Saturday, September 20, 2008
Twenty years ago today, Tara Calico disappeared into thin air
Before Patty Doel died two years ago, she still had hopes that her daughter, Tara Calico, was alive and would be found.
The University of New Mexico-Valencia Campus student never returned home, leaving her family and an entire community to wonder and wait for any word about her fate.
Patty Doel died in Port Charles, Fla., at the age of 64 in May 2006 from complications from a series of strokes she had suffered. Her husband John, Tara's stepfather, said Patty had severe dementia and wasn't able to speak for the last year of her life.
"We passed notes back and forth for about eight months, but after that it was more difficult to communicate," Doel said in a telephone interview. "She was still concerned, and she still expected Tara to walk in at any time."
Patty and John Doel moved to Florida five years ago, leaving behind the community that had stood by their sides since the day Tara disappeared. Even after 20 years, Tara's family still thinks about her every day.
"It's gotten harder because we still don't know," said Tara's younger sister, Michele Doel. "If I'm driving down the street and I see someone who possibly resembles her, I find myself watching them staring. It's hard just not having closure and not knowing what happened. Statistically, the odds are against her, and if she's not alive, we still need to know where she is."
Michele's hope is that if Tara is still alive, that she's not suffering. And if Tara isn't alive, her sister just prays that she didn't suffer long.
"Whoever knows something about this, I hope that they come forward because, as hard as it's been on them to live with that information, they have no idea how hard it's been for our family," she said.
While Patty never gave up hope that her daughter was alive, John said he's felt for years that Tara didn't survive whatever happened to her. He said if Tara could have come home, she would have.
"Patty knew that I felt that way, but she continued to hope to hear from her," he said. "We would discuss it frequently, and I would tell her my reasons that if she (Tara) was able to, she would have contacted us. And being that so much time has gone by, I didn't think it was practical that she was still alive."
Tara Leigh Calico was 19 years old when she disappeared. She was a sophomore in college, worked at a local bank and had plans to become a psychologist. She was described as a very intelligent young woman who was athletic, outgoing and had many friends.
On the morning of her disappearance, Tara left her Rio Communities house at about 9:30 a.m. to go on her daily bike ride on N.M. 47. She took her mother's pink Huffy bicycle because her bike had developed a flat a day or two before. When Tara failed to return home, Patty went out looking for her, thinking that she would find her walking home with a disabled bike.
Needless to say, Tara wasn't there she wasn't anywhere.
"I was 15, a sophomore in high school," Michele remembered. "I remember one of my sister's best friends and her boyfriend came to get me from school. They picked me up, and when we got home, there was a bunch of cops."
Michele remembers being briefly filled in that Tara hadn't come home from her bike ride and that people were out looking for her. The house was in chaos people going in and out.
"I didn't understand what was going on," she said. "I just assumed that she maybe had gone a different way and that we were going to find her. I didn't think that she was missing until later on that evening when I started to realize how serious it was. But I just kept thinking that she was going to come back."
In the days, months and years following Tara's disappearance, her family never gave up working on finding out what happened to her. They pleaded for any kind of information, appearing on national television and investigating the case themselves.
"We were both deputized after Tara's disappearance and were able to investigate the case," John Doel said of himself and Patty. "It allowed us to do two things to carry weapons and also to be able to contact any other law enforcement agency on behalf of the sheriff's department regarding the case. We were both commissioned as auxiliary deputies.
"It's been a rough 20 years, especially on Patty. It was extremely hard on her, but she never gave up hope she never quit."
Another person who has never given up trying to find answers in the case is Valencia County Sheriff Rene Rivera. While he wasn't on the force when Tara initially disappeared, he began his career the next year and began receiving information about the disappearance.
"I've actually been working on this case ever since I started with the sheriff's department in 1989," Rivera said. "People would come up to me and give me information, and I would write a report and turn it over to the detective who was working the case. Once I got into Detectives in 1996, the case was given to me."
