4 Investigates: New leads in the Tara Calico case

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There one minute, gone the next. For 35 years, the disappearance of a Valencia County teenager has stumped detectives — until now.

Just three months ago, investigators made a huge announcement.

Valencia County Sheriff’s investigators said they say they know what happened to Tara Calico and who murdered her. But can they prove it?

The case, including those persons of interest, went to the 13th Judicial District Attorney’s Office for review in June. Since then, officials with the office said they’ve put together a team of attorneys to go through the 35 years-worth of files to see if there’s enough to criminally charge anyone.

It all started 35 years ago on Sept. 20, 1988. A young woman, 19-year-old Tara Calico disappeared while on a routine bike ride.

She left her home around 9:30 a.m. on her mother’s pink 10 speed Huffy bicycle with plans to ride Highway 47 to Highway 60 and back. According to the original police report, she told her mother, Patty Doel, to come look for her if she wasn’t back home by noon.

When she didn’t come home, her mother went out looking for her, Patty Doel reported her missing around 3 p.m.

“I was terrified,” said Melinda Esquibel, a friend and community member turned sleuth. “I mean, I think most of us were because it was so shocking that she would go out for a bike ride and not go home.”

Esquibel was a classmate and friend. She was just 18 when her sense of community changed. Almost immediately, she said, her mind went to Debra Lansdell, another young woman who disappeared, almost to the day, just a few years earlier.

Lansdell has never been found.

“It was like what’s happening in this community where a second girl has gone missing?” said Esquibel.

It’s a mystery that led to her relentless search for answers. One that took her back all those years ago. But 35 years later, there are more questions than answers.

“It’s never been locked up, put away,” said Lt. Joseph Rowland. “She’s never been forgotten.”

Valencia County Sheriff’s Lt. Joseph Rowland is part of the hand-picked team working to find and bring Tara Calico home.

“You start going back from day one and even slightly before her disappearance for 35 years, we have the advantage of hindsight now,” said Lt. Rowland.

All the evidence is in neatly organized binders, decades worth of police interviews, investigative leads, and more than a dozen persons of interest. Most of which are now open to the public.

Lt. Rowland said the day she went missing, there was just a 20-minute window from the time witnesses reported seeing her on the road, to the time her mother went searching for her.

Witnesses came forward, they told police they saw Calico on her bike. But that she was being followed, very closely, by a light-colored, old 1950s Ford truck with a camper shell and New Mexico plates.

“Once I passed her, that’s when I first focused my eyes on the so-called escort vehicle and that’s when the hair stood up on the back of my neck and I said, ‘wait a minute’ this doesn’t look good,” said Barron Freeman, one of the original witnesses during a recorded interview with detectives.

With the help of multiple witnesses the investigators put together a sketch. The driver was believed to be in his late 30s or 40s in 1988. It described a white, or light-skinned man with red or brown hair.

But to this day, the vehicle has never been found. Investigators said the driver has never come forward.

At the time of her disappearance, law enforcement, FBI, friends, and family fanned out searching in and around the mesa off Highway 47, where witnesses said they last saw her.

“It really drew the community together in a way that I had not seen before,” said Edmund Pierce.

Pierce was a local freelance journalist who broke the story.

“In one way or another Tara’s story touched so many people because she was a sister, a classmate, an athlete, she worked at the bank part-time, she was a college student, she was a neighbor,” said Pierce. “When you live in a small community like that it’s hard not to care about one of your own.”

Ray Flores was the original investigator who says Tara’s story still weighs on him. He was third in charge of the Valencia County Sheriff’s Office under then-sheriff Lawrence Romero.

“I solved just about everything that came my way and this is one of a few cases I did not solve,”
said Flores. “I always thought from the very beginning, it was solvable all we needed was the right connection, the right break.”

