Family of teen who died on base to get $40,000
By ADAM ASHTON | The (Tacoma, Wash.) News Tribune | Published: January 16, 2013
The family of a Lakewood teenager who died from a drug overdose in a Fort Lewis barracks four years ago will receive $40,000 from the government and a security contractor, according to a lawsuit settlement between the U.S. attorney's office and the girl's mother.
The outcome disappointed the 16-year-old Leah King's family, who wanted an opportunity to testify about the girl's life and counter perceptions that she eagerly participated in using drugs with the soldier who sneaked her into his room.
"For me it wasn't about the money," King's mother, Katherine King, said Tuesday.
But her lawyers determined they had a limited chance of winning the lawsuit after an August decision from U.S. District Court Judge Benjamin Settle that dismissed the security firm from the case, King said.
The agreement the attorneys struck in November likely closes an episode that brought embarrassment to the military post and pledges from top generals to shore up security lapses.
It calls on the government to pay King $35,000 and former Fort Lewis security contractor Doyon to contribute another $5,000.
Doyon attorney Sok-Khieng Lim said the company agreed to participate in the settlement to avoid an appeal.
Judge Settle wrote in August that Doyon employees at the installation's main gate did not violate Fort Lewis security policies in allowing Leah King on post about 11:20 p.m. the night of her death because she was accompanied by a soldier carrying appropriate identification.
The policy would have required Doyon guards to turn away teenagers younger than 16 at 11 p.m. Minors of Leah King's age were permitted to enter the post until 1 a.m.
Doyon no longer has a security contract at what is now Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
Settle wrote that King's attorneys could have proceeded with a lawsuit against the Army.
Leah King's presence in the barracks violated a Fort Lewis policy that prohibited nonfamily minors from being in soldiers' living quarters without a parent or guardian, Settle wrote.
Although Leah King and Army Pvt. Timothy Bennitt sneaked into his barracks without signing her in as a guest, Bennitt notified a noncommissioned officer in charge of the quarters at about midnight that the girl was with him. She was not removed from the barracks, and she died about three hours later, Settle wrote.
"It is undisputed that (the noncommissioned officer) knew that (Leah King) was a visitor and had not properly signed in," Settle wrote. "Thus, (the noncommissioned officer) was responsible for ensuring that (Leah King) signed in and did not stay overnight in the barrack."
Bennitt in January 2010 was sentenced to almost six years in prison in connection with the girl's death. He was found guilty of abetting in her fatal use of the painkiller oxymorphone and the anxiety pill Xanax.
Leah King was a Lakes High School sophomore. Katherine King remembers her daughter as smitten with the young soldier when they met in early 2009. The mother wanted a chance in court to describe Leah's potential.
"I was only heard once, and that was during deposition," Katherine King said. "I was supposed to stick only to the questions, and none of the questions were the right questions to ask."