Disappearance of Tara Calico: 3 decades passed but the morbid mystery behind the “polaroid” photo remains unsolved

On September 28, 1988, a 19-year-old girl named Tara Calico left her home in Belen, New Mexico to go bike riding on Highway 47. Neither Tara nor her bicycle were ever seen again.
Tara Calico

It was a beautiful sunny day in Belen, New Mexico on September 20, 1988; 19-year-old Tara Calico decided to go for her daily bike ride around 9:30 am that day. Usually Tara would ride with her mother, Patty Doel. However, Doel stopped riding with Calico as she felt that she had been stalked by a motorist.

Tara Calico
Tara Calico, 19, was last seen on September 20, 1998 © abqjournal.com

Doel advised her daughter to think about carrying mace, the brand name of an early type of aerosol self-defense spray invented by Alan Lee Litman in the 1960s, but Tara rejected the idea.

The disappearance of Tara Calico

Tara Calico
Kidnapped poster of Tara Calico © Valencia County Sheriffs office

Tara Calico hopped on her mother’s neon pink Huffy mountain bike and rode her usual route on New Mexico State Road 47. Tara only brought her Sony Walkman, headphones, and a Boston cassette tape.

Before leaving, Tara told her mother to come get her if she wasn’t home by noon because she had plans to play tennis with her boyfriend at 12:30. Doel agreed and unknowingly said her last goodbye to her daughter.

When Tara did not return home by 12:00 p.m., Doel went out to look for her, driving Tara’s usual route. After driving back and forth twice, she realized there was no sign of Tara. When she returned home, and Tara was not there, Doel called the Valencia County Sheriff’s Department and made a missing person report.

Officers discovered pieces of Tara Calico’s Walkman, as well as the cassette tape, scattered along the side of the road later that day. But Tara and her bike were nowhere to be found. For weeks, investigators searched the area. Local and state police, as well as hundreds of volunteers, combed the area on foot, horseback, four-wheelers, and planes. Her stepfather, John Doel, recalls that the bike track marks resembled skids, possibly indicating a struggle.

Witnesses of Tara Calico’s disappearance

Despite the fact that no one witnessed the abduction, seven people later reported seeing Tara Calico riding back toward her home at around 11:45 a.m. She was said to be wearing headphones, and several witnesses saw an older-model, white or light-colored pickup truck trailing behind her. It is believed that the truck was towing a shell camper. This was the only information investigators had for the first 9 months after Tara Calico went missing until an intriguing photograph was discovered in the parking lot of a convenience store in Florida.

The mysterious Polaroid picture

tara calico
The haunting polaroid photo that was found on asphalt in Port St. Joe, Florida in 1989 © taracalico.com

On June 15, 1989, when a woman in Port St. Joe, Florida, pulled off route 98 into the parking lot of a Junior Food Store, she noticed a polaroid snapshot laying on the asphalt facing down. The image she saw when she picked up the polaroid was terrifying.

The picture showed a young woman and a boy bound in the back on a host of uneven pillows and sheets. Their postures indicate that their wrists are tied behind them, with duct tape covering their mouths. Both have tense expressions on their faces as they look directly at the camera. They are crammed into a small space that is dimly lit. It seems that behind the photographer is the only source of light. The photograph was most likely taken in the back of a windowless van with its side door open.

The police were called right away, and the woman told them that when she entered the store, a windowless Toyota cargo van was parked there. She described the driver of the van as a man in his 30s with a moustache. Roadblocks were set up by officers, but the vehicle was never discovered. Officials from Polaroid confirmed that the photograph had to be taken after May 1989 because the type of film used had only recently become available.

The following month, the image was broadcasted on the show “A Current Affair.” Friends who were watching the show got in touch with the Doels after noticing similarities between Tara Calico and the girl in the photograph. On the other hand, Michael Henley, a 9-year-old boy who went missing in New Mexico in May 1988, had relatives who watched the episode and felt the boy looked like their Michael.

Analysis of the Polaroid photograph

The Doels and Henleys sat down with investigators to go over the photograph. Both Patty Doel and Henley’s mother asserted that the photograph was of their children. Tara shared the woman’s scar on her leg. In the Polaroid, Patty also pointed out a visible copy of Tara’s favourite book, “My Sweet Audrina” by V.C. Andrews.

Scotland Yard analyzed the photograph and concluded that the woman was Tara Calico, but a second analysis by the Los Alamos National Laboratory disagreed with the Scotland Yard’s report. The FBI’s analysis of the photograph was inconclusive.

Police found Michael Henley

Michael Henley, Tara Calico
Polaroid photograph of an unidentified boy and Michael Henley, missing since April 1988, from New Mexico. © National Center for Missing Adults

In 1988, Michael Henley went missing while hunting turkey with his father about 75 miles away from where Tara Calico was kidnapped. His parents were confident the boy on the Polaroid was of their son, but this is now considered to be exceedingly doubtful. In June 1990, Michael’s remains were discovered in Zuni Mountains approximately 7 miles from where he disappeared. To this day, neither the boy nor the girl in the photo has ever been positively identified.

Two other polaroids have been surfaced over the years that, according to some, could’ve been of Tara Calico. The first was found near a construction site. It was a blurry photograph of a seemingly nude girl with tape over her mouth, light blue striped fabric behind her, similar to the fabric seen in the first (original) polaroid. It too was taken on film not available until 1989.

Tara Calico, Tara Calico polaroid
Two additional Polaroid photographs have been found since Tara’s disappearance. © National Center for Missing Adults

The second photograph is of a terrified woman bound on an Amtrak train (possibly abandoned), her eyes covered with gauze and big black framed glasses, with a male passenger taunting her in the photograph.

Tara’s mother believed the one with the striped fabric was her daughter but thought the other might have been a bad gag. Tara’s sister, Michelle stated,

“They had a striking resemblance. As for me, I will not rule them out. But keep in mind our family has had to identify many other photographs and all but those were ruled out.”

A mother’s years of hope and grief

After coming to Florida with husband John, Patty Doel died of complications from a number of strokes in 2006. However, she always thought about her daughter.

Tara Calico
Pat and John Doel have left their daughter Tara Calico’s room exactly as it was the day she disappeared. On the bed are presents from birthdays and holidays Tara missed, photographed on July 5, 1991. © Alexandria King / Albuquerque Journal

Patty and John kept a bedroom for their daughter, bringing her gifts there for passing Christmases and birthdays. Even near the end, Patty “would see a young girl on a bicycle and would point and write down Tara,” her longtime friend Billie Payne recalls. “And John would tell her, No, that’s not Tara.”

This leaves us questioning even today, will there be more clues? Is she still alive? Will the family get closure? As of today, the culprit(s) behind Tara Calico disappearance, still remains shrouded in a cold morbid mystery.

Contact if have any information

If you have any information about Tara Leigh Calico’s disappearance, please contact the Valencia County Sheriff’s Department at 505-865-9604. You can also contact the Federal Bureau of Investigation in New Mexico at 505-224-2000; The FBI announced a $20,000 reward in 2019 for specific information about the location of Tara. The FBI released age progression photos showing what Tara would currently look like.

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