The Unsolved Mystery of Tara Calico Did Police Cover Up the Truth?

Portrait of Tara Calico
Portrait of Tara Calico

Last updated on June 15th, 2023 at 03:42 am

Tara Leigh Calico is an American woman who disappeared on September 20, 1988, near her home in Belen, New Mexico. She is largely believed to be kidnapped.

After being discovered in a convenience store parking lot in Port St. Joe, Florida, in July 1989, a Polaroid snapshot of an unnamed young woman and boy, gagged and seemingly chained, was televised to the public. Family members recognized the woman as Calico and phoned her mother, who met with the police and examined the Polaroid.

She believed it was her daughter and noticed a scar on the woman’s leg that matched Calico’s. Scotland Yard examined the photograph and determined that the woman was Calico, but the Los Alamos National Laboratory disagreed. The FBI’s examination of the picture was inconclusive.

She was 19 years old when she vanished and was never seen again.

Tara Calico
Tara Calico – Credits FBI Archive

What Happened to Tara Calico?

Tara Calico, a sophomore at the University of New Mexico, was nineteen years old. On September 20, 1988, at 9:30 a.m., she left her home in Belen, New Mexico, for her regular thirty-four-mile bike ride.

Tara dressed down in one of her work T-shirts, green-and-white striped shorts, and white ankle socks. She went to the vanity and put on her half-inch gold hoop earrings and two rings. Finally, she grabbed her Avia sneakers and Walkman before heading to Patty’s garage.

Tara’s bike had a flat tire, so her mother allowed her to use hers that morning—a fluorescent pink Ruffin. Tara came to a halt outside the door and turned to face Patty.

“Come looking for me if I’m not back by 12,” Tara stated emphatically. She inserted a cassette tape of her favorite band, Boston, into her Walkman, put on her headphones, and pressed play.

She took her regular trip along Highway 47 on her neon Pink Huffy bike with yellow control cables and sidewalls. She was last spotted walking along her route at 11:30 a.m.

Her daily commute down New Mexico State Road 47 was the same. Her mother, Patty Doel, was familiar with it because they frequently traveled it together. Patty, on the other hand, had been skipping rides lately.

A suspicious pickup truck was tailing her. She and her bike were never discovered.

Poster of Tara Calico
Poster of Tara Calico

Patty drove up and down Tara’s bike route that afternoon, hoping for any sign of her daughter. Patty called the police when she couldn’t find her.

The following day, a full-scale search was launched. Pat came across Tara’s Sony Walkman around 100 yards off Highway 47.

Police also discovered bits of Calico’s Walkman and a cassette tape, which Patty subsequently concluded were purposely broken and dumped as part of her daughter’s effort to leave a trail. Tara and her pink bike, however, were not discovered.

At roughly 11:45 a.m., witnesses reported seeing her pedaling back toward her house. She was said to be wearing headphones.

Witnesses also reported seeing an old van following Tara shortly before she disappeared. The van was described as a shell camper with huge windows and a black exterior, but the driver was never identified. This was the only solid information investigators had for the first few months after Tara vanished.

Footprints on the ground led to the location of a skirmish where the Walkman was discovered. Bike traces, likely hers, were found nearby, as well as tire tracks and an oil slick from a vehicle. 

Although multiple sightings of her were reported throughout the southern United States in 1988 and 1989, none of them could be substantiated, and the case remains unsolved.

The Police Investigation of Tara Calico’s Case

There were no notable gaps in Tara Calico’s case from when she went missing in September 1988 until June 1989.

Police had located numerous witnesses who had seen Tara on her bike ride on September 20th and several others who had reported a white pickup truck with a camper on the back that might have been connected to her disappearance.

However, the police believed Tara was merely a runaway, a theory her family fiercely dismissed as absurd. Tara was content; she had a boyfriend and was performing well in school. She had no reason to flee.

