A police task force investigating the disappearance of college student Taylor Marie Behl found a decomposed body in a shallow grave yesterday east of Richmond and were trying to identify the remains last night, police said.
The investigators were led to the grave, in coastal Mathews County about 80 miles east of Richmond, through "credible" information collected in interviews with Behl's friends and acquaintances, a source close to the investigation said. Clothing was also found in the rural area, a place Behl was known to have visited, the source said.
"This week, we've been going to various locations that we've known her to frequent," said Richmond Police Chief Rodney D. Monroe. "Those locations were based on where people told us she had gone and photographs we've seen her in. Outstanding investigative work led us there."
Monroe declined to elaborate but said a medical examiner and federal forensics investigators were at the scene in a field off a farm road in the largely rural area.
Behl, 17, a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University, was last seen Sept. 5 when she left her dorm. An attorney for Behl's mother said the Vienna family was told very little about yesterday's discovery and declined to comment on a possible development in the case.
"When the time is right, we will make a statement, so I ask that you please give the family their space and privacy at this point," said George Peterson, a lawyer retained early last month by Behl's mother, Janet Pelasara.
No one has been charged in Behl's disappearance. A 38-year-old photographer, Ben Fawley, with whom Behl had a sexual relationship, was questioned about Behl, and his apartment was searched for her belongings. He was arrested Sept. 23 on charges of child pornography and is still being held.
According to the source, some of Fawley's photographs have been used in the investigation.
Numerous law enforcement officials descended on the field yesterday afternoon, including members of the task force that was created several weeks ago to investigate the disappearance of Behl, a June graduate of James Madison High School in Vienna. The task force is composed of officers from the Richmond police department, the lead agency in the case, and the FBI, the Virginia State Police, the VCU campus police and the attorney general's office.
The grave was located behind a barn on an isolated piece of private property, police said. Photographs of the area that were captured by hovering news helicopters showed several acres of greenery, with several white buildings bordered by clusters of large trees.
The discovery came the same day that a multi-jurisdictional grand jury convened in Richmond Circuit Court to hear evidence in Behl's case. The special jury is composed of about a dozen residents drawn from regular jury pools in Richmond and its surrounding areas, according to the Web site for Henrico County, adjacent to Richmond.
A multi-jurisdictional jury has powers not available to regular grand juries, including the ability to subpoena evidence and witnesses. In some instances, witnesses are offered immunity so they will cooperate with the evolving criminal probe.
It was unknown yesterday how many people were called to testify about the Behl case, but the list was to include people with whom the teenager has associated.
Behl was last seen about 10 p.m. Labor Day, not long after Fawley, the photographer, walked her to her residence hall at the downtown campus. She found her roommate with a boyfriend and left to give them privacy. She took only her car keys, cell phone, student identification and about $40.
During the search of Fawley's apartment, police seized more than 70 items, including a box of bones, sex toys, women's clothing, burglary tools and a swatch of his box spring because it contained a reddish-brown stain, according to the search warrant.
Fawley -- a father of two who maintains numerous Web sites dedicated to his interests in art, Goth culture, skulls and a bumper-sticker-plastered van that he decorated with dozens of license plates he collected -- took pictures of Behl, fully clothed, and posted them online among collages of short-skirted girls he claimed also to have photographed. They were removed shortly after Behl vanished.
Behl's 1997 Ford Escort was found near the campus about two weeks after she vanished. The car bore stolen Ohio plates.