Patty Doel had finally accepted that her daughter, Tara Calico, was no longer a little girl. Tara was now 19-years-old, so the days of having her within reach were numbered. Just a few years prior, Tara had been a bubbly high schooler. She would arrive home and spoil her mom with every last detail of her social life because she was popular among her peers. This was not a shock, not only was Tara naturally beautiful, she put a lot of effort in how she presented herself.
Although her daughter’s teenage days were over, Patty could not be happier with Tara’s transition into young adulthood. Tara was now in her second year at the University of New Mexico, where she was in the Honors program. She dreamed of becoming a psychologist so she could help other people with their problems. To help pay for her education, she worked at a local bank. She also developed a routine with her new life and documented her schedule for her upcoming day each morning.
Despite Tara’s growth, there were childhood traditions she still loved to share with her mother. One tradition was their routine bike rides along New Mexico State Road 47. Every daybreak, Patty and Tara biked the 25-mile route. The vision of Tara’s hair sailing through the breeze amidst the wires of her Walkman’s headphones was a sight Patty would never forget. Similarly, the picturesque landscape of the New Mexico desert was a welcome accompaniment for any cyclist.
However, in the summer of 1988, Patty began to opt-out of the bike rides. Some drivers along New Mexico State Road 47 began to harass the mother and daughter. Sometimes it was catcalling; other times, Patty felt somebody was following them. Tara understood her decision but still wanted to continue riding the trail. Patty allowed her to but told her she should begin bringing pepper spray with her. Tara laughed off the idea because she believed her mother scrutinized the situation too much.
The morning of September 20, 1988 began like every other. Tara was up early and getting dressed for her bike ride. She had already written down her schedule–she would embark on her bike ride at 9:30 am., meet her boyfriend for a tennis date at 12:30 p.m, and attend class at UNM at 4 p.m.
Tara threw on one of her work T-shirts and paired it with green-and-white striped shorts and white ankle socks. She headed to her vanity and put on her half-inch golden hoop earrings and two of her rings. Lastly, she grabbed her Avia sneakers and Walkman before heading to the garage, where Patty was waiting. Tara’s bike had a flat tire, so her mother let her borrow hers–a neon pink Ruffin–that morning. As Tara headed out the door, she suddenly stopped and turned to Patty.
“If I’m not back by 12, come looking for me,” Tara said firmly. She put a cassette tape of her favorite band, Boston, into her Walkman, slipped the headphones on, and pressed play.
Patty nodded and watched her daughter bike down the street and towards New Mexico State Road 47, like she usually did. Tara’s parting words weren’t particularly alarming, the day had presented her daughter with a tight afternoon schedule, so of course she would want her mother to pick her up if she ran late. Patty gazed at the clock, it was 9:30, so Tara was on schedule.
Patty continued about her morning, but paid close attention to the clock. Around noon, she anticipated the sound of her daughter hurrying through the door and getting ready for her tennis date–but she heard no such thing. Five minutes later, there was still no sign of Tara. Her parting words began to resonate “If I’m not back by 12, come looking for me.”
Patty looked at the clock, it was 12:05, she had waited long enough. Worry began to set in, she knew Tara could not have gotten lost because she had traveled that route for years. Had her route been interrupted by some sort of accident? Thoughts raced through Patty’s head as she got into her car and began driving along Tara’s usual route. Before every twist and turn, she expected to find her daughter stranded on the side of road, possibly with another flat tire. However, by the time she reached the end of the route, she had not seen Tara, her bike, her Walkman, or any other sign of her. Patty called Tara’s boyfriend and asked if she had shown up to the tennis courts at 12:30 as planned, but her boyfriend said she never arrived. They both knew something was incredibly wrong. Patty, out of options, called the police.
The first responding officers arrived at the house, and a distraught Patty informed them of the situation. Despite Patty’s urgency, officers said Tara was an adult, and had the right to go missing or “take a break” from her life whenever she wanted. But when the officers looked around Tara’s room, they saw she had left behind her textbooks and purse. If she had left voluntarily, she planned on returning before her classes started at 4 p.m. However, 4 p.m. came and went, and Tara failed to return and attend her classes. Belen Police now believed she was in danger, and an investigation was launched into Tara’s disappearance.
On the morning of September 21, Tara had been missing for nearly 24 hours. Investigators, Patty, and groups of volunteers began traveling Tara’s route on foot. The expansive desert landscape brought up a rare emotion–dread. The vast stretches of sand and rock went on for miles, Tara could be anywhere under the blinding New Mexico sun.
Investigators suggested that the search extend to both sides of the road near which Tara traveled. She could have tried an alternate route or shortcut and gotten lost. They did find signs of her, but what they discovered was almost a confirmation that something terrible had happened to Tara; and it wasn’t an accident.
