The Mysterious Polaroid Picture: The Disappearance of Tara Calico

Updated on July 13, 2020
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Kym L. Pasqualini is the founder and former CEO of Nation's Missing Children Organization and National Center for Missing Adults.

Tara Calico was last seen September 20, 1988, in New Mexico. Later,  a Polaroid picture was found in a parking lot in Florida of a young girl who looks like Tara, bound and gagged.
Tara Calico was last seen September 20, 1988, in New Mexico. Later, a Polaroid picture was found in a parking lot in Florida of a young girl who looks like Tara, bound and gagged.

It was a beautiful sunny day on September 20, 1988, in Belen, New Mexico. Tara Calico, 19, decided to go out for her daily bike ride at approximately 9:30 a.m. that morning. This time, Tara would vanish into thin air, leaving her parents and the community traumatized, and law enforcement baffled.

Normally, the beautiful freckled face teen would ride with her mother, but there had been an incident where her mother had felt they were followed by a motorist and she no longer felt comfortable going. She encouraged Tara to carry mace, but Tara had rejected the idea. Headstrong and independent, Tara wanted to complete her routine 36-mile daily ride.

State Road 47, where Tara Calico went for a bike ride in September 1988 and vanished in Belen, New Mexico.
State Road 47, where Tara Calico went for a bike ride in September 1988 and vanished in Belen, New Mexico.

The ride typically took two hours. Jokingly, Tara asked her mother Patty Doel, to come and get her around noon if she got a flat tire and had not returned. Tara had plans to play tennis with her boyfriend at 12:30 p.m., giving her plenty of time to finish the ride.

Tara took her mother’s neon pink Huffy mountain bike and left their house to ride her regular route on New Mexico State Road 47.

The only thing Tara took was her Sony Walkman, her headphones, and a cassette tape of the band Boston.

When Tara did not return, Patty went out to look for her, driving Tara’s usual route. When she returned home, and Tara was not there, Patty called the Valencia County Sheriff’s Department and made a missing person report.

Later that day, officers found pieces of Tara’s Walkman, along with the cassette tape, scattered along the side of the road. Tara and her bike were missing.

Tara Calico was outgoing and worked as a bank teller.
Tara Calico was outgoing and worked as a bank teller.

An extrovert, an avid reader, and physically active, Tara worked as a bank teller and was studying to become either a psychologist or psychiatrist. She was highly motivated and would never leave without telling her mother.

Witnesses

Witnesses came forward and said they saw an older-model, white or light-colored pickup truck with a camper shell, in the area of New Mexico 47. They said they saw it following Tara on the return leg of her trip.

Witnesses even said the passenger was the 18-year old son of an influential local law enforcement officer.

In 2008, in a News Bulletin article, Valencia Sheriff Rene Rivera said several witnesses had told him that the two young men in the truck had been following Tara, trying to talk to her while grabbing at her, and the truck hit the bicycle, knocking her to the ground.

“From there, the individuals took her,” Rivera said.

There have been other reports too.

In November 2013, a police report was filed detailing a dying confession of a witness who had identified three men, including the officer’s son, as being involved in Tara’s disappearance. The bicycle was reportedly thrown in the Belen junkyard and Tara’s body thrown into a pond.

Then there were the reports that Tara had been raped, stabbed to death, buried and covered with concrete slabs. In another instance, she was placed inside a freezer. All heartbreaking and traumatic for Tara’s parents to hear.

Police have dug up possible gravesites around Belen and in Valencia County, with no results.

According to an Albuquerque Journal article, the son of the officer died at age 21, during 1991, the result of a suicide or playing a game of Russian Roulette that went awry. However, the father of the young man told the Journal he believed his son was murdered.

Polaroid Picture Found

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, both victims were gagged with duct tape and bound with their arms behind the backs.

Example of the type of car that the Polaroid photograph fell out of in the parking lot of a convenience store in Port St. Joe, Florida.
Example of the type of car that the Polaroid photograph fell out of in the parking lot of a convenience store in Port St. Joe, Florida.

The color photograph was in good condition. Both victims faced the camera and appeared to be in the back of a van, in obvious distress.

Police consulted with Polaroid who says the picture had to have been taken after May 1989, because the film had not been available before that date.

Photograph that Tara’s mother Patty believes is of her daughter Tara Calico, missing since September 1988, from Belen, New Mexico.
Photograph that Tara’s mother Patty believes is of her daughter Tara Calico, missing since September 1988, from Belen, New Mexico.

The woman who found the photograph described the vehicle as a windowless, white Toyota cargo van, that had been parked in a spot before she pulled in at the store. She remembered the man driving as being in his 30's with a mustache.

Port St. John is a smaller community of only 10,000 people in 1989. Police set up roadblocks, but the man has never been identified.

Polaroid photograph next to a photograph of Tara Calico who has been missing since September 1988.
Polaroid photograph next to a photograph of Tara Calico who has been missing since September 1988.

The photograph made national news and was broadcast on the show "A Current Affair" in July 1989. After it aired, Patty was notified by friends who had seen the show and thought the girl in the photograph resembled Tara.

Polaroid photograph of unidentified boy and Michael Henley, missing since April 1988, from New Mexico, and later found deceased.
Polaroid photograph of unidentified boy and Michael Henley, missing since April 1988, from New Mexico, and later found deceased.

Relatives of 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.