The Investigation on Polaroid Image of Tara Calico

On June 15, 1989, a woman in Florida, almost 1200 miles from Belen, went to her neighborhood convenience store and noticed a white windowless Toyota cargo van in the neighboring parking place as she got out of her car. The van’s driver was a man in his thirties with a mustache.

She saw a Polaroid snapshot lying in the parking space where the van had been parked earlier when she returned from the store.

Polaroid Picture of Tara Calico
Polaroid Picture of Tara Calico

The image, a color Polaroid in good shape discovered in a convenience store parking lot by a woman, made national headlines. Both alleged victims stood in front of the camera, their lips taped, and arms pulled together behind their backs as if chained.

Both alleged victims stood in front of the camera, their lips taped, and arms pulled together behind their backs as if chained.

They looked to be in the back of a vehicle — possibly a van — and appeared to be in evident discomfort.

But who exactly were they? Were they truly enslaved? Was the shot a foreshadowing of Calico’s fate?

On the other hand, authorities have never been sure that the photo was related to Calico’s case.

It was examined at least three times, including by the FBI, who believed strongly that it wasn’t Calico but couldn’t be sure, and by Scotland Yard in the United Kingdom, which declared it was her.

The image is not actively pursued by the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office, the lead investigating agency.

The image is not actively pursued by the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office, the lead investigating agency.

Instead, they and the FBI are looking into local suspects in the case, despite long-held rumors that Calico was kidnapped or attacked by members of her small community. Witness accounts that she was followed on her final bike ride and had been receiving “threatening” messages on her vehicle back up these assumptions.

On April 21, 1988, months before Calico went missing, 9-year-old Michael Henley went on a hunting trip in the Zuni Mountains of New Mexico with his father and a family friend. They were getting ready to hunt wild turkey when Michael disappeared while setting up camp.

Michael’s father reported the youngster missing right after, but a snowfall had descended on the area, prohibiting a thorough search for him. After the storm passed, 400 people aided in the investigation, but they only found a small footprint in the snow.

When A Current Affair broadcast an episode using the photos of the two persons gagged in an enclosed space in July 1989, Michael’s parents saw the show and thought the little kid in the picture resembled their son. His mother was almost confident it was Michael in the photograph.

Cibola National Park, where Michael vanished, is around 45 miles from Belen, New Mexico, where Calico disappeared. It didn’t take long for detectives to notice a possible link between the disappearances.

Calico’s mother and the Henleys traveled to Port St. Joe, FL, to inspect the Polaroid and speak with police. Following the conference, the parents determined that their children were involved. On June 22, 1990, a rancher discovered skeletal remains in the Zuni Mountains.

Dental records verified that it was Michael’s body and that he had most likely died of hypothermia. Investigators believed there was no reason to suspect foul play and concluded that Michael was not the youngster in the Polaroid.

Tara Calico aged as a 49-year-old
Tara Calico aged as a 49-year-old – Credits FBI Archive

The Second Photograph

Pictures of a boy were provided to Port St. Joe police chief David Barnes in 2009, twenty years after the Polaroid shot was discovered and shared by the media. He received two letters from Albuquerque, New Mexico, stamped June 10 and August 10, 2009.

One message included a snapshot of a little boy with sandy brown hair printed on copy paper. Someone has inked a black band around the boy’s mouth as if it were taped shut, like in the 1989 photograph. The second letter included an original drawing of the youngster. 

The Star newspaper in Port St. Joe got the third letter on August 12 that was similarly dated in Albuquerque on August 10 and depicted the identical image of a youngster with a black marker over his mouth.

The identity of the boy in the last photo has not been established. None of the letters had a return address or a note confirming the child’s identity, leading officials to suspect it had anything to do with Tara Calico’s disappearance.

The letters were written while a self-proclaimed clairvoyant contacted Calico, claiming to have encountered a runaway in California with whom she worked; this girl was later murdered. The caller stated that she had visions that the runaway was Calico and that she was buried in California. 

