The Spine-Tingling Disappearance of Tara Leigh Calico

Source: Murders, Mysteries, and Missing

In 1988, Tara Calico, 19, and her mother, Patty Doel, were avid bicyclists. [1] The pair often traversed a 36-mile route from their home in Belen, New Mexico, along New Mexico State Road 47.

However, Patty had been turning down her daughter’s invitations to join her on the journey. Recently, while she was out riding with Tara, a motorist drove aggressively close to the pair, then drove past them several times. Patty was spooked enough to take a break from the lengthy trek, but Tara felt her mother’s concern was silly and opted to still make the daily trip.

So, on the morning of September 20, 1988, around 9:30 a.m., Tara hopped on her pink bicycle, eager to go on her first ride since she had gotten a flat tire several days earlier. Her mother suggested she carry mace, but Tara laughed off the idea. [2]

As she headed out the door, a Walkman cassette player and a Boston tape in hand, Tara jokingly told her mother to come searching for her if she didn’t get back by noon because she had a date to play tennis with her boyfriend at 12:30. [1] [2]

Noon came and went with no sign of Tara. [1]

Since Patty knew the route well, she hopped on her own bicycle and rode the usual path in the hopes of finding her daughter, but her efforts were unsuccessful. [3]

An Exhaustive, Never-Ending Search

With no sign of Tara, Patty called the police, who put together a search party that scoured the route for a second time. Neither Tara nor her bike was ever found.

From the very beginning, Tara’s family knew something terrible must have happened to her. They felt it in their gut, and there had been signs that Tara’s life was in danger.

Months before her disappearance, threatening notes had been found on Tara’s vehicle. [1]

Tara’s brother, Chris Calico, said:

“I knew, my parents knew, immediately that some foul play had happened. We didn’t have any idea what.”

And on the morning she went missing, witnesses told the police that a pickup truck had been following Tara along her route. [1]

The truck was described as a light-colored, older model vehicle pulling a shell camper. [4]

Witnesses said the truck followed Tara for a good distance, but drove alongside her at one point. [1]

There was nothing to suggest that Tara had run away. She was a happy young woman with no serious problems at home. She was social and always busy, but no one knew of any plans she might have had to travel or leave her old life behind. Why would she?

The only sign that Tara had traversed her usual route was the discovery of her broken Walkman and a set of bicycle tracks that Tara’s stepfather, John Doel, described as “skid marks.” [4] Patty was convinced that Tara had left it there deliberately, to let searchers know she had been abducted, but there was no way to know for certain. [1]

For nearly nine months, Tara’s family watched, waited, and prayed that their daughter would walk through the front door or at least be found. They would receive a new clue, but it wouldn’t bring much relief or hope to the grief-stricken family.

Unsettling Evidence

On June 15, 1989, a chilling clue as to what may have happened to Tara was discovered in a convenience store parking lot in Port St. Joe, Florida, almost 1,500 miles from where the young women went missing.

As a woman was pulling into the parking lot, she waited for a white, windowless Toyota van to pull out of the spot she wanted. The driver appeared to be a man in his thirties with a mustache.

When the woman got out of her car, something caught her eye. There, lying on the pavement, was a Polaroid picture showing a teenage girl and a young boy lying on sheets and pillow, with duct tape over their mouths and their hands and feet bound.

What made the photo even more unnerving was the fact that it appeared to have been taken in the back of the same van.

Law enforcement immediately set up a roadblock in the hopes of finding the van and speaking with the driver, but they were unsuccessful.

Frustrated and directionless, the police forwarded the Polaroid to the TV show America’s Most Wanted to see if anyone recognized the girl and the boy in the photo. It also appeared on the show A Current Affair. Friends of Patty saw the Polaroid on TV and asked Patty if she thought it could be Tara. [1][4]

When Patty was shown the photograph, she wasn’t immediately convinced that the frightened-looking girl was Tara. But the closer she looked, the more convinced she became that she was staring at her daughter.

There were a number of similarities between Tara Calico and the girl in the Polaroid. Both of them had a discolored streak on their thigh. The streak on Tara’s thigh was a scar from an injury she suffered after being in a car accident when she was younger.

Also, in the photo, a copy of the book My Sweet Audrina by V.C. Andrews was seen next to the girl. [5] V.C. Andrews was one of Tara’s favorite authors.

