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002 - The Disappearance of Tara Calico

Tara Calico is described as a neat, organized and independent young woman. She is very active, enjoying running and cycling. She had graduated from Belen High School and was enrolled as a sophomore at the University of New Mexico at Valencia. She held a strong grade point average and had ambitions of going into the field of psychology. Tara has a habit of scheduling out her days, making lists of the planned activities and finding ways to squeeze in as much as she can. One of the first activities in Tara’s daily routine was a thirty-six mile, round-trip bike ride. This is a large distance to cover, but for an experienced and active person such as Tara, the entire trip could be completed in as little as four to five hours.

The morning of September 20th, 1988 was yet another day Tara had scheduled out for herself. She had hoped to get in her morning ride, but was apparently running late. Having not left the house until nearly 9:30am, and having plans to play tennis with her boyfriend at 12:30pm and a class to attend at 4pm, Tara asked her mother to come pick her up if she wasn’t home by 12pm. Tara left her house on Brugg Street, in Balen New Mexico, on her mother’s bike. Her own bike had a flat tire, so she hopped on her mom’s bright pink huffy with yellow control cables and headed out towards Highway 47, which made up the majority of her long ride.

At 12pm, Tara’s mother, Patty Doel, noted that Tara had not yet arrived home and at 12:05pm, was on her way, driving down Highway 47, to pick up Tara and bring her home as she requested. Patty became worried when she made the full trip down Highway 47, but failed to spot Tara anywhere along the route. Patty had occasionally accompanied Tara on the bike rides, and knew the route well. Patty hadn’t taken the trip with Tara in a while, having felt that a motorist in the area had stalked them on at least one occasion. Disturbed by this, Patty had suggested that Tara carry mace with her, but Tara allegedly felt her mother was simply being overprotective and chose not to bring mace on her trek. Deeply troubled now, and with the possible stalking experience in her head, Patty looked again for Tara, but when she once again could find no sign of her daughter, Patty contacted the police.

Police began with a sweep of the area, searching for any clues as to Tara’s whereabouts. Witnesses reported seeing Tara riding along Highway 47, but for the most part didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary. A few witnesses, however, stated that they had seen a dirty white, or light gray 1953 Ford Pickup with a white, handmade shell, following Calico during her ride. Calico appeared to be unaware of the truck presence, although she was also wearing headphones and listening to cassettes on her Walkman which would have inhibited her ability to hear the vehicle. The last witness spotted Tara at 11:45am in Valencia County, approximately two miles from her home.

Outside of the statements of a few witnesses in relation to the Ford Pickup, the police did not find any evidence to suggest foul play, nor did they find any trace of Tara or her bike. The following day, Patty returned to Highway 47, traveling up and down, searching for any indication of where Tara could be. It was then that Patty discovered a Boston cassette tape that belonged to Tara. The cassette was located three miles from her home, and on the side of the road Tara would be if she were heading away from home. There were reportedly bike tracks and skid marks located near where the cassette tape was located suggesting the possibility that Tara, a motorist, or both had come to sharp stops near one another.

 

Sometime later, local police made another discovery of evidence. Nineteen miles east of Highway 47, near the John F. Kennedy campground, part of Tara’s Sony Walkman was recovered. Police couldn’t officially link the Walkman to a case of foul play, as it was possible Tara had dropped it and it had been found by anyone else who could have brought it to the area. In addition, it is not mentioned whether not there were particular marks or signs on it that could make it 100% certain that the Walkman had in fact belonged to Tara. Sony Walkman’s were a popular item in the late 80’s. However, Patty Doel identified the Walkman as being Tara’s and strongly believed that Tara had left both the cassette tape and Walkman as items to mark her trail and aid in her recovery. Given all of the evidence, Police believe that Tara’s disappearance was as a result of foul play and that she had been abducted. Searches of the area failed to locate the Ford Pickup that had been described by witnesses. After several weeks of intense scrutiny, the case began to grow cold until a strange incident brought Tara’s name back into the headlines.

 

The polaroid

The polaroid

Nine months later, on June 15th, 1989, in Port St. Joe Florida, a Polaroid photo was found in a parking lot. The photo showed two unidentified people, a late teens to early twenties girl, and a boy no older than 13, bound and gagged with tape over their mouths. In the photo, the boy is laid on his side, head on a pillow, arm behind his back. The girl is on her back, hands bound underneath her. They appear to be laying on sheets, in a dark space, with light coming in from the direction of the person holding the camera. The woman who found the photo stated that in the space where the photo was found there had been a white, windowless Toyota Cargo van driven by a man with a mustache, believed to be in his early thirties. Police attempted to located the vehicle, setting up roadblocks and doing safety checks, but neither the man, nor the van, were ever found. Police contacted polaroid, who examined the photo and stated that the photo had to have been taken after May of 1989, just one month prior, as the particular film used was not available prior to that date.

