Originally published 02/05/2013.
September 20, 1988, near Belen, New Mexico. It was a perfect morning for a bicycle ride. Tara Calico, 19, would often bike as much as 18 miles down lonely State Road 47 before turning around.
She left her family’s house in Rio Communities on her mother’s pink Huffy. Her own bike had a flat tire from her last outing. These rides were a frequent break in her tight schedule: on top of studying at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus towards becoming a psychologist or psychiatrist, and working as a teller in a local bank, she was an extroverted, active young woman. Worried that another flat could derail her plans for tennis that afternoon, she asked her mom to drive out after her if she wasn’t back by noon.
At 12:05, Tara’s mother, Patty Doel, headed out, assuming she’d see her daughter wheeling her bike up the road. A few hours later, friends would have to pick up Tara’s 15-year-old sister, Michele Doel, and tell her that her sister was missing.
The family never saw Tara again. Unless a mysterious photo that surfaced in 1989 does indeed depict Tara (and maybe a missing local boy named Michael Henley), she hasn’t been seen since. And 1989 was a long time ago.
Mother Patty and stepfather John Doel would search for Tara Calico for years. They became auxiliary deputies. This permitted them to carry guns and to contact other law enforcement agencies on behalf of their sheriff’s department.
In the immediate aftermath of Tara’s disappearance, hundreds of neighbors joined the Doels in scouring the landscape off State Road 47 and mounting a mail campaign soliciting help not only from police departments across the United States, but from national investigative television news shows.
There were clues. . . then nothing.
The day after Tara disappeared, Patty Doel found a cassette tape by the band Boston by the side of the highway near Brugg Street, a few miles southeast of their house; Doel believed the tape was her daughter’s. The dust still showed bicycle tracks nearby, but they disappeared into the dirt. Later, the family found part of a Sony Walkman, possibly belonging to Tara, alongside 47 near the John F. Kennedy campground. This was 19 miles from Calico’s house, just a little farther than she’d planned to bike that day.
Patty Doel believed Tara had been trying to leave a trail. But her loved ones weren’t able to follow it to her.
Witnesses reported seeing a white or grey pick-up that some believe may have been following Tara that day. That too has proved a dead end.
Rene Rivera joined the department a year later and eventually became Valencia County Sheriff. Information—real and spurious—filtered in to him over the years.
The most promising and most frustrating lead was a photo depicting what some say is Tara and another missing area resident, at one point thought to be young Michael Henley, Jr.
Michael Henley, Jr., disappeared in April 1988. He’d been hunting turkeys with his father in the Zuni Mountains south of Grants, an hour from Albuquerque. He was 9 years old.
When a Polaroid photograph surfaced in a parking lot in June, 1989, it granted an almost impossible hope both to the Henley family and to Tara Calico’s loved ones. The photo, which a woman found outside a Junior Food Store in Port St. Joe, Florida, showed a boy and a young woman. The two are bound and gagged in what appears to be the back of a van. The shot includes a book by V.C. Andrews, who friends say was Tara’s favorite author.
The woman who found the photo saw a white Toyota van leave the parking lot just before she spotted the photo. A roadblock failed to find the vehicle, or what she reported as its mid-30s, mustached male driver.
Patty Doel initially thought it was Tara in the photo, but then she decided that it didn’t look like her daughter, because she thought the puffiness around the young woman’s eyes just didn’t look right. Still, she reasoned, maybe Tara had just woken up; of course a photo of a kidnapping victim certainly wouldn’t capture her at her best. And a scar on the woman’s leg matched one Tara had received in a car accident. Gradually convinced it was Tara, Doel went to her grave believing this was a photo of her lost daughter. Marty Henley, too, hesitated and then became more certain it was her son in that Polaroid.
Scotland Yard experts believed the photo might show Michael and Tara; experts at the Los Alamos National Laboratory disagree, and the Federal Bureau of Investigations couldn’t confirm a match. Some very loose “evidence” fits around a theory that it’s Tara in the Polaroid: witnesses spotted a woman resembling Tara, with a group of men who seemed to be restraining her, on a South Florida beach just days before the photo was found.
One problem with this scenario: Michael Henley’s remains were found in the Zuni Mountains in 1990, not far from where he disappeared. Investigators now believe he’d wandered off and died of exposure. Could abductors have returned him to the site of a kidnapping? Who is this boy? And is that Tara in the photo? Amateurs and investigators have theories about what happened, but without a body or other substantive evidence, it’s all speculation.
An Unsolved Mystery or an Unprosecutable Crime?
Tara Calico’s family never gave up. But time stumbled on. Tara’s father died in 2002. In 2003, her mother and stepfather finally left the home where Tara had grown up and moved to Port Charlotte, Florida. In May 2006, after a series of strokes, Patty Doel died. Her husband told the Clara-Garcia news that he’s long thought that Tara must have been killed, because she would have found some way back to them if she were alive. But he says his wife had always waited for her daughter to return.
Law enforcement officials don’t hold out much hope that Tara could still turn up alive, but some of them haven’t entirely given up on solving the case.
Sheriff Rene Rivera has told the Albuquerque Journal that he has an idea who was responsible for Tara’s disappearance. He says that witnesses have suggested that two then-teenage boys encountered Tara that September morning. The boys would have followed her down 47 in an old Ford pickup, harassing her and perhaps even attacking her—she was an attractive, popular girl, Rivera remembers, and the suspects he has in mind were younger boys violently trying to get her attention. They may have accidentally hit her with the truck, then panicked and murdered her. He believes the young men had accomplices—perhaps even their parents—who helped them get rid of the body and cover up the crime.
But Rivera needs more evidence if he’s to act on this hunch.
Most of the public developments surrounding the decades-old case seem to be wild goose chases.
In 2003, a murder case against State Police Lieutenant Mark McCracken prompted a review of Calico’s file. McCracken was indicted in, but ultimately not tried for, the murder of his wife. There had been some rumors that McCracken had dated Tara Calico; nothing suggested he was involved in her disappearance.
In August, 2009, Port St. Joe, Florida, police received two pieces of mail from Albuquerque. The Port St. Joe Star got one too. Each envelope contained a photo of a brown-haired young boy, with the mouth area of the photo crossed in blank ink—it seemed to be an imitation of that 1989 Polaroid, in which a boy had tape over his mouth. Detective Jake Richards said these photos went to other police departments and to several churches, but that investigators were unable to get DNA evidence or other useful information from the mail.
The same day the newspaper received its copy of that letter, Gulf County Sheriff Joe Nugent heard from a woman in California, who says that visions told her that Calico had been buried in California.
Melinda Esquibel, a former classmate of Tara’s, is outraged that the case is unsolved and that the perpetrators may still be living in freedom in her hometown of Belen. She’s making a documentary about the disappearance. RJ Mitte, who plays Walter White, Jr., on Breaking Bad, is the executive producer.
Sources on following page.