17-year-old Taylor Marie Behl was not your typical college freshman. She had weathered her mother's divorce, new marriage and the dissolution of that relationship, all the while traveling internationally and experiencing Europe as a resident. When she graduated from high school in Virginia's Fairfax County last year, she could count at least 15 different schools that she had attended across the world. By nearly all standards, she was a very savvy young woman who could handle the streets of most cities, to include Richmond, Va., where she enrolled as a student at 30,000 strong Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), located in the heart of that city. (Richmond Police reported 93 murders and 98 reported rapes for 2003, 6.08 times and 1.35 times respectfully the national average for such crimes for a city of 200,000, with all violent crimes reported at a rate twice that of the national average.) Nonetheless, it appeared to be a good fit, Taylor and VCU, but no one has seen her since about 10 p.m. on Labor Day -- Sept. 5. The law enforcement task force now working her missing person case is faced with the usual scenarios in such an equivocal case: was she the victim of an accident and simply not been found yet; was she a suicide victim; was she a kidnap or kidnap/homicide victim; or, like some college students and others in the recent past, did she simply run away from college and some personal problems, perhaps to resurface in another state or another country at some future date?
Investigation appears to suggest that she had a boyfriend that she may have broken up with the day she disappeared. She is also believed to have spent time with a 38-year-old local "amateur photographer" the night she disappeared, someone who has acknowledged having a physical relationship with her (the age of consent in Virginia is still 18). She may have also spent time that same night with a group of skateboarders she had met at VCU, so the list of "suspects," or more politically correct "persons of interest," could be somewhat lengthy. The so-called amateur photographer has been identified as Ben Fawley, who was arrested in Richmond last week and charged with possession of child pornography, this relating to 30 movies showing young children engaged in sexual acts, items found on one or more of the computers seized by police from his residence in their search for Behl.
Fawley, who at the time of arrest had changed his long and dyed blond hair to a short dyed black hairstyle (something like a Scott Peterson change in hair style and color...), has a prior arrest record for assault and other offenses. He is described as "a prolific Goth web master" who posts his photographs at "deviantArt.com." Of interest to the investigation is the fact that Fawley reported to police that on morning of Sept. 6, the day after Behl went missing, he was robbed, beaten, and kidnapped by unknown assailants who put a bag over his head, stuffed him into a car, and drove him to some unknown location where he was left on a dirt road. The investigating police officer indicated that Fawley "should be on medication for bipolar disorder and was intoxicated prior to the listed events." At that time the responding uniformed officer suggested his belief that Fawley had indeed been attacked. One wonders now, however, if any physical evidence of an attack at that time could have been evidence of Fawley's assault on another person, this on the same night that Taylor Behl disappeared.
This is what is supposedly known about the night Taylor went missing. She ate dinner at a local café with a young guy that she had just broken up with, and then she spent some time with Fawley, who indicated that he walked her back (from his home?) to her dorm room shortly after 10 p.m. that night, this after having loaned her a skateboard. Finding her roommate and roommate's boyfriend in her room, she grabbed her car keys, cell phone, school ID and forty dollars and said she was going skateboarding with a few friends. Although she is not known to have been seen since, she was not reported as missing until Sept. 7; therefore approximately 26 hours went by before any formal report concerning her was made to the local police. Local authorities initially worked Behl's disappearance as a missing persons case, even suggesting their initial opinion that she might have dropped out of sight of her own volition.
Twelve days later Behl's 1997 Ford Escort was found over a mile from campus with her Virginia tags replaced by stolen Ohio license plates. It was at that time that the investigation took on the nature of a criminal inquiry. The Ohio tags were reported stolen a few months ago in the Richmond area, so the authorities may well theorize that with her car found in the local area, perhaps hidden in plain sight with tags stolen in the local area, that the answer to her current status would also be found in the area around VCU and the city of Richmond VA. A multi-agency task force is investigation her disappearance with the FBI conducting the forensic examination on her now found vehicle and another car, one connected to a skateboarder that may have had some type of contact with Behl. Evidently a police search dog hit on this second car, leading police to arrest the person of interest related to this second vehicle for so far unrelated drug charges.
