With his daughters, ages 8 and 12, Ben seemed the kind of father an 8-year-old might create: He’d join them for marathon video games, had plenty of paper, crayons and paint on hand, hung their artwork and school photos abundantly, and let them eat marshmallows from an open bag. But he also projected the kind of paternal admonition children wish for and need. When his younger daughter proudly demonstrated how many marshmallows she could take at once and showed me her mouth — a mushy riot of pink and eggshell blue — Ben became “Dad” and told her to put the bag away.
When I moved in on July 31, his little girls helped me load in my few belongings, as eager to help as they were for answers to their curious inquiries about me. When the newly cut key Ben gave me failed to work, his older daughter gave me her keychain, a butterfly made of leather, and showed me how the key must be finagled to unlock the door. In the weeks to come, Ben rode his bike in blistering heat more than twice to buy toys and clothing at Target for his daughters, who had returned home several hours north. He asked that I see each piece, an insistence I now suspect owed at least as much to his wish to establish an unspoiled persona as to a genuine wish to show off presents for his girls.
I first encountered Ben in the summer of 2005 through his ad for a roommate posted on Craigslist.org, and I traveled from Hampton Roads to Richmond, where I was moving, to see his apartment. The urgency of my need for housing along with the inexpensive rent of his place, its proximity to Virginia Commonwealth University — where I’d be attending school — and his informal attitude cinched the deal.
As my new lodgings and schedule settled into routine, I accepted that Ben stayed up through most nights, working on several blogs and a Web site devoted to Goth subculture. He spent many nights molding stylized skulls in clay, experimenting with material and processes. And he seemed to obsessively focus on them, nipping soft clay, sanding an imperceptible flaw in a dried piece. I awoke most mornings to find that he hadn’t yet slept. It usually wasn’t until I’d returned from an afternoon of classes that he would finally retreat into bed.
His collections and hobbies did not seem strange to me, although I knew many people perceived them as eccentric. The previous tenant had died over the summer, leaving hundreds of adult DVDs, and Ben said he wanted to sell them on eBay. I shared his opposition to waste, and I supported any kind of recycling, whether it was of cans, plastic and paper, or of adult films inherited from a former tenant. A co-worker of mine took issue with me for finding nothing alarming about the pornography Ben actively sold while I lived there. But Ben was an adult and any material that I saw lying around was legal. He alluded to “illegal” porn left behind by the deceased man and said he’d destroyed it all.
Though he and a female friend once entertained the idea of hosting a “porn and chicken” party, a takeoff of a 2002 comedy film, I never saw him watch the DVDs and did not disguise his revulsion as he packed them for shipment. He raged about the irresponsibility of adults who allowed pornography to find its way into the hands of children and avowed to take every conceivable precaution to ensure that nothing he sold would come near anyone other than adults. Since his arrest for child pornography, some depicting children younger than 3, his claims and the intensity with which he made them remain chilling mysteries to me.
I spent the night Taylor disappeared, Sept. 5, alone in the apartment setting up my new computer and was awake much later than was typical for me. I’d bought the desktop that afternoon before having to go into work, and I was excited about the purchase. But the excitement paled when it became clear that either the hardware was faulty or the configurations of the apartment’s network — Ben’s four or so computers and mine — were preventing proper setup. Finally, at close to 3:30 in the morning, I went to bed frustrated, but rose a few hours later to run errands.
In the early afternoon Sept. 6, I returned from the bank to find Ben huddled on the couch in the cramped apartment, clutching his stomach. “Be careful out there,” he grunted. “I just got jumped.” As he recounted the events of the attack, I listened in shock. I remember looking through the window into the yard next door, considering whether he was schizophrenic. The story seemed that implausible. I stated emphatically that he should call the police to establish a record of the crime. He responded feebly, “What can they do?” I turned toward my room and suggested, “And call MCV.” Inside my room, I latched the door, with more than a note of shame for doubting him. I felt guilty for not responding with more sympathy.
But his story seemed rife with inconsistencies. He wasn’t able to dredge up any memory of his attackers’ voices. I’d asked him if he could remember something distinctive about their speech — accents, impediments, anything? “No,” he said, whimpering, still clutching his gut. “I was in shock.”