If it was a coincidence, it was an amazing one.

The book was also intriguing because a phone number could be seen written on its spine, but not all of the digits are legible. [6] According to experts, it could be one of 300 numbers and only 57 of them are valid.

Unconvinced that it was Tara in the eerie photograph, authorities sent it to the Los Alamos National Laboratory as well as to the FBI for more advanced testing. [1] Los Alamos, too, was unconvinced, and the FBI couldn’t make heads or tails of it. But when New Scotland Yard in the U.K. took a closer look at the photo, they confirmed that it was, indeed, Tara Calico.

All three parties agreed that the photo had been taken recently — no later than May of that year. Beyond that, investigators still had nothing to go on.

If there was any lingering doubt that the girl in the photo was Tara, the identification of the boy beside her seemed to all but cement the disturbing reality.

In April 1988, a boy named Michael Henley also vanished from New Mexico, that time during a hunting trip with his father. Shortly after the photo received nationwide attention, Henley’s family came forward to say that the boy in the photo was Michael.

The horrified expressions on Tara and Michael’s faces haunted both families but provided an uncomfortable hope that they were still alive.

Tragically, Michael’s remains were discovered in the Zuni Mountains of New Mexico approximately seven miles from where he disappeared. He had died of exposure long before the photo was developed, which meant that it wasn’t him in the photo at all. Foul play was ruled out and the boy was presumed to have died of hypothermia.

Since the discovery of the first Polaroid, two other Polaroids have come to light. [6] One of them was developed on film that wasn’t available until June 1989. Discovered near a residential construction site in Montecito, California, the image showed a girl’s face with duct tape covering her mouth. Patty believed the girl in the photo was Calico, though the image was blurry.

In that photo, the girl has a cowlick on her right temple similar to Tara’s, and the blue-striped fabric the girl is lying on is similar to the pillow in the first picture.

The third Polaroid was developed on film that was unavailable before February 1990. In the image, a woman wearing large black-framed glasses is seen loosely bound in gauze. Her eyes, too, are covered in gauze. A man is seen sitting beside her on the passenger seat of an Amtrak train. Patty couldn’t readily identify Tara in the photo and believed it may have been a cruel prank.

2008 Brings New Developments

The fall of 2008 brought fresh hope to the family of Tara Calico when the Valencia County News Bulletin published an article stating that Rene Rivera, the sheriff of Valencia County, knew what happened to Tara. [8]

According to the article, Rivera knew the names of two men, teenagers at the time of Tara’s disappearance, who killed Tara. Allegedly, the boys’ parents helped them cover up the event.

As the story goes, a witness came forward and told Rivera that the boys drove up behind Tara in a pickup truck, trying to talk to her and grabbing at her. [9] They accidentally struck her, and in their panic, they killed her.

Nothing ever came of this claim, however. No arrests were ever made and the boys were never publicly named. Unsurprisingly, Rivera’s comments to the press angered Tara’s family, who felt he should have had more solid evidence before publicly discussing the theory.

2013

In 2013, local and federal agents reopened the case into Tara’s disappearance. A task force of six agents from Homeland Security, the New Mexico State Police Department, the Valencia County Sherriff’s Department, the Albuquerque Police Department, and the Bernalillo County Sherriff’s Office was assembled to take a fresh look at the mystery.

At that time, a man named Henry Brown confessed on his deathbed that his neighbor, Lawrence Romero, Jr., and several friends openly discussed killing Tara on the day she vanished. [4]

Allegedly, Henry Brown, Romero Jr., a man named Dave Silva, and another man named Leroy Chavez were in a pickup truck when they noticed Tara riding her bicycle. They hit her with the truck, abducted her, then threw her in a gravel pit and raped her.

When Tara threatened to go to the police, the gang of thugs decided she had to die, so Romero stabbed her to death while the other men held her down.

Initially, the men hid her body in a bush, but when people began searching for Tara, they moved her body to the basement under a trailer that Romero Jr. lived in. [12]

Henry Brown claimed that the other men involved in the crime threatened to kill him if he ever went to the police, which is why waited to make the confession until he was taking his final breaths. [11]

It’s one thing for an individual to keep a secret for the rest of his life, but how does a group of men keep something so sinister quiet for so long?

