Video: Investigation continues in student killing

By MSNBC analyst & former FBI profiler
updated 10/10/2005 11:48:15 AM ET 2005-10-10T15:48:15
COMMENTARY

No headstone marked the shallow earthen grave that held the remains of Virginia Commonwealth University coed Taylor Marie Behl.  In fact, her grave was never meant to be found.  Nevertheless it was along a picturesque stream near a stand of woods just off of a little used and similarly unmarked dirt road in rural Matthews County, Va., that Taylor was cruelly laid to rest. 

In fact, it was the remote and picturesque nature of this location that led authorities to her body -- and the tragic conclusion to this case some 70 miles east of the VCU campus in Richmond, Va..  Taylor Behl's first semester of college had ended almost before it began.

Thanks to cable television new coverage we all know the name and the story of one of the 70-plus murder victims in Richmond this year, if indeed homicide can even be proven as her cause of death.  All of the other local "murder" victims, as well as the 15,000 or so homicide victims across the USA every year, usually remain nameless to everyone but those closest to them.  In the case of female victims like Taylor Behl, we know that few (13 percent) fall victim to strangers.  Most meet their death at the hands of someone they know, usually an intimate like a husband or boyfriend.  Such may have been her case.  

The suspect(s)
Ben Fawley, a 38-year-old bipolar, indigent skate boarder and self-professed "Goth web master" has emerged as everyone's favorite suspect in the death of Taylor Behl.  The vote to convict, however, lies not in the court of public opinion in which we all sit.  It will instead belong to some future trial jury that will be asked to unemotionally consider the evidence placed before them.  Don't get me wrong though.  I find it hard to believe that someone who acknowledged an "illegal" intimate relationship with 17-year-old Behl, someone who offers an almost alien abduction-like story to explain his activities the evening that Taylor went missing, and someone with a prior criminal record to include crimes against women is not a good fit for this case.  The exact circumstances of Taylor's death, though, have yet to be determined.  Ben Fawley and any other suspect will likely keep themselves busy attempting to frame their contact with her the last night of her life in as best terms as possible.

As a former FBI Agent, I know that "if someone lies about the little things, they probably lie about the big things."  Law enforcement's job is to determine if Fawley's alleged abduction report is actually true, or the ramblings of a psychologically challenged individual under the influence of alcohol, etc., or just a wild story concocted to provide him with an alibi for the night of Taylor's disappearance. 

We know that at least one other suspect was developed after a police dog followed a scent from Taylor's car to a residence frequented by the suspect.  He evidently took a polygraph test and gave deceptive responses perhaps similar to those attributed to Fawley.  Whether Taylor's ultimate fate rested in the hands of one, two or more will now be determined by investigation. 

The investigation
But what really happened to Taylor Behl?  We can't assume anything in an investigation as such leaves loopholes that criminals can crawl through.  The FBI has forensically processed her abandoned car and developed a number of latent fingerprints -- prints that will be matched against those of Taylor, Fawley, and anyone else believed to have been in her car.  Soil found on the car's undercarriage has supposedly been matched to soil at the "disposal site," law enforcement's way of depersonalizing such a location so as to allow them to separate their human emotions from their professional mission -- identify the person who put Taylor in her grave.  Who ever placed the lifeless body of Taylor Behl in that makeshift grave did not count on the ability of law enforcement to put a puzzle together, in this case using the pieces provided by the primary suspect himself, Ben Fawley.

Between Taylor's cell phone records and her Internet writings, plus those of Fawley and others, a circle of friends and associates was developed for the missing student.  For many the Internet has become the equivalent of a private diary that in reality is open to the public.  In her writings, Taylor revealed herself as a normal but vulnerable person, one whom a predator who hung around in a college town with people less than half his age could potentially target and take advantage of. 

She only sought what we all seek
We all seek similar things in life, to include friends, love and affirmation.  These goals are also known to predators who use such knowledge as they cast their emotional nets in a target rich environment like a college town.  They do this in an attempt to develop an inappropriate relationship with someone too trusting, and perhaps too confident in his or her ability to distinguish between the good and the bad people in this world.  A fatal error in judgment, in some cases.

Processing the crime scene
The authorities have completed their processing of the crime scene where Taylor's mostly skeletal remains were found.  It was done slowly, methodically and professionally.  Police were led to the scene by Ben Fawley himself, at least by his Internet activities.  He had posted a number of pictures of both young girls and scenic locations, pictures that were shown to people known to be in his and Taylor's circle of acquaintances.  It was Fawley's ex-girlfriend; someone he suggested might be responsible for a previous assault on him that he reported to police, who recognized an Internet picture of a farm in rural Mathews County.  She said that the property was adjacent to land owned by her parents; a place that Fawley had been to before.  This prompted investigators to "check out" the location, where continued good police work led them to the gruesome discovery of a recently dug grave and ultimately Taylor's decomposed body.

Such a crime scene is really the victim's last chance to speak for herself.  A chance to somehow convey the identity of her assailant -- and the police and the FBI Agents at the scene needed to listen closely.  Most offenders make the usual classic mistake at a crime scene.  They take something to the scene, they leave something there, or they take something away.  This "something" is many times physical evidence that can positively link them to the crime, in this case the death of a young woman who still had her whole life ahead of her.  Whoever placed Taylor in that unmarked grave was obviously not a professional hit man.  Her body, unlike that of say Jimmy Hoffa, is now able to assist investigators in identifying her last contact with the human race, the person who witnessed her death.

The gruesome facts -- cause of death
As in any potential wrongful death investigation, the authorities will need to determine the cause of death.  As hard as it is for anyone to consider the clinical evaluation of deceased loved one, that's what must be done in such a case.  The potential cause of death could include some type of accidental up to homicide, and without data to the contrary, it could even be ruled as unknown.  Evidence of trauma may or may not be present on the victim's clothing, on her body, and at the crime scene.  In victims of manual strangulation under the age of 40, the fracture of the hyoid bone as an artifact of this method of homicide is not even evident in about fifty percent of such cases.  These and other questions, though, will hopefully be answered by the local medical examiner (M.E.).

The what vs. the why
The interviews, the statements of witnesses and suspects alike, as well as the physical evidence will all come together to tell us "what" happened to Taylor Behl (whose 18th birthday would have been this week) the last night of her life.  But beyond the medical and the scientific explanations offered by the M.E., the true "why" can never be fully explained. 

How do you explain evil?  Essays and books have for centuries attempted to explain man's inhumanity to man without success.  Evil is like mercury; it flows in the direction that it's tilted.  No matter whether we equate evil with Milton's image of Lucifer, or seek its definition in traditional Judeo-Christian and other religious writings.  We can also look to a Hitler or a Ted Bundy meet our "looks like" definition and get our heads all nodding in agreement.  No matter where we look, the "why" of evil is still beyond explanation.  In many cases a criminologist or a psychiatrist may define evil as consistent with a sociopathic personality, i.e., someone who lives life without a functional conscience and who fails to identify with the pain and injury that he may cause.  Others will simply say that what appears to be evil is really a mistake that someone made in the heat of a moment.  Something they'd take back if only they could. 

In the death of Taylor Behl, there can be no "take backs."  No matter the motive, the "why" ultimately associated with her death, hers is a life that cannot be restored - and the course of history, as in any such loss, has been permanently altered.      

For information on home, personal, travel and child security issues, see www.LiveSecure.org

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."

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