A Richmond judge has signed a gag order that bars witnesses from publicly discussing any testimony they give to a special grand jury investigating the death of college student Taylor Marie Behl, officials said yesterday.
The order was signed Monday by the judge presiding over the multi-jurisdictional grand jury, which is expected to convene again this morning in Richmond Circuit Court. Grand jury witnesses are generally allowed to discuss their testimony if they wish to.
The request for a gag order came from the city's police chief, Rodney D. Monroe, who became concerned when information about the police investigation was leaked to the media last week. Although the order applies only to those testifying before the grand jury -- a list that includes many of Behl's friends from Virginia Commonwealth University and her home town of Vienna -- the police department has interpreted the order to also include every police officer, even those not subpoenaed.
"At this point, we cannot comment anymore about the case," said Kirsten Nelson, a police spokeswoman. "The chief asked specifically for the gag order, because he was concerned that sensitive information about the case was getting out that could harm the investigation."
George O. Peterson, an attorney for Behl's mother, Janet Pelasara, said that although the gag order does not explicitly apply to him or Pelasara, he is "concerned about the scope" of the injunction.
"It is very limited and shouldn't be read as broadly as people are reading it," Peterson said yesterday. Peterson confirmed Saturday that a man whom police consider a suspect in the case told investigators that he was with Behl, 17, when she died. No one has been charged in her death.
Peterson said the man, amateur photographer Benjamin Fawley, 38, told police that the two were engaged in a sexual encounter inside her 1997 Ford Escort, parked near a beach in rural Mathews County, Va., when he accidentally choked her, an account her mother disputes.
"Ben Fawley's alleged statement took place outside of the grand jury and therefore outside the intended scope of the gag order," Peterson said yesterday.
Because there were no obvious signs of trauma to Behl's decomposed body -- found four weeks after she was reported missing -- a cause of death has not been established. Forensic exams continue, police said, while the state's medical examiner awaits the results of toxicology tests.
Fawley, who remains jailed in Richmond on unrelated child pornography and firearm charges, spoke to investigators for two hours last week about his role in Behl's death, Peterson said. He said Fawley told police he panicked after Behl died and dumped her body in a ravine.
Fawley's attorney, Christopher Collins of Richmond, did not return a call to his office yesterday.
Behl, a VCU freshman and a June graduate of James Madison High School in Vienna, was last seen Labor Day. Her body was found about 70 miles from the downtown campus. Her funeral was held Friday, one day after she would have turned 18.