In the end, a photograph of an abandoned farmhouse, posted on a Web site, led police to the remains of missing college student Taylor Marie Behl.
After a month of news conferences, hundreds of leads and national television coverage, the photo provided the missing puzzle piece in the disappearance of Behl, 17, a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond.
A former girlfriend of one of the last people to see Behl, Ben Fawley, recognized the farmhouse and trailer surrounded by tall weeds in his photograph. The woman led police to the site adjacent to her family's rural property in a coastal area 70 miles east of Richmond, and they began walking the heavily wooded area. They soon detected a strong odor.
"And there were the remains," Richmond Police Chief Rodney D. Monroe said Thursday.
In a ditch off a narrow dirt road, police saw the head and a leg of a small person partially buried and so badly decomposed that they were not sure whether the body belonged to a man or woman.
The medical examiner used dental records Wednesday night to confirm that the remains were Behl's. Investigators need to conduct more forensic tests to determine the cause of death, FBI Special Agent Don Thompson said.
The identification of Behl's remains fell on the birthday of her mother, Janet Pelasara.
"My mind still cannot absorb the fact that someone could do something this cruel and heinous to my 17-year-old child," Pelasara said during a news conference outside her Vienna home.
No one has been charged in Behl's death. But Monroe said he expects charges to be filed soon.
"We have a very focused, targeted approach," Monroe said. "The scope of this investigation has narrowed significantly."
Fawley, 38, an unemployed amateur photographer who had a sexual relationship with Behl, is being held on unrelated charges. After a search of his apartment, police arrested Fawley on Sept. 23 on 16 counts of possession of child pornography. His attorney, Chris Collins, did not return two calls placed to his office Thursday.
Police found the critical photograph that led them to her remains on one of Fawley's Web sites, where he had posted a gallery of his digital snapshots.
Behl, who graduated from James Madison High School in Vienna, disappeared after leaving her dormitory room Sept. 5, two weeks into her freshman year. She was last seen shortly after 10 p.m., not long after Fawley had 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.
Her 1997 Ford Escort was found Sept. 17 parked on a residential street about two miles from the campus. Its Virginia license plates had been replaced with stolen Ohio tags.
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 warrant.
Fawley, a father of two, maintains numerous Web sites dedicated to his interests in art, Gothic culture and skulls and has a bumper sticker-plastered van that he decorated with dozens of license plates he has collected.
Fawley and Behl met early this year, before she started college, and the two became online friends. They posted messages to one another on their Web logs.
Behl had created her blog April 6, 2004, and her online writings captured the angst and mood swings typical among teenagers. She was popular online, with 92 people listed as her friends at MySpace.com, a social and networking Web site.
Fawley used the screen names "Skulz" and "Skulz67" and left messages for the teenager at her various sites. The two met again in April, when Behl traveled to Richmond to visit VCU. On that trip, Fawley took photographs of a fully clothed Behl and posted them on his Web site.
The day after Behl disappeared, Fawley told police that after he dropped the freshman off at her dorm, he was abducted and robbed.
In his police report, Fawley said he was walking in an alley near campus when he was "struck in the stomach" and "pushed to the ground by someone who put a bag over his head." He said he was then put into a vehicle and driven to an unknown area, where he was "pushed out . . . onto a dirt road."
On a Web site, Fawley referred to a former girlfriend who he thought was behind the attack.
It was that ex-girlfriend who helped police find the spot where Behl's remains were found, a source said. Behl had previously been to the rural location where her remains were found, but police would not elaborate Thursday.
Monroe credited the discovery of Behl's remains to good police work by a task force made up of Richmond officers, FBI agents, Virginia State Police troopers and VCU detectives.
"I've been involved in a lot of investigations, and I tell you, I've never seen anything like this," Monroe said.
In Vienna, several of Behl's friends gathered at the Jammin' Java coffee shop on Maple Avenue to console one another.
Glinnis Keogh, 18, attended high school with Behl. She said she spent yesterday morning with Pelasara before joining friends at the coffee shop.
"Her only daughter is dead," Keogh said of Pelasara. "Right now, she's just trying to stay together."
Late Thursday, Pelasara expressed gratitude to everyone who supported her in the past month as she and authorities searched for her daughter.
"Whether it was time spent or money contributed or -- most comforting -- your prayers, thank you from the bottom of my sad and broken heart," she said.
Horwitz reported from Washington. Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt and staff writer Leef Smith contributed to this report.