The photo caused quite a stir and garnered media attention. Several news stations broadcast the image in hopes of identifying the victims. In July of 1989, the photo appeared in a news report on the television show “A Current Affair.” A friend of Patty Doel’s had been watching and showed it to Patty who immediately identified the girl as her daughter, Tara. In addition to the identification of Tara, relatives of Michael Henley, a nine year old boy who had gone missing on a camping trip in the Zuni Mountains in North West New Mexico in April, 1988 identified the boy as Michael. After meeting with police, both the parents of Michael Henley, as well as Patty Doel, felt strongly convinced that the photo depicted their missing children. Doel stated that despite “time, growth and lack of makeup” she was certain the girl was Tara. She noted the scar on the girl’s leg which appeared to be identical to one Tara had received in a car accident. In the photo, there is a book resting cover side up mere inches from the girl’s arm. The book is “My Sweet Audrina,” written by V.C. Andrews, which Patty claimed was one of Tara’s favorite books.

Scotland yard used their lab to analyze the photo and concluded that the woman depicted was in fact Tara Calico. However, a second analysis was conducted at the Los Alamos National Laboratory and concluded that it was not Tara. The FBI ran an analysis of the photo, but their results were inconclusive. What is known about the photo for certain is that it was taken in the back of a cargo van, much like the one the witness stated had been parked in the space where the photo had been found, and that on the spine of the V.C. Andrew’s book, there appears to be a phone number written. However, due to the low quality of the photo, the number cannot be determined. Several of the digits are indiscernible and police have stated there are 300 possible numbers to fit, only 57 of which are active numbers.

In the wake of the discovery of the photo, local police canvased the area and found several witnesses who stated that they had seen the girl walking along the beach in Port St. Joe before the photo was found. These witnesses stated that the girl was seen in the company of several adult male Caucasian men who appeared to be ordering her around. Ultimately, the photo drummed up media attention in the case of the missing Tara Calico, but no certainties could be garnered from it. Outside of the scar on her leg, analysis showed that the girl in the picture shared a similar hairline with Tara and that the ears are alike. It is still unknown as to whether the boy and girl depicted are in fact victims, or if the photo itself was staged as some sort of sick joke. Although the photo brought about renewed interest, it was short lived and, as had happened nearly a year earlier, the case of Tara Calico began to grow cold.

 

Left: Polaroid, Right: Tara Calico

Left: Polaroid, Right: Tara Calico

In 1990, the identification of the boy was once again called into question. The body of Michael Henley, the boy who had disappeared while camping and who had previously been identified as possibly being depicted in the photo, was found about seven miles from the campsite he had originally vanished from. The campsite itself was located seventy five miles from where Tara had last been seen. Police recovered Michael’s remains and it was determined that he had wandered off and perished of exposure. With Michael Henley being identified, police ruled him out as a possibility for the boy in the photo. Tara, however, remains the subject of rumor and speculation in relation to the photo. Whether or not it is Tara cannot be determined.

Outside of intermittent sightings and unverifiable reports, the case of Tara Calico would grow cold for the next twenty years until Port St. Joe police chief, David Barnes, received two letters. The letters, postmarked June 10th and August 10th, 2009, came by way of Albuquerque, New Mexico and contained odd photos. The first letter had a photo of a boy, printed on copy paper, with a black tape-like band drawn over his mouth in ink, similar to the depiction of the boy in the 1989 photo. The second letter contained an original photo of the boy. On August 12th, the Star newspaper in Port St. Joe received a third letter, also from Albuquerque and postmarked August 10th, depicting the same boy with tape drawn over his mouth. Whether or not the photos have a link to the Polaroid are unknown, although the New Mexico connection was enough to interest police in a possible link to Tara Calico.

Oddly, at the same time as the photos were arriving, a self-proclaimed psychic claimed to have known a girl she believed to be Tara Calico during her time in California. According to the woman, she had worked in a strip club with a woman who was eventually murdered, and since her death she had been having dreams that the woman was Tara Calico. She believed the woman to be buried in California, but searches were unable to produce any evidence to support the woman’s claims. The photos of the boy were sent to the FBI in hopes of finding DNA or fingerprint evidence.
In the case of Tara Calico, photos seem to keep appearing that bring more questions than answers. I have found statements relating to several other photos being in police hands, but having never been revealed to the public. There is a Polaroid made on film that wasn’t available until June 1989. The photo was found near a residential construction site in Montecito California and shows a girl’s face with her mouth covered by duct tape. The image is blurry, but Patty Doel stated that she thought the girl in the photo could be her daughter. The girl in the image has a cowlick on her right temple and a lazy eye, both key features of Tara Calico. The girl’s head appears to be resting on a blue-striped fabric, similar to the pillow depicted in the original 1989 Polaroid.