Mr. Fawley, who has lived in Ohio, allegedly has a history of "borrowing" or otherwise collecting license plates, another reason to look at him in this case. Whether we call him a person of interest or a suspect, he likely remains near the center of this investigation, he and the other skateboarders with whom Taylor may have spent at least part of Labor Day evening, plus any known local predators, etc. There is a $30,000-plus reward for information concerning Taylor Behl, and so far it appears that her credit cards and cell phone have not been used since her disappearance. Behl's family have now packed up her clothes and other belongings and removed them from her VCU dorm room. One way or the other, her first semester of college has ended almost before it began.
But where's Taylor? Is she an accident victim, a kidnap victim, a murder victim, or a victim of herself? The investigators will obtain the fingerprints and DNA of Fawley and any other suspect, but if they acknowledge a friendship with Behl, perhaps to include having been in her car, what might their fingerprints or DNA in her vehicle prove? It depends, is the answer. Where were the latent prints found and how did they get there? What if Taylor's prints or her DNA were to be found in her own car trunk? Do police believe Fawley's account of his last night with her as well as the report of his own assault the next morning - and what about the injuries sustained by Fawley? Are they evidence of him being victimized by unknown others, or are they consistent with scratches, cuts and abrasions that could suggest that he had assaulted someone just a few hours before? A lot needs to be learned concerning Behl, Fawley, and any other potential suspects. The best case is that college and life simply got to be too much for 17-year-old Taylor Behl and she needed to get away for awhile, something like 20-year-old University of Wisconsin student Audrey Seiler did in March 2004, later falsely reporting that she had been kidnapped at knife point. Of course there's also the infamous runaway bride Jennifer Wilbanks, who just this past April jumped onto a bus (and into the national headlines) and headed west to New Mexico, where she too reported herself the victim of a fabricated kidnapping, a story that fell apart as quickly as Audrey Seiler's story did. These women were not true criminals as there was no real criminal intent on their part. They simply got into something over their heads and made bad decisions that they'd probably take back if they only could. Like many of us do at times.
The bottom line, though, is that someone knows what happened to Taylor Behl, and the authorities need to get that someone to talk to them. We know that there are literally thousands of people reported as missing every year, some of which, unfortunately, were actually the victim of foul play. Names in the news have included Elizabeth Smart, Joyce Chiang, Laci Peterson, Jennifer Wilbanks, Latoyia Figueroa, Natalee Holloway, Julie Popovich and dozens of other men, women and children of every race and age who have gone missing. Such cases are many times resolved as a miracle, a mistake, or a murder, while others like Amy Bradley and George Smith, both who disappeared from cruise ships, continue to be counted among the missing. In many, but not all cases, the victim's status had some direct or indirect connection with someone they knew, perhaps a significant other. This is where the police always first go - who knew the victim, who was last with them? In the case of missing student Taylor Behl, her choice of friends and activities may well be the clue that allows authorities to determine what happen to the young coed. Until then, other VCU students will be left wondering if Taylor was the victim of another, or of herself.
Many of you have followed this case closely for the last three weeks. What do you think? Was Taylor Behl the victim of another or of herself?
Clint Van Zandt is an MSNBC analyst. He is the founder and president of Van Zandt Associates Inc. Van Zandt and his associates also developed LiveSecure.org, a Website dedicated "to develop, evaluate, and disseminate information to help prepare and inform individuals concerning personal and family security issues." During his 25-year career in the FBI, Van Zandt was a supervisor in the FBI's internationally renowned Behavioral Science Unit at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. He was also the FBI's Chief Hostage Negotiator and was the leader of the analytical team tasked with identifying the "Unabomber."