Testimony recalls deadly night of drugs

Spc. Brandon Savoy remembers being nervous about snorting the pain killer Percocet.

“Is it safe?” he asked Pvt. Timothy E. Bennitt, a fellow member of his Fort Lewis engineer company.

“You’ll be fine,” Bennitt told him, according to Savoy’s testimony in a Fort Lewis courtroom Wednesday. “Just don’t do the whole thing. Just do half.”

Hours later on this busy night of drug use, prosecutors say, a Lakewood teenager was dead of a prescription-drug overdose in Bennitt’s barracks room.

Government attorneys laid the groundwork for drug-related charges against Bennitt on Wednesday as the 19-year-old Indiana resident’s Article 32 hearing entered its second day. The hearing is the military equivalent of a grand-jury proceeding.

Bennitt also is charged with involuntary manslaughter, stemming from the on-post death of 16-year-old Leah King on Feb. 15.

The defense didn’t open its case Wednesday and now must wait until June 2 before it has an opportunity. The next stage of the hearing was delayed because a defense attorney had legal obligations elsewhere today.

Three soldiers testified on the second day of the hearing, the military equivalent of a grand-jury proceeding. They implicated Bennitt in the sale of Ecstasy, marijuana, oxymorphone, alprazolam and oxycodone.

Savoy also described the drug-soaked night of Feb. 14, when he, Bennitt and two other soldiers left Fort Lewis for dinner at Kentucky Fried Chicken in Tillicum. King was found dead of an overdose in the barracks early the next morning. Another girl, a student at Rogers High School in Puyallup, was hospitalized that night after overdosing in Bennitt’s room, prosecutors said Tuesday.

Savoy was feeling nauseated from smoking marijuana earlier that night – drugs he scored from Bennitt two days earlier, he told the court. After dinner, the four soldiers drove to a nearby trailer park where King and Bennitt’s alleged drug dealer lived.

Bennitt had purchased a dessert item for King and wanted to give it to her, according to the testimony.

Prosecutors say Bennitt also purchased prescription pills during that trip.

They returned to the barracks. Savoy said Bennitt taught him how to dissolve the time-release coating on the pills and assured him they were safe. They crushed the pills and snorted them through a dollar bill.

“Where did those pills come from?” government attorney Capt. Grady Leupold asked.

“Private Bennitt,” Savoy answered.

Defense attorneys hammered Savoy on several inconsistencies in the sworn statement he gave to investigators and in his testimony Wednesday. For example, he told investigators he was sick at KFC because he took pills earlier that night. But he said on the stand he hadn’t taken pills that night and was sick from marijuana he had smoked.

Savoy said he forgot some details and hadn’t had a chance to review his statement until Wednesday. Savoy testified he suffers from memory loss because of prior drug use and brain damage from a car crash years ago.

The defense also went after Savoy’s credibility: He was reduced in rank after he rolled a military vehicle he wasn’t authorized to drive, tested positive for marijuana, had his room searched with drug-sniffing dogs and was found in possession of a bong during another room search.

On Feb. 15, Bennitt awoke at 3 a.m. and discovered King with froth around the mouth, pale skin and blue lips, the investigation shows. The soldier frantically called the house of his dealer and reached her son, who reportedly passed the phone to another soldier.

“(Bennitt) kept saying, ‘She’s dead, she’s dead. What do I do? What do I do?’ ” Special Agent Adam Armstrong testified at the hearing.

Bennitt said he tried performing CPR on King – although medical personnel dispute this, Armstrong said – and notified the charge of quarters. The CQ called 911 about 3:40 a.m.

King was pronounced dead at the scene. Her friend was taken to Madigan Army Medical Center and has recovered.

When the Article 32 hearing is complete, the investigating officer, Maj. Rebecca Connally, will compile a report with recommendations on charges, a process that could take two weeks.

Bennitt, a heavy equipment operator with 617th Engineer Company, 864th Engineer Battalion, is being held in pre-trial confinement in the brig of Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor. He faces up to 82 years in prison if convicted on all counts.