Twenty-five years ago, Tara Calico went for her routine 34-mile bike ride never to be seen or heard from again.
Since then, her family, her friends and her community have waited and wondered about what really happened. Is she dead? Is she still alive? Has she been held captive for all these years?
These questions, along with many others, have plagued Tara’s family for the past quarter century.
“I miss her,” said John Doel, Tara’s stepfather. “One of these days, hopefully, we’ll find out what happened.
“Whether or not someone is held accountable for it, I just want to know what happened. We’ve been looking for some kind of closure for a long time.”
It was about 9 or 9:30 a.m. on Sept. 20, 1988, when Tara, 19 at the time, started out on her bike ride south on N.M. 47 from Rio Communities. She took her mother’s shocking pink Huffy bike because hers had a flat.
Before leaving home, Tara had laid out her tennis attire for an early-afternoon match. She also had organized the books she needed for her afternoon classes at the University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus, where she was a sophomore.
But as the hours passed, her mother, Patty, became worried when Tara didn’t return home. Concerned she may have become stranded on the side of the highway, Patty headed out just after noon, thinking she would find Tara walking home.
She didn’t. No one did.
Tara didn’t make her tennis match or her afternoon classes. She was gone, nowhere to be found, as if she had vanished into thin air.
Now, 25 years later, her family and friends continue to wait and wonder, while still praying for a miracle.
“I’m still hopeful, even today, even though it’s not probable,” her stepfather said. “Over the years, I’ve accepted the alternative. But it’s still possible (that she’s alive), and for that reason, I can’t let it go.”
Tara’s stepsister, Michele Doel, said on that first day, she was sure Tara would be found.
“How could she not?,” Michele said. “It seemed as though every person in our county was out there, hand in hand, searching everywhere. It didn’t seem possible that there was a place where she couldn’t be found with that amount of help.”
As the minutes turned into hours, hours into days and days into years, Michele said it still hurts.
Patty Doel never gave up hope, even until the day she died in May 2006. Patty succumbed to complications from a series of strokes in Port Charlotte, Fla., where she and John moved in 2003. John said Patty always dreamed of the day they would be reunited with her daughter.
But it never happened.
“Tara and her mother were especially close,” John said. “I’m just sorry something wasn’t resolved, one way or another, before she passed. It took quite a bit out of her.”
In the days, weeks, months and years after Tara’s disappearance, Patty worked tirelessly searching for her missing daughter. She looked everywhere, talked to thousands of people, worked closely with local, state and federal law enforcement, appeared on national television numerous times to share Tara’s story. She even consulted numerous psychics.
Patty wasn’t alone. John, who had helped raise Tara since she was about 6 years old when he married Patty, was right by her side, doing anything he could to find that “feisty kid” he grew to love and think of as his own.
“I was on fire, initially,” John said about the days and months after Tara’s disappearance. “In fact, I think I made a lot of people pretty nervous, including law enforcement, which wasn’t my intent, but I was determined. I’m a pretty straight-forward person, and I’ll give you an answer if you ask, but it might not be the one you like.”
Family friends Shorty and Billie Payne, who still live in Belen, also have never given up hope that Tara is alive and will one day come home.
“They’re still finding girls 10 years later who have been kidnapped,” Billie said. “Patty always used to say, ‘If the body is my daughter, then I’ll accept she’s gone.’ But until then, she believed Tara was still alive.”
Shorty said he still believes Tara was abducted.
“I can suppose this or suppose that, but I think she was abducted and who knows what happened after that,” Shorty said. “We hope to this day that she’s still alive and doing well, but if that’s not the case, that’s something we’ll have to face sooner or later. The not knowing is the worst part.”
While the community stood behind the family, Shorty and Billie were the ones who helped the Doels on a daily basis. Shorty met John in 1980 when they both worked for the railroad. Billie met them a few years later when she moved to Belen.
“They are very likable people, friendly and I couldn’t have asked for better friends,” Billie said of the Doels.
Billie first met Tara when the teenager was in high school. She still remembers her as a “super cool girl,” outgoing and friendly.
On the day of the disappearance, Billie was shocked when Patty called and told her that Tara hadn’t returned from her bike ride.
