NBC News
Taylor Behl (right) is pictured in happier times with her mother, Janet Pelasara (left).
By Edie Magnus Correspondent
NBC News
updated 10/11/2005 12:21:09 PM ET 2005-10-11T16:21:09

Taylor Behl, like so many young people headed for college, was excited about going to Virginia Commonwealth University—and nervous too. Like so many young people today, she was writing about this and many other things online, in her own personal blog:

“I just graduated from high school and now I’m off to Richmond... I’m looking forward to meeting people that are in Richmond because I only know a few people down there.  But I love to meet new people in general so feel free to message me whenever to chat!”

The 17-year-old was eager to embrace the world and her new school and new friends.  Her virtual diary of poems, pictures, and personal reflections posted, now forms a kind of requiem for a life lost.       

Reporter Jim Nolan covered the Taylor Behl story for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Nolan: What’s so sad and tragic about this story and why it resonates with so many people is because every August, every September, thousands of mothers and fathers send their sons and daughters off to school for the first time. It’s an adventure.  It’s kind of a rite of passage.  And everyone hopes when you close the door and wave goodbye and drive off campus, that their child is going to be okay, that where you left them is where you’re going to find them. 

Taylor’s mother, Janet Pelasara, certainly thought her daughter was savvy enough take care of herself. She’d raised Taylor as a single working mom— through a couple of failed marriages and moves around the world.  They’d settled in Vienna, Virginia where Taylor graduated from James Madison High School, got a summer job at coffee shop Jammin’ Java, then started at VCU August 19th.

Pelasara: Her roommate was great. They got along fine. And her suite mates were very nice.

What Taylor's mother didn’t know was that, along with meeting all those new people at the big urban VCU campus, Taylor had immediately sought out one of the few people she already knew— someone she’d met back in February when she was a high-schooler checking out the campus as a prospective student.  He wasn’t a college student, but a 38-year-old amateur photographer named Ben Fawley.

Nolan: He seemed to be one of these people who hang around the periphery of college campuses. We know that he dated a number of women who seemed to be much younger than he was.

He portrayed himself on Web sites in very dark romantic terms: as a photographic artist and even former nude model, and as a goth master fascinated by the study of skulls and bones. 

But the real Ben Fawley? There was a lot about him and about his past that the teenager may not have known.

Nolan: It’s our understanding that at some point later, he had photographs taken of her, and they became intimate on at least one or two occasions.

There were inklings of a sexual relationship in their postings on line. In April, Fawley, writing under the name “Skulz”, wrote: “This very attractive girl climbed up into my bunk @ 407.”

Taylor, using a screen name that spells “Jailbait” backwards, replied: “Well, I was curious.”

"Skulz" replied: “So was I...fact I still am....” 

Nolan:  What’s interesting about Ben Fawley, and you look at him— to some people who might create a sort of Johnny Depp sort of look. And what’s interesting is if you go on Taylor’s Web site on her MySpace.com page, she lists a number of movies that she likes and a number of actors that she likes. One of them is Johnny Depp.

Taylor had told friends about Fawley— but not her mother, with whom she spent part of Labor Day weekend before heading back to college. 

Pelasara: I kissed her and hugged her. And as she walked away, I did double over in pain— physical pain. I hadn’t been dealing with her being gone very well. I don’t know if all of that was a premonition, or you know, just that maternal gut feeling. But yeah, I did double over in pain. But you have to let ‘em go.

By the evening of Monday, September 5th, Taylor was back at school.  According to what police have reconstructed about her whereabouts that night, she had dinner at the Village Cafe with a friend— and then at some point, she apparently went to be with Ben Fawley.

Nolan: Benjamin Fawley has told police that at 9:30 p.m., he had been with Taylor Behl.

Edie Magnus, Dateline correspondent:  And they had sex?

Nolan:  Benjamin Fawley told police that they had sex that night she returns to her dorm room at that time by herself.

Taylor entered her room at the VCU's Gladding Residence Hall at 10:20 p.m., according to the police. She found her roommate entertaining a male friend.

