It might seem inconceivable to think that a person in today’s world of far-reaching technology and an abundance of information can vanish into thin air without a trace. However, this was an occurrence not so incredulous until a few years ago. Several missing person cases remain unsolved today with the authorities having little clue of what could have happened to these people. One of them is Tara Calico, a beautiful and smart 19-year-old girl, from a small city in New Mexico, who went out on a seemingly ordinary day, never to be heard from again.
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Tara Leigh Calico was born on February 28, 1969, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She lived in Belen, Valencia County with mother Patty Doel and step-father John Doel. Tara was a hardworking and bright student and an athletic, responsible, organized, and genuinely caring person. She was studying psychology at the University of New Mexico, Valencia branch. Her parents divorced in 1975, Patty remarried soon after, and her step-father John, who was also divorced with two children of his own, took an instant liking to her. Tara enjoyed track and tennis and went on a long-distance bike ride with her mother every morning. However, Patty had recently stopped biking after an incident when she felt they were being followed. She tried to persuade Tara to stop as well or at least carry a pepper spray but she brushed off her mother’s concerns as ill-founded.
On the morning of 20th September 1988, Tara prepared to leave home on a neon pink Huffy mountain bike, down her usual route along highway 47. That day, she had a tennis date with her boyfriend Jack Cole at 12:30 and a class later at 3:30. She took her mother’s bike as her own was damaged and asked her to pick her up in case she wasn’t back on time. She left around 9:30 a.m., listening to a Boston cassette tape on her walkman along the way. At noon when there was no sign of Tara, Patty was worried and went out along their usual course to look for her but couldn’t find her. She returned distressed and contacted Jack who had been waiting for Tara and informed him and her husband of the situation. The three went looking for her again but to no avail. The police were involved later that day and Sheriff Lawrence Romero Sr. immediately ruled out any suspicion that she might have run-away. The family argued that Tara was happy in her life; she was doing well in college and had great friends.
First Efforts at Search
The route that Tara took was a 34-mile ride with a vast expanse of desert on either side and sporadic sightings of ranch or other habitation. The highway was used widely but it also fell on a lonely, rural territory. The next day, police found a Boston cassette and broken pieces of a walkman near the John F. Kennedy campground. This convinced Patty that there had been foul play and Tara had tried to leave a breadcrumb trail. They also found tire tracks that matched Tara’s bike. Extensive land and air search was conducted but no further trace of Tara or the bike could be located. There were several witnesses who claimed to have seen a young girl on a pink bike that morning. Some of them were even consistent on one detail that they saw a Ford dirty-white or grey truck following her. They said Tara was oblivious to the presence of a follower, with earphones plugged into her ears, listening to music. While some among them assumed that it was an acquaintance keeping an eye on her, others made little of it. Witnesses who claimed to have seen something were hypnotized for more information but all efforts led to a dead end. She was last seen that day at around 11:45 a.m. Tara’s photograph was circulated extensively but days turned into months and a year had passed by with no sign of her.
On 12th June 1989, in the car park of a convenience store in Port St. Joe Florida, a woman discovered a Polaroid on the ground where a white Toyota cargo van was parked moments ago. The photograph showed a young girl and a boy, gagged with duct tape and their hands tied behind their backs, lying in a van. Authorities confirmed that the film used in the Polaroid was not available before May 1989 so the picture must have been taken after that. It was broadcasted on the T.V. show A Current Affair and a friend contacted Patty Doel thinking it might be Tara. Patty was convinced that it was her, taking into account the lack of makeup and regular upkeep that Tara was into. Several cases of missing boys were considered as a potential match for the boy until zeroing in on 9-year-old Michael Henley who had disappeared in April 1988, while on a hunting trip with his father on the Zuni Mountains, New Mexico. Michael’s parents were initially convinced that it was their lost son. However, later Michael’s remains were found and reports concluded that he got lost and died from exposure.
As for Tara, due to a portion of the face being concealed under the duct tape, it could not be made certain if it was her. It was examined by three different authorities and while Scotland Yard confirmed that it was Tara, Los Alamos National Laboratory insisted that it wasn’t. The FBI could not provide a conclusive answer. Adding to Patty’s conviction, however, was the book featured in the photograph next to the girl. It was My Sweet Audrina by V.C. Andrews who she established was Tara’s favorite author. She also claimed that discoloration on the girl’s calf matched a scar Tara had received in a car accident.
In 2009, several other Polaroid photos were mailed to the police and they were believed to be related to Tara’s disappearance but no definite link was found. Many have argued that the original photograph might have been staged based on the girl’s relaxed posture so it didn’t seem like her hands were actually tied. There were also no red markings on their face along the edges of the duct tape, which indicated that they had not been gagged for an extended period of time. It was never discovered who the two kids were and that they could have been in real danger continues to be a looming possibility. The photogenerated new hope and confidence that Calico might still be alive but ended in disappointment for the Doel family.
Soggy Speculation or Deception
The police investigation had yielded little, leaving only a haphazard trail of events of that day in September and broad speculations as to what could have befallen Tara. In a small town where everyone knew each other, Tara’s biking routine would have been common knowledge. Patty and John Doel were critical of the police investigation and began to pursue their own leads. The case however largely remained dormant. In 2008, a news article published wherein Valencia County Sheriff Rene Rivera stated that on the morning of 1988 when Tara went missing, she had been accidentally hit by two teenagers in a truck who panicked and attempted to cover-up the crime. They were assisted by their parents in doing so and he knew who they were but he could not produce a case against them without a body or any conclusive proof. This further frustrated John Doel who argued that he shouldn’t have made the statement if he was not willing to act on the information. In 2013, a six-person task force was formed to work exclusively on Tara’s case that too made little progress.