“That’s the last thing you would expect in a small town like Belen,” Billie said. “All I could think is who and why would they have taken her.”
That first day, both Shorty and Billie did what they could to help find Tara. They went out to the desolate area where they thought she had been riding, looking for anything that would lead them to her.
“I looked under bushes, I looked everywhere I could,” Billie said. “But I didn’t know what we were looking for. Not knowing, I just couldn’t handle it anymore, so I stayed at the (Doels) house and took phone calls and greeted people.”
“I helped search the whole area for at least a week,” said Shorty. “We looked everywhere, near the home, the surrounding areas of N.M. 47. There were many, many people out there helping to search.”
Billie helped with fliers, helped organize a benefit dinner, doing anything she could to help find Tara. Her son, Cory, even sketched the white truck featured on the first missing persons poster for law enforcement.
After a while, Billie said, it became overwhelming.
“It was really hard,” she said through tears. “Being a mom, and seeing Patty go through that, there are no words.”
Billie would also be by Patty’s side every time law enforcement would send her a picture of a dead girl, wondering if it was Tara. It never was.
“I practically lived over there for at least two years,” Billie said. “After two years, things started to slow down and I couldn’t help as much.”
After driving the bike route twice that day looking for Tara, Patty called the local hospital, the rescue unit, then the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office to report Tara’s disappearance.
Within five hours, Tara’s name was entered into NCIC as a missing person with a notification that foul play was feared. An extensive search lasted two weeks, involving local and state police, various military units and hundreds of volunteer searchers on foot, on horseback, on four-wheelers, as well as in airplanes and helicopters.
Bad weather complicated the search. Neither Tara nor the bike was found.
The only discoveries were bike tracks, which indicated she had gone off the road onto a soft shoulder, a “Boston” cassette tape, which belonged to Tara and was found by Patty, and the viewing window from her Sony Walkman radio and cassette player.
Detectives with the sheriff’s department interviewed seven witnesses who reported seeing Tara riding her bike northbound toward home that day. Five of those witnesses saw an old, light-colored (probably Ford) pickup truck with a camper following Tara at various points along N.M. 47.
All of the witnesses told police they saw her wearing earphones and appeared unaware of anyone behind her.
The bike tracks going off the pavement, Tara’s cassette and the window to her cassette player were all discovered one to three miles south of where Tara was last seen riding north toward her home.
Patty had said it was strange that Tara was last seen going north on N.M. 47, when she found the cassette tape on the southbound side of the highway.
In June 1989, investigators followed up on a tip that eventually went nowhere — a Polaroid photo of an unidentified female discovered in a Port St. Joe, Fla., convenience store parking lot. A white Toyota van was parked where the photo was found.
The picture depicts a long-legged young woman, who looks like Tara, and a smaller boy lying on some sheets and a blue-striped pillow. Their mouths were covered with duct tape and their hands tied behind their backs.
Some people, at first, believed the boy in the picture was 9-year-old Michael Henley, who vanished in April 1988 in northern New Mexico. But Henley’s remains were found in the Zuni Mountains in 1990.
The FBI examined the photo and couldn’t determine whether the girl was Tara; Scotland Yard photo analysts concluded it was. Experts at the Los Alamos National Laboratory doubted it was her.
But Patty believed it was her daughter pictured in back of the van. She just never could prove it.
“For one thing, (Tara) was in a bad car accident,” Patty said a few years before her death. “In the photo, there is a scar on the woman’s leg that is identical to the scar she received in the car accident.”
Five years ago, Rene Rivera, the then sheriff of Valencia County, said he knew what happened to Tara and who was responsible.
Without naming the suspects, Rivera said he had received information throughout the years that two men, who were teenagers at the time, found Tara riding her bike on N.M. 47 south of Rio Communities.
He said the teens, driving an older-model Ford pickup truck, followed Tara, grabbing at her while trying to talk to her. Rivera said the truck accidently hit Tara’s bike, and the men got scared after Tara threatened to call law enforcement. He says the two men panicked, took her and killed her.
Rivera served one term, then voters elected a new sheriff three years ago. Current Sheriff Louis Burkhard said his detectives have worked with the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Cold Case unit, but didn’t think there was enough evidence to reopen the investigation.
