On September 20, 1988, Tara Leigh Calico set out for a bike ride. Despite an extensive search, 31 years later, there has still been no trace of her. Prior to her disappearance, Calico had planned to play tennis with her boyfriend at 12:30 PM and attend class at 3:30 PM

Polaroid photo received in 1989. Wikimedia Commons

She left her home in Valencia County, New Mexico, on her mother’s bike at around 9:30 AM, following her usual route along State Road 47. Her mother, Patty Doel, was familiar with the route as they often traveled it together. However, after an incident in which Patty felt she was being stalked by a motorist, she suggested that Tara carry a mace for protection, but Tara declined.

Disappearance of Tara Calico

What happened later was the beginning of a mystery that is yet to be solved. When Tara did not return, Patty went searching for her along Tara’s usual route. However, when she couldn’t find her, she contacted the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office.

Tara Calico

Lawrence Romero, who had been sheriff since 1976, immediately suspected foul play in Tara Calico’s disappearance. “We feel this is an involuntary disappearance,” he said. “We understand from talking to her parents and friends that this is totally out of character for her to turn up missing.”

During the investigation, police found a set of bike tracks the next day that suddenly turned to the side of the road onto a soft shoulder, leading to a spot 100 yards away. There, they discovered tire tracks and a fresh oil slick. Additionally, they found Tara Calico’s cassette tape and the front plastic window of her Walkman. The rest of the broken Walkman was found 20 miles away, near the entrance of the remote John F. Kennedy campground, on September 24th.

Patty believed that the cassettes and Walkman were broken and dropped deliberately as a part of her daughter’s effort to leave a trail. The family denied the theory that the 19-year-old had run away from home, as Tara was a responsible, kind, organized, and independent cheerful teenager.

There was just so much she wanted to fit into a day. She was like a little machine. It was amazing,” said a heartbroken John Doel, Tara’s stepfather.

Meanwhile, detectives kept looking for leads and interviewed people up and down New Mexico’s State road 47. They gathered seven witnesses who saw her, five of whom also saw the suspicious pickup. On October 25th, Sheriff Romero announced that they believed at least two men were involved in Calico’s abduction, based on a witness who came forward to say he saw two people in the pickup at 11:45 A.M.

A witness described the driver as a 35- to -45-year-old white male with reddish-brown hair, a height of around 5’9” to 6’0”, and weighing 190-210 pounds. The car was a white or off-white mid-50s-to-early-60s Ford pickup with a camper shell, chrome wheels, oversize tires, and a Ford emblem with crushed red glass letters. It bore New Mexico plates that began with “WBY” or “WBZ” and ended with the number 6. The sketch generated over 100 phone tips and four interviews, but no one was arrested.

Polaroid Photograph of Tara Calico

On June 15, 1989, a woman discovered a Polaroid photograph lying on the ground in the parking lot of a convenience store in Port St. Joe, Florida. The eerie photograph depicted a teenage girl and a young boy gagged with duct tape, their wrists bound behind their backs, lying in the back of a van. This discovery occurred nearly nine months and 1,500 miles from Valencia County, where Tara Calico had gone missing.

Tara Calico Kidnapped

The woman had noticed a white Toyota Cargo van parked in the spot when she entered the store, but when she left, the car was gone and the Polaroid was in its place. Police put roadblocks in place to intercept the vehicle, but the attempt to locate the van or the driver proved unsuccessful.

Tara’s relatives were watching the tabloid TV show A Current Affair when the Polaroid was released. They realized that the girl in the photograph resembled Tara and they immediately called Patty to inform her. When Patty first saw the photograph, she wasn’t certain that the girl was her daughter, but the more she looked, the more confident she became. The girl in the picture had a discolored streak on her thigh, a scar similar to Tara’s, which had occurred when she was involved in a car accident at a younger age. Additionally, there was a dog-eared paperback next to her, one of Tara’s favorite authors, V. C. Andrews.

Who was the Boy in the Polaroid with Tara?

A few names of missing children were circulated as potential matches for the boy in the photograph, but the most likely match seemed to be that of 10-year-old Michael Henley. Henley had vanished in New Mexico in April of 1988 while on a hunting trip with his father.

Both families agreed that the photograph could have been taken recently. The Polaroid had to have been taken after May of 1989, as the particular film used in the photograph was not available until then.

In June of 1990, Michael Henley’s remains were discovered in the Zuni Mountains, about 7 miles away from his family’s campsite.

What happened to Tara Calico?

Patty and John Doel, Tara Calico’s parents, became authorized deputies in 1991 in order to conduct their own search for their daughter. They used the sheriff’s office’s copying machine to print out over 80,000 fliers in an effort to find any leads in the case.

Contract investigator Jay Eschenberg of the District Attorney’s Office said in an interview with the Albuquerque Journal that:

“Tara’s abduction was a “violent crime, a crime of opportunity” that led to her being raped and murdered. Detectives had always assumed that she was kidnapped by more than one person due to her physical fitness”

However, the case slowed down until September 2008, when Sheriff Rene Rivera announced to the public that he believed he knew what had happened to Tara Calico almost 20 years earlier. According to him, four boys who knew Tara accidentally hit her with their pickup truck while she was biking along NM 47, threw her and the bicycle in the back of their truck, and took her to a gravel pit. When she threatened to make sure they all went to jail, they killed her and disposed of the bicycle in an undisclosed junkyard. He added that “he couldn’t press charges against anyone.”

He added that “He couldn’t press charges against anyone.”

John Doel, Tara’s stepfather, was angered by this announcement, questioning why Rivera would publicly say these things if he wasn’t going to arrest anyone with the circumstantial evidence he claimed to have.

Polaroid photographs over the year

The Polaroid photograph of the sandy-haired young boy resurfaced in the news during the summer of 2009. Police Chief David Barnes of Port St. Joe received two strange photos of the child in the mail, one being an original photo and the other with black marker scribbled over his mouth to resemble tape. The first letter was postmarked on June 10th, and the second on August 10th. Both were mailed from Albuquerque and had no accompanying note or return address.

Polaroids received in 2009
Polaroids received in 2009

On August 12th, The Port St. Joe Star received another letter, showing the same boy with black marker scribbled over his mouth. The boy in these pictures has never been identified, and it is unknown if he is the same child as the one in the Polaroid found in June 1989. Unfortunately, these leads did not lead to any new information.

Two other Polaroids have surfaced over the years that could have been of Tara Calico. One was a blurry photo of a girl’s face with tape covering her mouth, found near a residential construction site in Montecito, CA. Forensic evidence suggests it was taken sometime after May 1989. The second Polaroid was of a woman loosely bound with her eyes covered, sitting next to a man on an Amtrak train, dated roughly to February 1990.

What happened to Tara Calcio’s case?

The latest development in Tara’s case came in 2013 when a task force made up of six local and federal agents reopened the investigation. A documentary about the case, produced by Melinda Esquibel and RJ Mitte of Breaking Bad fame, was in the works but appears to be in limbo with no recent updates.

In November 2002, Tara’s biological father, David, was mugged while walking home from a bar in Albuquerque. He died in his sleep as a result of the attack. In September 2003, Tara’s mother, Patty, and her stepfather, John, moved to Port Charlotte, Florida. Patty later passed away from a series of strokes on May 11, 2006. Tara’s name is listed as a survivor in her obituary. Her stepfather, John Doel, is still alive today.

Today, Tara Calico has been missing for more than 30 years. Her disappearance remains one of the most haunting cold cases in recent memory — and at this point, it seems that only chance will turn up answers.

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