Another photograph, shot on film not available until February, 1990, depicts a young woman, loosely bound in gauze, with gauze over her eyes and black framed glasses. There is a man sitting next to her, and they appear to be passengers on a Amtrak train. Patty could not identify this image as being that of her daughter and thought perhaps the photo itself was a cruel prank. Tara’s sister stated “They had a striking, un-calming 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 three were ruled out.”

Around the time of the letters being sent to Port St. Joe police chief, David Barnes, law enforcement officials in New Mexico had new information in regard to Tara’s case. Valencia County Sheriff, Rene Rivera, claimed that he possessed information which could solve the case. According to Rivera, two teenage boys had been driving by when they saw Tara and began harassing her. It is alleged that during this harassment, the boys accidentally struck Tara with their vehicle. Investigators believe that the boys then took Tara from the scene of the accident and panicked when Tara threatened to go to the police. The boys allegedly murdered Tara as a result of their panic and authorities believe that Tara’s body was buried in the general area of where she had been riding her bike. According to the Sheriff, several individuals may have been involved in covering up the crime. Regardless of this information, no suspects were public identified, no arrests were made and no sources were given as to where this information came from.

In October of 2013, twenty-five years after Tara’s disappearance, a six person task force was assembled to re investigate. The task force was comprised of agents from Federal Homeland Security, the New Mexico State Police, the Valencia County Sheriff’s Department, the Albuquerque Sheriff’s Department and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department. Despite public statements of their intent to re investigate, and media coverage of the task force, no new information was publicly released. However, in researching deeper into this task force, I was able to find official documents released through public records requests which both shined light onto the case, as well as providing probably background information that supports the statements made by Sheriff Rene Rivera regarding boys striking Tara with their vehicle and ultimately murdering her. The information contained in these records is dense, and quite frankly, disturbing. I will cover some of the details revealed in these reports, as well as making the link to them available on the Trace Evidence Facebook group for those who want to read more, but I must warn you, some of this information is unsettling.
In total, the police reports released through the public records request total 22 pages. The first report is dated April 18th, 1997. It lists three brothers as suspects and Tara Calico as the victim. In part the report reads: “On April 18th, 1997, I received information from Agent Rob Avilucea regarding the location of a possible graveside containing the body of a missing female.” The report is listed as processed on May 7th, 1997 and closed on May 17th, 1998. There is little else to this report. I have chosen not to name the suspects, being that no charges have been filed in this case. However, the names are available on the document itself.

The second report, dated April 15th, 2010, is filed by the New Mexico State Police and lists Tara Calico as a missing person. The report attempts to document Officer Jay Blakeney’s joint investigation with the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office regarding the disappearance of Tara Calico. In the report, it is stated that a documentary film maker who had gone to school with Tara was in the area, hoping to produce a film about the case. In the process of researching her film, the woman stated that she had been followed and feared that she could be in danger. She requested that the state police offer assistance to the Valencia County Sheriff’s department in regard to the disappearance of Tara Calico.
A joint meeting was held, and as stated in the report: “Sheriff Rivera and Captain Donges advised us that the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office has conducted a thorough investigation into the disappearance of Tara Calico and have identified three possible suspects and one of these suspects is deceased. Sheriff Rivera advised us that they had received information regarding the whereabouts of Ms. Calico’s body. Investigators were unsuccessful in locating any evidence of Ms. Calico at this location.”

Officer Blakeney is advised further that the FBI had been involved and that they are in possession of a thick case file on Tara Calico. Blakeney contacts the FBI, requesting to review their files and is told that he may, although no copies were allowed to be made. According to Blakeney’s report: “I reviewed Volume I of the FBI casefile which included the elimination of possible leads, a photograph or an unidentified female and male inside an unknown van in Florida and the investigation into identifying this unknown van.”

Following his review of the FBI files, Blakeney met with the District Attorney to discuss the case. DA Ron Lopez of Belen, New Mexico, informed Blakeney that without a body or a confession, he wasn’t interested in pursuing the case as it had been brought to him many times before, but lacking credible evidence for prosecution. At this time, Blakeney met with the documentary film maker who informed him that she had been told someone had put a hit out on her. She informed Officer Blakeney that she had information about a new location where Tara’s body might be found. However, this information all came from people she had been hanging out with over the past twenty years at bars and parties and Officer Blakeney felt this kind of hearsay evidence wouldn’t be enough for him to move forward on. At this point, on August 23rd, 2010, Officer Blakeney is contacted by a Sergeant and Lieutenant of the New Mexico State Police who advise him that the Valencia County Sheriff’s department is the lead on the case of Tara Calico and that he is not to conduct further investigation into the case unless so requested by the Valencia Sheriff’s Department.

