The girl appears to be in her late teens. She lies closer to the camera, and this affords a better view than the one we have of the boy. He looks a more innocent age, perhaps nine years old.
They have been bound, with hands behind them and gags taped over their mouths. They're wearing gray shirts and, possibly, shorts. Sheets have been spread below them, one with a distinct blue and white striped pattern. Both appear frightened. The image looks to have been taken in the back of a white cargo van.
Also visible are a plastic cup, a squirt gun, and a novel, My Sweet Audrina, written by V.C. Andrews. Like most of her books, this popular bestseller tells a twisted gothic tale involving a dysfunctional family and an old house. Andrews has sold a lot of books to teenage girls.
The specific Polaroid film used only became available in May of 1989. The shot had to be recent.
The Polaroid, enigmatic and disturbing, evokes the worst folklore surrounding disappearing children. The photographer and his subjects remains a mystery—-but many people believe the girl is Tara Leigh Calico.
September 20, 1988
Tara Calico, born February 19, 1969, a sophomore at the University of New Mexico, had a reputation for organization. She left her home in Belen, Valencia County at 9:30, on her customary bicycle ride along New Mexico 47. She took her mother's pink Huffy mountain bike; her own had developed a flat tire the day before. Perhaps the delay that had caused raised her concern about making a scheduled afternoon tennis game with her boyfriend. She asked her mother to pick her up along the route if she did not make it home by noon.
When Tara failed to return and Patty Doel didn't find her, she phoned the police.
They found part of the casing to the Boston cassette, the album she had been listening to on her Sony Walkman that day. Later, investigators would locate the remnants of her Walkman, 19 miles east of the highway in John F. Kennedy Park. They never found Tara or the bicycle. Tara Calico, athletic, bright, green-eyed brunette, former cheerleader, became the year's feature missing person.
A few witnesses came forward. They saw her riding ahead of a light gray Ford pickup truck, from the description a 1953 or 1954 model. The truck would be the object of speculation and searching for many years.
Her family wouldn't forget her, but to the larger world, she might have become just another missing person, if the Polaroid hadn't appeared.
June 15, 1989-June 1990
On June 15, 1989, a woman pulled into a convenience store in Port St. Joe, Florida, and she parked alongside a white Toyota cargo van. At the time, she gave it little attention. When she returned to her car, the van had already driven off, but she noticed a Polaroid photograph in its parking space.
The image horrified her, and she contacted the police.
We don't know if the Polaroid shows Tara Calico, though her parents became convinced it was she. The young woman in the photograph resembles their daughter, down to the cowlick in her hair and an apparent scar on her leg. V.C. Andrews was her favorite author. Analyses, over the years, by experts from the local sheriff's office, the FBI, Scotland Yard, and NASA, have arrived at different conclusions at different times regarding the likely identity of the girl in the photo.
As the photo gained publicity, the parents of Michael Henley came forward. They believed the boy in the photo was their son. The nine-year-old disappeared in April of 1988 while on a turkey hunting trip in the Zuni Mountains. One can see the resemblance, though the photo shows the boy less clearly than the girl. Investigators had to consider the horrific possibility that something linked the two cases.
Two other Polaroids later surfaced, possibly connected to the case. The first turned up later that month at a construction site in Montecito, California. The police did not release this photograph, though they have revealed details. It shows a bound girl atop a blue-striped fabric that resembles the one in the Port St. Joe Polaroid. The image is apparently too blurry to clearly identify, but those who have seen it think it could be Tara.
The third one, which surfaced in 1990, shows a young woman who, once again, could be Tara, loosely bound with gauze, sitting on an Amtrak train with an unidentified man. Investigators have raised questions about its authenticity. Police and the Doels have suggested it may be a cruel hoax.
The case received widespread publicity, in the national and international news, on A Current Affair, Oprah Winfrey, Unsolved Mysteries, America's Most Wanted, and elsewhere. Many witnesses came forward with sightings in the wake of the publicity. Some reported a girl resembling the one in the photo walking the Port St. Joes beach with some older men earlier that June. None of these reports could be confirmed as sightings of Tara. Reports of this nature are inevitable in high-profile unsolved cases. Deliberate false reports and unfeeling hoaxes are depressingly common. Even the original, notorious polaroid may be staged. Many observers note, for example, that the girl appears to be quite loosely bound. Why someone would stage such a photograph, and whether or not they would have intended a connection with Tara Calico or Michael Henley, remain open questions.
A year later, someone stumbled upon Michael Henley's remains, not far from where he disappeared. Evidence indicates he died of exposure after wandering away from the campsite. He wouldn't be the first youngster to become lost and disoriented in the mountain wilderness—-adults have died because they made similar mistakes. Other missing boys have since been suggested as the one in the photograph, but none can be matched to it with any certainty.