There were no discoveries as a result of the searches. The images were turned over to the FBI for further investigation in the hopes of finding fingerprints or DNA evidence.

Theories About Tara’s Disappearance and Possible Police Cover-Up

Rene Rivera, Valencia County Sheriff, who joined the force shortly after Tara vanished, claimed to know what had transpired. According to Rivera, two teens who knew Tara from school drove behind her and hit her bike by mistake.

They panicked and immediately loaded Tara into the truck and rushed away. The youths were then joined by two other guys, who helped the boys murder Calico and dispose of her body.

Rene Rivera Valencia County Sheriff
Rene Rivera Valencia County Sheriff

Rivera stated that they were attempting to gather evidence against the lads to build a case against them.

Tara’s stepfather, John Doel, chastised Rivera for his simple statements, questioning why he would make a statement without enough proof to warrant an arrest.

There have been no arrests, and Rivera has not publicly named any suspects.

In 2013, a guy called Henry Brown confessed to police on his deathbed that he knew who was responsible for Calico’s kidnapping. Brown stated that he was in the basement of a man named Lawrence Romero Jr. shortly after Calico’s abduction. Lawrence is the son of Valencia County Sheriff.  Brown spotted what seemed to be a young woman’s body wrapped in a blue tarp and buried in a makeshift grave when he was there.

Lawrence Romero Jr., Dave Silva, and Leroy Chavez told Brown in his confession that they had hit Calico with a truck mistakenly when she was riding her bike. After that, they drove her to a gravel pit and took advantage of her. Lawrence Romero, Jr. allegedly stabbed Calico to death as Chavez and Silva reportedly pinned her down after she threatened to report them to the police.

Lawrence Romero Jr., according to Brown, also wrote his confession letter about his involvement in Calico’s abduction. However, his father, the Valencia County Sheriff, destroyed the written confession to spare Lawrence.

In addition, Henry told detectives that he believed the guys later disposed of Tara’s remains in a pond near one of their homes. He further said that her bike had been discarded at a junkyard. Another individual came to tell police that one of the suspects had also confessed to him.

Later, in 1991, Romero Jr. committed suicide. Despite the evidence from the witnesses, no charges have been made against the other suspects because Tara’s body was never located.

The FBI and the Valencia County Sheriff’s Department made a joint statement in 2018 stating that they have proof that Calico was attacked and killed by two teen males in a pickup truck. They also claimed that their “parents may have assisted them in covering up the crime.” However, no suspects have been identified, and no arrests have been made in the case.

The Latest Update in Year 2023

The Sheriff’s Office of Valencia County disclosed a significant development on the 13th of June 2023, concerning the Tara Calico case from 1988. A public briefing was held, during which Sheriff Denise Vigil, along with fellow police personnel, addressed matters related to the Calico investigation.

“We now have enough substantiated evidence that we believe would warrant the attention of the district attorney’s office for considering possible charges,” expressed Sheriff Vigil. She added, “At present, the court has sealed details about the identities and particularities of the individuals under suspicion. This information will remain confidential until a different directive comes from the court.”

Sheriff Denise Vigil addressing the media
Sheriff Denise Vigil addressing the media

Conclusion

Tara’s surviving family members will never forget her. While they continue to seek justice, they also want everyone to remember Tara for who she was. She aspired to be a psychologist, accomplished many things, and built deep relationships that have withstood the test of time and her absence. Whatever happened to her, they are looking forward to the day when they can bring her home.

Tara Calico is still missing to this day. But she hasn’t been certified legally dead, and her case is still pending. A special task force was formed in 2013 to investigate her disappearance, but no leads have been identified, and so far, no arrests have been made.

Editor’s Note

Please get in touch with the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office or the FBI at tips.fbi.gov if you have any information about Tara Calico’s disappearance.

References

https://www.fbi.gov/wanted/kidnap/tara-leigh-calico

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