Brooke Bennett’s Loved Ones Confront Killer at Sentencing: ‘Hell Is Waiting for You’
Jim Bennett, center, and members of Brooke Bennett's family exit the federal building in Burlington, Vt. Tuesday, May 20, 2014 following the sentencing of Michael Jacques. Jacques received a sentence of life in prison plus 70 years for the 2008 rape and murder of Brooke Bennett, who was his niece. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
FILE - In this June 30, 2008 file photo, Michael Jacques, of Randolph Center, appears in Chelsea District Court in Chelsea, Vt. The Vermont man pleaded guilty Aug. 27, 2013, to kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing his 12-year-old niece, avoiding a federal death penalty trial. Jacques is scheduled to be formally sentenced to life without the possibility of paroleon May 20, 2014. (AP Photo/Times Argus, Stefan Hard, Pool, File)
Lucinda Milne speaks to reporters following the sentencing of her granddaughter Brooke Bennett's murderer Michael Jacques in federal court in Burlington, Vt. Tuesday, May 20, 2014. Milne gave a statement, speaking directly to Jacques, during the hearing in which he was sentenced to life in prison plus 70 years.
Valley News - James M. Patterson
With Vermont Attorney General Bill Sorrell, left, at his side, United Stated Attorney Tristram Coffin, right, reads a prepared statement for reporters following the sentencing of Michael Jacques outside federal court in Burlington, Vt. Tuesday, May 20, 2014. Jacques was sentenced to life in prison plus 70 years for the rape and murder of his niece.
Valley News - James M. Patterson
Burlington — It’s been nearly six years since 12-year-old Brooke Bennett was raped and murdered. In that time, her mother, Cassandra Adams, filled five notebooks scribbling the words she might say to her daughter’s killer when given the opportunity.
That day came on Tuesday, at the sentencing hearing for Michael Jacques, and she wanted to be heard.
“You coward, look at me,” Adams said to Jacques from across the courtroom.
She had positioned herself next to the witness stand, directly opposite the defendant’s table where Jacques, her former brother-in-law, sat.
Her anger spilled out: “You’re a monster and a filthy pig.”
Jacques, 48, pleaded guilty to his niece’s 2008 killing in August. During a hearing on Tuesday in the U.S. District Court in Burlington, he was formally sentenced — life in prison, plus 70 years, without hope for parole.
The emotional hour-long sentencing hearing was Adams’ chance to confront Jacques.
“I hate you,” she said, “I despise you and you make me physically ill.”
When she was finished after several minutes, Adams walked back to her seat with her eyes fixed on Jacques. “You coward,” she said once more, as she passed by the defendant’s table.
Jacques on Tuesday also addressed the court, his first public remarks in the nearly six years since his arrest. His statement was brief and included an apology.
He began by saying he realized that few people are likely to care about what he had to say. He said he is rightfully haunted each day by his own actions, but that Brooke’s loved ones also must live with what he did, though they shouldn’t have to.
“ I am guilty,” Jacques said. “I alone am the reason why you feel pain today. And for that I am very sorry, and I am ashamed.”
When handing down the sentence, Judge William Sessions III called Jacques’ crime one of “unspeakable horror” and “grotesque brutality.”
Sessions said Jacques should be “forever banished from our community and never again experience freedom,” and he ordered Jacques to “never ever be released from prison for any reason.”
The courtroom was packed with about 70 people, including a dozen members of the media and the police investigators who worked on the case.
About 15 members of Brooke’s family walked in together, all wearing purple, Brooke’s favorite color. Before Adams sat down, she hugged U.S. Attorney Tristram Coffin, who was standing in the front of the room.
The first family member to give a statement was Brooke’s father, Jim Bennett .
Bennett said he doesn’t want to be sad when he thinks of his daughter, but said it’s hard to think of her without thinking about how she died. He listed the moments he would never get to experience with her: the opportunity to help with her homework, to teach her how to drive and to walk her down the aisle.
“Michael Jacques sits here in the courtroom and shows no remorse,” Jim Bennett said.
Brooke’s maternal grandmother, Lucinda Milne, stood in the same place as her daughter — next to the witness stand, directly in front of Jacques — when she addressed her former son-in-law directly, calling him Michael.
“What was your final goal?” Milne asked. “Did you gain some satisfaction?”
She said that every person is taught right from wrong as children and it’s up to individuals to make good decisions. But Jacques, she said, plotted and schemed in order to commit one of the “most horrific crimes known to man.”
She too said she saw no remorse on Jacques’ face and she hoped that he would someday be remorseful.
“Rot in prison, Michael,” she said. “Hell is waiting for you.”