The sheriff's department deputized Tara's mother and stepfather so they could remain close to the investigation. The parents realized, as the years passed, the likelihood of her being alive diminished. They also grew critical of the investigation, citing one officer who insisted at different times that Tara had run away from home and that she had been burned at the stake in a cult fertility ritual (one hopes he was reassigned). However, they never gave up hope. Rene Rivera, a deputy when the case broke and sheriff of Valencia County between 1996 and 2011, stated that he remained committed to closing the case.
Eventually, the Doels and their other children moved to Florida. Patty Doel died in May 2006 due to complications from stroke. Tara's biological father, David Calico, died of a heart attack in 2002. Her stepfather, John Doel, and her siblings would welcome a resolution.
Twenty years later, Sheriff Rene Rivera announced that he had one.
Based on information received over the years, Rivera offers an explanation for Tara's disappearance.
A group of youths known to Tara came alongside her in a truck:
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(quoted in Linthicum).
According to Rivera, the truck accidentally struck her, resulting in either immediate death or serious injury. In either case, she wound up dead. The youth and, possibly, one or more of their parents, buried the body and concealed the incident.
Despite his assurance that he can name those involved, Rivera has made no arrests. Without a body, he says, he has no case.
In the 2000s, Henry Brown, an area man then in his eighties, contacted the sheriff's department on unrelated matters. When Deputy Frank Methola arrived, Brown gave a statement incriminating a neighbour named "AJ" in the death of a young woman, possibly Tara Calico. He also claimed he was threatened if he came forward with what he knew. Brown has since died, and some time passed before the fact of his statement became widely known.
Repeated claims have been made online that Henry Brown's statement implicates Lawrence Romero, Jr., the son of Lawrence Romero, sheriff at the time of Calico's disappearance. Usually, Brown's statement is identified as a deathbed confession, it is incorrectly said to implicate Lawrence Romero, Jr., and claims are made of a cover-up by Romero's father (who died of natural causes on May, 1, 2017). These claims are not supported by Brown's official statement. It appears Romero, Jr., who fatally shot himself in 1991, was already regarded as a suspect by people locally. What involvement he may have had with this case remains unknown to the public, but, contrary to what has been reported online, Henry Brown's official statement does not implicate him, or any of a handful of associates whose names are routinely mentioned in connection to this case.
Some of the misinformation (or, at least, unconfirmed information) has been posted online by someone claiming to be Frank Methola. He might well know-- but here we encounter new problems with the local police. Methola was arrested in 2010 for failure to appear in court on numerous traffic citations. Melinda Esquibel, a friend of Tara's who runs a podcast on the case, and Tara's stepsister, Michele Doel, have publicly stated that they no longer consider the deputy a credible source, citing numerous misleading and changing statements they claim he has made about the Tara Calico case.
Rene Rivera, meanwhile, lost his position in 2011, and has been the target of several complaints. In 2017, he was arrested and charged with assault in a domestic abuse case.
It is now likely impossible to know if any of the claims made about these people, or the mysterious "AJ," hold any veracity. Speculation runs rampant on the internet, but much of it cannot be supported with definitive evidence. As of this most recent update, the disappearance of Tara Calico remains unsolved.
As regards the children in the Polaroid, we may never know the truth.
"Doctor says suicide ruling can be amended." Albuquerque Journal August 3, 1991: 34.
Melinda Esquibel. Vanished: The Tara Calico Investigation. Audioboom.
Clara Garcia. "Twenty years ago today, Tara Calico disappeared into thin air." Valencia County News-Bulletin. September 20, 2008.
"25 years and Tara is still missing." Valencia County News-Bulletin. September 22, 2013.
"Former Valencia County Sheriff Rene Rivera Arrested." Valencia County News-Bulletin. September 13, 2017.
Joline Gutierrez Krueger. "Patty Doel waited for Tara until the day she died." The Albuquerque Tribune. June 8, 2006.
"Lawrence Romero, former Valencia County sheriff, commissioner dies." News.bulletin.com May 2, 2017.
Leslie Linthicum. "Mystery of Tara Calico: What Happened To Woman Missing 20 Years? Sheriff Says He Knows." Albuquerque Journal September 20, 2008.
"Tara Calico." Unsolved Mysteries. Season Two, Episode 39. September 20, 1989.
"Tara Calico." Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tara_Calico.
"Tara Leigh Calico." The Charlie Project. http://www.charleyproject.org/cases/c/calico_tara.html.
"Valencia Co. Deputy Arrested for Failure To Appear." Albuquerque Journal June 1, 2010.