Kym L. Pasqualini is the founder and former CEO of Nation's Missing Children Organization and National Center for Missing Adults.
After a young woman went out for a bike ride and never returned home, a dark mystery has haunted the little town of Belen, New Mexico, for over thirty years.
Tara Calico, 19, left her home on Brugg Street on a beautiful sunny day at approximately 9:30 a.m. on September 20, 1988. She took her mother’s bicycle because her bicycle had a flat tire.
Normally, the freckled, green-eyed beauty would ride with her mother Patty Doel, but there had been an incident where Patty had felt they were followed during their ride and she no longer felt comfortable going along. Tara was committed to her exercise and despite her mother asking for Tara to carry mace, Tara refused.
That fateful day, Tara was scheduled to meet her boyfriend for a tennis game at 12:30 p.m. and joked with her mother that if she were to get a flat tire and had not returned, to come and look for her so she could meet her boyfriend on time.
Tara left her tennis clothes and school books on her bed as she had classes at 3:30 p.m. following the tennis match she had planned with her boyfriend.
Tara’s daily ride typically took two hours and was a 36-mile round trip ride. Tara was last seen riding at approximately 11:45 a.m., approximately 2-3 miles from her home.
She was riding a pink Huffy mountain bike with yellow control cables and sidewalls. The only things Tara took with her was her Sony Walkman, headphones, and a cassette tape of the band Boston.
When Tara had not returned, Patty went out to look for her, driving her regular route, northbound on Highway 47 in Valencia County. She searched the desert ranchland with no results. Patty returned home petrified something bad had happened and called the Valencia County Sheriff’s Department to file a missing person report.
Tara was always very conscious of her time, regularly making lists planning out her daily activities. She had graduated from Belen High School and was a sophomore at the University of New Mexico at Valencia at the time of her disappearance. Tara had goals to become a psychologist or a psychiatrist and had a high-grade point average. She also worked at a local bank and was wearing a “1st National Bank of Belen” T-shirt the day she disappeared.
Sighting of a Truck
A witness came forward and told authorities they saw a dirty white or light gray 1953 (or similar), Ford pickup driving behind her on Highway 47. The truck had an old camper on the back.
It is not known if the truck is involved in her abduction but police distributed composite sketches of the truck in hopes of generating leads.
It is possible Tara was wearing her earphones and would not have been aware she was being followed until it was too late.
The day after Tara disappeared, Patty went out looking for Tara again. She found pieces of Tara’s Walkman and Boston cassette tape on the side of the road. She also told police she saw bike tire tracks and skid marks in the area about 3-miles away from home.
Investigating further, authorities found bike tracks that made a sudden turn to the side of the road that led to a spot about 100 yards away where they also found a fresh oil slick and vehicle tire tracks.
On September 24, additional pieces of Tara’s Walkman, along with the cassette tape were found 19-miles east of Highway 47 at the entrance of the remote John F. Kennedy campground.
The Valencia County sheriff since 1976, Lawrence Romero, immediately suspected foul play in the disappearance of Tara.
“We feel this is an involuntary disappearance,” Romero said. “We understand from talking to her parents and friends that this is totally out of character for her to turn up missing.”
Patty believed the Walkman and cassette were dropped intentionally by her daughter in order to leave a trail. She never accepted the theory that Tara had run away.
Investigators interviewed people on Highway 47 and found seven people who had seen her, five of whom also saw the white pickup truck with a camper on the back.
Several suspects materialized throughout the investigation but no arrests were ever made and the case went cold.
On June 15, 1989, a Polaroid picture of an unidentified young woman and a little boy was found in the parking lot of a convenience store in Port. St Joe, Florida. In the picture, the two look eerily into the camera, both bound and gagged.
Investigators consulted with Polaroid who said the picture had been taken after May 1989, because the film had not been sold before that date.
The woman who found the photograph described the vehicle as being a white Toyota cargo van without windows. She described the man driving as being in his 30’s and having a mustache.
Pot St. John is a smaller community in Florida of approximately 10,000 people in 1989. Police set up roadblocks stopping drivers to see if they had seen the van but to this day, the man has never been identified.
In the photograph, next to the older teen, a book called My Sweet Audrina by V.C. Andrews can be seen sitting next to the unidentified girl, almost as if it is sending a message.
According to Wikipedia, the story is about young Audrina who lives in virtual isolation, suffers from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), and lapses in memory. Nine years before Audrina was born, her older sister—also named Audrina and also born on September 9—was raped and murdered in the woods on her ninth birthday.
Her father Damian, tells Audrina stories about his “first and best Audrina” and convinces the younger Audrina that, by process of self-hypnosis (which includes going into the first Audrina’s old bedroom and rocking in her rocking chair), she can recover all her memories and become just as beloved and special as the original Audrina, which is what she wants more than anything else in the world.
One day, Audrina decides she must leave the house she was raised in that holds so many painful memories but her love for her youngest sister, Sylvia, stops her, and she decides to stay and replace the terrible memories with new ones based upon honesty and love. Audrina eventually feels like she has transformed into the “first” Audrina she always strived to be.