In the years since the disappearance, Rivera and other investigators have been following up on any leads they've received, including a Polaroid photo of an unidentified female discovered in Port St. Joe, Fla., in June 1989. A white Toyota van had been parked in the spot prior to the discovery of the picture. The photo was discovered on the ground in a convenience store's parking lot.
The picture depicts a long-legged young woman 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 that the boy in the picture was Michael Henley, a 9-year-old boy who vanished in April 1988 in northern New Mexico. But Henley's remains were found in the Zuni Mountains in 1990. The Federal Bureau Of Investigation examined the photo and couldn't determine whether the girl is Calico, but experts at the Los Alamos National Laboratory say they don't believe it is her, Rivera said.
"I don't think it's her," Rivera said of the picture. "It does resemble her quite a bit, but I don't think it's her. And if the picture is of her, it could have been taken here and then transported somewhere else."
Other leads Rivera has followed up on over the years included a possible sighting in Florida as well as alleged burial locations throughout Valencia County. In the past five or so years, Rivera has obtained search warrants for various properties where someone said Tara's body had been buried.
"We've dug both by hand and with backhoes," the sheriff said. "Any lead that we got, we followed through with it because we didn't want to leave anything out."
Despite all those leads coming up empty, Rivera says he knows what happened to Tara that day and who is responsible. While he won't say who the suspects are, he did say that he's received information over the years that two men, who were teenagers at the time of Tara's disappearance, found her riding her bike on the rural road that day and had help afterwards disposing of her body.
But it's that one piece of evidence that is keeping the sheriff from making an arrest Tara. He said he hopes that, with the anniversary of her disappearance, the people responsible, or those who know what happened that day, will lead them to her so they can finally close the case.
"We do have a case put together, but we want to make sure that this case is a concrete case to where we'll be able to effectively do our jobs," he said. "We're just waiting to get a little more evidence her bicycle, her clothing or Tara herself."
Rivera said several people have told him that, while riding her bike, Tara was approached by these two individuals in an older model Ford pickup truck. He said these two people had been following her, grabbing at her, trying to talk to her.
"The information I have is that the truck accidentally ended up hitting her," Rivera said. "I believe the truck bumped her bike, at which time she fell to the side of the road. From there, the individuals took her."
The sheriff thinks that the two men knew Tara, and that they got scared and she may have threatened to call law enforcement. He says the two men panicked, took her and killed her.
Rivera said two other people may have become involved in the situation afterwards and have knowledge of what happened to her and where she may be buried.
"If Tara was killed, I would say her body is still within the county," he added. "I think that she's still in the same general area that she was taken."
After 20 years, the sheriff hopes that these suspects or even anyone who they told what happened that day will come forward and finally put an end to the case.
"I'm hoping that this time around, these people will finally realize that it's time to talk and time to put her to rest," the sheriff said. "Enough is enough. At this point, I'd like to recover her body. I wanted to do it before her mother died, but she still has family and they want they need answers."
When John Doel learned through the media that Rivera has two suspects in mind, he said he would hope that arrests would be made regardless of whether the sheriff's department was waiting for more evidence.
"I thought it was silly when I heard it," John Doel said. "There's such a thing as circumstantial evidence, and I know, in other places, they've gotten a conviction on strong circumstantial evidence. It should have never been said unless they're (the sheriff's department) is willing to make an arrest and go forward with it."
Tara's stepfather and sister said while they're always hoping someone will relent and come forward, they do hope that one day the family will find closure.
"We have, to an extent, moved on with our lives, but it's always in the back of my mind," said Michele, who is now a mother herself. "I've learned to appreciate people more and things that people normally take for granted.
"I just want to express how grateful my family is for everyone who has done anything during this process for us," she added. "We're eternally grateful for those who helped, and I want them to know that we sure do think about them."
Anyone who has information about the case is asked to call Detective James Purdy, 866-2400.