BURLINGTON, Vt. – Prosecutors on Thursday filed federal kidnapping charges that carry the death penalty against a man whose niece was found buried near his home after being missing for a week as new details emerged about the uncle's arrest record.
Officials said they've found no new evidence of a wider child sex ring beyond an underage girl's claim to them that she was in it and 12-year-old Brooke Bennett was to be initiated into it the day she disappeared.
"There's nothing from this investigation that's been turned up, nor otherwise are federal and state authorities aware of, any ongoing efforts to recruit young girls or boys here in Vermont to have sex with adults," Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell said at a joint news conference with federal prosecutors.
Depending on how Brooke died, prosecutors said her uncle, Michael Jacques, 42, could face the death penalty under the federal kidnapping law.
U.S. Attorney Tom Anderson said the 2006 Adam Walsh law — named for another abducted child — allowed federal prosecution of such crimes when they are facilitated by the Internet.
Asked whether he will seek the death penalty, Anderson said: "That determination will be made after the investigation is completed, after the case is presented to a grand jury and ultimately that decision is made by the attorney general of the United States of America."
Jacques' lawyer, federal public defender Michael Desautels, did not return calls Thursday.
This is not the first time Jacques has been in trouble. In 1993, he was sentenced to six to 20 years in prison after being convicted of kidnapping and raping an 18-year-old woman he supervised at a Rutland restaurant, court records show.
He successfully completed the state's sex offender treatment program in 2000 and was released from probation in 2006.
The prosecutors said they did not yet have Brooke's autopsy results, and both said much remains to be done.
The investigation began June 25 when Brooke, who lived with her mother in Braintree, disappeared after last being seen in nearby Randolph. The bucolic town of about 5,000 is the business center for rural Orange County and is about 60 miles south of Burlington.
Most of what authorities have said about the investigation is in FBI affidavits supporting the charges against Jacques and against Raymond Gagnon, 40, who is charged with obstructing justice. But the affidavits are gripping. Among the allegations within them:
The Sex Ring
— A 14-year-old girl told police that when she was 9, she was put into a "program for sex" called Breckenridge, that a male relative of hers was to be her "trainer," and that she would be killed if she didn't cooperate. Authorities say the regular assaults continued until a few weeks ago.
— She told authorities that Brooke was to be inducted into the ring on the day she disappeared. E-mails released by investigators indicated the 14-year-old said she would participate in a plan, in the works for at least several days before Brooke vanished, for "the take-down and the tie-up (that) morning."
— Gagnon had sex with the 14-year-old last year and admitted having large amounts of child pornography on his computer, including images of the 14-year-old having sex with a boyfriend. Gagnon, of San Antonio, is Brooke's former stepfather. His lawyer, John Pacht, did not return a call Friday seeking comment on the allegations.
— The affidavits detail sex acts involving bondage and spanking. Jacques is described as having ordered more than $1,000 worth of sexual aids from a Web site, including a machine designed to simulate intercourse. Authorities said Thursday they still weren't sure whether there was a sex ring or it was a ruse Jacques allegedly used to intimidate the girls.
Without autopsy results, authorities won't comment on what caused Brooke's death. It thus remains unknown what happened between June 25, when Jacques allegedly took her to his house, and when her body was moved to a shallow grave along a dirt road about a mile away. The body was found Wednesday.
Authorities expressed doubt that state murder charges would be filed anytime soon, saying that the federal prosecution for kidnapping with death resulting might suffice.
Deceiving the Girls
— Authorities said the girls were deceived in several ways. The 14-year-old was led to believe she was getting e-mails from at least three different people about her participation in Breckenridge, when all originated from computers either at Jacques' home or workplace.
— Jacques and the 14-year-old told Brooke the morning of June 25 that she was going to a party.
— Authorities say Jacques faked and altered postings to Brooke's MySpace pages in an effort to persuade investigators she had run off with someone she met through the social networking site. The tampering was discovered by the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force, housed at the Burlington Police Department.
— Authorities say Jacques led them to believe Brooke had lied about wanting to meet a friend and visit the friend's relative in a hospital the morning she disappeared. Investigators said that turned out to be a lie about a lie, and that instead, she ended up back at Jacques' house.
— E-mails released Thursday describe the 14-year-old helping Jacques plant false evidence. He coached her on obtaining and preserving semen from her boyfriend to be placed on a pair of Brooke's underwear to put investigators off the trail, they said. Jacques told police he had found a sneaker belonging to Brooke along a rural road in Brookfield; the panties were placed nearby, so police would find them on their own.
— Gagnon had several lengthy cell phone calls with his Texas housemate and persuaded that man to throw a safe containing child pornography and a laptop computer in a nearby Dumpster, authorities said. They said the safe has not been found.