Monday, July 21, 2008

Right-Wing TV Pundit O'Reilly Sticks Foot in Mouth Over Death of Vermont Girl, 12


Fox News Channel Talk-Show Host Slams State for Third Time in Two Years in Wake of Brooke Bennett Tragedy by Sending His Producer to 'Ambush' Its GOP Governor -- Then Shooting Off His Big Mouth About the Victim in a Way That Could Further Injure Her Family and Potentially Jeopardize Case Against Suspects in Her Death

A father and daughter look at memorials to Brooke Bennett before ...

A father and daughter view memorials to Brooke Bennett shortly before her funeral on July 9 in Randolph, Vermont. The 12-year-old girl, who lived in the nearby town of Braintree, disappeared last month and was later found dead near the home of her uncle, Michael Jacques. The 42-year-old Jacques, a convicted sex offender, has been charged with kidnapping her, but authorities have yet to make public details on how the girl died or whether she was sexually assaulted -- contrary to a bold assertion by Fox News Channel talk-show host Bill O'Reilly that she was "raped." (Photo: Toby Talbot/AP)


By Skeeter Sanders

As residents of this blogger's home state of Vermont come to grips with the tragedy of a 12-year-old girl from the central part of the state who vanished and was later found dead, outrage has erupted among Vermonters -- from Governor Jim Douglas on down -- toward an outsider: Fox News Channel's acerbic, New York City-based talk-show host, Bill O'Reilly.

For the third time in two years -- and the second in less than a month -- the right-wing O'Reilly has cast aspersions on the Green Mountain State for allegedly being soft on sexual predators who attack children, in the wake of the arrest of Michael Jacques on kidnapping charges in connection with the disappearance June 25 of his 12-year-old niece, Brooke Bennett, of the tiny Vermont town of Braintree.

Bennett's body was found on July 2 buried in a shallow, makeshift grave on property owned by Jacques in the nearby town of Randolph. Jacques, a convicted sex offender, was already facing charges of sexually assaulting another, unidentified relative under 18 years of age when Brooke's body was found.

As this edition of The 'Skeeter Bites Report went online early Monday morning, authorities had not made public details on the cause of Brooke's death, although the medical examiner did rule after an autopsy that the death was a homicide.

O'Reilly -- Without Evidence -- Claims Girl Was 'Raped'

Nor have the authorities said whether the 12-year-old had been sexually assaulted. Yet O'Reilly, in the July 14 broadcast of his Fox News talk show, "The O'Reilly Factor," boldly asserted that Bennett was "raped," according to a transcript of the broadcast published Thursday in The Times Argus, the daily newspaper of the state capital of Montpelier.

O'Reilly's remark, uttered in the absence -- for now -- of any supportive evidence, potentially could jeopardize the state and federal investigation and prosecution of Jacques and of Bennett's former stepfather, Raymond Gagnon of San Antonio, Texas.

If it turns out that Brooke wasn't sexually assaulted, O'Reilly's assertion would also pour salt into the already-gaping emotional wounds of Brooke's family.

Jacques, 42, served more than four years in prison and was under strict probationary supervision for eight years afterward for kidnapping and sexually assaulting an 18-year-old woman in 1992. He was released from probation in 2006, despite fierce opposition from prosecutors.

Gagnon, 40, was indicted by a federal grand jury in Texas on charges of possessing and transporting child pornography. Gagnon, who was arrested by authorities in Vermont on federal charges of obstruction of justice in the search for Brooke, is also under indictment in Alabama on state charges of possessing and distributing "kiddie porn."

Authorities did not go into detail about Gagnon's role in the Bennett case, but there were unconfirmed reports that he allegedly had a laptop computer destroyed. It is not known if the computer contained pornographic images of children.

O'Reilly Producer 'Ambushes' Douglas at Governors' Conference

An "O'Reilly Factor" crew "ambushed" Governor Douglas, a Republican, on the streets of Philadelphia on July 12, peppering him with incendiary questions such as, "About how many dead girls are we going to tolerate here?" and "How do you explain that to the American people?" in a clear attempt to rattle him.

But Douglas, who was in Philadelphia attending the annual summer conference of the National Governors' Association, not only kept his cool, but also lectured "Factor" producer Jesse Watters -- who claimed that Vermont was "out of control" -- that he is working toward putting "in place laws that deal harshly with people who commit crimes like that."

Douglas reminded Watters, "I attended the funeral of Brooke Bennett last week and met with her family, her friends, with people in the community. [Bennett's death has had] a devastating impact, and we need to be sure that we do something about it."

Douglas said he would call a special session of the Vermont Legislature -- which normally meets from January to May each year -- once legislative leaders come up with a package of measures to toughen the state's child-predator laws.

The governor's answer didn't satisfy O'Reilly -- who has repeatedly targeted states that he believes are soft on sex offenders -- and branded Vermont as being "the worst in protecting the kids."

O'Reilly implied that the governor is weak on protecting children from sexual predators, telling his viewers that while he considered Douglas to be a "good man," he doesn't believe him to be "a strong man."

O'Reilly's Blast Draws Counterblasts from Douglas Spokesman, Public

The governor's press spokesman, Jason Gibbs, promptly blasted O'Reilly -- who has a well-known reputation of being hot-headed on such issues as sexual predators and illegal immigration.