Officer Blakeney is not contacted by the Valencia Sheriff’s department and his involvement in this case ceased.

The next report, dated October 2nd, 2013, is filed by Officer Richard Williamson and documents his involvement with the aforementioned task force. This report is followed by one dated November 6th, 2013, and discusses an interview with former Valencia County Sheriff’s Deputy, Frank Methola. In his interview, Frank Methola states that during his time with the Sheriff’s Department, he had followed up leads in relation to the disappearance of Tara Calico. Among those leads was an interview he conducted where a man who was ill and dying told Methola he wanted to get this off his chest before passing away.

According to the witness, several people who used to hang out with told him that they had murdered Tara Calico. According to the report: “They all knew she rode her bike up and down the highway. They explained they hit her with the truck and put her in the back of the truck with … and then took her out to the gravel pits where they sodomized and raped her. Tara reportedly got ‘ballsy’ and said she was going to make sure they all went to jail. At this point, one of the assailants retrieved a knife from his truck while the others held her down. He then proceed to stab Tara to death. Her body was hidden in a nearby bush, but when the search for her began, they got nervous and picked up her body.” According to this witness, her body was then buried in the basement in which many of the parties they had together took place.

Of the suspects named by the witness, one happened to be the son of the former Sheriff. When asked about this, Methola stated that the witness has said: “his dad hired Deputy Rivera and that ‘Deputy Rivera had their back.’” The witness said: “your sheriff there is not so innocent.”
The witness further stated that Tara’s bike had been taken to a nearby dump shortly after the murder. In addition to this, the witness claimed one of the assailants had an interest in Tara previously and was upset that Tara did not reciprocate. Deputy Methola recorded this conversation on his Department issued tape recorder, and not knowing who was the lead on the case, contacted Sheriff Rivera. Rivera told Methola to bring everything he had straight to him. Deputy Methola tagged his tape in evidence and reported to Sheriff Rivera. Deputy Methola further stated that when he was later contacted by the documentary filmmaker, she informed him that there was a record of his report and of the recording but neither the report nor the tape could be located. Following up on this, Deputy Methola had spoken to an individual in regard to the location of where the body had been. He said this individual told him that Sheriff Rivera had investigated the suicide of one of the suspects, and that this suspect had left a note confessing to his part in the murder of Tara Calico. That note, however, was never placed in evidence and cannot be located nor proven to exist. This seems to cast some shadow on Sheriff Rivera, and perhaps suggest a coverup of sorts. Later in the interview, Deputy Methola is asked about his relationship with River: “We asked Mr. Methola about how is report was treated and did this affect his job. Mr. Methola said he got into a disagreement with Sheriff Rivera when he arrested a Mexican national and was told by the Mexican that he worked for Rivera. Mr. Methola said he got a call from Sheriff Rivera and was told the Mexican worked for him and he needed to let him go. Mr. Methola said he had already turned him over to Immigration. Mr. Methola said after this incident he was removed from all assignments he had been on and after numerous write ups Mr. Methola said he resigned from the department.”

In conclusion, Mr Methola stated that during the course of his investigation he heard the names of three suspects repeatedly, but could not obtain hard evidence against them.

Another report, dated December 23rd, 2013, lists the details of an interview conducted with a person who claimed to know the men who had murdered Tara Calico. According to this witness, one of the individuals was a heavy drug user and had informed him that at night, the ghost of Tara Calico came to him and asked him why he helped murder her. According to the witness, the suspect stated that they had buried her body by the green lagoons, by the rock quarry on top of the west mesa. This witness, however, rambles on about many contradictory details and stories so much during the interview it is very hard to tell what is truth and what is fiction. Following the interview, this witness then placed phone calls to several people whose names he dropped and tells them that the police are investigating them. One piece of information from this interview, however, that seems to relate to the interview conducted with former Sheriff’s Deputy Frank Methola, focused on the possible cover up in relation to Sheriff Rene Rivera. When asked about the previous sheriff, Lawrence Romero Sr. the witness stated: “He is dirty and has always been dirty like Rene Rivera.”
The final report, dated August 6th, 2014, is a summary of evidence compiled by the task force, written by Officer Richard Williamson, as he is transferring to Santa Fe. In part, the report states: “The task force has since been closed due to lack of any viable leads developed and my involvement had ended in December of 2013. “ The report ends simply with “This case is closed.”

