September 20, 1988: The Disappearance of Tara Calico


WHAT HAPPENED?


On September 20, 1988, 19-year-old Tara Calico disappeared near her home in Belen, New Mexico. It is widely believed that she was kidnapped. Making the case gain even more media attention, in July of the following year, a Polaroid photo of a young, unidentified woman bound and gagged was found in a parking lot in Port St. Joe, Florida. Family and friends believed the woman resembled Tara.


Her mother believed that, considering "time, growth, and lack of makeup," the girl looked like her daughter, noting an identical scar on the woman's leg. Scotland Yard's investigation concluded that the woman was, indeed, Tara, though the Los Alamos National Laboratory disagreed with their conclusion. An FBI analysis was inconclusive.


Tara's case has been extensively covered, including features on episodes of A Current Affair, Unsolved Mysteries, America's Most Wanted, The Oprah Winfrey Show, and 48 Hours. Despite this, however, no arrests have ever been made in the case.

DISAPPEARANCE AND PHOTOGRAPHS


Tara Calico went on a bike ride every morning, and as such, Tuesday, September 20, 1988 started the same as every other day. She left at around 9:30 to ride her bike along New Mexico State Road 47. Tara's mom, Patty Doel, used to join her on the rides, but stopped when she felt like she had been being followed by a car. Tara decided to continue riding, but her mother advised her to start carrying mace. She didn't think it was necessary.


On the morning of Tara's disappearance, she told her mom to come get her if she wasn't home by noon. She had plans to play tennis with her boyfriend at 12:30, and sometimes lost track of time. So when she wasn't home by noon, Patty went on the regular bike route looking for her. And when she didn't find her, she called the police.


Police found pieces of Tara's Sony Walkman and cassette tape. Patty believed she may have dropped them in an attempt to mark her trail so someone could find her. Though many people saw her riding her bike down the street, her bike has never been found. Nobody witnessed Tara being taken, though a few witnesses reported a light-colored pickup truck with a camper shell following behind her.


On June 15, 1989, after months of no developments on the case, a Polaroid photo of 2 unidentified people, a woman and a boy, gagged with duct tape and bound, was discovered on the ground of a parking lot of a convenience store in Port St. Joe, Florida. The woman who found the photo claimed that it was in a parking space that had been occupied by a windowless Toyota van, driven by a man in his 30s with a mustache. Police set up road blocks right away to try to stop the vehicle, but it was never found.


Officials believe the picture was taken after May 1989 because of the film used, which was not available until then.


The photo was a mystery, but not one connected to Tara Calico's disappearance until it was broadcast on A Current Affair in July. Friends of the Calico's who had seen the show thought the woman looked like Tara, and they contacted Patty.


After the broadcast, relatives of Michael Henley, a missing child also from New Mexico, believed he was the boy in the photo. Michael had gone on a camping trip in April of 1988 with his father in the Zuni mountains, and disappeared mysteriously just 20 minutes after they arrived.


Both Patty and Michael's parents met with investigators to review the photos. Patty was certain it was her daughter, noting that the scar on the woman's leg was identical to a scar Tara had received in a car accident. Additionally, My Sweet Audrina by V.C. Andrews is seen next to the woman, which was Tara's favorite books. Scotland Yard concluded the photo was of Tara, though further reviews from other entities have rejected that conclusion, or simply said they couldn't be sure.


Michael's mother said she was almost certain it was her son. However, it is unlikely that is the case, as Michael's remains were found about 7 miles away from the family's campsite in June 1990. Sadly, Michael most likely wandered away from his campsite, lost his way, and died of exposure. Given that he was 75 miles away from where Tara disappeared, and he vanished from the same place he was found, it is unlikely he was kidnapped, or in that photo.

FURTHER DEVELOPMENTS


2 other Polaroid photos, possibly of Tara, have surfaced over the years, as well. One was found near a construction site in Montecito, California. It is a blurry image of a woman's face with tape over her mouth, taken after June of 1989. The second photo showed a woman loosely bound in large black-framed glasses on an Amtrak train. Her mother is convinced the first photo was of Tara, but wasn't sure about the second. Her sister clarified, lest people believe that their family is just believing any photo of any unidentified woman is Tara, that "our family has had to identify many other photographs and all but those 3 were ruled out."


In 2008, the sheriff of Valencia County Rene Rivera reported that he had received information that 2 teenagers had accidentally hit Tara with their truck, panicked, and then killed her. According to Rivera, the boys knew Tara and had driven up behind her on purpose, but an accident followed. He said he knew the names of the boys, but with no body, he couldn't make a case and never released any evidence. Reasonably, John Doel, Tara's father, said that there was no reason for the sheriff to make those comments if he had no intent to arrest anyone.


In 2009, over 20 years after Tara's disappearance, Port St. Joe police chief David Barnes received 2 letters from Albuquerque, New Mexico. One was a photo of a young boy with a black band of ink over his mouth, similar to the tape in the original photo from 1989. The boy was never confirmed to be the same one as the original photo. But because of the similarities, investigators believed that it could have something to do with Tara Calico.


