BELEN, NM — At 9:30 A.M. on September 20, 1988, 19-year-old Tara Calico announced she was going to ride her pink Huffy mountain bike along a 17-mile course before returning home and getting ready for a noon tennis date with her boyfriend.
Tara then pedaled off and was never seen again — until perhaps June 1989, when a terrifying Polaroid turned up in a supermarket parking lot nearly 1,600 miles away in Port St. Joe, Florida.
The photograph depicted a teenage female and a young boy of about 10 staring into the camera. The hands of each victim were bound behind their backs and duct tape was stretched across their mouths.
Print and broadcast media shared the picture massively hoping for leads. Back in New Mexico, Patty Doel, Tara’s mom, thought that she recognized her daughter. The boy’s identity, alas, still remains a mystery.
In the original Polaroid, Tara and the boy are lying on a bed that appears to be in the back of a van or other vehicle. The novel My Sweet Audrina by V.C. Andrews is next to Tara. Andrews was her favorite author.
Witnesses said that a white Toyota cargo van had been parked in the area where the Polaroid turned up. The driver appeared to be a white male with a mustache in his 30s. Neither the van nor the driver has ever been identified.
Now, after 30 years of loved ones and authorities working tirelessly to track down the truth about Tara and the boy, both the FBI and the Valencia County Sheriffs are actively examining at least two living suspects, and detectives even have a theory as to what may have happened.
Talking to People magazine, chief investigator Sgt. Joseph Rowland and former Valencia County Sheriff Rene Rivera say a pair of informants have pointed law enforcement toward some promising possibilities.
Both Rowland and Rivera think Tara may have known her perpetrator. Rivera goes on to propose that she could have been killed by two local teenage boys who may have acted with two other accomplices.
Rivera also cites a theory that two boys riding in a pickup truck crossed paths with Tara on her bicycle before attacking her.
The former sheriff says that the boys’ parents would have helped them cover up the crime, and that he believes Tara is likely buried somewhere in Valencia County.
Not finding the body, Rivera adds, continues to make it difficult to file charges.
In addition to the flurry of activity by legal authorities, a podcast titled Vanished: The Tara Calico Investigation has generated much new public interest in the case.
Melinda Esquibel, a high school friend of Tara’s who now works as a filmmaker, created and hosts the podcast. Citing the nature of Tara’s close-knit railroad community of Belen, Esquibel echoes Rivera’s notion that the abductors’ families would cover for them, saying:
“What makes the town charming is the same thing that makes it kind of scary — that you will go to great lengths to protect your own … There’s a lot of people that don’t want this case solved.”
Esquibel and Tara’s stepsister have kept the investigation on fire through grassroots activism and amateur sleuthing.
Doel told People that she’s seeking the facts, but she also longs for Tara to have justice, stating:
“I want to know where she’s at. … But I also want somebody to pay for it and, whether they’re alive or dead, at least acknowledge the fact that it happened.”
If you have any information about Tara Calico’s disappearance, contact the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office at (505) 866-2400 or the FBI at 1 (800) CALL-FBI or online at tips.fbi.gov.
If you are in search of a missing person, make sure to enter their information into the database of the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System.
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Main photo: Mystery Polaroid that might depict Tara Calico and an unknown boy [Port St. Joe Police Department]