Tara's and Michael's parents met with detectives. Patty left the office convinced the young woman in the photo was her daughter. She noted a scar on the unidentified woman’s leg was identical to an injury Tara had sustained in a car accident. In addition, a paperback book of V.C. Andrews "My Sweet Audrina" was lying next to the woman and Tara’s favorite author.

Scotland Yard analyzed the photograph and concluded that the woman was Tara, but a second analysis by the Los Alamos National Laboratory disagreed. The FBI’s analysis of the photograph was inconclusive.

Michael Henley Found

Michael Henley had gone missing while turkey hunting with his father in 1988 about 75 miles from where Tara was abducted. His mother and father were convinced the Polaroid was of their son, however, that is now considered highly unlikely. His remains were eventually discovered in June 1990, in the Zuni Mountains, about 7 miles from where he vanished.

Other Photographs

Two other photographs have surfaced over the years and Tara’s family has had to try to identify each one as if in a bad nightmare.

Two additional Polaroid photographs have been found since Tara’s disappearance.
Two additional Polaroid photographs have been found since Tara’s disappearance.

The first photograph was found near a construction site in Montecito, California, and a blurry photograph of a girl’s face with tape covering her mouth and light blue striped fabric behind her, similar to the pillow in the original Toyota van photograph. It was taken on Polaroid film that was not available until June 1989.

The second, shows a woman bound in gauze, her eyes covered with more gauze and large black-framed glasses with an unidentified male on an Amtrak train. The film was not available until February 1990.

Tara’s mother believed the one with the striped fabric was her daughter but thought the other might have been a bad gag. Tara’s sister, Michelle stated, “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 and all but those were ruled out.”

Photograph of a young unidentified boy with a drawing of a gag across his mouth received by Port St. Joe Police Chief.
Photograph of a young unidentified boy with a drawing of a gag across his mouth received by Port St. Joe Police Chief.

In 2009, Port St. Joe Police Chief David Barnes received two envelopes, postmarked June and August 9, 2009, from Albuquerque, New Mexico. One letter contained a photograph printed on copy paper, of a young boy. Someone had drawn a black band in black ink over the boy’s mouth, seemingly depicting the gag in the 1989 photograph. The second letter contained the original image of the boy with no 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 with a black marker gag over his mouth. None of the letters had a return address or note that would indicate the child’s identity.

Authorities in Port St. Joe believe the photograph of the young boy has something to do with Tara’s abduction but it remains a mystery.

Tara's Family Vows to Find Her

Tara’s mother Patty and her father John Doel have since passed away. Before her death, Patty suffered several strokes and would keep vigil at a window in the Florida retirement home where she lived with Tara’s father. It was like the ghost of Tara had followed her there.

John and Patty Doel, kept a room for Tara where birthday and Christmas presents sat unopened.
John and Patty Doel, kept a room for Tara where birthday and Christmas presents sat unopened.

Even though they were 2,000 miles away from where Tara had vanished, as Patty looked through her window, she saw her daughter in every cyclist that passed by.

“I’d have to try to explain to her that it wasn’t Tara, that is 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.”

With Patty's passing, it seemed like the end of the search for Tara. Patty and John had been the driving force, even becoming deputized so they could conduct their own searches and send out thousands of fliers throughout the country. Patty appeared on several national television shows raising awareness of her daughter’s disappearance.

According to the Albuquerque Journal, in 2013, a six-person task force of local and federal law enforcement officers was created to reexamine the case of the University of New Mexico sophomore. A year later, the task force dismantled.

Tara Calico’s mother Patty never gave up on finding her daughter who vanished September 20, 1988, in Belen, New Mexico.
Tara Calico’s mother Patty never gave up on finding her daughter who vanished September 20, 1988, in Belen, New Mexico.

That is when Michele Doel, Tara’s younger sister stepped up and took up where her mother had left off.

Teaming up with Melinda Esquibel, who had known Tara as a member of the Belen High School marching band, they started a new journey together—one to find Tara.

“My mom had sent me an article from Valencia County News-Bulletin in 2008 about how Tara had been missing for 20 years, and I just started crying,” Melinda told 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 lived in Los Angeles and worked in the entertainment industry and was intrigued by the case.

Keeping Tara's Memory Alive

During Christmas 2008, Melinda went home to Belen and had dinner with old friends where she brought up Tara’s disappearance.

She was jolted by the response.

“They said, ‘Oh Melinda, the whole town knows who did it,” Melinda said.

They were referring to the young boys who had been driving the truck and the son of a prominent law enforcement officer.

At that moment, Melinda knew she had to do something to revive Tara’s story and pressure law enforcement to finally bring Tara the justice she so deserved.

Tara’s parents kept a candle lit since their daughter vanished in 1988. The photo shows Tara with her grandmother and brother, along with angels that Patty Doel collected.
Tara’s parents kept a candle lit since their daughter vanished in 1988. The photo shows Tara with her grandmother and brother, along with angels that Patty Doel collected.

Melinda began working on a documentary about Tara’s disappearance and launched a podcast called “Vanished: The Tara Calico Investigation” that has been downloaded over a million times.

In addition, Melinda and Michele also launched a website and Vanished: The Tara Calico Story page on Facebook that has nearly 7,000 followers.

Melinda and Michele are realistic. They know officials are unlikely to pursue the case further without a body. However, that only fuels their determination to finish what Patty 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.

© 2020 Kym L Pasqualini

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