Buried somewhere between the lines of police reports, the accusations and theories of so-called witnesses and friends of friends, behind the lens of a documentary filmmaker or in the disturbing Polaroids floating around in parking lots and police evidence lockers, the truth of what happened to Tara Calico exists. It has been 29 years since Tara vanished from Highway 47 in Belen, New Mexico. Tara’s mother Patty, and her stepfather, continued living in the same house Tara had lived in for fifteen years after she disappeared. Eventually, when the pain of an empty room and unanswered questions became too much to deal with, they moved to Florida where, sadly in 2006, Patty passed away, never having learned the truth about her daughter. Tara’s stepfather and siblings remain, and for them her case will never be closed until they finally found out the truth. The more you dig into this case, the thicker and harder to navigate it becomes. Somewhere, someone knows exactly what happened to Tara Calico. We can only hope that sooner than later, the truth will finally be revealed.

[Thoughts & Theories]

The disappearance of Tara Calico is a haunting one. The idea that a nineteen year old girl can disappear on the side of a busy state road, in broad daylight, is downright frightening. At the beginning, it does seem like a possible abduction. However, as I dug deeper, it began to seem more likely that this was more about rape and murder than abduction itself. One thing about this case which has always bothered me is the idea that Tara’s mother stopped riding with her because she felt they were being stalked by a motorist. I wish I could get more details about this, but it’s just one of those vague statements that appears in the details of this case. Maybe Tara’s mother convinced herself she was just being overprotective, but typically when you feel that worried or disturbed by something, it’s best to trust your instincts.

The Polaroid photo found in Florida has been floating around the internet for years. I don’t claim to be a photographic expert, however, when I look at the photo, I do not see the girl as being Tara Calico. Although she is similar, if I had to give a sworn statement, I would say that I don’t think the picture shows Tara. The picture itself is full of controversy, and although it does seem to depict something sick and twisted, it could as easily be a sick prank. I don’t blame Tara’s mother for identifying her in the photo, and frankly Patty Doel knew her daughter better than any of us ever will, but I also have to factor in the desperation of a grieving parent. At the end of the day, I lean towards the idea that the photo does not show Tara Calico.

The letters that were sent to the police chief of Port St. Joe Florida are interesting, but little detail is available. The text of the letters, even the photos themselves, are not available to the public. The fact that they originate from New Mexico adds some credence to them, however there really isn’t enough information to go on and unfortunately, many sick individuals do things like this for attention or their own entertainment.

I do think it was foolish of Sheriff Rivera to come out publicly and claim to know what happened to Tara without possessing any real evidence in relation to it, at least none that he would show publicly. It seems to have caused undue pain to her family as well as tainting further investigations.
The task force was a good idea, but despite media coverage and their hopeful interest in solving this case, they never publicly said much about the case. It seems that, according to the reports, they have a very good idea what happened but not enough evidence to make it stick. Also, it seemed as though all of the suspects had passed away by the end of the task force and thus, it would be impossible to gain a confession or be lead to the location of a body.

I have heard about the Tara Calico case for a long time. I’ve heard podcasts and watched videos about it. I’ve read forums and done research. However, despite all of that, it was my research for this episode that first introduced me to the police reports in that public records request. Others must be aware of this, or perhaps they weren’t, but it seems strange to me that the story of Tara Calico is tragic enough to elicit interest when its a disappearance, but people seem less drawn to it when it becomes possible, even likely, that she may have been murdered by a couple of guys she knew who were out looking for trouble.

There is a lot in the reports about the possibility of a cover up by Sheriff Rivera, but it’s hard to know if these statements, let alone any of them, hold water. Though I do think it is most likely that Tara was murdered as the reports suggest, there is no way to know for sure. Simply reading a report doesn’t tell me whether or not the witnesses are reliable, and although it isn’t unheard of for a police officer to be involved in underhanded deeds, there’s no way to know the true reliability of the witnesses. Even former Deputy Methola cannot fully be depended on here as he resigned due to issues with Rivera, and as such, it’s totally possible that he has an ax to grind. I don’t know anything for sure, but there are too many holes in this to stake a claim.

From everything I have read, heard and seen, the disappearance of Tara Calico remains a very tragic story. If indeed she was abducted, it has been nearly thirty years and although possible, it is unlikely she will turn up. If in fact she was murdered the day she vanished, outside of a stroke of luck, it seems unlikely her remains will be located. Sadly, we may never know the truth of what happened to Tara Calico.