“Since taking office, we’ve only received one tip that detectives followed up with, but nothing came of that,” Burkhard said.
He said he will follow up on the newest possible lead, this one by way of a retired deputy in Dade County, Ga.
The News-Bulletin received an email Monday morning from Lee Blake, who worked for the Dade County Sheriff’s Department for 15 years. Blake said he had come across a website Sunday evening about missing persons that featured Tara Calico.
His search, he says, was in regards to a case that has haunted him for the past 25 years. Blake said he was the first deputy on the scene where a young woman’s body was found Dec. 16, 1988, on the side of Interstate 59.
While researching Tara’s case, he realized the description of the dead woman he had found a quarter century ago matched that of Tara: Age: Between 20-25 (Tara was 19 years old when she went missing); Weight: 125 pounds (Tara was 120 pounds when she went missing); 5-feet 7-inches tall (the same as Tara); Hair color: Dyed brownish-red hair with frosted ends (Tara had light brown hair).
Even though the dead woman’s clothes and jewelry weren’t the same Tara wore the day she went missing, Blake still wonders.
“If I had heard about Tara’s case, I would have made contact back then,” Blake said in a telephone interview this week. “Back then, there wasn’t the news coverage like there is today.”
Blake said they never identified the woman he found. He said no one ever claimed the woman’s body and she was buried in an unmarked grave in Dade County a few years later.
He said DNA evidence and the woman’s personal effects are still being kept in a crime lab in Atlanta, Ga.
“This is a case that still haunts me,” Blake said. “It’s a young lady that is away from home, her family is not around and somebody threw her on the side of the road like a piece of trash. No human being deserves to be treated that way.”
Several years ago, Bernalillo County Sheriff Dan Houston met Michele while she was jogging in downtown Albuquerque, and she told him about her sister’s case.
Houston, who was a captain in the department at the time of the disappearance, remembered the case when it happened 25 years ago.
“I just have great respect for Michele and I have sympathy for her family,” Houston said. “I spoke with Sheriff Burkhard, and while we didn’t actually open up an actual case, we were able to profile her case on our cold-case website.”
Houston said he has had a great working relationship with Burkhard, and is happy to help in whatever way he can with the investigation.
“For us, the purpose is to let the families know we haven’t given up,” Houston said. “This can be solved, even this many years later. Hopefully, we can help develop new leads and we are wanting to work together and partner up to solve this.”
Houston also said the department created and distributed a deck of playing cards to inmates in the county jail with pictures and information illustrating different unsolved homicides, including one of Tara.
“A lot of time, our best information sources are other criminals,” Houston said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to get her information to more people.”
As the search for Tara went cold, John said it became frustrating that no one could tie anything together.
Every once in a while, he said, they would get phone calls from law enforcement, including the FBI, whose agents had extracted DNA from Patty before she died, just in case. He said he hasn’t heard from anyone in law enforcement for two to three years.
“It’s been 25 years of day after day, and again, we’ve been kind of let down,” said John about the information the sheriff’s department has in the case and its inability to make an arrest. “I’m not really looking to nail anybody. I just want to know what happened.”
Both Billie and Shorty would like police to open up the case again and hopefully find out what happened to Tara.
“It’s been very disheartening, simply because it seems like the investigation has been put on the wayside,” Shorty said. “One life is just as important as another, and it seems as though they’ve forgotten about this child.”
“I just wish if anybody knows anything to come forward,” Billie said. “We need to give the family peace.”
When John Doel first met and married Patty in 1975, he said Tara was tough and “pretty feisty for a little girl.” He said the younger Tara was a great ball player who would “play with the older girls on the softball team.”
When the Doels got married, they became a blended family — Patty had three children, Todd, Chris and Tara, while John had two girls, Debbie and Michele.
“Being raised with two boys, if they wanted to go out and lasso a snake, she was right there with them,” he said. “She ran, she rode her bike every day, she was always on the go.”
As Tara got older, he could see her unfaltering determination.
“She did very well in school,” John said, “… she picked out a subject she was interested in and she was very pointed in achieving her goal.”
While in high school, Tara also took a few college courses at UNM-VC. She was working on a degree to become a psychologist.