Tara’s mother told law enforcement and her case manager at the National Center for Missing Adults, that V.C. Andrews was Tara’s favorite author and the placement of the book in the photograph appeared to be a message.
In 1989, the photograph made the national news and broadcast on the show “Current Affair.” After the show aired, friends who had seen the show called Patty and told her they thought the girl in the photograph resembled Tara.
Relatives of a little boy named Michael Henley, 9, also saw the episode and thought the little boy in the photograph resembled Michael. The little boy had been missing since April 1988 from New Mexico. Michael’s body was later found and investigators ruled out the Polaroid was connected with his disappearance and death.
Tara’s parents met with detectives. Patty left the police department convinced the young woman in the photo was her daughter. She told police of a scar on the unidentified woman’s leg was identical to an injury Tara had suffered in a car accident.
Scotland Yard analyzed the photograph and concluded the woman in the picture was Tara, but a second analysis by the Los Alamos National Laboratory disagreed with Scotland Yard. A Federal Bureau of Investigation analysis of the photograph came back as inconclusive.
Other Photographs Surface
Two other photographs have surfaced over the years and Tara’s family has had to try to identify each one as if living in a terrible nightmare.
The first photograph was found near a construction site in Montecito, California, and a blurry picture of a young girl’s face with tape covering her mouth and a light blue striped fabric behind her, similar to the pillow in the original Toyota van photograph. Investigators determined the Polaroid film was not available until June 1989.
The second Polaroid shows a woman bound with what appears to be gauze, her eyes covered with more gauze, and large black-framed glasses with an unidentified man on an Amtrak train. The film was not available until February 1990.
Patty believed the one with the striped fabric was her daughter but the second one might have been a bad gag and not related.
“They had a striking resemblance. As for me, I will not rule them out. But keep in mind, our family has had to identify many other photographs as well,” said Tara’s sister Michele.
All were ruled out except the two with the striped pillow.
In 2009, Port St. Joe Police Chief David Barnes received two envelopes, postmarked in June and August 9, 2009, from Albuquerque, New Mexico. One letter contained a photograph printed on copy paper of a young boy with a hand-drawn gag across his mouth. The second letter contained the original image of the boy without the gag. On August 12, the Star newspaper in Port St. Joe received a third letter posted from Albuquerque with the same image of the boy, again with a black marker across his mouth. The contents of the letters have never been made public. None had a return address.
Authorities in Port St. Joe believe the photograph of the young boy has something to do with Tara’s disappearance but it all remains a mystery.
Vow to Tara
Tara’s mother Patty and her father John Doel have since passed away. They had moved to Florida where John had built Patty a beautiful waterfront home. Before her death, Patty had suffered a series of strokes. Following the strokes, she would sit looking out the window of her retirement home and would wait each day for her daughter to ride by on her bicycle.
Even though John and Patty had moved 2,000 miles away from where Tara disappeared, Patty wondered if the women riding by her home were her daughter. She always kept hope.
“I’d have to try to explain to her that it was Tara, that it was a person too old or too young,” John Doel told the Albuquerque Journal in 2006 when Patty had passed away. “Patty was looking for Tara right to the end.”
When Patty passed away, it may have seemed like the end of the search for Tara. Patty and John had been the force behind the continued search, even becoming deputized so they could conduct their own searches while they still lived in New Mexico. They sent out thousands of fliers with the help of the National Center for Missing Adults and appeared on several national television shows trying to raise awareness of her daughter’s disappearance.
In 2013, a six-person task force of local and federal law enforcement was created to reexamine the case of the University of New Mexico sophomore. A year later, the task force was dismantled.
After the passing of her mother and father, Michele Doel took up where they had left off.
Teaming up with Melinda Esquibel, who had known Tara as a member of the Belen High School marching band, they together started a journey with a common goal—finding Tara.
“My mom had sent me an article from Valencia County News-Bulletin in 2008 about how Tara had been missing 20 years, and I just started crying, Melinda told Rosalie Rayburn of the Albuquerque Journal. “That happening had traumatized the community and kind of changed how we felt about safety in our community. We couldn’t wrap our minds around what happened to her.”
Melinda was living in Los Angeles and worked in the entertainment industry. Intrigued by the case, she began working on a documentary about her former schoolmate’s disappearance. Together with Michele, they launched a website and Facebook page with over 7,000 followers, along with a podcast and called “Vanished: The Tara Calico Story.”
Both young women are realistic. After all these years have passed, they know officials are unlikely to investigate further without a body. However, they both set out to finish what Patty and John Doel started—to bring Tara home for a proper burial and to receive the justice she so deserves.
The FBI announced a $20,000 reward in 2019 for specific information about the location of Tara.
If you have any information about the disappearance of Tara Calico, please call the local Albuquerque FBI office at 505-889-1300.
© 2021 Kym L Pasqualini