On the morning of September 20, 1988, 19-year-old Tara Calico left her home in Belen, New Mexico to embark on a 36-mile bike ride along New Mexico State Road 47. The events of that morning weren’t unusual; according to Tara’s mother, Patty Doel, her daughter biked this route almost daily. Before leaving around 9:30 AM, Tara asked her mom to come get her if she wasn’t home by noon because she had plans with her boyfriend. Patty agreed and unknowingly said goodbye to her daughter for the last time. When she didn’t return by 12:00 PM, Patty set out to find her. After driving back and forth twice, there was no sign of Tara along her normal route.
As panic set in, Patty called the Valencia County Sheriff’s Department to report her daughter missing. For weeks, investigators searched the area. Local and state police, as well as hundreds of volunteers, combed the area on foot, horseback, four-wheelers, and planes. The only evidence they found were pieces of Tara’s broken Sony Walkman and bike tracks. Her stepfather, John Doel, recalls that the track marks looked more like skids, perhaps a sign of a struggle.
Although no one witnessed an abduction, seven people later reported that they saw Tara riding back toward her home at roughly 11:45 AM. She was said to have her headphones on and multiple witnesses recalled an older-model pickup trailing behind her. It’s believed that the truck was pulling a shell camper. In the first 9 months since Tara disappeared, this was the only information investigators obtained.
Until June 1989, when a strange development swept the nation. A woman in Port St. Joe, Florida spotted a gruesome polaroid photo in the parking lot of a convenience store. The picture showed a young woman and a boy bound in the back of a van with duct tape covering their mouths. The police were immediately contacted and the woman told them that a windowless Toyota cargo van was parked there when she entered the store. She described the van’s driver as a man with a mustache who appeared to be in his 30s. Officers set up roadblocks, but the vehicle was never found. Polaroid officials confirmed that the picture had to be taken after May 1989 because the type of film used had just recently been made available.
The picture was shown on A Current Affair the following month. Friends watching the show contacted the Doels, noticing similarities between Tara and the girl in the photograph. Relatives of Michael Henley, a 9-year-old boy who went missing in New Mexico in May of 1988, also saw the episode and thought the boy resembled Michael. The Doels and Henleys met with investigators to examine the picture. Patty Doel and Henley’s mother both asserted that the picture was of their children. Tara had a scar on her leg that was identical to the woman’s. Patty also pointed out a visible copy of My Sweet Audrina by V.C. Andrews’ in the Polaroid, which was Tara’s favorite book.
The Doels had the photo analyzed by the Scotland Yard who determined it was Tara. But the Valencia County District Attorney sent it to the Los Alamos National Laboratory who concluded it wasn’t Tara. FBI analysis came back inconclusive.
Michael Henley’s remains were eventually found in the Zuni Mountains in 1990, roughly 7 miles from the campsite where he had disappeared 2 years earlier. This discovery cast immediate doubt that he was the boy in the photograph. Foul play was later ruled out and it’s presumed that Michael died of hypothermia.
For nearly two decades, the unsolved case of Tara Calico went cold. But in the years since 2008, several odd circumstances have thrust her story back into the spotlight. Here’s the most recent developments:
– Rene Rivera, a Valencia County Sheriff who joined the department the year after Tara went missing, claimed to know what happened in an article for the Valencia County News-Bulletin. He says he learned that two men, possibly teenagers who knew Tara, were driving behind her and accidentally hit the bike. He thinks they panicked, drove off with Tara, and killed her.
– He alleges that two other men were involved after the murder and have knowledge on the location of Tara’s body.
– “We do have a case put together, but we want to make sure that this case is a concrete case to where we’ll be able to effectively do our jobs. We’re just waiting to get a little more evidence — her bicycle, her clothing or Tara herself,” Rivera is quoted as saying in the article.
– Patty Doel died in 2006. John Doel learned of Rivera’s statements through the media and ridiculed the announcement, questioning why the Sheriff would comment without enough evidence to make an arrest.
– As of now, no arrests have been made and Rivera has not publicly named any suspects. But according to this article on the Investigation Discovery website, Rivera still maintains this theory, going so far as to say that the boy’s families could have been involved in the cover up.
– Port St. Joe Police Chief, David Barnes, received a photograph of a young boy with black marker drawn over his mouth, made to look like the 1989 photo. Barnes was mailed a second letter containing an original image of the boy.
– On the day that Barnes’ second letter was postmarked, The Star newspaper in Port St. Joe received the same image of the boy with marker over his mouth.
– As The Star was turning their letter over to police, the Gulf County Sheriff’s Department was dealing with another odd coincidence. That day, a psychic called and reported having visions of the case. The woman claimed Tara was buried in California and described a blue Oldsmobile car. Authorities dismissed her account, but noted the peculiar timing.
– The case was reopened by local and federal agents. A six-person task force was selected that included agents from Homeland Security, the New Mexico State Police Department, the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office, the Albuquerque Police Department, and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office.
– A death bed confession was made by a man named Henry Brown. Brown told police that his neighbor, Lawrence Romero Jr., and several friends openly discussed killing Tara on the day that she went missing. Romero’s father was the Valencia County Sheriff at the time of Tara’s disappearance. Brown’s confession and subsequent documents are public record and can be read here.
– This past October, the FBI announced a reward of up to $20,000 for anyone who had information that would lead to the location of Tara Calico or the arrest of those responsible for her disappearance.
– The FBI released age progression photos showing what Tara would currently look like.
It’s worth noting that two additional Polaroids have been associated with the case. One was found near a construction site in Montecito, CA. The film was made after June 1989. The other was taken on film available after February 1990. The first photo is quite blurry, but Patty Doel believed it could be her daughter because the girl appears to have a cowlick and amblyopia in one eye, as did Tara. The second is widely regarded as a gag photo.
Had she not been tragically taken so soon, Tara would have celebrated her 51st birthday on February 28th. Her family maintained hope that she would someday be found alive, but John Doel and Tara’s brother, Chris, know it’s unlikely that she’s still out there. In 2018, Chris discussed Patty’s heartache with People magazine, “Mom really did not want to believe she was dead, period.” Patty spent the rest of her life asserting that the girl in the Polaroid was Tara. It was her glimmer of hope that she would someday be reunited with her daughter.
This case has been unsolved for over 30 years, but it’s anything but cold. Perhaps 2020 is the year that Tara and the Doels finally get justice.