While walking the opposite side of the highway, Patty spotted something on the ground, upon closer examination, she realized it was Tara’s Boston cassette tape, which appeared heavily damaged, as if it had been knocked out of someone’s hand. The Walkman was later found, in pieces, a few miles north, but its surroundings were a chilling site, there was a set of bike tracks in the dirt and next to them, a set of tire tracks that led to the road. Police were notified of the finding and came to a grim conclusion. They had found signs of Tara, but not Tara herself. These circumstances were that of an abduction, she was likely kidnapped by a passing motorist, and broken her Walkman in the struggle. Patty saw it differently, she didn’t disagree that Tara could have been kidnapped, but she believed her daughter intentionally left the Walkman at the scene to indicate she was in danger.
Meanwhile, a separate team of investigators began interviewing those close to Tara. At the time, she was living with Patty and her stepfather, John. When interviewed, investigators came to the quick conclusion that Tara had not run away. She was super close with both, and prior to her disappearance, communicated with them daily. Her relationship with her boyfriend was healthy as well. All three had alibis, and were quickly cleared. Investigators branched out to Tara’s other friends and well as her classmates, current and former co-workers, friends from high school, and extended family. Nothing of interest was found, no one Tara ever associated had problems with her.
However, Patty did tell them about the uneasiness she had recently felt from the motorists along New Mexico State Road 47. They knew there were plenty of other potential witnesses, the motorists who regularly traveled New Mexico State Road 47. Police set up traffic stops near the road, showed passing drivers Tara’s photo, and informed them of their abduction. According to police, several witnesses saw Tara biking along the road on September 20th–but someone driving a white truck was following her, and Tara did not seem to notice. The truck was described as a white or grey 1953 Ford pickup, with a white shell. A description of the vehicle was released to the public, but no one came forward with any leads.
Throughout the next several months, police and volunteers conducted numerous searches across New Mexico, but to no avail. The case began to dominate the headlines and quickly became the biggest story in the state. Tara’s family used the publicity to their advantage, and encouraged people to join the efforts to find Tara. The case was stagnant until June of the following year, and this time, the development would launch the case beyond New Mexico and into national news.A disturbing polaroid photo thought to be of Tara after her disappearance was found in a parking lot in 1989 .
On June 15, 1989, nine months after Tara’s disappearance, a woman pulled up outside of a convenience store. She was a regular shopper, as the store was near her neighborhood of Port St. Joe, Florida–nearly 1200 miles from Belen, Mexico. As she got out of her car, she noticed a dirty white Toyota van parked in front of the store. It stuck out because she did not recognize the vehicle and the store had a customer base that was entirely local. After doing her shopping, the woman left the store and noticed the van was gone. However, there was something lying where it had been parked–a polaroid photograph.
Curious, the woman picked up the photo. When she saw the exact image, her heart dropped to her stomach. The polaroid showed two children–a boy and a girl–gagged and bound in what looked like the back of a van–a similar van to the one she saw earlier. The girl was in her late teens and had a noticeable scar on her leg, the boy was much younger. Both children had made eye contact with the camera when the photo was taken and the flash from the camera had illuminated the fear in their eyes. The photo itself can be found here. The woman quickly contacted the police. Florida investigators asked the woman if she remembered seeing the driver. She believed she saw him leaving the store as she shopped, and described him as being in his 30’s and having a mustache.
The photo caught the attention of local media, and ended up becoming a national news story. Several speculated about who was in the photo, until a grief-stricken family said they believed they recognized one of the children–the boy–as their missing son, Michael Henley. The nine year old had mysteriously vanished just months before Tara, and no trace of him had been found for nearly a year. Like Tara, he disappeared in New Mexico, so news coverage of the polaroid began to intensify within the state. In July of 1989, Patty saw one of the reports and called the police in hysterics–the girl looked exactly like Tara. Not only did her daughter resemble the girl in the photo, she had the same scar. Additionally, the book next to her was “My Sweet Audrina”, one of Tara’s favorite books.
The investigators on Tara’s case examined the photo for any clues. The film it was captured on was not available until May of 1989, so it was recent. On the side of the copy of “My Sweet Audrina”, a scribble of what appeared to be a phone number was visible. Investigators tried to make out the numbers, but could only make out a few. 300 possible phone numbers were drafted, 57 of which are registered.
They reached out to police in Port St. Joe, and urged them to ask the community if they recognized the girl in the photo. Port St. Joe police said that during their initial investigation, a group of witnesses claimed they saw the girl at the town’s beach shortly before the polaroid was discovered. She was accompanied by several Caucasian men, who gave her “verbal orders”, which she did not protest. The witnesses said the boy in the photo was not with them.
On September 20, 1989–one year after Tara’s disappearance, a segment dedicated to her was aired on the famed series “Unsolved Mysteries”. The episode brought Tara’s case back into the headlines, and the polaroid was once again a heavy topic of discussion. A few months later, there was devastating news–Michael Henley’s remains had been found in the Zuni Mountains, not far from where he disappeared. Investigators concluded that the boy had wandered off from his campsite and died of exposure shortly after he vanished in 1988. Since the photo was taken in 1989, he could not have been the boy.