Nolan: According to VCU police, the roommate asked Taylor if she could go away for a few hours, and Taylor said fine.

So Taylor said she’d be out for a few hours skateboarding with her friends. She grabbed her car keys, cell phone, and a bit of cash.  

Nolan:  She didn’t take her purse. She didn’t take her credit cards. She didn’t take a change of clothes.

Magnus:  Things that would indicate she was going away for some longer period of time.

Nolan:  Nothing that would indicate that. 

After 10:20 p.m. that Monday night September 5th, Taylor Behl was never seen again. It would be nearly two days before her roommates grew concerned enough to alert the police.

How unusual is it when a college student goes missing?  Not as much as you might expect. Every year, campus authorities say some of the 30,000 students at VCU “appear to disappear” and don’t call their families for days— maybe they’ve gone to the beach, or maybe for a freshman the stress of starting college is too much. There were any number of reasons why Taylor Behl had gone missing, and the odds were it wasn’t foul play.

But by Wednesday morning, Taylor’s roommates (who didn’t know her all that well yet) grew concerned enough to tell somebody. The campus security force, says VCU's Pam Lepley, began to search.

Pam Lepley, campus security: They identified Taylor’s associates and friends, and started talking to them. They found out her car was missing.

Fellow students started putting up “missing” posters around campus. Taylor’s mom meanwhile had immediately come to the school, driving around with investigators as they questioned people who knew Taylor, including 38-year-old Ben Fawley.

Pelasara: I listened while the police talked to him. But I couldn’t stand looking at him. I was sickened, absolutely sickened. I couldn’t listen to him.

Magnus: Why? What was it about him?

Pelasara:  Knowing that this 38-year-old man had taken advantage of my 17-year-old daughter.

But Fawley claimed he too was concerned about Taylor— and didn’t know where she was. So the police moved on: They kept interviewing and kept looking. Janet Pelasara turned to the media to turn up the heat.

Six days after Taylor’s disappearance, on September 11th, VCU announced it was bringing the FBI in on the case. But after 10 days, there was still no sign of her. 

Nolan: There was no contact from her. No cell phone. No credit card indication.  No posting on a Web site. No response to any Web posts to her. Absolutely nothing.  She dropped off the face of the earth.

It now looked ominous— and it was. The “missing person” case was about to become a criminal investigation.

About 10 days into the search for Taylor Behl, the Richmond, Virginia police department issued an Amber Alert and announced it was taking the lead in the investigation, forming a task force which included campus police and the FBI. This was now no longer a “missing person” case.  It was a criminal investigation.

Chief Rodney D. Monroe, Richmond police department: We’re talking about a 17-year-old, 100 miles away from home, going into their 2nd week at a university, and nobody has seen, heard, or could account for where she may have been.

Richmond’s Police Chief Rodney Monroe just joined the force this year from Washington D.C.

Monroe: I just kept having flashbacks of the Chandra Levy case. I was in Washington when she first went missing. And they just don’t disappear without a trace.

So now investigators were taking a different kind of look at those same people Taylor knew: including Ben Fawley. They searched his home and seized seven computers.

Monroe: There were several references to her. Pictures of her.

Magnus:  But nothing that led you to where she was?

Monroe: No. At that time.

Little did they know how crucial what was on those computers would be to the case.  In the meantime, there was more information coming to light about Fawley’s criminal past, including numerous convictions and violent behavior toward women.

Former FBI investigator and NBC analyst Clint Van Zandt believes whatever the teenager may have thought about Fawley, he clearly had the upper hand in his relationship with Taylor.  

Van Zandt: [Who he is]It’s diametrically opposed to how he tries to present himself on the Internet. At age 38, you’ve learned how to manipulate people.  You’ve learned how to understand what someone’s concerns, anxieties, challenges, sense of self worth what that might be.

Jessica Payton dated Fawley a few years ago when she was a college freshman at VCU, and says she often witnessed his dark side. 

