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Bennitt to face involuntary manslaughter charges at court martial

Post by Scott Fontaine on July 31, 2009 at 3:14 pm with No Comments »
July 31, 2009 3:14 pm

Pvt. Timothy E. Bennitt, the Fort Lewis soldier whose 16-year-old girlfriend died after an overdose of prescription pills in his barracks room, will face involuntary manslaughter and drug-related charges in a general court martial, the post announced Friday.

Bennitt faces a maximum of 82 years in prison, reduction in rank, forfeiture of all pay and allowances and a dishonorable discharge from the Army if convicted. A date for his court martial has not been set.

The charges stem from the death of Leah King, a student at Lakes High School, in Bennitt’s barracks room Feb. 15 on North Fort Lewis. King and a friend, Trashauna Yoacham, overdosed on a combination of the painkiller oxymorphone and the anxiety pill Xanax.

Bennitt, a 19-year-old Indiana native, is facing two specifications of involuntary manslaughter. The government alleges Bennitt purchased oxymorphone and gave it to King, whom he knew had a history of substance abuse, and allowed her to mix the painkiller with Xanax.

Bennitt also faces charges he distributed oxymorphome, oxycodone, marijuana, Xanax. He is also charged with the use of oxycodone, oxymorphone, marijuana and cocaine.

And he faces a charge of conspiracy to use a controlled substance, in which prosecutors say he asked King to arrange a meeting with the drug dealer that sold him the lethal dose of Xanax and oxymorphone.

Bennitt, a heavy equipment operator with the 617th Engineer Company, 864th Engineer Battalion, is in confinement at Naval Base Kitsap-Bangor.

Government attorneys say Bennitt purchased drugs from Lakewood and sold them to fellow soldiers.

Investigators testified in May and June during Bennitt’s Article 32 hearing, the military equivalent of a grand-jury proceeding, that the soldier purchased the prescription pills the night of Feb. 14 and returned to North Fort Lewis with the two teenagers. Shortly after they arrived, Bennitt crushed and snorted a prescription pill. The girls, who were in his bathroom styling their hair, crushed and snorted a pill of oxymorpohone.

He left his room at about midnight to talk to a friend. The girls were asleep when he returned, so he slept next to them when he returned, according to the investigation. 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 later recovered.

Bennitt’s Article 32 hearing closed in May but was reopened almost a month later when Yoacham agreed to testify. She told the court the teens snorted the pills hours before they went to the barracks and later inhaled more without his knowledge.

“Those drugs were carried in by Leah,” Yoacham’s attorney, Bradley Johnson, said at the time. “Pvt. Bennitt did not give her drugs.”

Prosecutors said Yoacham’s story had holes and that she wasn’t in the right state of mind to remember everything from that night.

Maj. Rebecca Connally, the investigating officer, apparently didn’t believe all of Yoacham’s testimony, according to a redacted version of her report released by the Fort Lewis public affairs office.

“I considered Ms. (redacted)’s entire testimony and weighed it against other witnesses or evidence that contradicted her recollection and accounts,” Connally wrote. “I found the weight of the evidence that contradicted her testimony to be more credible and believable.”

Connally’s role as investigating officer was to review the evidence and testimony and made a recommendation on what charges Bennitt would face. Brig. Gen. Jeff Mathis, the I Corps rear detachment commander, reviewed Connally’s report and had the final say.

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