Gibbs told reporters that O'Reilly "has no interest in telling the truth to his viewers," only in generating controversy to boost his ratings -- which have come under increasing pressure in recent months from arch-rival Keith Olbermann's talk show on MSNBC. The unabashedly liberal Olbermann has mercilessly challenged O'Reilly's credibility on the air at every opportunity.

Gibbs vowed that Vermonters won't be intimidated by O'Reilly's bombastic attacks. "What Bill O'Reilly says and does has no influence on public policy in Vermont," he said.

Readers of The Times Argus were much more blunt in their criticism of O'Reilly. In comments posted on the newspaper's Web site, Paul Parsons tore into O'Reilly's broadside.

"I am not a supporter of Douglas by any means, but this goes beyond the pale of decency," Parsons wrote. "Who is this clown [O'Reilly], who has his own issues with sexual harassment, to challenge what we do in this state? Why doesn't he run for office and then try and change somewhere to what he thinks is the right way to live?"

Wrote reader Zachary Hughes, "I have had it with Nancy Grace [who hosts a no-holds-barred criminal-justice show on CNN Headline News] and Bill-O [Olbermann's nickname for O'Reilly] trash-mouthing Vermont! How much longer is Vermont gonna take this?"

Gay Vermont Lawmaker Also Draws O'Reilly's Wrath -- Twice

O'Reilly's blast at Douglas was the latest in a series of on-air attacks by the right-wing commentator against the Green Mountain State -- arguably, one of the nation's most politically liberal and socially libertarian -- for what he sees is Vermont's allegedly "kid-gloves" approach toward sex offenders.

Last year, he heaped scorn on the state amid a roiling controversy over what he viewed as a light sentence against a sex offender imposed by now-retired Vermont Judge Edward Cashman.

O'Reilly took dead aim at Democratic state Representative William Lippert, chairman of the Vermont House Judiciary Committee, for not advancing a committee bill to impose a Vermont version of Florida's "Jessica's Law," which sets up 25-year minimum sentences for those convicted of sex offenses against children and forces them to wear global positioning devices after their release to allow corrections officials to monitor their whereabouts at all times.

As he did to Governor Douglas two weeks ago, Watters confronted Lippert during the final days of the 2007 legislative session while the lawmaker was eating breakfast at the state capitol building's cafeteria. Watters bombarded Lippert with questions demanding to know why he was "passing bills that protect transsexual rights" instead of Jessica's Law.

Lippert, who is openly gay, sponsored a bill in 2006 that banned discrimination against transgendered individuals. Douglas vetoed it, saying it was too vague, but signed a revised version of the measure into law the following year.

Lawmakers of all three parties in the Legislature -- Democrats, Republicans and the left-wing Progressive Party -- quickly rallied around Lippert after his confrontation with Watters and denounced his ambush of the Democrat, who represents the town of Hinesburg.

But O'Reilly remained unbowed -- and attacked Lippert again as a "villain" in a July 8 broadcast, blaming him for Jacques' previous sexual-assault conviction. ". . .And this girl who got raped and murdered, it's on Lippert, because he's the guy that led the charge against Jessica's Law," O'Reilly roared.

Yet even O'Reilly's own legal analyst admitted -- and was forced to correct him later in that same broadcast -- that Jessica's Law could not have applied to Jacques' earlier conviction in 1992 because his victim then was 18 years old and legally an adult.

O'Reilly's public blasts have the potential of making it harder for authorities to prosecute either Jacques or Gagnon in the Bennett case, as the exact nature of the girl's death and the question of whether she was sexually abused remains unknown to the public.

Episode Does Expose Vulnerability in Vermont's Handling of Sex Offenders

O'Reilly notwithstanding, the Bennett case does point to a vulnerability in Vermont's system of dealing with sex offenders.

In 2006, the Vermont Corrections Department recommended Jacques' release after his probation officer, Richard Kearney, wrote that Jacques had "satisfied and fulfilled all case specific conditions of probation put in place to reduce his risk of re-offense."

Despite strong objections from prosecutors, Vermont District Court Judge Amy Davenport ruled that Jacques' probation could end as long as no further violations occurred.

"According to Mr. Jacques' probation officer, he is a 'probation success story,'" Davenport wrote in her order. "He is married and has a child. He and his wife own a home in which they reside. He has been very successful in his employment and is now in a position which entails significant responsibility."

Prosecutors insisted that Jacques remain under probation for the maximum term of 20 years, because of the brutal nature of his earlier crime. While Davenport acknowledged that point, she noted that Jacques had completed a sex offender treatment program in 2000. In the judge's opinion, that met the terms of his sentence and that Jacques no longer needed to remain under probation.

Under those circumstances, the probation officer and the judge made what they thought was the right call based on the evidence they had to work with and the law they had to work under. Would a "Jessica's Law" have made a difference? No, since Jacques' victim in the 1992 case was legally an adult.

Would a "Jessica's Law" now on the books in Vermont make a difference if Jacques is ultimately convicted of sexually abusing his other, 14-year-old unidentified relative? Of course it would. Would it make a difference in the Bennett case? It's too early to know, based on what's been made public so far.

But the bottom line is that Bill O'Reilly has a tendency to be too quick with his accusatory trigger finger -- especially when he points it at someone before all the facts are in and ends up doing more harm than good.

Back off, Bill!

# # #

Volume III, Number 42
Copyright 2008, Skeeter Sanders. All rights reserved.








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