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Filmmaker hopes documentary, podcast can help solve Tara Calico mystery

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s been nearly 30 years since college student Tara Calico vanished near her Belen-area home, and the mystery remains unsolved.

One high school classmate is determined to tell the story in a way that will bring the truth to light.

Melinda Esquibel has spent the past seven years researching the case and filming a documentary that is currently being edited. In the meantime, she has embarked on a new project hoping to bring the fruits of her investigation to a wide audience as soon as possible.

In early June, she presented a preview of her podcast “Vanished: The Tara Calico Investigation” at the CrimeCon Convention, an annual event that draws true crime fans. Esquibel said the first episode of the podcast series is available on iTunes, AudioBoom, Google Plan and Stitcher Radio. Podcasts are digital audio files that can be downloaded free to a computer or mobile device.

“What has kept me going is the hope of finding Tara and finding out what happened to her. Her disappearance has rocked the community and shaped us all in one form or another. It’s changed us and because of it we will never be the same. The only thing we can hope for is some healing when it’s all said and done,” Esquibel said.

Esquibel grew up in Belen and went to Belen High School with Calico. They were in marching band together and attended the same University of New Mexico branch campus. But Esquibel left that all behind to pursue the dream of a film career in California.

In the following years, she studied film production, worked at Fox Family Productions and helped produce documentaries such as “Pais: The Life and Death of Frank Pais,” a Cuban revolutionary.

Tara Calico was last seen riding her bicycle on NM 47 south of Rio Communities on Sept. 20, 1988. The mystery of what happened to her has never been solved. (JOURNAL FILE)

Unsolved mystery

The eerie horror of her schoolmate’s fate came flooding back in 2008 when Esquibel’s mother sent her a Valencia County News Bulletin article commemorating the 20th anniversary of Calico’s disappearance.

“I opened the envelope and looked at it and I just started crying,” said Esquibel. “I thought, oh my God! It really did happen all those years ago. I had forgotten about it. It almost felt like it was a dream.”

On Sept. 20, 1988, Calico, then 19, set out on a routine bike ride from her home in the Rio Communities east of Belen. She was planning to play tennis later that day but she never returned. Witnesses said they’d seen a pickup truck following her but neither her body, nor the pink Huffy bicycle were ever found. The next year, a Polaroid photograph surfaced in Florida of a young woman bound, with tape over her mouth. Some experts said details were consistent with Calico’s face. However, the FBI analysis was inconclusive.

Calico’s parents, Patty and John Doel, told their story on “Oprah,” “America’s Most Wanted,” “Unsolved Mysteries” and mailed out thousands of fliers hoping for news of their daughter.

Leads emerged, but nothing led to an arrest.

‘Who did it’

In 2008, former Valencia County Sheriff Rene Rivera, who had followed the case since 1989, told the News Bulletin he knew what had happened. He said he’d been told a truck had accidentally hit her. Rivera believed local boys were in the truck and that they had help hiding her body and concealing the truth. But he said it was hard to make a case stick without a body.

Esquibel returned to Belen at Christmas that year and showed the article to former high school classmates at a dinner. She was excited that finally someone knew who harmed Calico. The response, she said, was, “Oh Melinda, the whole town knows who did it,” followed by what she called “a lot of rumor and speculation.”

Esquibel said that prompted her to start her own investigation, determined to find out what really happened.

It’s been a long and, at times, unnerving struggle. She talked at length with John Doel (Patty Doel died in 2006). She interviewed Rivera and other law enforcement officers involved with the case. She traveled to the remote spot on NM 47 where Calico was last seen. She spent months visiting the sheriff’s office to pore through the case files.  At times, she said, her persistent questioning of people in the tight-knit Belen community provoked a hostile reaction.

Esquibel said she received threats saying “someone would get hurt” if she didn’t stop pursuing the investigation.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t want this case solved,” she said in a recent interview with the Journal.

She returned to Los Angeles, but continued working on the project.

“All the things that have happened to me only justified in my mind that I needed to keep going and that her story needed to be told. It just pushed me harder,” said Esquibel.

Similar case

Progress has been slow. In 2014, Esquibel told the Journal that she expected the film to be released soon. However, based on feedback from networks she changed the scope of the project into a documentary series instead of a single film. A Dubai-based contact is now involved in the editing.

Meanwhile, Esquibel learned of a podcast called “Up and Vanished” produced by filmmaker Payne Lindsey. It focused on the case of Tara Grinstead, a teacher and former beauty queen who went missing in Georgia in 2005.

Melinda Esquibel talks to Payne Lindsey about his podcast “Up and Vanished” about Tara Grinstead a girl who disappeared in Georgia in 2005. (COURTESY OF MELINDA ESQUIBEL)

In June, Esquibel attended the CrimeCon convention in Indiana where she met and gained advice from Laura Richards, a criminal behavioral analyst formerly employed by Scotland Yard who examined the case of murdered child beauty pageant queen JonBonét Ramsey and created a TV show about it. She also talked with Lindsey about his investigation of the Grinstead mystery.

Esquibel was struck by the similarity of the case in Lindsey’s podcast to the disappearance of Tara Calico. She learned that a few months after his podcast aired in August 2016 someone called the Georgia Bureau of Investigation with a tip that led to a couple of arrests. That gave her hope.

“It’s possible that people who hear my podcast may know more information and can contribute to help solve the Tara Calico case,” Esquibel said.

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