30-Year Sentence In Slaying Of Student

By Jamie Stockwell
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 10, 2006

MATHEWS COUNTY, Va., Aug. 9 -- A Fairfax County mother was mostly composed Wednesday during a 90-minute hearing in this rural county, until the man who killed her daughter was led slowly from the courtroom in shackles. "Murderer!" she screamed.

Moments earlier, Benjamin Fawley had stood up -- his head shaking back and forth, a photograph of his two young daughters in his left hand -- and entered a plea in the murder of 17-year-old Taylor Behl, just eight days before his trial was scheduled to begin.

It has been 11 months since Janet Pelasara last saw her daughter, who was a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. Behl's mostly naked and decomposing body was found a month after she was reported missing, buried in a shallow ravine off a winding country road.

Fawley, 39, has repeatedly said that Behl died during a consensual sex act in which he restricted her breathing. But standing in the crowded courtroom, Fawley entered an Alford plea to second-degree murder.

In doing so, Fawley did not admit his guilt but conceded that the state had enough evidence to convict him in Behl's killing. Circuit Court Judge William H. Shaw III accepted the plea and sentenced him to 30 years in prison.

The court action closed a case that garnered national headlines and was the focus of an intense manhunt last fall, a case that prosecutors said Wednesday was never about "sex or bondage or erotic asphyxiation."

Simply, "this was a case about murder," said John S. "Jack" Gill, the county's chief prosecutor.

"This was a girl going off to college with the same hopes, dreams and fears that all kids have," Gill said. "It's a tragedy she was taken in this manner."

Fawley sobbed at times during the hearing but offered no apologies. Under the terms of the agreement, 22 counts of unrelated child pornography charges filed last fall in Richmond will be dropped, each of which carried a minimum punishment of five years.

His attorneys said afterward that Fawley, a father of two young girls who live with their mother in Pennsylvania, was reluctant to enter a plea. He was "very emotional," said William E. Johnson, one of his attorneys.

"He contends that he thought highly of Taylor. He contends that he never wanted to do her harm," Johnson said. "He is very depressed. But he's resolved to his fate."

Behl, a June 2005 graduate of James Madison High School in Vienna, was just two weeks into her freshman year when she vanished. Her body was found about 75 miles east of the Richmond campus.

An autopsy determined last month that Behl's death was a homicide. But because her body was so badly decomposed, medical examiners were unable to conclude how she was killed.

Behl's mother, who attended the hearing with about 35 relatives, said afterward that she was pleased with the outcome.

"I'm happy that it's over," she said, adding that it does little to help her heal. "I don't know that I'll ever have closure. How do you have closure on losing your only daughter? I don't think there ever will be."

Fawley was romantically involved with Behl before she enrolled at VCU. He has been in jail since September, when he was arrested on unrelated pornography charges after police searched his home computers.

Within days of the discovery of Behl's remains, Fawley told investigators that he had had consensual sex with her in her car, parked near a beach in rural Mathews County, the night of Sept. 5 and that he had accidentally choked her. He told police that he had panicked after she died and dumped her body in the shallow ditch off a narrow dirt road tucked behind sheds and farmhouses.

Detectives were led to the spot by one of Fawley's ex-girlfriends, who recognized the area in a photograph Fawley posted on his Web site. An amateur photographer, he had a gallery of his digital snapshots online, and the critical image showed a portion of his ex-girlfriend's family's property.

Fawley maintained numerous Web sites dedicated to his interests in art, Gothic culture and skulls, and he had a bumper-sticker-plastered van that he decorated with dozens of license plates that he had collected over the years.

He and Behl met early last year, and the two became online friends. They posted messages to one another on their blogs. On one trip to Richmond, Fawley took photographs of a fully clothed Behl and posted them on his Web site.

Behl, too, had a vast online presence with journals and profiles posted at the popular social networking sites http://MySpace.com and http://LiveJournal.com . On her MySpace page, which she last logged into the day before she disappeared, friends continue to post messages about their memories of her.

Little of Behl's online world was mentioned in court yesterday. Instead, prosecutors said she wrote in her journal about a new boyfriend she had met in Richmond. She was eager to delve into college, they said.

And although Fawley told the police that Behl was crazy about him, she thought he was weird, prosecutors said. He later told police that he sometimes blacked out and that he remembers Behl choking before she took her last breath.

"I never like the thoughts in my head," Fawley wrote in a jailhouse letter to a friend that was read aloud Wednesday. "People are right. Something is wrong with me. All the thoughts of killing and death in my head and now it's true. I've killed someone."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company