One day after the car belonging to missing college student Taylor Marie Behl was located, Richmond police said yesterday that they believe the Virginia Commonwealth University freshman might have been abducted.
Behl's 1997 Ford Escort was found Saturday morning in a neighborhood about 11/2 miles from the Richmond campus. Its license plates had been replaced with Ohio tags that were reported stolen in Richmond about two months before the Sept. 5 disappearance of Behl.
"The fact that [Behl is] 17 years old and there have been no traces of her, we don't think someone of her age could pull something like this off so easily on her own," Richmond police Chief Rodney D. Monroe said in a telephone interview. "That leads us to lean toward the idea that she might have met with foul play or was abducted."
Until yesterday, police had said that although they were concerned for the teenager's safety, they did not suspect foul play in Behl's disappearance. Evidence suggested otherwise, they had said, and indicated that Behl had willingly driven from the campus, where she lived in a dorm.
Photographs of Behl and her car, with information about the vehicle's license plates, were posted all over the Richmond campus, the city and nearby jurisdictions. An off-duty city police officer spotted the car while walking his dog and stopped to inspect it despite its Ohio tags, police said.
Monroe said investigators put the sedan under surveillance for about 12 hours. When no one returned to claim it, he said, the vehicle was impounded and turned over to the FBI for processing. He said a team of officers canvassed the neighborhood Saturday evening, and several canines were dispatched to the area.
The dogs "hit on a few things," Monroe said, although he declined to elaborate. Those leads were being followed yesterday, he said.
"We are waiting to see what type of evidence the car yields for us," he said. "The fact that it was found in Richmond is promising, and it keeps the focus of the investigation here."
Behl's mother, Janet Pelasara, said she was hopeful that her daughter's car had been found. "I think this is incredible progress," she said in a telephone interview from a Richmond hotel where she has been staying since Behl's disappearance was reported to authorities. Pelasara lives in Vienna, where her daughter graduated from James Madison High School in June.
"I can't tell you how encouraged I am by this latest development," she said. "Now that the car has been found, we need the public to continue focusing on Taylor's whereabouts so we can bring her home to me, safe and sound."
Pelasara said police took computers from Behl's dorm and their Vienna home. Monroe said the searches were done "to cover all the bases."
On Thursday, police upgraded the case from a search for a missing person to a full-fledged criminal investigation -- not because there was evidence that a crime had occurred, but because it allowed them to employ various resources, including search warrants and the Amber Alert, which they issued late that night.
No alert was issued when Behl was reported missing because the case did not meet the criteria, police said.
Investigators executed several search warrants Friday, including one at the Vienna house where Behl grew up and at the Richmond home of a 38-year-old photographer who took pictures of Behl last spring and posted them on his Web site. The photos have been removed.
Police have identified no suspects in the case.
Behl was last seen about 10 p.m. Sept. 5 after a late dinner at a cafe. She left her dorm room after she found her roommate with a boyfriend.
Police said she was wearing jeans and a hooded black sweat shirt. She had only her car keys and about $40 in cash, her mother and police said.