Girl’s drug death at Fort Lewis spurs suit

The family of a Lakes High School sophomore who died of a drug overdose on Fort Lewis two years ago is suing the Army and a private security contractor, alleging they were negligent in allowing a young soldier to take the girl on post – negligence that contributed to her death, the family says.

The family of Leah King, 16, seeks a total of $10 million from the Army and Doyon Security Services of Federal Way, according to a lawsuit filed Monday in federal court.

The Army declined to comment on the case. Doyon, which no longer provides security at the gates around Joint Base Lewis-McChord, did not return a call for comment.

The lawsuit alleges that King’s death caused her family pain and suffering and a long-term economic loss.

It says the security company and the Army failed to uphold a post policy that says “Any nonmilitary visitor below the age of 18 who is not a member of the soldier’s immediate family (e.g. brother or sister) must be accompanied by a legal parent or guardian at all times.”

Leah King slipped onto the post with Pvt. Timothy Bennitt, then 19, and another girl on the night of Feb. 14, 2009. Bennitt found her lying lifeless about 3 a.m. when he awakened next to her. The other girl also overdosed but was revived at Madigan Army Medical Center.

Bennitt last year was found guilty of aiding and abetting King in her wrongful use of the painkiller oxymorphone and the anti-anxiety pill Xanax, a combination that killed her. He is serving a six-year jail sentence.

Katherine King, Leah’s mother, said Tuesday that her attorney had been trying to negotiate a settlement with the Army.

“Leah was a good kid, a typical teenager,” Katherine King said. “The last things I found on her Myspace page were that she wanted to be an attorney. She had just gotten back into school. She wanted to get to college to follow her dreams.”

The mother said her daughter met Bennitt a week to 10 days before her overdose.

“She was so excited to be on a first date, and it certainly didn’t end the way we thought it would,” she said.

Leah King’s death sparked outrage in the Lakewood area and led to a re-emphasis on preventing teenagers from getting on the Army post with young soldiers. Bennitt apparently sneaked King past two security checks, one at a gate and another at his barracks.

“Under no circumstance can a minor be in the barracks. Escorted or unescorted. Period,” said Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, the post’s commander at the time, who was described by a spokesman as personally troubled by King’s death.

Doyon’s contract at Lewis-McChord expired in September. The Army has been shifting away from using contractors for security services since April 2010.

The guards checking identification at nearly all of the base’s gates now are federal employees, though private contractors continue to work at gates that lead to McChord Air Field.

Fort Lewis and McChord Air Field merged to create Joint Base Lewis-McChord last year, and the private guards working the McChord gates are expected to become federal employees by October 2012, base spokesman Joe Piek said.

Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646 adam.ashton