Jessica Payton, ex-girlfriend: He’s like manic-depressive because he gets paranoid, has mood swings sometimes he has anger, he can’t control his anger he completely flips out kind of thing.

In fact, Fawley’s attorney said in court he’s on medication for a severe bipolar disorder. Fawley himself told the court he’s indigent and lives off a disability check. Jonathan Delano, whose housemate knew Fawley, says Fawley once broke into their house and bared his soul.

Jonathan Delano, knew Fawley:  I woke up in the middle of the night to find him standing in my doorway and he just started telling me his life story, about how he lived his life of crime about how he didn’t understand how to act any other way, he didn’t understand how to be anything but a criminal.

Video: Matt Behl speaks out Still, while Taylor’s association with Fawley may have been an unfortunate choice, there was no evidence he’d done anything to harm her.

The search went on. Taylor’s father Matt Behl was there too. 

Matt Behl: The difficult part is when driving around and see your daughter’s picture with the word “missing.”

In cyberspace, Taylor’s Web page filled with expressions of hope for her safe returnfrom friends and strangers alike.

Then Saturday morning September 17th, 12 days after Taylor disappeared, police caught a break.

Nolan:  There’s an off-duty lieutenant, and he was walking his dog. He noticed a Ford Escort. Now by this time, word of Taylor’s white Ford Escort had been circulating for a little while.  He saw it. He took a look at it. It had Ohio license plates on it.  But being a good investigator and a police lieutenant he took a closer look.  And he found out there was a registration tag on the vehicle from Vienna, Virginia.  Immediately he realized that he had found Taylor’s car.

It was parked on a street about a mile and a half from Taylor’s dorm room.  Police staked it out for a day to see if anyone would show.  And then they seized it.  Ironically Janet Pelasara, who until now had assumed the worst about her daughter, suddenly found reason to hope.

Pelasara: My hope that she was alive was back.

Police still didn’t have Taylor Behl, but they did have an enormous clue.

Nolan: They now had a vehicle. They knew that vehicle had stolen license plates on it. They know that Ben Fawley was someone who liked to collect license plates. He had written about it.

Van Zandt: If somebody drove her car other than her, you have to re-adjust your rearview mirror.  You have to move the seat back and forth.  You’ve got, and I know, a rich supply of latent fingerprints were found inside that car. You’ve got hairs and fibers.

On Monday evening, September 19th, students from VCU gathered with candles on behalf of the missing freshman that few knew, but who was in everyone’s prayers.

Two days later, a lawyer for her family came and cleared out Taylor’s dorm room.  Whatever happened, the family didn’t want the teenager to come back to VCU.

On September 23rd, 18 days after Taylor’s disappearance, police arrested Ben Fawley. Not in connection with Taylor, however— but because of what they’d found on those seven computers they’d seized from the father of two.

Chief Monroe:  Child pornography. I mean, it was quite graphic.

Magnus:  Movies?

Monroe:  And photographs.

Magnus:  That he had taken allegedly?

Monroe: No, that was on his system and in his possession.

16 counts of possession of child pornography, to be exact. Fawley pleaded not guilty. With that, he held behind bars.

Nolan: What they found were charges that they could file against Ben Fawley to put him in jail for at least a little bit of time.

Investigators conducted a second  and more disturbing search of Fawley’s home.

Magnus: They came out with boxes of very creepy stuff. 

Nolan: They did. They came out with sex toys. They came up with whips and chains. A machete. A hatchet. A gun cartridge. A number of things that taken in isolation can make the imagination run wild.

What they didn’t come out with was anything linked to Taylor Behl.

Nolan:  They found keys. They found a cell phone.  They found IDs.  None of them were Taylor Behl’s.

Magnus:  And he would not take a polygraph?

Nolan:  He wanted to take a polygraph, according to his lawyer.  But his lawyer told him not to. 

The police found out something else too: that Ben Fawley had what appeared to be an alibi for his whereabouts on the night Taylor Behl disappeared. It turned out that before she’d even been reported missing, Fawley himself had gone to the police and filed this report. In it, he said he was attacked.  It all happened, he said, during those first hours when Taylor Behl had gone missing. 

