The curtain seems to have fallen on the story of Taylor Behl, the 17-year-old Vienna resident who was killed last September, shortly after her arrival at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. In a plea bargain, her killer, Benjamin Fawley, 39, of Richmond, was sentenced to a 30-year prison term last Wednesday. His trial had been scheduled to begin this Thursday in Mathews County, where Behl's body was found.
Fawley was to be tried on first degree murder charges. He had alleged that he had accidentally killed Behl during consensual sex, a story which prosecutors, as well as Behl's mother, Janet Pelasara, had fiercely disputed. With little hard evidence to substantiate any version of events, the outcome of a trial looked unpredictable.
The state medical examiner was unable to determine from Behl's body, which was found a month after her death, the manner in which she was killed, stating only that she died of "homicidal violence."
Fawley entered an Alford plea to a charge of second degree murder, meaning he did not admit guilt but acknowledged that the prosecution had enough evidence to convict him.
Pelasara said she had been aware for weeks that a plea agreement was in the works. "The defense came to us and offered a plea, and we rejected it and countered, and [Fawley] accepted it," she said.
Originally, Pelasara had called for the death penalty, but, she said, "around Thanksgiving, I changed my mind because I thought it was too good for him."
She said she was pleased with the outcome of the case and glad not to have to endure a week-long trial involving lurid evidence. "Sitting in on the hearings was horrifying enough."
"It doesn't matter how many years he received. It wouldn't bring back my daughter or make me feel any better," she said.
Pelasara did add that she was disappointed she did not get the opportunity to read her victim impact statement at last Wednesday's proceedings. "I was told the defense didn't want me to. They objected," she said. "The judge asked if Ben had anything to say, but he didn't ask if I had anything to say."
DEFENSE ATTORNEY Bill Johnson said he too was pleased with the agreement. He said the defense had elected to negotiate a plea bargain rather than gambling on a trial for several reasons. One, he said, was the existence of child pornography charges against Fawley pending in Richmond, as well as a statement Fawley had made in September, acknowledging his possession of the images. He was arrested on those charges shortly after Behl's disappearance, when he became a "person of interest" in the case. According to the terms of the agreement, the 16 child pornography charges were dropped.
Johnson also cited the impact of Fawley's jailhouse confession in October, shortly after Behl's body was found. It was then that he had made his claim that he had killed Behl accidentally. Another problem in Fawley's case, said Johnson, was his behavior immediately after Behl's death, including hiding the body and making a false report to police stating that, on the night of Behl's disappearance, he had been abducted by several people he could not identify and could only vaguely describe.
Johnson said other factors in the decision included Fawley's negative statements about Behl in a television interview, his re-statement — in a letter he wrote to a friend — of the claim that he killed Behl accidentally, and, finally, "a consensus opinion between both defense attorneys that it would be impossible for Fawley to take the stand without doing himself more harm than good."
THE PROSECUTION HAS SAID they were amenable to a plea agreement because it avoided the possibility of an acquittal, a mistrial or a conviction on a lesser offense such as involuntary manslaughter.
"In cases like this, you certainly wish you could get more time, but 30 years is a significant sentence," said Richmond's assistant commonwealth's attorney, Chris Bullard, who helped prosecute the case. He said the prosecution was also pleased to have won a murder conviction. "It makes a positive statement for the family as to what he did," he said.
Bullard said he felt that part of the tragedy of the case was harm that may have been done to Behl's reputation by statements from Fawley and the rumor mill of sensational media. "I think we felt like what the evidence would have shown was that much of what was said about her was untrue," he said. He cited negative statements made about Behl's relationship with her parents, juxtaposed with one of her final journal entries, in which she wrote that she was unconditionally loved by her mother and father and stated her reciprocal affection for them.
Finally, he added, "It shouldn't be lost how extraordinary it is that law enforcement was able to find her." He pointed out that Virginia Commonwealth campus police had taken a hit from the media early on, but it had been two campus police who followed the lead of a photo on one of Fawley's Web sites all the way to Behl's remains, partially buried in the woods of a small farm county 80 miles east of her disappearance.