Well, according to Henry, Romero Jr.’s father helped cover up the crime. His father was none other than Rene Rivera, the sheriff of Valencia County. At one point, Sheriff Romero allegedly found a note written by his son confessing to Tara’s murder and destroyed it.

Henry went on to say that after some time, Tara’s body was moved to a pond near one of the men’s houses, and her bicycle was disposed of in a junkyard. Neither has ever been found.

It should also be noted that another man, who has not been named, also came forward and stated that one of the perpetrators confessed the crime to him, as well.

More Haunting Photos

Two more disturbing photos emerged in 2009, though Tara wasn’t in either of them.

Photos of a young boy were mailed to Port St. Joe police chief David Barnes. Two letters accompanied the images, one postmarked June 10, 2009, and the other postmarked August 10 of that year. Both originated from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

One letter contained a photocopied image of a young boy with a line drawn over his mouth, similar to the first Polaroid found in 1989 which showed a boy and girl bound and gagged.

The second letter contained the original photo. The Star Newspaper in Port St. Joe also received the letter and a photocopy of the image.

Investigators have been unable to prove that it is the same boy in the 1989 Polaroid and the photo received in 2009. However, the police were confident that the cases were somehow linked.

If Tara was murdered in the fashion that Henry Brown described, then neither case has anything to do with Tara’s disappearance.

New Suspects in 2018

In 2018, the FBI and the Valencia County Sheriffs announced that they were actively looking at two living suspects and that they had a theory about what happened to Tara after two informants provided them with new information. [10]

By this time, it had been seven years since Sheriff Rene Rivera left office, and the police weren’t seriously looking at him as a potential suspect in Tara’s vanishing.

This time, once again, two men who were teenagers at the time of Tara’s disappearance were under the microscope. Rivera and Sgt. Joseph Rowland said they believed that Tara was killed by these two boys and that her killers may have had two other accomplices.

Rivera and Rowland theorized that two boys riding in a pickup truck crossed paths with Tara while she was riding her bicycle and attacked her. This theory was significantly different from the one Rivera posited in 2008, but one aspect of it carried over: The boys’ parents may have helped them cover up the crime.

The investigators said they believed that Tara was buried somewhere in Valencia County.

The podcast, Vanished: The Tara Calico Investigation, supports this theory. The show was created by Melinda Esquibel, a high school friend of Tara’s who also serves as host of the podcast. She provides unique insights into her friend, the case, and the potential actors involved in Tara’s demise.

Like Rivera and Rowland, Esquibel, too, believes that if Tara was indeed killed by local boys, their parents likely would have covered for them, citing the close-knit nature of the Belen community.

She said:

“What makes the town charming is the same thing that makes it kind of scary — that you will go to great lengths to protect your own. … There’s a lot of people that don’t want this case solved.”

It goes without saying that if Tara was killed on the day she disappeared, she was not the girl in the eerie Polaroid photos.

It also goes without saying that if Sheriff Romero did, in fact, cover up Tara’s rape and murder, he would be eager to point the investigation in a completely different direction.

Justice Goes Unserved

Neither of Tara’s parents ever got to bring their daughter home or see justice served. [11]

In 2003, the Doels moved to Florida, eager to get away from the constant reminders of their daughter and what might have happened to her. Three years later, Patty died.

Tara’s older brother Chris has said that he believes the stress of trying to find her daughter significantly shortened Patty’s life. [9]

Tara’s biological father passed away in 2002, but her stepfather, John Doel, is still alive and continues to seek answers about his stepdaughter.

The thought that a person can go missing and not be heard from for more than 30 years is an astounding one. There is little question that someone followed Tara, then abducted and murdered her. The question is who, and why?

The case of Tara Calico is a startling reminder that danger can lurk anywhere, and while you can’t live your life in fear, it’s important to remember that no one is immune from the evil that burns in the hearts of many.

Sources:

  1. All That’s Interesting
  2. People
  3. Film Daily
  4. Thought Catalog
  5. Crime Online
  6. The Charley Project
  7. The Tara Calico Investigation
  8. The Crime Shop
  9. Lauth Investigations International, Inc.
  10. Investigation Discovery
  11. Unsolved Mysteries Wiki
  12. Real Life is Horror
  13. The Tara Calico Investigation Blog

My name is Julie Fidler. I’m a writer, author, wife, and animal lover. I shed light on unsolved mysteries and shocking crimes.

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