The Polaroid Mystery: Where Is Tara Calico? It’s Been 29 Years Since She Disappeared

The found Polaroid [Port St. Joe Police Department]

On September 20, 1988, 19-year-old Tara Calico was in a great, even expansive mood as she pedaled away from home on a pink Huffy mountain bike, while listening to a cassette tape of Boston on her Sony Walkman. It was 9:30 A.M., and the fall weather made it a perfect morning to get some fresh air and exercise. She was out on a 17-mile cycling trek, planning to circle railroad tracks and the Rio Communities golf course before returning to her parent’s home in Belen, New Mexico. She had a tennis date at noon with her boyfriend, yet it would be the last time her family would see Tara.

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Tara talked to her mother, Patty Doel, before leaving, and playfully said, “If you don’t hear from me by noon, come look for me.” When noon passed and Tara failed to return home, Patty felt a bit anxious, but hoped her daughter was simply running a bit behind schedule.

To ease her worries, Patty drove around the area. She headed south on N.M. 47, and circled around Rio Communities, but saw no sign of Tara. Feeling a twinge of panic, Patty slowed down her car down to a creep, and edged toward the ditches. A lump rose in her throat when she saw a Boston cassette tape lying on the shoulder of the rugged street.

Patty immediately called the police, and so began an exhaustive search for Tara, a successful college student at University of New Mexico at Valencia (UM). According to family and friends, there was no reason that Tara would simply vanish without telling anyone. Patty suspected foul play, and thought her daughter dropped the Boston tape purposely, to leave a clue.

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The problem, however, was that Tara was legally an adult, and despite her family and friends telling authorities she wouldn’t run away, police said there’s nothing they could do. That all changed when they spotted fragments of a broken Sony Walkman on the side of the road, and a pink Huffy bike thrown into a ditch, close to a secluded campground around 20 miles from Tara’s home.


New Mexico detectives tirelessly worked on the case, and tried to piece together clues and leads that could lead them to Tara. Witnesses said they saw her riding the bike around two miles from her home, while a 1953 F-150 Ford truck with an attached camper on its bed followed her closely. They weren’t sure if it was someone she knew or someone with bad intentions. It’s likely Tara may not have even noticed the truck if her headphones were blaring.

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The Polaroid Picture Mystery

Months went by without any closure, and police were no closer to finding Tara than they were the day she went missing. In June 1989, on a hot summer day in Port St. Joe, Florida, around 1,600 miles away, a lady shopping at a local grocery store spotted a lone Polaroid picture lying in the parking lot.

Curious, she picked the picture up and studied it. Two people, a teen girl and a young boy, stared at the camera with their hands tied behind their backs and duct tape covering their mouths. They’re both lying on a bed, which appears to be in the back of a van or bus, but the darkened background made it difficult for police to identify exactly where it was taken.

Witnesses said that a white Toyota cargo van had been parked in the area where the picture was found, but the driver was never located. He was described as a white male with a mustache, who appeared to be in his 30s.

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The teen girl in the photo looked so much like Tara that Patty was convinced it was her daughter. The hair, eyes, and skin complexion matched, and the girl in the photo had a skin discoloration on her right leg in the exact spot that Tara had a scar. There was a copy of the V.C. Andrews’ book My Sweet Audrina lying on the bed next to the girl. According to Patty, Andrews was Tara’s favorite author.

According to Joel Nugent, the Gulf County sheriff who worked the Florida case, both kids appeared to be terrified. Although singer Marilyn Manson once said that he used to drop similar photos in public areas in Florida as a prank, Nugent felt that this particular picture was indeed real. He said:

“It obviously is two kids with terror written all over them. It’s kind of a bad time when you have to look at something like that…. No one knows for sure if it [the picture] was a set up. Some people think it was a staged photograph, but it was a real look of fear to me.”

Related: Missing Teen Found 600 Miles Away After Being Held Captive, Raped For A Month By Man She Met Online

On September 20, 1989, a year after her disappearance, Unsolved Mysteries aired an episode about Tara. It was preceded by a July 1989 episode about her disappearance on A Current Affair. The case was also featured on America’s Most Wanted and 48 Hours, and although the shows brought in an influx of tips and leads, the case was never solved.

Meanwhile, Valencia County, New Mexico, Sheriff Renee Rivera indicated in 2008 that he knew exactly what happened to Tara. The problem, however, is that her body has never been found, which makes bringing in the people involved, or who he perceived as responsible, difficult.

Rivera stated:

“The individuals who did the harm to Tara, knew who she was. They knew who she was, and they’re all local individuals. And I believe that the parents [of the attackers] were some of the people that helped the individuals with hiding the truth or hiding the body or trying to escape prosecution.”

