Cyber Sleuthing and Old Fashioned Detective Work
By Rachael Bell
Around the time the police took over Taylor's missing person's case in mid September 2005, Marilyn Bardsley, founder and executive editor of Court TV's Crime Library who is less formally known as a real-life Nancy Drew, decided to do a little detective work of her own around the city of Richmond, Virginia in an attempt to get to the nitty gritty of what happened to the missing college student. During her investigation, she ventured behind the scenes where few reporters dared to travel and learned about another side of Taylor of which investigators and the media were unaware.
Her detective work and that of her freelance investigative online reporter Steve Huff took the investigation to a totally different dimension, from the streets of Richmond and into cyberspace. The case gained historical significance as one of the first investigations to be almost totally played out on the internet and which eventually changed the way police conduct their investigations.
During her field investigation, Marilyn discovered some interesting and at times shocking leads that provided insight into Taylor's behavior and movements around the time of her death, as well as an interview with one of the last witnesses to see her alive. While visiting one of Taylor's favorite haunts, the Village Cafe, Marilyn talked with some of the staff, who seemed more than a little concerned about Taylor. Most of the employees were familiar with Taylor and had difficulty understanding why such a beautiful and sweet young girl would spend so much time at the restaurant-bar where college students mixed with a rougher, more seasoned sort of clientele. What surprised them the most was that she seemed more interested in fraternizing with middle-aged men at the bar instead of young men her own age. They were worried for her safety and, after her disappearance, suspected that Taylor's trusting nature had finally led to the worst kind of consequence.
Marilyn's interview with Kevin (last name withheld), an acquaintance of Taylor's and one of the last people to see her alive, alluded to her risky behavior. When he last saw Taylor, it was on September 5th around 8:45 p.m, the night of her disappearance. Kevin said that at the time Taylor had just finished eating diner with a former boyfriend and that she was all excited because she was going to "do something highly illegal...an early birthday present," Marilyn reported. He never found out what she intended to do and he would never get the chance to ask her again.
Kevin also claimed to have met Ben Fawley at an earlier period. He said that Fawley suggested that he and Taylor had an intimate relationship. It surprised Kevin because he saw Fawley as a "rough" sort of character. Fawley turned out to be rougher than he ever imagined. Steve Huff discovered just how rough when Marilyn asked him to conduct an online investigation of Fawley and his acquaintances, as part of her on-going investigation for Crime Library.
While cyber sleuthing, Steve discovered a wealth of information concerning Fawley's dubious behavior, unusual hobbies and former relationships, including that with Taylor and Erin Crabill. Much of the information he retrieved was from social networking sites like Livejournal.com and Myspace.com. It was information that neither the media nor the police had yet stumbled upon but would later be used by investigators to narrow down their list of potential suspects until only one remained—Fawley.
Fawley, the amateur photographer, included in his online writings his absurd abduction story that he claimed occurred on the morning after Taylor's disappearance. He said he was kidnapped by unknown assailants, beaten up and robbed before a kind stranger picked him up and drove him home. His incredulous story was never substantiated.
Steve also learned of Fawley's "morbid" interest in "death and decay" as exhibited in his sometimes graphic "erotic depictions of women" typically "much younger" and often "posing seductively." Many of the girls appeared under 18 years old. The pictures were just a few of many that would later land Fawley in jail on child pornography charges.
Even though Fawley went to great lengths to destroy his messages related to Taylor before he was imprisoned, his secrets were unlocked by a growing number of computer-savvy sleuths that followed Huff in his quest to uncover the truth. It was only a matter of time before the police caught on to the importance of an online investigation, leading to acquiring their own computer experts to sift through the mountains of posts that exposed Fawley's hidden pleasures, sadistic nature and eventually the location of Taylor's body. Police work will never be the same again.