Jacques pleads guilty in plea deal
By Peter Hirschfeld
Vermont Press Bureau | August 28,2013
Brooke Bennett’s father, Jim Bennett, left, and mother, Cassandra Adams, right rear, walk with supporters after a plea hearing Tuesday in Burlington.
BURLINGTON — One of the highest-profile criminal cases in Vermont’s history neared its close Tuesday morning when Michael Jacques confessed to sexually assaulting and murdering his 12-year-old niece in 2008 after launching a twisted scheme to lure her into his Randolph home.
The 47-year-old Jacques who walked into U.S. District Court Tuesday was almost unrecognizable from the man arraigned in the same courtroom five years earlier. Noticeably heavier, and wearing a green sweater over a crisp white dress shirt open at the collar, Jacques entered guilty pleas to six federal counts, including kidnapping with death resulting.
Under the terms of a plea deal with federal prosecutors, Jacques will serve life in prison with no possibility of parole. In exchange for his guilty pleas, prosecutors agreed to drop their bid for the death penalty.
The murder of Brooke Bennett in 2008 shocked the conscience of a state and spawned a slate of new laws aimed at thwarting the predation of Vermont children.
About a dozen family members of the victim sat quietly in a third-row bench, looking on as U.S. District Court Judge William Sessions asked Jacques if the allegations against him, relayed in detail by a federal prosecutor, were true.
“I’m afraid it is sir,” Jacques responded.
Asked whether the government could prove its case against Jacques, one of defendant’s lawyers, David Ruhnke, said “without a doubt, your honor.”
In a 10-minute presentation to Sessions, Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Nolan offered new details about a case that first entered the public arena when Brooke Bennett was reported missing on the night of June 25, 2008.
Seven days later, police would discover the Braintree girl’s body in a shallow grave off a logging road about one mile away from Jacques’ residence.
But as Nolan’s narrative conveyed, Jacques’ plot had its roots in a phone call made to another girl in 2003, in which a man with scary voice commanded that 9-year-old girl to, according to Nolan Tuesday, “hurry to her bedroom and look under her pillow.”
There, the victim, referred to as “J1” in court documents, found a note informing her she was one of three recruits selected by the “Breckenridge Club” to enter a “sex training” program for young girls. According to Nolan’s account Tuesday, the note told J1 that the first girl to perform oral sex on a man would live.
“The other two would be killed,” Nolan said. The note indicated that Jacques would be her “trainer.”
So began a five-year psychological capture in which J1 was ordered to perform sex acts with Jacques, lest “Breckenridge agents” kill her and her family. Ultimately, Jacques would force J1 into the role as his unwilling accomplice in the murder of Brooke Bennett.
Family members weren’t available for interviews outside the Burlington court building Tuesday, but in an interview with the Burlington Free Press last week, Brooke Bennett’s father, James Bennett, said he wasn’t happy with a plea deal that spared the life of his daughter’s confessed killer.
In a statement announcing the change of plea, however, U.S. District Attorney Tristram Coffin said the prospect of forcing J1 to sit on the witness stand during a jury trial figured in the government’s decision to accept the plea bargain.
Nolan referred questions about the case to Coffin; Coffin did not return calls for comment.
At trial, J1 would have had to go into detail about a “Breckenridge Club” that Nolan said was a fiction orchestrated entirely by Jacques, who went to extreme measures to perpetrate his plot.
On at least two occasions, according to Nolan, family pets at J1’s home were found killed, supposedly by Breckenridge agents. The agents, “Charles” and “Eric,” communicated with J1 via notes at first, and later by email and text message. Jacques manufactured both identities, and was the sole author of communiques with the girl, he admitted Tuesday.
In 2008, Jacques used his control over J1 to enlist her in a plan to lure Brooke Bennett to his home under the guise of a pool party at which a schoolyard crush of Bennett’s would be in attendance. The guise included text messages, written by Jacques and sent by J1 to Brooke Bennett, that J1 said came from the crush.
Nolan said “Brooke’s response was enthusiastic.”
“OMG, he really sent those to you?” Nolan said, reading aloud from Bennett’s message. “That is awesome.”
Brooke Bennett would later secure permission from her mother to attend the pool party, and stay overnight at Jacques’ home — where the party would be held — the night before.
Nolan said Jacques took great pains in advance to throw investigators off the track. He asked J1 to secure a semen sample from another boy prior to Bennett’s murder, a piece of evidence he planted with Brooke Bennett’s underwear and shoe on a Randolph road.
Nolan said Jacques convinced Brooke Bennett to come into his bedroom by telling her he wanted to show her a magic trick. Once he got her there, Nolan said, he drugged her, sexually assaulted her, and then pulled a plastic Wal-Mart shopping bag over her head to suffocate her.
Police didn’t take long to connect Jacques to the case — he was arrested on a separate charge three days after Bennett went missing, and arraigned on federal murder charges in August of 2008.
Jacques on Tuesday also pleaded guilty to four counts of production of child pornography, and one count of possession of child pornography. Under the terms of the plea deal, he will serve a 70-year sentence for those convictions concurrent to his life sentence for the kidnapping and murder.
Outside the courtroom after the hearing, Ruhnke, who along with Jean Barrett is part of a husband-wife criminal defense firm in New Jersey that specializes in death penalty cases, spoke briefly.
“The only comment we’re going to have for the press right now is we just think this is a fair and enlightened way to resolve this case,” Ruhnke said. “We may have more to say after the sentence is actually imposed. Right now we still have the case to complete.”
Sessions accepted Jacques’ plea Tuesday, and ordered the pre-trial report that must be completed prior to the sentencing hearing. Ruhnke said that process will likely take “a couple months.”
Sessions, who said a plea deal of the sort reached by prosecutors and the defense is “extraordinary” in its rarity, won’t have the authority to alter the terms of the negotiated sentence. He can, however, reject the plea bargain, in which case Jacques would be allowed to rescind his pleas.