That night at work — I serve tables at a local restaurant — I ruminated on his abduction story and felt guilty for what I considered my callousness. When I got home, I stuck my head inside his bedroom to ask how he felt. He woke to say he’d taken a barbiturate and was feeling better. At the time, no one yet knew that Taylor was missing.
Later, he would tell authorities that he could not recall much about the “attack” because he’d been drunk. I never saw Ben drink, and he strongly asserted his aversion to alcohol many times. Bottles of champagne and wine left over from previous roommates and his parties sat in the bottom shelf of the refrigerator, labels developing slick residue. A chilled bottle of Absolut Vanil sat untouched on the same shelf, brought forth only for guests, but he didn’t join them. His guests were usually young and female, a sign I thought to indicate that he must be safe with women — or that they felt so. The young women I met appeared to be stable and goal-oriented — a music student, a visual arts student, an Air Force enlistee.
I’m bewildered and frightened now at how smoothly Ben carried on, knowing that a few hours earlier, he’d pitched Taylor’s body into a ravine in Mathews County. After rising from the couch, he spent hours that day on the phone with technicians trying to solve my computer problems, several times bending at the waist to clutch his stomach and groan loudly before rising to verify configurations, pull up dialog boxes, check and uncheck options. He didn’t drive, so a few days later he asked a female friend to take us to the warehouse store where I’d made the purchase, and he loaded the monstrous box into her sports car. Ben is small. I was concerned that the box was a struggle, but he dismissed any idea that he needed help.
I wasn’t comfortable with anyone taking time from their schedules to haul me through the suburbs, but I needed a working computer, so as a token of appreciation, I offered to pay for their food when we stopped at a drive-through on the way. Ben shrugged, saying that I could get him something later. I’ve since looked back on the immensity of the box and the apparent ease with which he hoisted it. I’ve wondered how much Taylor weighed.
As the days passed and Taylor’s disappearance was made public, Ben occasionally talked about his “friend” with whom he had a sexual relationship. He made a comment that he’d been excited to see that I was out the night of her disappearance. He was able to have sex without concern of my intrusion. I’m sickened now by his blithe licentiousness, knowing he had abandoned her days earlier. But that night, he told me that Taylor had expressed a wish to commit a serious crime before turning 18, and that he believed she had chosen to leave, perhaps to “get a reaction” from a father whose ambivalence, he said, inspired her fear and anger. “All Taylor should do is come back,” he said ardently. He said he was concerned for her. I believed him.
As community unease intensified and the neighborhood and campus were papered with posters seeking information about Taylor, within Ben’s life, all outward signs of normalcy remained. He continued to host friends at the apartment and to plan social outings. On the curb, he commiserated with others about Taylor’s disappearance, including her mother, Janet Pelasara, always speaking loudly, his voice above everyone else’s. One night, returning home from Cabell Library, I saw him between VCU’s Shafer Court and Franklin Street handing out flyers seeking information about Taylor’s disappearance, eyes wide in animated conversation with a young skateboarder. Later at the apartment I said, “I saw you,” and I thought I detected a hint of alarm in his reaction, or annoyance. I clarified, “On Shafer.”
“Yeah,” he said.
Though his benign response to Taylor’s disappearance assured me then of his innocence, hindsight doesn’t allow me to pinpoint the most contemptible thing Ben did in the days following her disappearance. Poring over phone records with authorities, I would learn that his first call upon returning from his last night with her, made literally the minute he returned, was to UPS, to check the status of some packages. Knowing that her body lay buried in Mathews, he calmly went about his banal, daily activities.
One interaction with him, however, was particularly disturbing. I was at my computer finishing a paper when he appeared at my open door, “really worried,” he said. For the first time in questioning, police seemed to be becoming suspicious of him. This bothered Ben and seemed beyond his comprehension because, he said, Taylor liked older men. “That’s why she sat at the Village bar,” he reasoned. “Have you seen who sits there?”
He was too loud for his proximity, and spiraling. Growing louder, he answered his own question: “Old men! Any of them could have done something to her.” He waited impatiently for my response. I disliked his suggestion. It was lewd. He was attempting to portray Taylor as “loose,” that promiscuity had invited trouble. He stood, looking intently at me, and then as if to emphasize his point, swung his right arm around like a pitcher and clapped his cupped left hand loudly, finishing up by pointing forcefully at me. He turned and left my room. It was an offensive proposition, and a bizarre gesture, too big and out of place.
