The Polaroid Mystery: Where Is Tara Calico? It's Been 29 Years Since Her Disappearance

November 14, 2017
By: Leigh Egan

Photo by: Port St. Joe Police Department

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.”

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.”

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.”

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.

Photo by: Port St. Joe Police Department

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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