He said not long after her disappearance, the investigation took them to Florida. Where a notorious polaroid of a young woman and boy bound in the back of a van made national headlines.
Tara’s family thought it was her. Her mother, Patty Doel never gave up in trying to find her daughter.

“It looked so scary, and the thought was what are they doing to her? Where is she?” said Esquibel.

But scientific analysis over the years proved it was nothing more than a distraction.

“I think the photograph then pulled resources outside of local, affording the opportunity for our current suspects to remain under the radar,” said Lt. Rowland.

The rumor mill was churning, faster than ever. Detectives followed countless leads. Including the theory of David Parker Ray.

The so-called ‘Toy-Box Killer’s’ family had a ranch not far from where Tara disappeared. He closely resembled the sketch of the driver in the truck that day. But Lt. Rowland said that theory, primarily investigated by the FBI, was ruled out.

“There was no entry in his ledger in having been involved in her abduction,” said Lt. Rowland.

Though the case has never closed, it went cold. Over the years it was handed off as sheriffs came and went from the department. There were task forces put together over the years to try and solve the case. They searched numerous areas but came up empty-handed.

Esquibel felt the urge to do something more.

“It was the article my mom sent me on the 20th anniversary in 2008,” said Esquibel. “When I had opened it in the mail I burst into tears because I had completely forgotten and buried all of that pain.”

She wanted to keep Tara’s story at the forefront, so she launched her own investigation. Over the years, she went piece by piece through every report and every interview from the Valencia County Sheriff’s office and beyond.

Eventually she created a podcast called “Vanished.” Her goal was to help law enforcement get more information to solve the case.

“It worked. All these tips started coming in and people were talking again. It was great, in the sense of bringing in information,” said Esquibel.

For Esquibel it helped shed light on a key point of contention over the years, evidence Esquibel said was missing, never collected, or tested.

Original reports did mention the discovery of a cassette tape, pieces of a Walkman and broken plastic. But those were all eventually ruled out.

Rowland said they have no physical evidence to rely on.

Meanwhile, other items like a pink bicycle and underwear with the initials TC never turned into more than words in a file.

While Lt. Rowland said he was aware of those items he could never find any validity to them. Several people over the years had different stories about what was and wasn’t discovered. He said, during his investigation starting in 2016, he discovered the sheriff’s office never collected or tested those items. He questions whether or not they existed.

Investigator Flores said other investigative reports were lost over the years. He said that includes evidence in cases he thought could be connected, like a drug ring he was investigating just prior to Tara’s disappearance at the Rio Communities Motel.

He said they found a car, a suitcase with telephone wiring that someone had been tied up with.

Flores was on the case for a couple of years before he left the sheriff’s department with the change in administration.

“I asked the detective about the suitcase they had found, he said ‘Oh I destroyed it.’ We might have been able to do some forensics on what we found in there,” said Flores.

All these years later, he still wonders if it could have been connected. The motel was not far from where Tara was last seen.

Esquibel questions how aggressive investigators were back then. It’s because many other theories related to Tara’s disappearance involve Sheriff Lawrence Romero’s son, Lawrence Romero Jr.

Many people in the community believed the department was corrupt.

“There was never a cover-up because as long as I was involved in the case there was not going to be a cover,” said original investigator Flores. “You’re talking about a young lady that has a family, they care for her. No, there was no cover up. There was a lot of rumors, yes.”

Rowland said he can’t speak for what happened back then, but he believes the truth is closer than ever to suspects he says were part of this community all along.

“We as investigators believe we have an answer. We believe we know what occurred and who’s responsible,” said Lt. Rowland.

But with a case that’s 35 years old, the time to charge a person for most-related crimes has long passed. Prosecutors also have to go by the laws on the books at the time, in this case, 1988.

The case went to the DA’s office for review about three months ago. We’re told the team is now going through more than three decades worth of files. To sign off on charges, they also must rule out the laundry list of other suspects who were named over the years.

There’s not a hard timeline on when or if charges will come.