"It's been a nightmare," said Cassandra Gagnon. The pain of losing her daughter is still overwhelming. Six months ago Brooke Bennett was murdered; her Uncle Michael Jacques is facing federal charges for kidnapping and killing the 12-year-old girl.
"I want to prevent this from happening to another family," said Gagnon, "I want to somehow be involved."
So Gagnon came to the statehouse to track work on a new sex offender bill. Following Brooke's death, lawmakers held five public hearings, to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it. Brooke's Uncle Michael Jacques is a registered sex offender and had avoided prosecution for earlier sex crimes.
"The Jacques case is a textbook for what can go wrong and he was able to manipulate the system to get away with various offenses over the years," said Sen. Dick Sears, D-Bennington County.
The bill has 34 changes - including:
expanding the DNA database to include people arrested on felony charges
new prevention programs for schools
banning deferred sentences for sex offenders
banning pre-trial depositions of child victims of alleged sex crimes.
and giving prosecutors the option of a 25-year mandatory minimum sentence for sex crimes on kids under 16 years old
"I think long range the preventive measures that are in this bill will protect Vermont children for years to come," said Sen. Sears.
"I want to speak for my daughter Brooke," explained Gagnon, "and help (lawmakers) realize how big of a deal this is."
Senator Sears wants to move quickly on this bill. He hopes to have the Senate pass it by the second week of the legislature, in January, and then it will go to the full house, with the goal of having it to the Governor's desk for his signature by Town Meeting Day.
For the first time, Michael Jacques wife wrote to lawmakers, saying that prevention is key, and there needs to be better communication across state agencies about offenders. Denise Jacques said lives have been "shredded to pieces" and she wanted to testify in person, but lawmakers say prosecutors asked her not to.