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Although he never gave the suspects’ names, Rivera said that two local men, teens at the time, were involved in Tara’s disappearance, and several of their family members and friends helped cover up the crime. “You know it’s very frustrating, being that there’s a lot of people that know what happened,” he said. “They know the whereabouts of the body or the remains…. I believe the body is nearby.”

The people in the photograph still remain a mystery. Even though investigators with the Scotland Yard Police Department (London) analyzed it and determined the teen in the picture was indeed Tara, Valencia County detectives also analyzed it and disagreed. They stated they couldn’t absolutely confirm the identity of either person in the picture.

Coupled with that was the fact that numerous informants told Rivera that Tara never got far from home before the boys, now men, accidentally hit her with their truck. Instead of going to authorities, Rivera believes they buried her body, with the help of friends and family. He said:

“She was a real pretty girl. She was very athletic, and a lot of guys wanted to talk to her, they wanted to meet her, they wanted to go out with her. And while she was riding the bike, they went up to try to talk to her, try to grab her, whatever, while she was on the bike.”

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Sadly, Patty Doel passed away in 2006, without ever knowing what happened to her daughter. Tara’s father had passed away in 2002. Her living relatives, however, have not given up hope. Thanks to the internet, thousands of people across the nation are also involved in the fight to find Tara. Numerous sites and social-media groups are currently active, and its members are all invested in finding not only Tara, but the identity of the boy in the photo as well. A recent popular podcast, Vanished: The Tara Calico Investigation, examined both the Tara Calico mystery and the Polaroid photo in great detail.

The Boy in the Polaroid

The young boy in the picture appeared to be anywhere from 9 to 11 years old, give or take a few years. He had short brown hair, a summer tan, and wore a light blue shirt. For many years, investigators felt it might be Michael Henley, a nine-year-old boy who went missing in April 1988, after he wandered off from his family’s campground in Zunis Mountain, New Mexico.

But in 1990, detectives found Michael’s remains a few miles from the area where the family camped out when he went missing. They indicated that he likely passed away after prolonged exposure without food and water. No foul play was suspected.

Related: Suspect Arrested In 25-Year-Old Cold Case Murder Of Lisa Ziegert

The second photo of the boy [Port St. Joe Police Department]

The second photo of the boy [Port St. Joe Police Department]

The boy’s identity still remains a mystery. In 2009, Port St. Joe police received a letter with a picture of a young boy attached, with black markings drawn over his mouth. The boy in the new photo greatly resembled the boy in the 1989 Polaroid photo. A few months later, someone mailed police the original picture of the kid, but yet, detectives were still unable to determine who he was, or who sent the photos. The envelopes were postmarked from Albuquerque. Yet, with no return address and no additional clues, authorities were stumped.

The case still remains open for Tara, as well as the unidentified boy. Anyone with any information that could possibly help detectives should contact the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office at (505) 866-3343 or the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Department at (505) 468-7225.

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Read more:

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Albuquerque Journal (2)

Main photo: The found Polaroid [Port St. Joe Police Department]

  • ReliableMoth

    I’ve seen this picture a lot and I’ve always wanted to know the real story behind it. I hope one day we will know.

    • Ceri W. (Ceri from ‘da Wild)

      The thing that gets me is, if the girl in this picture is Tara, what about the little boy? He’s been largely unmentioned and forgotten about… Since it was disproved that he could be Michael Henley, the search and investigation for Tara has continued but his identity has never been further looked into besides the false lead in 2009… It isn’t know for certain that the girl in the photograph is Tara – but assuming it is, then here are some pressing questions:

      1.) Who IS this mystery boy, and what was he doing in the pic with her / why was he being held?

      2.) Again, assuming that the girl IS Tara, then the Police blundered big time… Why didn’t they make more of an effort to find out who the boy was when it was ruled that wasn’t Michael Henley?

      He could have been crucial in determining what happened to Tara – was he just an unfortunate witness who saw what happened to Tara, and was caught up in the whole thing by mistake? Or was he kidnapped separately by the same culprit?

      Also, it looks to me that, behind the boy, there is a dark shape that may vaguely resemble a dog? Did that also go unnoticed by the investigators?

  • JenT

    What does it say on her grey shirt? I too have Wondered about these two Beautiful Spirits! I just don’t understand why there is STILL So MUCH EVIL in our world. Why has Humanity NOT ‘Improved’ by now??! Supernatural Blessings to Everyone Who is Missing a Loved One!

    • Carl K

      It was a promotional tee shirt for Egghead Software.

  • JenT

    ALSO!! if ANYone KNOWS anything about these two, PLEASE Let their Families have some Peace!! if U did THIS, then Please let their Families KNOW!!