Magnus:  I’ll see if I can get this right, he said he was robbed by an unknown number of people, hit in the stomach by an unknown object and driven to an unknown location.

Van Zandt: Yes.

Magnus:  And rescued by an unknown man. And all of this happened during the hours right after Taylor Behl went missing. And if true, would certainly appear to give him an alibi for where he was during that time.  What do you make of it?

Van Zandt:  The only thing he was missing was a hammer and nails to build a better alibi than he seems to have built for himself already.

Investigators immediately set about figuring out whether Fawley’s report was true.  In the meantime they had him in jail— and by now were calling him a “person of interest” in Taylor’s disappearance.

But for all the manpower, all the searching, all the nationwide attention drawn to the case,  none of it had produced a 17-year-old brunette until two things came together:  Old fashioned-detective work and the new world of the Internet.

What happened is they moved forward... by going back.

Chief Monroe: By this time people were tired of seeing us.

But Chief Monroe said that’s how investigations go: You go back, talk again.  Look at pictures, again.  There were a slew of them on Ben Fawley’s Web sites. There were lots of skulls, and lots of young girls— but also pictures that seemed totally innocuous:  old buildings, flowers, landscapes and other rural scenes. 

Who’d have imagined one of these would break the case wide open?

Nolan: Two VCU detectives were interviewing and re-interviewing a woman who was an ex-girlfriend of Ben Fawley’s. They were showing her a series of photographs.  And this photo came up and this girl said, "Sure, I know that location."

The photograph was clearly taken in a rural area, one of a rundown shack and trailer. 

Fawley’s ex-girlfirend recognized it as being near her family’s farm, some 70 miles east of Richmond near the Chesapeake Bay.  Ben Fawley had taken that photo, she said.  So they knew he’d been there.

Chief Monroe: So many things could have been missed so easily... but to go to a location and find nothing but open field.  To be confronted with that and then to say, “Well, this is not enough, let’s walk.” You could’ve walked 50 yards, 100 yards, turned around and left.

But they continued to walk. And eventually found fresh human remains in a shallow grave.  Dental records confirmed it was 17-year-old Taylor Behl.

Pelasara, at a press conference: My mind still cannot absorb the fact that someone could do something this cruel and heinous to my 17-year-old. I’m positive the authorities will bring the sub-human to justice and I pray they receive the death penalty.

Police immediately sealed off the area and say it’ll be some time before they figure out exactly what happened there.

Monroe: Someone had to have put her there.

Magnus: She was buried. Do you know whether n fact she was murdered?

Monroe: Well, look at it this way, she couldn't have done what she did to herself. We know that we're investigating a homicide.

The body of Taylor Behl is now with the state medical examiner, who will determine a cause of death. Evidence from her car is at the FBI's forensics lab in Quantico. Among other things, police will determine if soil found underneath matches the soil in the place she was found.

Police are still holding Ben Fawley in jail on those unrelated charges, but have not charged him in the death of Taylor Behl.

Calls to Fawley’s attorney were not returned.

Magnus: Do you have any hard evidence linking him to Taylor Behl’s death?

Monroe:  I’m not gonna comment on that at this time. We feel comfortable we know what happened that night.

Magnus:  And he’s still a suspect?

Monroe: Yes.

It is a gut-wrenching time for the mother who joyfully sent her girl off to college just a few weeks ago, and now has only the past to comfort her.

Pelasara: I know that she and I had a wonderful relationship.  I know that she was bright, beautiful, and a delight to be around.

There is mourning for Taylor, on the VCU campus where students gathered Friday evening, and in the virtual world, in expressions of grief posted on her Web page. 

And there is this poem, put there by the 17-year-old last spring, which lingers on in cyberspace:

If you read this,
Even if I don’t speak to you often,
You must post a memory of me.
It can be anything you want, good or bad,
Just so long as it happened.

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