However, there was still hope that the girl was Tara, but at a grim cost–there had been no other developments in her case. Patty herself said she was convinced Tara was in the photo, although the FBI said it was impossible to determine. Over the years, the photo was examined by several investigative agencies, including Scotland Yard, which believed the photo was indeed of Tara. However, others, like the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said it was likely not her.
For the next 20 years, the case remained stagnant. Although new developments were rare, its level of recognition withstood the test of time. Patty and her family were forced to adjust without Tara, a process that was anything but easy. In 1998, ten years after Tara’s disappearance, her family had her legally declared dead. Patty passed away in 2006, she never found out what happened to her daughter after she left for her fateful bike ride.
In 2008, twenty years after Tara disappeared, Valencia County Sheriff Rene Rivera, who had worked as the case’s lead investigator in 1996, publicly stated he believed he knew what happened to Tara. He said two informants had come forward and claimed four teenage boys were responsible for Tara’s death. Allegedly, the boys were inside the pickup truck and were following Tara. At some point, the boys accidentally hit Tara with their vehicle, knocking her off her bicycle and damaging her Walkman. The boys got out, realized she was still alive, and killed her in a panic. They placed her body and bicycle into the truck and drove to an unknown location in Valencia County, where they buried Tara’s body and disposed of her bike. Rivera wasn’t finished, he also believed the boys’ parents participated in a cover-up when they heard of the crime. Rivera said he knew the names of the boys, but without a body, could not arrest them or reveal their identities.
The reactions to Rivera’s claims were mixed. Some believed it was impossible given the polaroid, while others believed it and began to research the boys’ possible identities. John, Tara’s stepfather, was incensed. He said it was irresponsible for the sheriff to throw out theories without any additional action. If the allegations are true, John said Sheriff Rivera had enough circumstantial evidence to charge the boys with Tara’s murder, even without her body. Sheriff Rivera left office in 2011 without making any arrests.
However, in 2013, a man made a confession on his death bed that seemed to corroborate the theory. According to police reports, a man named Henry Brown reached out to investigators, he was terminally ill and said he had something to get off of his chest–he knew what happened to Tara Calico, and he knew who was responsible.
Shortly after Tara’s disappearance, Henry was spending time with his friend, Lawrence Romero Jr., who was also a classmate of Tara’s. On that particular day, Henry, Lawrence, and their friend Dave Silva were making fajitas and drinking margaritas in Lawrence’s basement. Henry suddenly “had a weird feeling” and looked at the floor. He saw a what looked like a small body, wrapped in a blue tarp. Lawrence drunkenly revealed the grave belonged to Tara Calico, their classmate.
A stunned Henry listened as Lawrence graphically explained how and he and his friends abducted, assaulted, and murdered Tara. According to Lawrence, he, Dave, another teen named Leroy Chavez, and a boy described as being “a tall redhead” had followed Tara in the infamous truck as she rode her bike. The teens were classmates of Tara’s, and were familiar with her bike route. They struck her with the vehicle, which knocked her off of her bike. The boys ran out of the truck and forcibly abducted her before she could get up.
They drove to a gravel pit and ordered Tara to step outside, where she was sexually assaulted by each of them. After the assault, Tara stood up and angrily told the boys she would report them to the police, and they would all “go to jail” for what they did to her. Lawrence, enraged, retrieved a knife from his van and ordered the others to restrain Tara. He stabbed her to death as they held her down, her body was hidden in a nearby bush and her bike was discarded in a junkyard. Her body was moved to Lawrence’s basement after search efforts began, later, it was moved to a pond.
When asked how four people could keep such a dark secret, Henry claimed there was a coverup in law enforcement. One of the perpetrators was allegedly related to the Valencia County’s sheriff at the time. Rene Rivera, who was then a deputy, was accused of being part of the coverup as well.
Although there was no information to back up Henry’s account, the circumstances seem to match all available evidence. Unfortunately, all three of the named men had passed away before 2013, so investigators were unable to expand upon his account. However, another man approached police with the same story that year.
The investigation, which now involves the FBI, remains ongoing. In April of 2021, investigators on the case executed a search warrant on a house in Valencia County. The warrant is still sealed, so the circumstances and results of the search have not been publicly released.
Over the years, the case has been heavily discussed online. Several articles and videos take an in-depth approach to Tara’s disappearance, and several theories exist. There is still debate over whether the girl in the Polaroid was her, and public opinion seems to be mixed. It has now been 33 years since Tara’s fateful bike ride, but she is anything but forgotten. Most online sleuths believe Henry’s story is closest to the truth.
As everyone continues to wait for answers, they honor the type of person Tara was. The accomplishments she made in just 19 years proved she had potential to make a difference. Her friends from college and high school have not forgotten her either. One friend, Melissa Esquibel, started a podcast where she talked about Tara’s disappearance and what a great friend she was.
Tara is not forgotten by her surviving family members. While they continue to pursue justice, they also want everyone to remember the type of person Tara was. She dreamed of becoming a psychologist, made several achievements, and formed strong relationships that stood the test of both time and her absence. Regardless of what happened to her, they await the day they are able to bring her back home.