Bennett's Uncle May Face Death Penalty

This undated photo released by Vermont State Police shows Brooke Bennett. Vermont State Police are searching for the 12-year-old Braintree girl missing since she was dropped off at a Randolph convenience store Wednesday to meet a friend. AP Photo/Vermont State Police

Prosecutors say the Vermont man charged with kidnapping his 12-year-old niece - who was found dead near his home - could face the death penalty.

State and federal prosecutors spoke in Burlington Thursday as 42-year-old Michael Jacques was formally charged with kidnapping Brooke Bennett. Bennett was missing for a week before her body was found Wednesday in Randolph.

Authorities cannot even say yet how the girl died. But the federal charges against Jacques provide for the death penalty in kidnappings resulting in a child's death.

In court papers, authorities accused Jacques of carefully orchestrating events and e-mails to make it look like Bennett had gone to see someone she had met online.

Instead of gathering at a vigil to offer prayers for the safe return of Bennett, residents found themselves mourning the news that her body had been found.

Police unearthed her body Wednesday from a makeshift grave about a mile from her uncle's house, ending a weeklong search for the subject of Vermont's first Amber Alert.

"Brooke Marie, I love you so much," her mother, Cassandra Gagnon, said at the gathering later in the picturesque town of a little more than 5,000. "I just ask that justice be done for the person who took my baby away," she said, sobbing.

The girl's father, James Bennett, added, "I know Brooke knows that we love her and will always love her."

As state police announced the grim news Wednesday evening, they said Michael Jacques, the girl's 42-year-old uncle and a convicted sex offender, will face federal kidnapping charges.

Bennett, who had just finished seventh grade at Randolph Union High School, disappeared on June 25 after being seen at a convenience store with Jacques.

Jacques has been in custody since Sunday on charges of aggravated sexual assault against a different underage girl. He has pleaded not guilty. Jacques, who is married to the sister of Brooke's mother, has 1993 convictions for kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault.

After searching in and around his home across town for days, police said they found Brooke's body in a spot where the earth had been disturbed.

"The painful discovery of Brooke's body today is tragic and heartbreaking," State Police Director Col. James Baker said. He called the death "clearly suspicious" but declined to give details before a planned briefing Thursday morning.

In an affidavit unsealed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Burlington, the FBI said an unidentified 14-year-old girl told investigators she was present on June 25 when Jacques tricked Bennett into thinking she was going to a party and took her to his Randolph home to be initiated into a sex ring.

The teenager said she was led to believe Bennett "would have sex with adult males" during the initiation. The 14-year-old said she herself had been having sex with Jacques since she was 9, as part of the sex ring.

The teen, who is related to Jacques, said she and Bennett watched television for a while before Jacques told her to leave and took his niece upstairs. The witness said she left the house with her boyfriend and didn't see Bennett again.

In another blow to the family, Bennett's former stepfather, Raymond Gagnon, was formally charged Wednesday with obstructing justice in the case.

He entered no plea at the federal hearing and was denied bail pending another hearing on Monday. The 40-year-old Gagnon, who lives in Texas, was on a regular visit to Vermont when he was arrested.

According to the affidavit, Gagnon told police he accessed his former stepdaughter's MySpace page from a computer at his San Antonio home after getting login information from Jacques.

Police said they have evidence that postings to the account were altered to make it appear that the 12-year-old had discussed a secret rendezvous shortly before she disappeared.

On that day, Jacques dropped Bennett off at a convenience store, and surveillance video shows they left in separate directions. She had told family members she was going to meet a friend and visit a hospitalized relative of the friend.

At the vigil for Bennett in Randolph - a site that still featured big banners reading "Come Home, Brooke, We Love You!!" - Gary Finch, Bennett's homeroom and math teacher last year, said she was an energetic and enthusiastic learner whom he loved having in class.

"She was always volunteering, always with a smile on her face. Smart, creative. It's a tragedy. It's unbelievable. It's hard to comprehend. I didn't think anything like this would happen to such a great kid," said Finch, one of about 300 people who attended.

Finch said that when school started last fall, Bennett was nervous about transferring from her small elementary school to the high school.

"She conquered that," he said. "She didn't conquer this."
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