In 2013, a task force was established to reinvestigate the case, but as of 2020, the case remains open. In 2019, the FBI announced they were offering up to $20,000 for any details leading to Tara Calico.

THEORIES


There are 2 schools of thought when discussing Tara Calico. One is that she was abducted and is the girl in the photos, and the other is that she was killed while on her bike, her body hidden to never be found.


One Reddit user provides a summary of the case documents on Tara's disappearance. Basically, years after Tara's disappearance (but an unspecified year), a dying man named Henry Brown requested an interview with one Deputy Frank Methola. He said that he used to hang out with some troublemakers, namely Lawrence Romero Jr., the son of the town's sheriff, who dealt drugs and had a crush on Tara. Tara was dating someone else, however, who also happened to sell drugs.


So Brown says he was partying with Lawrence and some buddies, and Lawrence mentioned that he and some friends had hit Tara with their truck, raped, and killed her. They hid her body in the bushes, but when the search intensified, they moved her to a pond. But because one of the prime suspects was the son of a Sheriff, it didn't go anywhere. Additionally, Rene Rivera, the man who claimed he knew who was involved, had the boys' backs.


According to a report, "she got ballsy, stood up and she said she was going to make sure we were all going to jail," after she had been hit and raped, so she was stabbed and killed. Brown said that they whole thing had to do with drugs.


Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), all of the suspects have since died. Lawrence committed suicide (or died in a game of Russian Roulette, depends on how you ask). Allegedly, he left a confession note but Rivera never entered it into evidence. Brown confessed on his deathbed. All of this to say, there is a lot of evidence to support that Tara was deliberately run over by some drug addicted loser teens, one who was the son of a cop, and all of the suspects have died, and the current Deputy Sheriff is still covering it up. Though some of this could be speculation, a lot of this is detailed in the official case docs.


I am more subscribed to this theory, to be honest. I don't know Tara Calico, so it is unfair of me to say that the gagged woman doesn't look like her based off of a few photos on Google. However, it does seem unlikely that a woman kidnapped in New Mexico's photo would randomly turn up on a Polaroid on the ground of a parking lot in Florida. Not impossible, but the most likely scenario is often the correct one. (One user suggested that the photo could have been of a girl and a younger brother or cousin taking a photo as a joke, which seems more likely for a random Polaroid on the ground in a convenience store parking lot.)


But more than that, her bike not being found leads me to believe in a hit and run more than a random abduction. If you want to abduct someone, someone who is biking through a well-known road on a well-known route in broad daylight, you want to go fast. That means grabbing and going - not loading a bike into the car, as well. But if you are trying to murder someone and you don't want any suspicion to fall on you, disposing of the bike seems like the way to go. It seems far more likely that a group of druggie teens who wanted to murder a girl would dispose of the bike than a hardened kidnapper trying to get in and out.


Really, the only evidence pointing to Tara being kidnapped is the Polaroid image, and the fact that she is missing. It is an easy theory to believe in, because it is what we see on TV. People getting snatched off the street, taken from their homes, being taken off of their bikes. And sure, it happens. But if there is evidence that she may have been killed by people who know her, vs. the chances that a random killer of opportunity snatched her off of her bike to take Polaroid photos and drop them around like crumbs for the police, it seems like the former probably happened.


The only thing that I do think makes the kidnapping theory more plausible is her mother feeling like she had been followed, Tara asking her mom to come get her if she wasn't home in 3 hours, and the truck following close behind her. Sure, perhaps the guys who would eventually take her life could have been stalking behind her before, but it does seem like there could have been some shady business going on, and perhaps the "random" abductor had been following her for days or weeks before snatching her.


Everything about this case sucks regardless of what happened, though. Tara Calico is gone. Whether she was killed the same day her mother reported her missing, or if she was kidnapped and has been sold into sexual slavery, she is likely dead now. Her family has had to look at images of a woman clearly in distress and try to determine if it is their beloved Tara or not. Another family believed their son had been kidnapped and also believed the image was of him, to find out that he had died just a few miles away from where he went missing in the woods.


And, in the likely event that the 2 people in the photo aren't either of those people, there could be 2 people out there who are still unidentified, living a life of unimaginable trauma and fear. One has to hope that the photo was just taken as some sort of sick joke.


Though a confession is impossible because the alleged perpetrators of Tara's murder have all died, I truly hope one day further investigation is done into Rivera to try to officially determine what happened to her, and I hope that it leads them to her body so her family can have some sort of closure. I can't imagine losing your daughter/sister, and for the rest of your life, believing she is in terrible pain and suffering somewhere.


Wherever Tara Calico is, I hope she is at peace.

REFERENCES:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disappearance_of_Tara_Calico

https://unsolvedmysteries.fandom.com/wiki/Michael_Henley

https://www.reddit.com/r/UnresolvedMysteries/comments/5orxpa/tara_calico_about_as_resolved_as_it_can_get/?sort=top

https://www.reddit.com/r/UnresolvedMysteries/comments/6wz2xv/alleged_photo_of_tara_calico_who_is_it_really/?sort=top


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