It was Taylor’s father, Matt Behl, who in February 2005 brought Taylor to the apartment of Mike Cino, a former classmate of Taylor’s who was Ben’s roommate at the time, according to news reports. Taylor was to spend the night there and tour VCU the following day. Matt Behl met Ben then and, after a brief introduction, felt comfortable enough with the 38-year-old to leave the girl there with him alone.
I never met Taylor, but Ben claimed their sexual relationship began in April. I never saw the two of them together to have any sense of the veracity of Ben’s claims. Nevertheless, their online dialogue continued over the summer and into Taylor’s first days as a freshman at VCU.
On Labor Day, Sept. 5, I returned to the apartment from computer shopping. Ben was clearly upbeat, cleaning enthusiastically while industrial music blared so loudly that he didn’t hear my entrance. He laughed at my having startled him and said he’d had a great few nights at a round of weekend parties. Over the previous weeks he’d had several falling-outs with friends, and according to his ranting blogs and his personal admission to me, he’d changed his social network and was going out less.
But that afternoon, he was in great spirits. He met my parents then, and talked with my father about repairs to the heating system he had planned. I dressed for work and at 4:30 said goodbye. Five-and-a-half hours later, Taylor left her dorm room to go skateboarding with friends and was not seen alive again.
One afternoon in late September, I returned from class to be greeted at my front door by a television reporter who eagerly shoved a microphone in my face and intently questioned me. “I’m just a roommate,” I mumbled, and climbed the steps to find that because I’d been on the apartment’s computer network with Ben, the FBI had confiscated my new computer. Ben sat weeping on the couch, in the arms of a young female friend. Through tears, he apologized profusely and declared that he hated most that reporters and authorities were “messing with my roommate.”
When I called to get information about my computer, an FBI agent advised me to get out of the apartment immediately, and I spent a small fortune on a hotel room until I was able to find a new place. For the next several weeks, I was questioned three times by federal and city authorities. The most memorable and surreal meeting occurred when an FBI detective asked to meet me in Monroe Park and literally emerged from behind a tree while I waited. The computer since has been returned broken.
The entire experience has been a chilling lesson in human nature. Yet in spite of my resulting loss of trust in others, I have no cause for self-pity. Taylor is gone forever, her family and friends left to agonize the loss. Still, I struggle to sort out the events.
A few days after leaving the Hancock Street apartment, I sorted laundry in a Fan District Laundromat and reviewed the past few weeks’ events, exhausted and stunned. Emptying pockets before thrusting items into the water, I found my old apartment keys on the leather butterfly keychain Ben’s older daughter had given me. I moved to throw it away, then thought better and instead removed the keys and plunged them deeply into the trash, keeping the brown butterfly, a gift from a little girl about whose fate, along with her sister’s, many people will continue to fret.
The tableau reveals several females whose futures have been determined by Ben’s actions. I believe that Taylor’s entry into the sexual dark from the murk of her own relationships with men eventually led her into that evening with Ben. Taylor’s friendship with Ben was an act of bravery, one tragically betrayed, a young woman’s attempt to confront and resolve what she feared. Ben’s daughters also will have to grapple with this — no doubt already are — ill-equipped, and one facing adolescence.
When Ben showed me his photographs, as he often did, I encouraged him as I do anyone who passionately undertakes a craft or artistic pursuit. Nevertheless, I silently noted that his photos usually lacked the glint of originality and his sensibility of human subjects seemed adolescent, co-opted from everything seen before. The same images manipulated by greater ability, a more generous spirit, could have been invigorating. But his were ideas left listless, and tired — no presence. Lately, I’ve returned to one photo of Taylor. In it, her gaze is an aperture edged in caution and I am struck by her presence. It was with horrifying simplicity that she was taken. I wish it weren’t with such ease that vigor and freshness are devastated by a man who could mine none of his own. S
Benjamin W. Fawley has admitted to police that he killed Taylor Marie Behl, saying it was an accident during a sexual encounter in which he restricted her breathing. In January a grand jury indicted him on a charge of first-degree murder. Last week authorities transferred him from the Richmond City Jail to Mathews County Circuit Court — in the jurisdiction where Behl’s body was found. A judge appointed an attorney to his case. He is now back at the city jail, awaiting a trial scheduled for May 30.