Even as her mind started to deteriorate, the result of several strokes that took her piece by piece, Patty Doel still saw her beautiful daughter Tara Calico coming home to her.
Tara – a bright, freckle-faced, long-legged 19-year-old with a love of athletics and making lists – would return in her mother’s mind just as she had left 30 years ago today, riding the neon pink Huffy mountain bike she had borrowed for what was supposed to be her daily two-hour ride from their home on Brugg Drive in Rio Communities along the vast expanse of N.M. 47.
Her disappearance launched one of New Mexico’s most enduring mysteries, and the most agonizing loss a parent can bear.
Doel, her husband told me years ago, kept vigil at a window in their retirement home in Port Charlotte, Fla., where they had moved in 2003 when the ghosts and the memories back home became too much.
Even though they were nearly 2,000 miles away then, Patty saw Tara in every cyclist who rode by.
“I’d have to try to explain to her that it wasn’t Tara, that it was a person too old or too young,” John Doel told me in 2006, weeks after Patty had passed away that May at age 64. “Patty was looking for Tara right to the end.”
It might have seemed the end of the search for Tara. The Doels, especially Patty, had been the driving force of that, becoming deputized so they could conduct their own searches, mailing out thousands of fliers, contacting law enforcement agencies around the globe, appearing on every national TV show that would have them, talking to reporters like me.
Valencia County sheriff’s authorities repeatedly assured the public that the investigation was just a tip away from being solved. But that tip never came in.
In 2013, a six-person task force of local and federal investigators was formed to put fresh eyes on what had happened to the University of New Mexico sophomore on Sept. 20, 1988. A year later, the task force disbanded.
Quietly, though, a new effort to find Tara had already begun to take shape, this time headed by Michele Doel, Tara’s younger sister.
Nine years ago, she joined forces with Melinda Esquibel, who had known Tara as a fellow member of the Belen High School marching band.
“My mom had sent me an article from the Valencia County News-Bulletin in 2008 about how Tara had been missing for 20 years, and I just started crying,” Esquibel said. “That happening had traumatized the community and kind of changed how we felt about safety in our community. We couldn’t wrap our minds around what had happened to her.”
Esquibel, living in Los Angeles and working in the entertainment industry, said she was especially intrigued about a portion of the article relating how then-Valencia County Sheriff Rene Rivera, who had long investigated the case as a detective, believed he knew the boys responsible for Tara’s disappearance.
“We’re just waiting to get a little more evidence – her bicycle, her clothing or Tara herself,” Rivera was quoted as saying in the article.
While visiting family in the Belen area that Christmas, Esquibel said, she had dinner with old friends and brought up Rivera’s comment.
Their response was jolting.
“They said, ‘Oh, Melinda, the whole town knows who did it,’ ” she said.
That’s when she said she knew she needed to tell Tara’s story, bring it back into the public eye, bring pressure to bear on the authorities who could bring about the justice Patty and John Doel had sought for so long.
She received permission from John Doel, now in his late 70s and in poor health, and contacted Michele Doel in Albuquerque. Three months later, the two women were putting together evidence and information gathered by the Doels over the years and started investigating on their own.
Esquibel began work on a documentary about Tara’s case, which is still in progress.
To get word out quicker, she launched “Vanished: The Tara Calico Investigation,” a podcast that has been downloaded over a million times around the world.
In addition, “Vanished” is also a website and Facebook page with more than 5,000 followers.
The women are also working with a private investigator who is helping to put together a case that may finally force local law enforcement to act.
A call to Sgt. Joseph Rowland, now in charge of the case for Valencia County, was not returned.
The answers, Esquibel said, have been right in front of everybody all along.
“They know who did it,” she said.
Those who listen to the podcast, she said, will know who did it, too.
Looking back at my notes, I realize the Doels and investigators have always spoken about an older-model white or light pickup truck with a camper shell seen around N.M. 47, sometimes behind Tara on the return leg of her trip, sometimes just as she headed out on N.M. 47, headphones on, her Walkman playing a tape by Boston.
Witnesses say the passenger in front seat was the son of a powerful local law enforcement officer. He would have been about 18 when Tara vanished. Witnesses say he and Tara knew each other.
In the 2008 News-Bulletin article, Sheriff Rivera said several witnesses told him that the two youths in the truck had been following Tara, grabbing at her, trying to talk to her, when the truck struck Tara’s bike, knocking her to the ground.
“From there, the individuals took her,” he said.
There have been other reports.
In November 2013, a member of the task force filed a police report that detailed the dying “confession” of a witness who identified three young men, including the officer’s son, as being involved in Tara’s disappearance. The bike, the man said, was tossed in a junkyard in Belen. Tara’s body was thrown into a pond. It’s unclear what police did with that information.
Reports that Tara had been raped, then stabbed, then buried, covered with concrete slabs or, in one instance, stuffed into a freezer, have also surfaced.
Possible gravesites across Valencia County have been dug up with no results.
According to Journal articles, the son of the officer died in 1991 at age 21, the result of either suicide or a game of Russian roulette gone wrong.
His father, who told the Journal he believed his son was murdered, died in 2017.
And, then, there’s the matter of the eerie Polaroid picture found in the parking lot of a Port St. Joe, Fla., convenience store 10 months after Tara vanished.
The photo depicts a long-legged young woman and a little boy in the back of a van, their mouths covered with duct tape and their hands bound behind their backs. Experts from Los Alamos to Scotland Yard have disagreed on whether the woman was Tara.
Esquibel said she is not ready to dismiss the photo as integral to the case. How, though, she won’t say.
Without a body, officials are likely unwilling to pursue the case further, Esquibel said. But that isn’t stopping her or Michele Doel, both possessing a tenaciousness, a fearlessness to finish what Patty Doel never gave up believing would happen one day – that Tara would come home.
Thirty years or 300, they insist Tara will come home, one way or another.
UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, email@example.com or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to www.abqjournal.com/letters/new to submit a letter to the editor.