  • idovbnc .

    Why would her hands be bound and she have a book to read? And what are the odds her kidnapper has the same author? I’m thinking hoax.
    If it was a recent photo of the girl she shouldn’t be as tanned since her kidnapper probably kept her indoors.

    • Miyah Way

      What if the picture was taken not so long after her missing? So the skin tone still same. There’s no information about when was the photo been taken, just when it was found was informed so yeah

  • Lucas Headland

    just a thought, because a lot of killers like to taunt the police in some way, the photo that was found, maybe the killer left it deliberately to taunt police, on the picture I noticed there was a book next to the girl, seems like its “flowers in the attic” book, same cover…… could she have been held in an attic??? again, maybe a taunt from the killer, some killers are weird like that, wanting to drop clues on purpose and why would that book be in the picture??? the books about kids being held in an attic by there grandparents, etc….. and aparently according to the above the killer was known to her and the police know who it is but dont have enough evidence….just a thought

    • Lucas Headland

      actually just saw somewere else that the book is V.C. Andrews’ My Sweet Audrina cover, not V.C. Andrews’ flowers in the attic but the covers look similar, but apparently My Sweet Audrina was one of her favourite books. so I actually do belive it is her in the picture

  • alexis

    Call me crazy but it sort of smacks of a cover-up. This story of “we know exactly who did it but not enough evidence to investigate ” is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Cops can investigate anything they want. That’s what they do to find evidence in the first place. If they know enough that they can say not only that they know who did it but also say it was an accident, then they have evidence enough to bring charges. Saying they know all that but can’t do anything does not jive. Also, if Scotland Yard and her mother say it’s her in the Polaroid , it seems really odd to disagree with that. It’s like someone with influence and power is involved and ppl are afraid of the consequences of outing this person. Maybe someone wants to come forward but is too afraid…so they sent the pics of the boy hoping someone would have the wits to put the pieces together after all these years. Just a thought but I could always be wrong

    • bcjdhkk

      Look up Erik Sterling Cross / Justice For Erik Stirling Cross – everyone knows who did it and how. The why is a little questionable, but most people fall into 1 of 2 theories. Either way. he was murderer and found in front of his parents home on June 26, 1983. Still no arrests, convictions, etc.

  • Mary Sanders

    The brilliant facial reconstruction artist Carl Koppelman very carefully and in detail explains in the entry about Tara on his FB page (his photo album of “the Missing and Unidentified”) why he is certain that the girl in the Polaroid is NOT Tara.

  • Clark

    The picture of the girl tied up is NOT Tara Calico.

    The boy and the girl had this picture taken as a joke.

  • Sarah Purdue

    Has anyone considered that the younger person in the picture is a girl and not a boy?

    • Dave Weaving

      There’s no way that’s a girl… You can tell by the face and the body shape – it’s definitely a boy

    • Ceri W. (Ceri from ‘da Wild)

      Agreed, Dave… Sarah, not sure if that’s just you spouting a theory, but the younger one most certainly is not a girl… He doesn’t look even remotely like a girl! Even with the tape over his mouth, his facial profile, shape and expression (also if you look very close up there is a small part of an Adam’s apple just visible) and his upper body stance and shape are far too obviously that of a male child of about age 8 or 9, maximum 11.
      Absolutely a boy, no doubt about it

  • Cata Vikk

    It’s not a hoax. Examining the picture, that book indicates that the kidnapper studied her reading habits and grabbed a book of her favorite author to keep her calm. If this was a hoax, why would her bike be in ditch and her walkman smashed on the ground? She could have just walked outside, get in the van and run away if that was the case. Also it doesn’t explain the boy’s presence; witness that became collateral damage? Or maybe some weirdo that kidnapped them to keep them as his own kids in a secluded place?

    • Ceri W. (Ceri from ‘da Wild)

      What makes me think that this is a legit picture (if not necessarily one of Tara) is that:
      – both hostages look tired and resigned, and not at all like they are playing a prank or staging a hoax;
      – the girl looks extremely pale, thin, gaunt, haggard and withdrawn, and her hair is unkempt;
      – the bed looks makeshift and like it hasn’t been changed or cleaned for some time;
      – The girl’s clothing looks too small for her, while the boy’s top looks baggy;
      – if you look very closely at his face, the boy looks extremely frightened and close to tears. From his face I’d say he’s about age 9, possibly 11 max? A 15-year-old involved in role play with a teen girl would be a possible sign of a hoax, but a young boy of that age? Seriously?

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  • Clark

    The boy and girl in the picture are NOT Tara Calico or Michael Henley.

    The kids were part of an escape artist/magician contest in FL and had their picture taken there.