Jacques to Serve Life Term
Randolph Man Accepts Deal To Avoid Death Penalty
Jim Bennett receives comfort from Elaine Stockwell of Braintree, Vt., at the gazebo in downtown Randolph, Vt., before a memorial for Bennetts daughter, Brooke, on July 2, 2008. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
An undated photo released by Vermont State Police shows Brooke Bennett. (AP Photo/Vermont State Police)
Michael Jacques appears in Orange Superior Court in Chelsea, Vt., on June 30, 2008. (AP Photo/Pool, Stefan Hard)
Burlington — Michael Jacques, the man accused of raping and killing his 12-year-old niece in 2008, has agreed to plead guilty to all charges in exchange for avoiding the death penalty, federal prosecutors said Friday.
The surprise decision by prosecutors to enter into a plea agreement with Jacques came just weeks before a scheduled trial in the murder of Brooke Bennett, whose death led to changes in state laws governing sex offenders.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder signed off on the plea deal after Jacques’ attorneys asked the Justice Department to reconsider a 2009 decision to seek the death penalty against their client, the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Burlington said in a news release Friday evening.
Prosecutors said Jacques would plead guilty in the “near future,” at a hearing in U.S. District Court in Burlington, and would waive all rights to an appeal.
Tom Harty, the pastor of United Church of Bethel who officiated at Brooke’s funeral, said he believed news of the plea deal would provide a sense of relief for those closely affected by her violent death.
“This brings a sad saga to an end, and it’s probably the best resolution for the family and the community, because it won’t be dredged up again and relived on the stand,” Harty said. “This allows Randolph and the community to get beyond this. As we know from experience, closure is never easy in these things.”
Reached at home Friday night, Brooke’s grandmother, Lucinda Milne of Braintree, Vt., said she was unaware of the plea bargain.
“I’m not sure how I feel,” Milne said. She declined further comment.
Brooke’s mother, Cassandra Adams, and father, Jim Bennett, did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Prosecutors said their decision to abandon pursuit of the death penalty for Jacques in exchange for a guilty plea was made in part to spare a key witness from having to testify in the case. Police alleged the witness — a teenage girl — had been sexually abused by Jacques over a period of years and unwittingly helped lead Brooke to her death.
Harty, who knows the witness, said that she subsequently has gone on to lead a productive life.
“It has been gratifying to see the way she has been able to make a normal life, and this helps her move on,” Harty said. “She has proven to be remarkably resilient and strong.”
On Friday night, Randolph resident Felicia Allard was pumping gas at that same Cumberland Farms station where Brooke and Jacques were captured by surveillance cameras shortly before her disappearance.
Allard recalled that she had almost crossed paths with the pair that day more than five years ago.
“I was in there shortly after he (Jacques) was in the store,” Allard said.
After hearing about Jacques’ plea deal, Allard said she was conflicted by the outcome.
“I think he definitely needs to serve life in prison, but I don’t know how I feel about the death penalty,” she said. “The death penalty is so quick and immediate, and they don’t have any time to really feel the repercussions of what they did.”
She added, “But do I think jail is necessarily punishment? When you get three square meals a day and education, I don’t know.”
Others in Randolph Friday night expressed firmer opinions.
Resident Erica Jacobs, 23, who knew Brooke’s family, said holding Jacques in jail for life is a waste of money.
“Is there a reason we are saving him — not killing him? I think for a man who did very, very horrible things, we are spending an awful lot of money on him,” Jacobs said.
Gordon Fields, of Randolph, who was once Brooke Bennett’s school bus driver, said financial considerations aside, the plea deal served justice.
“The verdict the way it is, I think, is probably better than the death penalty because he is going to have to live with it,” Fields, a former Randolph police officer, said. “The death penalty in his situation is an easy way out.”
Ben Jickling, who was the senior class speaker in June at Randolph Union High School in what would have been Brooke’s graduating class, noted Friday night that the small class of about 60 students had recognized both Brooke and Nathan Allard, another classmate who had died in 2007 in a car accident, at graduation.
“We were young. We were all kind of shocked that something like this, you read about, would happen in Randolph,” said Jickling, a Brookfield, Vt., resident who will attend Dickinson College. “Obviously it was tough for a lot of people that something like that would happen in such a safe place.”
Prosecutors alleged that in late June 2008, Jacques, a convicted sex offender, coerced a teenage girl he had been sexually abusing to help him lead Brooke, who lived in Braintree, Vt., to his home on East Bethel Road in Randolph.
Jacques allegedly drugged and raped Brooke, before suffocating her with a plastic bag and burying her in a shallow grave near his home. Police found her body a week later.
Her disappearance triggered Vermont’s first Amber Alert, and her death prompted the Legislature to reform sex offender laws.
Jacques, who previously had been convicted of sexually assaulting four underage girls and two adults, initially pleaded not guilty to a charge of kidnapping, death resulting. He was charged under a relatively new law, the Adam Walsh Act, which allows federal charges to be filed in kidnap cases where the telephone or Internet were used in commission of the crime.
The deal brought an abrupt end to a case that was about to return to center stage in Vermont. A hearing to sort through trial logistics was scheduled next week, and jury selection was slated to begin in September. Lawyers said that 5,000 prospective jurors would likely have to be called in find to an unbiased panel.
Jacques, 47, is being held in a federal prison in Brooklyn. His attorneys, David Ruhnke and Jean Barrett, could not be reached for comment late Friday.
With investigators saying she had first-hand knowledge of Jacques’ plans and Brooke’s final moments, the 14-year-old girl would have been a key witness in the upcoming trial. Prosecutors said the “potential impact,” on her was part of their decision to enter into the agreement.
Valley News Staff Writer John Gregg contributed to this report. Mark Davis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3304.