CHELSEA, Vt. – A probe into the disappearance of a 12-year-old girl zeroed in Monday on her uncle's alleged involvement in a child sex ring, with police searching his home while he was being arraigned on sex charges in a case authorities said was unrelated to the missing girl.
Michael Jacques, 42, of Randolph, a registered sex offender who was one of the last people to see Brooke Bennett before she vanished, pleaded not guilty to aggravated sexual assault and was being held on $250,000 bail.
The alleged victim of the sex assaults, a relative of Jacques, told police Jacques assaulted her during a five-year period, beginning when she was 9 years old and ending a few weeks ago, Orange County State's Attorney Will Porter said.
Meanwhile, Jacques, pronounced "Jakes," was being described as "a person of interest" in last Wednesday's disappearance of Bennett. Col. James Baker, commander of the Vermont State Police, said investigators narrowed their probe and began focusing on Jacques based on information developed late Saturday and early Sunday through computer forensics.
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"I will reconfirm my statement from before that this case is about social networking on the Internet," Baker said. Last week, police said they feared Bennett may have left home with someone she met through the social networking Web site MySpace. But on Monday, Baker said he had used MySpace merely as an example of the type of Web site she had used.
In an affidavit released after Jacques' arraignment, Vermont State Police Detective Sgt. William Jenkins said the girl told police that when she was 9 or 10, she was told — in a telephone call and in a note left under her pillow — that she had been selected for enrollment in a "program for sex called Breckenridge" and that Jacques was to be her trainer.
The alleged victim, identified only as "A.R." in court papers, said she was told two other girls were in the program and had met three men affiliated with it, too. She said the girls were graded based "on how you perform," the affidavit said.
"The first (girl) who does it lives and the second gets her throat cut," she told police, according to the affidavit.
Baker said police were considering all possibilities, including that the alleged sex ring exists or that it was a ruse Jacques created to intimidate a young girl into having sex with him.
"The State Police would like to speak with any child or teenager who may have had contact with Michael Jacques," Baker said.
At Jacques' home in Randolph, meanwhile, State Police called in state police units from Connecticut and Massachusetts and used a helicopter and dogs to search Jacques' home and an adjoining property. Troopers swarmed around Jacques' home — a large two-story house — beginning around 4 a.m. Monday.
In all, about 50 investigators from the State Police, FBI and other agencies are working the case, Baker said.
Jacques, who is married to the sister of Bennett's mother, dropped Bennett off at a Cumberland Farms convenience store in Randolph on Wednesday after she told family members she was going to meet a friend and visit a relative of the friend's in the hospital.
Police believe that was a lie, and that Bennett may have been bound for a meeting with an unknown individual she had been communicating with through the Internet. On Friday, Baker said the MySpace communications were the main focus of the probe.
Surveillance video from the store showed Bennett and Jacques leave the store and go in separate directions.
On Monday, Baker said this: "As a result of information developed late Saturday and early Sunday, the focus of our investigation shifted drastically." He said it was during the weekend that the computer forensics probe "eliminated the whole world out there and narrowed our focus."
Bennett, who just finished seventh grade at Randolph Union High School, has not been seen since. She is the subject of Vermont's first-ever Amber Alert, which was issued Friday.
In court Monday, a pallid Jacques — handcuffed and shackled at the waist — entered a not guilty plea through public defender L. Brooke Dingledine, who persuaded Judge Theresa DiMauro to grant bail over the objections of Porter.
Jacques has 1993 convictions for kidnapping and aggravated sexual assault and there is "a threat of prejudicial violence to this particular juvenile complainant," said Porter, in arguing for no bail. "Her personal safety was threatened."
He also noted the serious nature of the crime, which could lead to a life prison term, and said Jacques had violated his probation.
"There's no condition or series of conditions that could guarantee the safety of the juvenile complainant in this case," said Porter.
Dingledine said Jacques has a full-time job as an operations manager for a company in West Lebanon, N.H., owns his home and a rental property next door, has strong family ties and a family that depends on his income.
DiMauro said she was considering barring Jacques from leaving the county, but Dingledine — who called the corroborating evidence on the sex charge "very sparse" — said he needed to get to work. So the judge ordered a 24-hour curfew — except for work — if he makes bail.
Relatives of Bennett watched from the gallery as Jacques made his appearance.