Missing girl's stepfather charged with obstruction of justiceStefan Hard/Times Argus
RANDOLPH - The former stepfather of a missing 12-year-old Braintree girl was arrested Monday night for allegedly destroying evidence related to the case.
Ray Gagnon, 40, of San Antonio, Texas, was initially taken into custody on state charges that he sexually assaulted a minor in the Royalton area in 2007. However by noontime Tuesday, prosecutors opted instead to file federal obstruction of justice charges in U.S. District Court in Burlington. Gagnon is scheduled to be arraigned Wednesday.
"The investigation into Mr. Gagnon is a byproduct of our investigation into the disappearance of Brooke Bennett," said Col. James W. Baker, director of the Vermont State Police. "As a result of interviewing people it came to our attention that he was involved in an act that's a violation of the law."
Gagnon was the second man arrested in a six-day investigation that includes more than 50 state and federal law-enforcement officers. On Sunday night, police announced the arrest of Michael Stephen Jacques on a charge of sexual assault against a minor in an unrelated case.
Jacques, 42, of Randolph Center, is Bennett's uncle and the last person known to have seen her. Police intimated in court papers that Jacques' sex crime was part of an Internet ring used to lure underage girls into sex. When asked Tuesday whether Gagnon, formerly a Vermont resident, was a member of that ring, Baker declined to say if such a ring even exists.
"We're not prepared to say if there is a ring, if there's not a ring," Baker said during a press conference Tuesday afternoon at Whitcomb High School in Bethel. "At this time we're still researching evidence and analyzing evidence and we're not in a position to say that one way or the other right now."
The police investigation focused Tuesday on Jacques' Ridge Road home in Randolph Center, where troopers again led canines around the property. Asked whether police were closer Tuesday to finding Bennett than they were the day before, Baker said the search efforts have yielded valuable evidence.
"I believe we are making great progress," Baker said. "We are eliminating possibilities as to where she may be. I just don't want to be in the business of predicting how close we are."
Baker would not say what kind of evidence the search had uncovered, nor would he disclose the nature of evidence that Gagnon allegedly destroyed. He did say that the evidence was related to the missing-person investigation.
"It's absolutely critical that we don't comment on evidence," Baker said. "We are at a very crucial stage in this investigation. For us to comment on evidence is going to jeopardize our ability to close this case out."
Police said they located Gagnon in Vermont, and that he was not transported by authorities from his home state of Texas. Brooke Bennett's father, James Bennett, identified Gagnon Tuesday as the former stepfather of his daughter. Gagnon was married to Brooke Bennett's mother, Cassandra Gagnon. They separated about four years ago, according to Bennett.
Police said the sexual assault charges initially brought against Gagnon were related to an incident that occurred in the summer of 2007. Baker said that charge may still be filed sometime in the future.
"This case is still sitting out there and prosecutors are working out those details right now," Baker said.
Police would not say Monday whether Brooke Bennett had been a victim of the so-called "Breckenridge program" allegedly used by Jacques to coerce his young victim into having sex. In an interview with police, the victim, who was nine when the alleged assaults first began, said she had been "enrolled" in the program with three other girls.
Baker said Tuesday that no other victims had come forward but said authorities were working with the Department of Children and Families.
"I was in a conversation today with DCF and made plans to deal with that if any other victims come forward," Baker said.
Investigators spent much of Tuesday searching in and around Jacques' home. Three investigators spotted in a pasture behind Jacques' residence followed a tree line before doubling back toward his two-story house.
At approximately 2 p.m., a half-dozen units from New England K-9 Search and Rescue departed the Jacques property. Three drove to Sunset Lake in Brookfield, where police had focused their search over the weekend.
Handlers walked the dogs - trained to detect human remains, according to one handler - back and forth along the Floating Bridge. Anglers watched from their perches on the bridge; three swimmers did laps around the lake in the distance.
Baker said state police have executed about 25 physical and electronic search warrants over the course of the investigation.
Jacques, still being held for lack of $250,000 bail, has a history of sexual violence in Orange County, where he was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and kidnapping in July of 1993. He was sentenced to six to 20 years in prison for those crimes and now appears on the Vermont Sex Offender Registry.
Baker would not disclose Monday what role Internet social networking played in the Breckenridge program or in Bennett's disappearance. He did say, however, that police zeroed in on Jacques after combing through computer evidence.
"Late Saturday and into early Sunday morning, information was developed as a result of forensic examination of computers that helped us change the direction of the investigation," Baker said.
Brooke Bennett was last seen Wednesday morning outside the Cumberland Farms in Randolph. According to police, Jacques dropped her off there after she said she wanted to meet a friend and go visit the friend's sick relative at a hospital.
Police have since raised doubts that such a rendezvous was planned and have been focusing their investigation on contacts the girl is believed to have made through the MySpace social networking Web site.
Police would not say Monday whether Jacques was the source of that story.
The investigation initially centered in Brookfield, where items of clothing belonging to Brooke Bennett were found near the side of Route 65 Thursday. Police confirmed Monday that it was Jacques who discovered the clothes.
The Randolph community will stage a candlelight vigil at the Gazebo on Main Street in Randolph Wednesday night at 8 p.m. Baker said members of the Vermont State Police will attend the event.
"Our efforts right now, our unfettered efforts, are to locate Brooke and bring her home to her family," Baker said.
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