Valencia County Sheriff’s Office completes investigation

For nearly 35 years, local, state and federal law enforcement have been investigating the disappearance of Tara Calico. Finally, the wait is over.

On Tuesday, more than three decades after Tara vanished, Valencia County Sheriff Denise Vigil says the investigation has been completed.

“At this time, law enforcement believes there is sufficient evidence to submit this investigation to the district attorney’s office for review of potential charges,” Vigil said. “Currently, the identities and specifics of the persons of interest are sealed by the court and will remain so until a court orders otherwise. Regardless, community members remain a vital resource and we always welcome additional information.”

Mike Powers | News-Bulletin photo
Valencia County Sheriff Denise Vigil announced Tuesday the investigation into the 1988 disappearance of Tara Calico has been completed, and is sending the case to the district attorney’s office.

The sheriff thanked the ongoing efforts of the FBI, the Rocky Mountain Information Network and the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office, who, she says, has assigned their “very best in this case in the pursuit of justice.”

Vigil said the sheriff’s office has never given up on finding out what happened to Tara.

“Tara’s family has suffered long enough,” Vigil said. “Tara’s parents are no longer with us, but we have her remaining family — her two sisters, Michele Doel, Deb Hammond Doel; two brothers, Chris and Todd Calico; and brother-in-law, Tom Hammond.

“The people responsible for this will have to answer to this family and to the community,” the sheriff said. “We stand behind the family throughout this whole ordeal and we will never stop.”

That fateful day

On Sept. 20, 1988, Tara Leigh Calico, a 19-year-old college student, went missing during her daily 36-mile bike ride on the desolate N.M. 47 south of Rio Communities. The only evidence found on a dirt road in the desert was a Boston cassette tape and a piece of her Walkman cassette player.

Tara Calico

Many have wondered and worried about what became of Tara. Her family, including her mother, Patty Doel, who died in May 2006, never gave up on trying to find answers, even after moving to Florida in 2003.

Tara was a sophomore at the University of New Mexico-Valencia campus, studying psychology. She worked at the First National Bank of Belen, and was described by many as a very intelligent young woman with a bright future ahead of her. She was outgoing and had many friends.

On the morning of her disappearance, the Belen High School graduate left her Rio Communities home on Brugg Street at about 9:30 a.m. She took her mother’s pink Huffy bicycle because hers had developed a flat tire a day or two prior. She asked her mother to come look for her in a few hours because she was going to play tennis at the country club later that day.

When Tara failed to return home, Patty went looking for her, thinking she would find her daughter walking home. Needless to say, Tara wasn’t there — she wasn’t anywhere.

Tara’s younger sister, Michele Doel, was only a sophomore in high school when she went missing.

“I remember one of my sister’s best friends and her boyfriend came to get me from school,” Michele told the News-Bulletin in 2006. “They picked me up, and when we got home, there was a bunch of cops.”

She described her house as being in “chaos” with a lot of law enforcement personnel, friends, family and community members just wanting to help.

The investigation

If it weren’t for Patty’s persistence, the investigation into Tara’s disappearance might have ended decades ago.

The family continued to plead for any information that would lead to the answers they desperately needed. Patty and her husband, John, appeared on numerous national television shows talking about Tara.

John died earlier this year surrounded by his family.

The Doels were both deputized by the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office in order to be able to investigate Tara’s disappearance. It allowed them to carry weapons and also contact any other law enforcement agency on behalf of VCSO.

One of the most promising tips came in 1989 when a woman discovered a Polaroid photo of a young woman and a boy in Port St. Joe, Fla. The photo was discovered on the ground in a convenience store’s parking lot. A white Toyota van had been parked in the spot prior to the discovery of the picture.

The Polaroid found in Port St. Joe, Fla. in a convenience store parking lot in 1989.

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 appear tied behind their backs.

Some people at first believed 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 was Tara, but experts at the Los Alamos National Laboratory say they don’t believe it is her.

Tara was declared dead by a judge in 1998, who filed her death as a homicide.

The investigation into Tara’s disappearance has spanned seven Valencia County sheriff’s administrations — sheriffs Lawrence Romero, Anthony Ortega, Juan Julian, Richard Perea, Rene Rivera, Louis Burkhard and Denise Vigil — each taking a different approach.

Rivera said different leads over the years led investigators to obtain search warrants for various properties where it was said Tara’s body had been buried. Investigators dug both by hand and with backhoes — each time without finding anything.

At one point, the FBI offered a $20,000 reward for precise details leading to the identification or location of Tara, and information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible for her disappearance.

In 2013, the sheriff’s office reopened the case and developed a six-person task force that included agents from federal Homeland Security Investigations, the New Mexico State Police Department, the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office, the Albuquerque Police Department and the Bernalillo County Sheriff’s Office to re-investigate Tara’s disappearance.

“We felt that we should take a good close look at all of the evidence that’s been gathered over the years, and hopefully we’ll come up with something that will assist us,” said former Valencia County sheriff Louis Burkhard at the time. “I don’t think there’s anything that’s come about just recently in regards to this case, but we’re going to take a look at everything that is there. We don’t know if she’s alive, but that’s certainly a possibility.”

The task force offered a $10,000 reward to anyone who provided information about the whereabouts or remains of Tara.

In November 2013, Dan Houston, the former Bernalillo County sheriff, announced his office began distributing “cold case playing cards” that spotlighted specific unsolved missing person or murder cases, including Tara. Another $25,000 reward was offered.

Tara Calico, center, pictured with friends.

When Vigil was elected sheriff nearly five years ago, the case was again reopened and investigated.

“We know there have been numerous theories about what happened to Tara,” Vigil said. “To preserve the integrity of the investigation, we cannot reveal all we have learned.

“Rest assured, investigators have followed up on all theories, leads and tips. When we can share case updates or information, we will do so directly to the community through official channels.”

Thirteenth Judicial District Court Judge Cindy Mercer sealed a search warrant “relevant to the case” that was executed at a home in Valencia County in the fall of 2021.

To learn more about the Tara Calico case, visit fbi.gov/wanted/kidnap/tara-leigh-calico.

The full video of the press conference can be viewed here.

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Clara Garcia is the editor and publisher of the Valencia County News-Bulletin.
She is a native of the city of Belen, beginning her journalism career at the News-Bulletin in 1998 as the crime and courts reporter. During her time at the paper, Clara has won numerous awards for her writing, photography and typography and design both from the National Newspaper Association and the New Mexico Press Association.