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Sunday, September 14, 2008
Mystery of Tara Calico
By Leslie Linthicum
Journal Staff Writer
A girl rides a bike on a lonely stretch of road. Then, poof, she's gone.
The mystery of Tara Calico's disappearance began to unfurl a little after noon on Sept. 20, 1988, when Tara's mother drove south on N.M. 47 from Rio Communities, expecting to find her daughter with a flat tire. Instead, all she found in the dirt on the side of the road was a tire track from the bike Tara was riding.
Tara never came home, and so began a family's chain of sorrow. And a puzzle that fed the television crime shows. And a police case that has now stretched out to fill two banker's boxes and 20 years.
Gone without a trace.
At least that has been the storyline.
But to Valencia County Sheriff Rene Rivera, the case isn't much of a whodunit.
He says he knows what happened, and has for years.
Twenty years into the Tara Calico mystery, Rivera would like to let everyone in on what happened to 19-year-old Tara out on N.M. 47 on that September day:
"The individuals who did the harm to Tara, knew who she was," Rivera told me. "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."
Tara was 19 and starting her second year in college. Her attackers were boys she had gone to high school with, although they were behind her in school and younger, Rivera says.
"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."
The truck they were driving accidentally hit Tara, Rivera says, and bad turned worse.
Rivera has been working on the case since he started as a deputy in 1989, since he was promoted to detective in 1996 and since he was elected sheriff in 2006. For all of those years, the walls of Valencia County have been talking, naming names of the boys who were in the truck, names of the boys who helped bury Tara's body after they killed her, names of the parents and other relatives who helped clean up and cover up the mess.
Rivera says he has had enough information to get arrest warrants for the two boys — now men — whom he has identified as the killers. Two others have been identified as accomplices.
Then why, 20 years later, are we marking another milestone anniversary of a missing person's case?
Because Tara Calico is still missing.
"It's kind of hard to make a case," Rivera says, "without a body."
Rivera and Detective James Purdy are still talking to people about Tara Calico, and they're hoping that time will wear away some of the resistance to answering that one lingering question: What did they do with her?
"You know it's very frustrating, being that there's a lot of people that know what happened," Rivera said. "They know the whereabouts of the body or the remains.
"A lot of the information that we are getting is because people are starting to open up a little more. When this first happened, people were scared. People were threatened not to speak out because what happened to Tara could happen to them."
One of the most riveting aspects of the Calico case was a Polaroid photo found outside a convenience store in Florida a little less than a year after Calico went missing. It showed a bound young woman who looked strikingly similar to Tara, in the back of a van, staring at the camera. A boy, also bound, was lying next to her.
Tara's parents had the photo analyzed by Scotland Yard and said it was determined to be Tara. An investigator for the Valencia County District Attorney had a Los Alamos National Laboratory analysis that determined it wasn't.
Maybe the photo was of Tara, Rivera says. But all of his informants tell him Tara never left home.
"I believe the body's nearby," he says. And he believes her bike will be with it.
Tara's father died in 2002. Her mother died in 2006. Living family members, kids when Tara was a kid, are grown. Tara would be 39 later this month.
"I want to be able to give them closure, to be able to say, you know, I got the individuals who did whatever they did to her. I was able to recover the remains and give them to them to give her a proper burial."
Tara Calico's disappearance is one of New Mexico's oldest, most lingering cold cases.
"Actually, it's a mystery that's getting hotter every day," Rivera told me. "Some people have this information, and they've had it for so long that they've gotten sick by hiding the information they have, and now they're coming forward to try to relieve themselves.
"Some of these people that were witnesses to the crime have been scared to come forward. They think that, being that they were there, that they're going to get prosecuted for the death. At this point, what I want to let people to know is that, if there were witnesses there, I'm willing to work with them. I need to have their information. I need to be able to recover this body."
You can reach Leslie at 823-3914 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read all of her columns at www.abqjournal.com/upfront.