An Army private was charged Tuesday with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the overdose death of his 16-year-old girlfriend in his Fort Lewis barracks last month.

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FORT LEWIS, Pierce County — An Army private was charged Tuesday with involuntary manslaughter in connection with the overdose death of his 16-year-old girlfriend in his Fort Lewis barracks last month.

Pvt. Timothy E. Bennitt, 19, of Rolling Prairie, Ind., already was facing discipline for failing a drug test in January when Leah King and another 16-year-old girl overdosed in his barracks early Feb. 15, the Army said Tuesday. The friend survived but was hospitalized for several days.

Bennitt also was charged with wrongful use and distribution of controlled substances and conspiracy to use controlled substances, which Army officials say stems from Bennitt’s using and distributing drugs at the post.

Bennitt is forbidden from leaving Fort Lewis without permission, said Army spokesman Joe Piek. If convicted on all counts, he could face up to 82 years in a military prison.

Bennitt, who has been stationed at Fort Lewis since December 2007, is a heavy-construction-equipment operator assigned to the 864th Engineer Battalion, 555th Engineer Brigade.

According to Piek, Bennitt brought King and her 16-year-old friend onto the post late Feb. 14 or early Feb. 15. The girls were granted entrance after showing guards their high-school identification cards.

Once inside the barracks, Bennitt gave King some prescription drugs he had bought that night, according to Army charging papers. The pills then were crushed into a powder that King inhaled through a rolled-up dollar bill, the Army said.

King, a sophomore at Lakes High School in Lakewood, overdosed around 3:30 a.m., Feb. 15. When Bennitt failed to resuscitate her, the soldier contacted a superior, who called 911.

While Army officials declined to release details about the second girl, that 16-year-old was found unconscious at the barracks that night. She spent four days at Madigan Army Medical Center before being released to her mother.

Col. John Robinson said the Army is still investigating Bennitt’s alleged role as a drug distributor at the post. The Army says he distributed alprazolam, an anti-anxiety and anti-depression drug marketed as Xanax; oxymorphone, a pain reliever similar to morphine; oxycodone, also a pain reliever; and marijuana.

Army charging papers allege Bennitt has dealt drugs at or near the Army post since October.

Robinson thinks Bennitt is among a handful of soldiers abusing drugs at the post. While no one else has been charged in connection with drug abuse, an investigation into illegal drug use in the barracks is ongoing.

Robinson said Bennitt failed a random urine test in January. When King was found dead, Bennitt’s commanders were still deciding how to punish him for the failed test, Robinson added.

“We don’t see this as a larger problem of illegal drug use at Fort Lewis,” Robinson said.

Bennitt’s criminal prosecution will begin with an Article 32 hearing, which is when the charges against him will be presented to an investigating officer, who will recommend whether to proceed with a court-martial. An Article 32 hearing is the military’s version of a civilian grand jury.

When reached at her Tillicum home Tuesday, King’s mother declined to comment. Bennitt’s family could not be reached for comment.

Since King’s death, the Army has started cracking down on minors coming onto the post without a parent or guardian, Piek said. They also have increased random checks of vehicles at entrances and are conducting more checks around the barracks on nights and weekends.

Robinson said “at this point we think we have taken the appropriate actions” to keep minors out of the barracks. He said the Army has to maintain a balance between “the appropriate level of security” and maintaining freedom for soldiers and their families.

“This is not a prison; it’s a military installation,” Robinson said.

Jennifer Sullivan: 360-236-8267 or