Melinda Esquibel, the Podcast, and the Many Witnesses
All investigations had hit a brick wall until a renewed thrust was provided by Melinda Esquibel. Melinda had known Tara in school and remembered her as a kind person. Having left Belen for a while, she returned to discover that Tara’s case laid bare open while the town had accepted one of the plausible conclusions that she was murdered and the crime was covered up. However, the Doel family still didn’t have the justice and closure that they deserved. Considering the popularity and influence of true crime podcasts, she decided to set off a podcast relaying the events relating to Tara’s investigation. She met and worked in coordination with the Doel family, particularly Tara’s younger sister Michele and also began shooting for a documentary. Esquibel was allowed access to the case files which she stated were “in shambles” and big portions of data were missing.
The podcast, called Vanished- the Tara Calico Investigation revisits all the information that is available pertaining to the case, including what seemed to be unavailable in the files. In an early episode, Melinda informs that a man in a New Mexico prison facility had contacted Patty telling her he knew what had happened and was willing to talk to her. But the man passed away before they could meet. Although, what was strange was that he did not have a history with drugs and yet died of an overdose.
The subsequent episodes look at witness testimonies and point to a possible cover-up by those in positions of power and influence. Tara was seen on her bike that day by at least 13 witnesses, four of whom were a group of hunters who said they saw a 1956 Ford pickup with a camper shell following Tara and the driver was looking ‘intently’ at her. Two of them were hypnotized for more information, results of which are no longer available.
Ishmael Delarosa was another witness who also saw the truck following Tara and happened to remember a few more details. He described the pickup driver as a middle-aged white male with short red hair, a knitted cap with flaps, and bloodshot eyes. He had a prominent wrinkle or a scar near his left eye. Delarosa claimed that there was more than one person in the truck and he saw khaki shirts hanging at the back window. He also conveyed to the authorities that a friend Jack Aguayo believed that his grandson J.J. was involved in Calico’s disappearance and that they might find a body on Jack’s ranch. Jack later changed his tone and reports of what was found at the ranch were also missing.
Baron Freeman was another witness who said that he saw the man in the truck staring fixedly at Tara but didn’t think much of it at the time. Melinda questioned the officer who took his statement to ask if he was hypnotized like the others and the officer told her that Freeman could not have been there as he described the weather that day as being rainy while it was actually sunny. This was inconsistent with the other people she spoke to who all the described the weather just as Freeman had. The podcast also mentions an anonymous witness who saw the truck and two men on it. She gave her statement to the police and even picked the two out of a photo line-up. One of the men was Lawrence Romero Jr., son of Romero Sr. who was Valencia County Sheriff at the time Calico disappeared and was directly involved in her case for a long time. Romero Jr. died supposedly while playing a game of Russian roulette.
Jack Aguayo claimed to have seen Tara that day when he went hunting with another man Paul Zeiler. However, Paul refused having seen Tara or that he even knew Romero Jr. Although, it later turned out that they did in fact know each other and used to hang out and use drugs together. Zeiler declined to volunteer any further information thereafter and has since passed away. Finally, there was Henry Brown who while on his death-bed, requested to speak to Deputy Frank Methola. He told him that back in the day he used to spend time with a small group of boys that included Lawrence Romero Jr. in a make-shift basement beneath a trailer. While there one time, he noticed something covered in a tarp and believed that it was a small body. The other boys began talking about Tara and how they killed her. There he learned that Jr. had a crush on her and that he knew she would be on highway 47 that morning. The boys hit her with a truck, brought her back to the trailer, raped her, and then proceeded to kill her to keep her from telling anyone. Brown said that Romero Jr. sold drugs and that he was protected by his father. He had also heard him say that Rivera would look out for them because his father had hired him. Brown informed that they later moved the body to a pond and took the bike to a junkyard. However, while doing her own research, Melinda didn’t find any documentation or recording of this correspondence.
Methola had interviewed a local cattleman Ron Chavez enquiring about ponds in the area who told him that when Rivera was investigating Romero Jr.’s death, he had found a suicide note confessing to Tara Calico’s murder which he never submitted into evidence. Soon after, Methola was reassigned in the department over an unrelated issue. Case files relating the same are available online. Several main suspects related to the case are now dead and Tara’s family doesn’t even have so much as a marked grave that would help them move forward. Melinda’s podcast deals with all of this information much more intensely as she appeals to everyone to put pressure on law enforcement to bring justice to Tara Calico.
Hope and Search Continues
In October 2019, the FBI announced a reward of up to $20,000 for any information about Tara’s whereabouts as they carry on searching for her. Tara’s biological father died in 2002 and her mother Patty Doel passed away in 2006 while continuing to believe that her daughter was still alive. The police would often send her pictures of women to identify if any of them were Tara and the distress affected her health as she suffered a series of strokes. Tara’s family and friends remember her as a caring and kind person who would have gone on to do good things in the world. For them, she is more than a Polaroid photograph and they continue to hold on to hope and sit in wait for an answer.