“I think about her quite often, when she was really small and on through her later years,” John said. “She was a terrific kid and would have done something with her life. She had goals and she was a giver, a considerate person. She would have done something meaningful with her life, I’m sure. I just would like people to remember her as that kind of person.”
Michele, who was raised by her mother in Albuquerque, spent most of her childhood between her mother and father’s homes. Her mother died a year before Tara’s disappearance, at which time, she moved to Rio Communities.
When asked what kind of sister Tara was, Michele, first said she felt she was “cheated with time.”
When Michele moved in with John, Patty, Tara and Chris, she said the four-year age difference between her and Tara didn’t seem as distant as it was when they were younger.
“We did a lot together that last year — shopping, running, biking, hanging out,” Michelle said. “She would take me to hang out with her friends, we would go to rugby tournaments, go out to eat — things everyone does with their family, we were no different.”
Before moving to Florida in 2003, Patty described her daughter to the News-Bulletin as someone who “felt beyond herself from the time she was very small.”
By the time Tara turned 19, she had already given a gallon of blood, her mother had said.
“That was just the kind of person she was,” Patty had said.
“She was the glue that held this family together,” Patty had said about her daughter. “She made all the plans for birthday parties, made appointments for pictures.”
After Tara’s disappearance and no word for years, Patty’s faith that she would one day return home was evident in how she kept Tara’s room just as she had left it.
The bedspread was the same, the furniture was the same and even the drapes were the same. For years, Patty would buy Tara presents on birthdays and Christmas, leaving them on her bed for the day she would come home.
“It tended to make people uncomfortable,” Patty said before moving to Florida, “because I wouldn’t let anyone stay in the room for a long time. I had trouble sharing it with anyone. Her scent was still there. I could take her pillow, smell it and it was like she was still there.”
It was important to Patty that if Tara was alive, she could come home and know that they had never given up looking for her and that they always thought about her.
Shorty and Billie Payne said when John and Patty moved to Florida, it was the hardest thing Tara’s mother ever had to do. Billie said Patty felt they were leaving the home that Tara grew up in, and if she was ever to go home, she didn’t want strangers to meet her.
“She left a picture of Tara with the people who bought their house, and left my number,” Billie said. “But, I never got that call.”
John said while it was hard to leave Rio Communities and their friends, it had always been in the couple’s plans to move back to John’s home state.
“Patty wanted to live here on the water,” John said. “Now, it’s just me and my dog.”
As the years passed, John said Tara’s disappearance affected his family in different ways.
“In some ways, it brought a few of us closer together,” he said. “And in other ways, it’s caused alienation. But, for the most part, we’ve moved on, which a person has to do.
“You have your memories, but you have to move on,” he said. “You do what you have to do. In the meantime, I’m still hopeful.”
Celebrating his 73rd birthday last week, John says he misses New Mexico, the mountains and the high country. He hasn’t been back to the Land of Enchantment for many years due to health reasons.
While growing up, even before the disappearance, Michele said her parents were always very protective of the children. They were not allowed to do as they pleased without permission. After Tara went missing, her parents were even more protective of the children.
“I remember having police escorts everywhere I went, which was very limiting, if my parents were working on the case,” Michele remembered. “They had one child missing, so it was hard for them to let us out of their sight.”
In the early days and years of the search for Tara, Michele said she was sheltered from the case. It wasn’t until she became a young adult and had the courage to ask more questions that she was able to understand the details of the investigation, which she says were “devastating, confusing and unimaginable.”
As Michele grew up and had children of her own, she said she was also a protective parent.
“These people that did this knew who we were, but we were still trying to find out who they were,” she said. “We kept hearing later on that everyone in town knew what happened and who was involved but, without evidence, we had nowhere to go with that information — without proof.
“I definitely was afraid and continued to be very private,” Michele said. “My friends were selected very carefully, I’m very fortunate to have them.”
Michele said after Patty died, she believed that the investigation into Tara’s disappearance was over. But, to her, it will never be over.
“She has not been found and justice has not been served,” Michele says. “I look back on everything that has been done to this point and can’t imagine that there is something that can be done now that hadn’t been looked at before, but obviously there is. It’s just a matter of time.
“Tara was a good person and she was taken from her family and friends and lost out on her entire life,” Michele says. “There needs to be justice.”©©