Buster Olney's comfort zone is anywhere there's a baseball field. The long-time senior analyst and baseball writer for ESPN the Magazine is perfectly at home interviewing the game's biggest stars, or reporting breaking news on trades and free agent signings.
But this week, the Randolph native found himself in an unfamiliar and far more unsettling environment, when he attended the sentencing hearing for Michael Jacques, who admitted kidnapping and killing his 12-year-old niece, Brooke Bennett of Braintree, six years ago.
Like every Vermonter, Buster Olney was shocked and angered over the horrific crime, but he also had more reason than most to be focused on the story — because Michael Jacques was Buster Olney's childhood friend. Olney has been working on a book about the case and his connection with his friend turned murderer. Jacques will now spend the rest of his life in prison with no possibility of parole.
Olney told VPR that he was friends with Michael Jacques as a child, but he was not at the hearing to support Jacques in any way. Their friendship ended abruptly, in their twenties, when Olney learned of his friend’s first sexual crime.
Growing Up In Randolph Center
Olney met Jacques when his family moved to a farm in Randolph Center when he was 9 and Jacques was 7.
“His house was at the other end of a dirt road where we lived, about a mile and a half, and so growing up he was a kid I played little league with. I spent a lot of time up at the Jacques’ house because my family didn’t have a television and so as a young baseball fan, anytime there was a big game – the 1975 World Series, the Red Sox and the Reds – I’d go up and spend time with them. His dad was my Little League coach, we were very close friends, really until I went to boarding school when I was 15 years old,” Olney said.
They saw each other in the summer and around holidays.
“It’s just kind of the normal path that friendships can take when you move to another part of the world. When I’d come back I’d go and see him and we’d do the things we always did.” But when Olney came back to Vermont when he was 20 years old, they had a disturbing conversation. “From that, it was the first time I had any idea of the nature of his pedophilia.”
“There was no question, after I had the conversation with him, that there was something serious going on. The next day, I bumped into his father, and I asked him about things that Michael had said to me the day before. And he told me what had happened and that’s when I knew that there had been this other part of Michael that I had never seen before.”
Olney’s sister called him the day after Brooke Bennett was reported missing.
“I didn’t know anything about the case, I had no details about the case, but I knew that ultimately it would go back to him, because I knew from childhood what a liar he could be and I knew his history of sexual crimes. It felt like you were just waiting for the inevitable and a few days later that’s when it came that he was the person of primary interest from law officials,” Olney said.
A couple of Jacques’ siblings have been cooperating with Olney in the writing of the book. “A lot of times when you read a crime book, it’s someone who drops in from the outside, and in this case, I know everybody,” Olney said. “You know, the ground where Brooke was buried literally adjoins my family’s farm, in a place that we played as kids.”
Olney said that writing the book has been a challenge up until the sentencing hearing. Many of the people he planned to interview, including some of his own family members, haven’t been able to speak because they were potentially witnesses in the case against Jacques. But now they can.
Olney says being at the sentencing was absolutely surreal.
“It felt at times like you couldn’t feel your feet. Mike is two years younger than I am, and it’s like having your little brother, through the whole thing, where you’re just perplexed. And of course, it was heartbreaking to hear Brooke Bennett’s mother and father and grandmother and sister talk about their pain,” Olney said. “And all of the people that were involved in the investigation from the U.S. Attorney’s office were there as well, and their emotion, the handshakes and hugs, that they were sharing, it went beyond 'Okay, we have this case wrapped up.’ This was really emotional for them as well because of what it meant for them to try to do the best they could for Brooke’s family.”
Olney’s motivation for writing the book is to cast some light on the potential devastation of silence in cases of sexual assault. Bennett was not Jacques’ first victim, and there were opportunities along the way for interventions to prevent him from acting again.
“I’ve had people in my own family touched with this and I’ve had friends, and heard their stories. In the case of sexual assaults, for whatever reason, the instinct people have is, ‘Don’t talk about this.’ And that’s what went on for more than 20 years in Mike Jacques’ case. There was sign after sign after sign of this enormous problem and a lot of times it was completely ignored or washed over. And Brooke’s father, Jim Bennett, asked the question as he spoke to Michael and spoke to the court, ‘How did you slip through the cracks?” Olney said.
“Well, we know with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight how that happened. The nature of sexual crimes is they are often not treated in the way that a regular assault is. And people should never forget, that’s what these are – these are violent assaults and should be treated that way, and not something that you shouldn’t talk about.”