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Originally published February 17, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified February 17, 2009 at 9:45 AM

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Fort Lewis grasps for answers in teen girl's death

The death of a teenage girl in a Fort Lewis barracks early Sunday is raising questions that base officials were not prepared to answer Monday.

Seattle Times staff reporter

The death of a teenage girl in a Fort Lewis barracks early Sunday is raising questions that officials at the Army post were not prepared to answer Monday.

The girl was one of two 16-year-old females who were found "unresponsive" at around 3:30 a.m. Sunday in a barracks, a Fort Lewis spokesman said Monday. One girl could not be revived and was pronounced dead at the scene; the second remains hospitalized.

Post officials said the cause of death was pending results of an autopsy.

The girls are both civilian residents of the South Puget Sound area and not affiliated with the military, Fort Lewis spokesman John Norgren said.

He said a soldier had been questioned in connection with the incident, but as of Monday had not been arrested. Norgren said the incident is being treated "very seriously" by Fort Lewis' top brass, who are still trying to figure out all the facts.

Norgren said Fort Lewis emergency-response personnel responded to a 911 call. One girl was declared dead at the scene by a doctor from Madigan Army Medical Center; the other was rushed to the on-post hospital. She was in stable condition Monday night.

The dead girl showed no signs of physical trauma or any other obvious indications of what may have caused her death, Norgren said. Because of that, he said, the Office of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner is expected to do an autopsy.

He said questions of how the girls entered the secure post -- and what they were doing there -- are part of the ongoing investigation.

Under normal conditions, Norgren said, people with business on the installation or visiting friends can get in with a pass or be sponsored to get in. Asked if it was a common occurrence for underage girls to gain access to the base, he said he wasn't aware that it was, but that the investigation will be a chance to determine what corrective measures may be needed to ensure that it doesn't happen in the future.

"A review of installation policies and procedures is already under way," said a news release issued by Fort Lewis.

Fort Lewis is home to some 30,000 military personnel. It is a closed post, meaning that civilians who want to enter need to show identification at a checkpoint and need a valid reason for being there.

Accommodations on the post are a mix of older, open-bay barracks that house many soldiers and more-modern apartment-style barracks. The modern barracks typically have two or more private bedrooms and shared kitchens and common areas.

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Fort Lewis was not prepared Monday to identify the type of barracks where the girls were found, Norgren said.

Fort Lewis announced the girl's death in a news release issued Monday afternoon, about 36 hours after the girls were found. Norgren said the delay was due to the Presidents Day holiday and the need to notify the dead girl's next of kin. He declined to release her name.

Norgren said the investigation is being spearheaded by the Army's Criminal Investigation Division, and that information is being shared with the Pierce County Sheriff's Department.

But in an e-mail to The Seattle Times on Monday night, Pierce County sheriff's spokesman Ed Troyer wrote, "We are not involved at all."

The Pierce County Medical Examiner's Office said it wasn't notified of the girl's death because the Army has jurisdiction over deaths at Fort Lewis.

Norgren said he didn't know when more details would be made public.

In the past year, several Fort Lewis soldiers have faced criminal prosecution in connection with incidents that occurred off-post.

On Feb. 7, three Fort Lewis soldiers were charged in attacks and robberies of University of Washington students at gunpoint. Pvt. Robert E. Lucas Jr., 20, of Murfreesboro, Tenn., and Pfc. Chad A. Braden, 19, of Etna, Ohio, each were charged with two counts of first-degree robbery. Pfc. Raymond Burrows III, 21, of Central Falls, R.I., faces one count of first-degree robbery.

Luke Sommer, a former Army Ranger accused of masterminding the takeover robbery of a Tacoma bank in August 2006, was sentenced in December to 24 years in prison. Two other Rangers, Chad Palmer and Alex Blum, pleaded guilty to taking part in the robbery.

Last year, Army Spc. Ivette Gonzalez Davila was charged in the March 1 slayings of fellow soldiers Staff Sgt. Timothy Miller, 27, and Sgt. Randi Miller, 25. All were assigned to Fort Lewis.

Davila is being prosecuted by the Army.

Information from Seattle Times archives and staff reporter Mark Rahner is included in this report.

Nick Perry: 206-515-5639 or nperry@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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