BURLINGTON – Brooke Bennett's uncle concocted an elaborate ruse to misdirect police investigating the disappearance of his 12-year-old niece, according to federal court papers released Wednesday.
Michael Stephen Jacques, 42, told police he last saw the Braintree girl after dropping her off at a convenience store in Randolph last Wednesday morning. But minutes after the drop-off, a juvenile witness has told police, Jacques picked Bennett up and returned with her to his Randolph Center home.
The witness testimony, made public Wednesday in federal court documents, contradicts prior statements from Jacques and provides the most detailed evidence yet linking him to Bennett's disappearance.
It was an unexpected twist in a rapidly evolving case that has drawn national attention.
With Jacques still behind bars on an unrelated sexual assault charge, police narrowed their search for Bennett on Wednesday to a rural dirt road near Jacques' East Bethel Road property. They uncovered her body from a freshly dug grave near her uncle's home that evening, and U.S. attorneys announced shortly after that Jacques would be charged with federal kidnapping charges in her disappearance.
"Brooke was located as a result of information developed during the search of Michael Jacques' residence," said Col. James Baker, director of the Vermont State Police.
Police detailed their accusations against Jacques in an eight-page affidavit filed in a separate case.
Ray Gagnon, 40, of San Antonio, Texas, appeared in U.S. District Court in Burlington on Wednesday afternoon on charges of obstruction of justice for destroying evidence related to the Bennett investigation.
Within the document, however, statements attributed to an unnamed juvenile witness indicate Jacques lied about his involvement with Bennett on the day she disappeared.
When Bennett went missing last week, authorities initially characterized the disappearance as an Internet relationship gone bad.
Bennett's MySpace Internet social network account, police said, indicated the Braintree girl may have been meeting up with an online companion before she was last seen last Wednesday morning. That MySpace correspondence, included in the affidavit (go to timesargus.com to read the redacted affidavit), referenced a trip to Texas:
I do want to see you in the morning so please meet me… u know where. I think i have a good plan
to sneak around this. My mom will kill me but then 'm going 2 Texas and will never get over it…
Police now say that Jacques posted that online communiqué on Bennett's MySpace account the night before she disappeared.
"Law enforcement believes that this posting was made to make it appear that Bennett was abducted by someone she met on the Internet or communicated with on the Internet," Special Agent Daniel Rachek with the FBI wrote in the federal affidavit.
Police interviewed Jacques at his home on the day after Bennett disappeared. During the conversation, Jacques directed them to the posting on Bennett's MySpace account, which he told them he'd visited shortly after the girl disappeared.
"Jacques advised the (police) detective that he required all his children to provide him with their passwords to their MySpace, including Bennett, his niece, who often used a computer at Jacques' residence," Rachek wrote in the affidavit. "Jacques further told the detective that, when Bennett had not returned home, Jacques logged onto Bennett's MySpace account and discovered that Bennett had accessed the account sometime after midnight on June 25 (the night of Bennett's disappearance)."
Jacques told police Bennett had asked him to drop her off at the convenience store so she could meet up with a friend and visit the friend's sick relative at a New Hampshire hospital. Jacques allegedly suggested to investigators that plan likely was a ruse to throw family off from her actual plans.
But the unnamed juvenile, who drove with Jacques and Bennett to the Cumberland Farms in Randolph, told police that Jacques had planned to bring Bennett back to his home instead. The girl, named as a victim in the aggravated sexual assault charge now pending against Jacques, had previously told police about the "Breckenridge program," in which she was forced to perform sexual acts on Jacques to improve her rating in the program.
She told police that Jacques had said Bennett was to be "initiated" into the club that Wednesday. And after dropping Bennett off, Jacques soon picked her up and returned with the two girls to his house, she said.
Bennett and the witness watched television upon returning, according to court papers.
Jacques eventually asked Bennett to go upstairs with him, the witness told police. The witness said she was later instructed by Jacques to leave the home with her "boyfriend," a juvenile boy.
She told police she did not see Bennett again.
Gagnon is Bennett's step father and returned to Vermont recently when he learned of her disappearance, according to his defense attorney. Gagnon was ordered held by a federal judge Wednesday pending a pretrial detention hearing on Monday, when prosecutors will discuss the nature of the charges against him.
It is unclear what role, if any, Gagnon played in Bennett's disappearance or murder.
In an interview Tuesday, police said Gagnon admitted to having asked his Texas landlord to destroy a personal computer, a laptop, that allegedly contained vast amounts of child pornography. They also say Gagnon altered Bennett's MySpace Web log in the hours after her disappearance – an action allegedly taken after communicating via telephone with Jacques. Authorities say he manually backdated revisions to make it appear as though Bennett had typed in the entries before she disappeared.
Authorities did not disclose in court papers what alterations were made or how they pertained to the case.
In interviews with police, the juvenile witness, a relative of Jacques, said she had been recruited into the "Breckenridge program" when she was 8 or 9 years old. Jacques, she told police, had been assigned by the program's "president" as her "trainer." The victim told police that Gagnon had been involved in at least one of the sexual assaults in June 2007.
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.
In an interview with police, the victim said she had been "enrolled" in the program with three other girls. Baker said Tuesday that no other victims had come forward. He also said he did not know whether there would be any other arrests in the case.
Jacques is scheduled to be charged in federal court on kidnapping charges Thursday morning.
It remains unclear why exactly federal authorities have jurisdiction over the case.
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