Brooke’s older sister Savanna Andress spoke about her sister as a “beautiful, amazing 12-year-old.” She paused for a short video of Brooke to play on the two televisions in the courtroom.
In the brief clip, Brooke was in a classroom, and the video paused on a close-up of Brooke smiling, her brown hair pulled back in braids. Andress said she doesn’t want to waste any more energy thinking about Jacques.
“After sentencing, you no longer exist to me,” Andress said. “I will spit on your grave and celebrate.”
Prosecutors had originally sought the death penalty in the case but agreed to a sentence of life in prison without parole as part of a plea agreement.
In a sentencing memorandum filed in court late last week, prosecutors wrote, “No sentence can undo Jacques’ crimes, but on May 20 this court should banish Jacques — a pedophile, a psychopath, a monster, the embodiment of evil who preyed upon girl after girl after girl for more than two decades — from civil society to imprisonment for the remainder of his life.”
Jacques was a registered sex offender when he murdered Brooke, and the case caused an overhaul of the state’s sex offender laws.
“The scope of his serial sexual offenses, and his predatory murder of Brooke, is unprecedented in Vermont history,” according to the memorandum.
During the hearing, Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Nolan gave an account of Jacques’ history of sexual predation and how he lured Brooke to her death.
Between 1981 to 1992, Jacques is alleged to have raped a series of teenage girls, according to the sentencing memorandum, and in 1993, he was convicted of aggravated sexual assault and kidnapping and served a prison sentence before being released on probation.
Once free, Jacques continued sexually assaulting girls, Nolan said, and in 2003, Jacques wrote a letter to a 9-year-old girl referred to in court papers as J1. The letter informed J1 that she had been chosen to be part of a fictitious secret society called “Breckenridge” and if she did not have sex with Jacques, she would be killed.
During the next five years, J1 received text messages, emails and notes from Jacques under the guise of the secret society that ordered her to have sex with Jacques and threatened that her family would be killed if she did not comply.
In 2008, Jacques decided to target 12-year-old Brooke, and used J1, who by then was 14, to help lure Brooke to him.
J1 was ordered to forward a text message from Jacques to Brooke that made it appear a boy Brooke had a crush on was asking her to attend a pool party at Jacques’ house.
“OMG, he really sent those to you?” Brooke replied. “That’s awesome.”
There was no pool party, however, and when Brooke went to Jacques’ Randolph home on June 25, 2008, he sexually assaulted her before wrapping a plastic grocery bag around her head and strangling her. He buried her in a shallow grave in the woods a mile away.
Afterward, in the days between the murder and when Brooke’s body was recovered, Jacques attempted to mislead police by hacking into Brooke’s MySpace page and making posts suggesting she had run away.
In the sentencing memorandum, prosecutors wrote that Jacques did all of this for “sexual gratification.”
Ultimately, Jacques pleaded guilty last fall to kidnapping, death resulting, four charges of producing child pornography and one charge of possessing child pornography. The child pornography charges are related to Jacques’ abuse of J1.
Defense attorney David Ruhnke declined to comment after the hearing.
Coffin, the prosecutor, said afterward that a trial in the case would have been traumatic for those involved.
“It was a really difficult decision, but in the end (U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder) made that decision and we believe it was the right one,” Coffin said.
Jacques had been held in a federal prison in Brooklyn pending sentencing, and Coffin said the Federal Bureau of Prisons would decide where Jacques would live out his days.
In a phone interview Tuesday afternoon, Milne, who suffered a heart attack last month, said the stress of the legal process has taken a toll on the family but that it was important to take the opportunity to confront Jacques.
“I could see that he was looking at me and he knew exactly what I was talking about,” Milne said. “I think we’re all kind of just relieved that it’s over.”
Adams said in a phone interview after the hearing that she didn’t believe a word of Jacques’ apology.
“I still didn’t feel any compassion,” she said.
Both Milne and Adams said after the hearing that Jacques should have been sentenced to death, but they’re glad the court proceedings are complete.
“I actually feel that the weight has come off a little,” Adams said in the interview. “I was able to get some of my anger out and get it off my chest.”
When Adams first started jotting words down in a notebook about what she wanted to say to Jacques, the words were all “aggressive and ugly.” When she spoke Tuesday, however, not all of her word were spoken in anger.
She recited a poem, and she shared details of Brooke’s birth. It will be six years next month since her daughter was taken from her, and she said she thinks some of the fury she felt has subsided.
“I think I have put it aside and buried it a little,” Adams said . “I probably have to let some of it go.”
Sarah Brubeck can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3223.