Janet Pelasara did what any concerned parent would do—she waited for the call. Her daughter Taylor, 17, was driving back to college on Labor Day, and Pelasara wanted to know her only child was okay. Finally at 6 p.m., the phone rang. It was Taylor saying, ” ‘I’m here,’ ” remembers Pelasara. “And that’s the last I ever heard from her.”
Two days later Pelasara, 45, got another call—this one at 3:30 a.m., from university police—telling her that Taylor was missing. The agonizing four-week search for Taylor Behl—a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University who planned to study business—ended Oct. 5, when detectives found her body in a ditch in the Virginia woods. The investigator’s key suspect thus far is Benjamin Fawley, a 38-year-old amateur photographer who lives near VCU and had a sexual relationship with Taylor.
Neither Pelasara nor her ex-husband Matt Behl knew of their daughter’s relationship with Fawley or that she posed for fully clothed photos he posted on the Web site deviantart.com. They believed that, as friends confirm, Taylor was thrilled with college and happy with a new boyfriend, a VCU freshman. But Taylor, it seems, was also drawn to the troubled Fawley, whom she met in February through a friend. Investigators say Fawley talked of having sex with her at least twice, including on the night she vanished. “She was excited that he liked her,” says her best friend Glynnis Keough. “She thought he was a nice guy She liked to fix people who were broken.”
It’s unlikely Taylor knew just how troubled Fawley was. The son of upper-middle-class parents in Doylestown, Pa., he was on disability because of a bipolar disorder and has a long criminal record, including numerous arrests for stealing cars and three for assault, two involving domestic assaults against women. (Fawley and his attorney have declined to comment.) Police are holding him on charges of illegal possession of firearms as well as possessing child pornography, which they found on computers seized from his home after Taylor disappeared. Police also confiscated chains, a machete and a hatchet.
Just as Taylor might not have known about Fawley’s dark side, her parents were unaware she lived a sort of secret life on the Internet. Out going and confident in person, she showed a different side on her blog. “I’ve drifted so far from all of my old friends, and I don’t think anyone noticed I was gone,” she wrote about a year ago. She revealed she was referred to as “jailbait—by bad boys” and wrote she was afraid of “boys” and “men.” “Who I’d like to meet?” she posted this summer. “Someone who is kind.”
At first glance, Ben Fawley fit the bill. “He had a vitality about him,” says his former roommate Mike Cino, 22, who knew Taylor from her hometown of Vienna, Va., and introduced Fawley to her. But Fawley’s Web postings reveal an obsession with Goth imagery and an interest in younger women. His screen name was “Skulz” and he called himself the “Goth Web master.” He and Taylor posted comments on each other’s sites. “This very attractive girl climbed up into my bunk,” Fawley wrote in April. Taylor, under the screen name “tiabliaj”—jailbait spelled backward—replied, “Well, I was curious.” Certainly millions of teenagers keep blogs much like Taylor’s, but looking back her father, Matt Behl, 52, owner of a swimming pool company, is aghast that someone like Fawley had access to his daughter’s innermost thoughts. “It’s not like hiding a diary under the mattress,” he says. “Parents need to be keenly aware of what their kids are putting out there.”
At the same time, Fawley’s Web postings provided police with their biggest break. They showed some of Fawley’s photos to people they questioned, one of whom, his ex-girlfriend Erin Crabill, recognized a house near her parent’s home where she had gone with Fawley. Police searched the area, 75 miles east of Richmond, and found a decomposed body half buried in a ditch off a dirt road. Dental records confirmed it was Taylor. “I was in Washington, D.C., when Chandra Levy disappeared,” says Richmond Police Chief Rodney D. Monroe. “This case definitely struck a chord with me. We’ve narrowed our focus, and at the same time, we’re continuing our aggressive investigation.”
Last week her parents made funeral arrangements for the girl who would have turned 18 on Oct. 13. “We were in the funeral home and I kept thinking, ‘We should be looking for wedding dresses, not making plans to bury her,’ ” says her father. “Now I won’t be able to tell my grandkids stories about their mom. She was taken away too soon.”
Alex Tresniowski. Jane Sims Podesta and J. Todd Foster in Richmond, Nicole Weisensee Egan in Doylestown and Susan Mandel in Washington