Although there is still no evidence that she has been harmed, the search for missing Virginia Commonwealth University freshman Taylor Marie Behl was upgraded yesterday to a criminal investigation, and an Amber Alert was issued in the case late last night.
Richmond police, who have taken the lead in the case from campus police, said they decided to open a criminal investigation based on three factors: The search involves a juvenile; more than a week has passed without a solid lead in the 17-year-old's disappearance; and an increasing number of tips are coming in because of national media coverage.
Law enforcement officials said the involvement of Richmond police will enhance the search for Behl, of Vienna, who was last seen by a roommate in their dorm room Sept. 5.
"They have the resources and the experience to get this investigation much further than the campus police were able to," said Behl's mother, Janet Pelasara, who welcomed the development as a fresh start. "They did their best, but they didn't have the manpower or the experience to handle this type of investigation."
In the Amber Alert, issued after 11 p.m. by the Virginia State Police, Behl was described as five-feet-six, 135 pounds, with brown eyes, light brown hair, pierced ears and a pierced nose. Police said she may be traveling in her car, a white 1997 Ford Escort with Virginia tag JPC-2848.
Amber Alerts disseminate information about abducted children through the media and on highway signs.
Earlier yesterday, a task force was formed yesterday to pull together local, state and federal partners including VCU police, Virginia State Police, the FBI and the Virginia attorney general's office in the search for the Madison High School graduate.
"Whether Ms. Behl is still in Richmond, in state or out of state, we have the resources needed to locate her and bring her back to safety," said Richmond police spokeswoman Cynthia Price.
Pelasara described her daughter as a someone who obeyed her curfew "99 percent of the time" and was a friend to the Vienna police, whom she got to know while working at her hometown Starbucks.
"She didn't drink; she wasn't a partier," Pelasara said. "She didn't do drugs. She's a simply a bright, beautiful, engaging girl."
Behl was last seen about 10 p.m. Labor Day after a late dinner at a local cafe. She found her roommate in their room with a boyfriend and told her that she would leave for a while to give them privacy, police said.
Police said she was wearing jeans and a hooded black sweat shirt and took only her keys and a credit card, although Pelasara said her daughter did not have her credit card with her.
Police said Behl continues to receive e-mails but has not logged on to read them. Her credit card has not been used, and the last call on her cell phone was made the night she disappeared.
Police said dozens of tips generated in the past week have failed to provide credible information on Behl's whereabouts or the location of her car.
"It's just baffling to us that with this kind of exposure, that nothing has panned out," said VCU police spokeswoman Pam Lepley. "There always was concern, but now it's been raised to a new level."
Pelasara said her daughter had about $40 in cash with her when she disappeared. Because Behl had so little money with her, Pelasara said she believes her daughter "couldn't be involved in this on her own."
Police ask anyone with information about Behl or her car to call the Richmond police tip line at 804-514-8477 or VCU police at 804-828-1196.
Staff writer Jamie Stockwell contributed to this report.