RANDOLPH, Vt. — Nearly 1,000 people turned out to say goodbye to a 12-year-old girl who disappeared last month and was later found dead.
The funeral service Wednesday for Brooke Bennett, of Braintree, featured scripture readings by several clergymen and a plea by Pastor Thomas Harty of the United Church of Bethel. He told the girl's grieving family members and friends that they gathered as a community to say "never again," then implored the audience to repeat the words several times.
Bennett's uncle, Michael Jacques, 42, has been charged with kidnapping her, but authorities have yet to say how she died.
Brooke would have turned 13 on July 12.
Her body was found Wednesday in a shallow grave in Randolph, a week after she was last seen on a convenience store video walking out of the store.
"There's a lot of anger, and also a lot of sadness that it happened to her, because she was such a sweet girl," said classmate Kelsey Tracy, 13, wiping away tears after she emerged from the wake. "She was never mean to anyone."
Amid sprays of flowers, snapshots from her short life and somber greetings, mourners Tuesday also remembered the girl at a wake in the building where she just graduated from seventh grade.
Filing past a series of photo collages and the girl's open casket, friends and acquaintances — some wearing lapel buttons with her smiling face, a "Brooke" ribbon extending from the bottom — shared condolences and tearful embraces with her mother and other family members in an auditorium at Randolph Union High School.
The early arrivals to Brooke's wake stood on line in a hallway, where collages showing photos of the girl were posted on a table, before writing in a guest book and then advancing toward the stage in the front of the auditorium, where Brooke's body — clad in a yellow dress — lay in the casket.
"There's a lot of emotion, that's for sure," said Chadwick Morse, 29, of South Royalton, a co-worker of Brooke's father, James Bennett. "It definitely brings it home."
The small-town character of the girl's community makes the loss all that much harder, according to Randy Garner, of the Day Funeral Home, which was handling the arrangements.
"Everybody here is really very, very close," he said.
"It's like it's happened to you. It's a personal experience, because everybody knows somebody in the family and you tend to think that in small communities things like this don't happen, but they do, and we just have to realize that," he said.
Jacques remained jailed on a federal kidnapping charge, but he hasn't been charged in her death. Her cause of death hasn't been released, but federal prosecutors said Monday she was a homicide victim.
Her former stepfather, Raymond Gagnon, 40, of San Antonio, is charged with obstruction of justice for allegedly having an acquaintance throw out his laptop computer as authorities were searching for Brooke. He has also been charged in Alabama with possession of child pornography.
Attorney General William Sorrell said Tuesday it's still unclear whether any sex ring existed. According to court documents, Jacques was planning to induct the girl into a sex ring when she disappeared after being seen at his home.
Asked if such a ring exists, Sorrell said: "We don't know for sure. However, we're not aware of any active organization trying to recruit children in Vermont for sex with adults. Law enforcement would be the first to raise alarm bells if that was the case.
"We don't know if there is, in fact, a Breckenridge society or something under a different name. What the investigation has found so far, as reflected in the filings in federal court, is that e-mails that allegedly were from members of this Breckenridge society originated from Jacques' home computer, or his workplace," Sorrell said.
Federal prosecutors in Alabama have charged Gagnon with possessing child pornography at his former home in Cullman, Ala.
U.S. Attorney Thomas Anderson declined comment Tuesday on whether Gagnon had images of Vermont children in what an affidavit said were child pornography images found on his computer.
According to the FBI, Jacques changed a posting to Brooke's MySpace account the night she was reported missing. Gagnon also accessed the account that night, but denied changing the posting, according to an affidavit.
Jacques and Gagnon, who have yet to enter pleas, are due back in U.S. District Court in Burlington on July 17. Telephone calls to their lawyers weren't returned Tuesday.