King and her friend were able to slip through checkpoints at the main gate and at the barracks despite being minors.
On Tuesday, Bennitt, 20, spoke authoritatively about how he began using painkillers when he returned to Fort Lewis after spending more than six months in Afghanistan. He was a heavy equipment operator with the 617th Engineer Company, 864th Engineer Battalion.
Bennitt told Army Lt. Col. Kwasi Hawks, who is presiding over the court-martial, that he had surgery for an eye injury and was prescribed the painkiller oxycodone in mid-2008.
“It helped mellow my pain,” said Bennitt, an Indiana native.
He said he later sold some of the painkiller to a fellow soldier. Bennitt continued using it after his prescription expired, as well as oxymorphone, by the end of 2008. He also had used and sold marijuana blunts to other soldiers.
Overall, Bennitt pleaded guilty to using and distributing oxycodone, oxymorphone and marijuana more than once, dealing Xanax once and using cocaine once.
After he entered his guilty plea, the Army dismissed a charge of conspiracy to use controlled substances. It was unclear how Bennitt’s plea would affect sentencing if he’s found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Before Tuesday, Bennitt faced up to 100 years in confinement, a reduction in rank and a dishonorable discharge from the Army.
In opening statements, Capt. Grady Leupold made the Army’s case that Hawks should not be distracted by the “elaborate shell game” of Bennitt’s defense.
Leupold described how Bennitt and King first met in January 2009, when he spotted the Lakes High School student as she walked home from the Tacoma Mall. He asked for her number.
Bennitt was introduced to a family friend and neighbor of King, who would sell the soldier oxymorphone. That woman, who has since died, was his hookup for painkillers, Leupold said.
Hours before King’s death, Bennitt sneaked King and her friend, Trashauna Yoacham, also 16, into his barracks, where they engaged in a “pill party,” the Army argued. Leupold showed the courtroom a picture of the three of them hours before King’s death.
Bennitt reportedly left his room about midnight Feb. 14 to talk to a friend. The girls were asleep when he returned, so he said he slept next to them. He said he awoke at 3 a.m. and discovered King with froth around her mouth, pale skin and blue lips.
King was pronounced dead at the scene. Yoacham was rushed to Madigan Army Medical Center, where she recovered.
Prosecutors maintain that Bennitt supplied oxymorphone and Xanax to the two girls. “It is those two drugs” that were in Bennitt’s possession, Leupold said.
But Capt. Don Barbour, one of Bennitt’s two defense lawyers, said his client never supplied drugs to King or Yoacham.
Barbour described how King had used drugs before she met Bennitt, even using methamphetamine at 13 years old. The drugs were readily accessible because of the family friend and neighbor.
The defense described how it was King who introduced Bennitt to the family friend who could supply the drugs. Barbour pointed to Yoacham’s testimony four months after King’s death, in which she admitted she and King went into a barracks bathroom hours before and snorted an oxymorphone pill.
The two teens made bad choices that were no fault of Bennitt, Barbour said.
“The evidence will prove that Pvt. Bennitt did not provide any drugs to Leah King,” the defense lawyer said.
The two sides interviewed three witnesses before Hawks adjourned for the day.
The witnesses included Pvt. Ryan Waldroop, who said he drove with Bennitt to the family friend’s house in Tillicum on Feb. 14 to purchase painkillers.
“Did you ever see Pvt. Bennitt provide any drugs to Leah King?” Barbour asked.
“No,” Waldroop replied.
But the prosecution questioned another witness, Capt. Jon Korneliussen, who was in charge of Bennitt’s unit when King died, to prove that Bennitt willfully sneaked the girls into the barracks.
The court-martial continues today.
Brent Champaco: 253-597-8653