A Polaroid photo found in a busy parking lot in Florida gave two families in New Mexico hope that their children were still alive.
On June 15, 1989, a woman in Port St. Joe, Florida pulled off Route 98 into the parking lot of a Junior Food Store. She parked next to a white Toyota cargo van and entered the air-conditioned market. Moments later, when she emerged, the white van was gone, but in the vacated space beside her car, she found what appeared to be a Polaroid photo lying face down on the asphalt. She picked it up, and turned it over. The image she found was harrowing.
In the photo, a young woman and a younger boy lie on their backs on a rumpled pile of mismatched sheets and pillows. Both look directly at the camera with expressions of tense resignation. Their mouths are covered with duct tape, and their postures suggest that their wrists are bound behind them. The space they occupy is cramped and poorly lit. The only source of light seems to come from behind the photographer. The photo could well have been taken in the back of a windowless van with its side door pulled open.
The woman who discovered the photo immediately notified local police. Roadblocks were hurriedly set up, but they failed to snare the van or the mustached man who had been in its driver’s seat.
The Disappearance of Tara Calico
Patty Doel and her new husband John first became aware of the Polaroid photo more than two months later, on August 23. Relatives called to say they’d just seen a photo broadcast on the television tabloid show “A Current Affair.” The image showed a boy and a girl who seemed to have been taken captive. Had they seen it? Could it have been Patty’s daughter, Tara Calico?
At the time she disappeared, 19-year-old Tara Calico was a sophomore at the Valencia campus of the University of New Mexico, a 15-minute commute from her family’s home in Belen, New Mexico. On the morning of September 20, 1988, Tara set out from home for a bike ride along Highway 47. The plan was to ride south 17 level miles to the railroad crossing and back again. Tara had a tennis date after lunch, so she told her mother to come looking for her if she wasn’t back by noon. She set out on her mother’s pink Huffy mountain bike (her own bike had a flat). She was listening to a Boston cassette on her Sony Walkman.
A little past noon, Tara’s mother went to look for her. Highway 47 cuts a razor-straight path through barren scrub-dotted clay east of the Rio Grande. There are few cross streets, fewer structures, and no trees. There was no trace of Tara or the pink bicycle she was riding. But her mother did find a Boston cassette on the highway’s dusty shoulder.
Later searches turned up the cracked cover of a Walkman nearly 20 miles east of Belen, close to the remote John F. Kennedy Campground. To her mother, it was as if Tara had been kidnapped and had dropped whatever she could from a moving car, hoping to leave a trail that might be traced to her. That trail dead-ended among the pinion pines and big-tooth maples that pepper the Manzano Mountains foothills.
Tara’s disappearance fell into a legal no-man’s-land of missing persons. As a legal adult, she had the right to vanish if she wanted to, and little could be done without evidence that indicated a crime had taken place. In the following days, investigators, aided by local volunteers, determined that Tara had last been seen at 11:45 a.m. on her return trip, a mere two miles east of her home. Witnesses saw a 1953 Ford pickup, equipped with a homemade camper shell, tailing her closely. Tara may have been unaware of the truck because of her Walkman’s earphones.
That Tara Calico might be the young woman in a Polaroid photo seemed a long shot at best. The photo was found 1,600 miles away from where Tara was last seen and some nine months later – but there were a few significant parallels. The young woman in the photo had the right hair color and complexion. A discolored patch on the young woman’s right calf corresponded to a scar Tara had received in a car accident. A tattered mass-market paperback lay on the rumpled bedding next to the girl. It was My Sweet Audrina by V.C. Andrews, one of Tara’s favorite authors. The girl’s face looked more drawn and narrow than the most recent photos of Tara – the pictures on all the flyers and posters –but long months had passed, and she might have endured them under austere conditions.
Allowing that her daughter had been missing the better part of a year and that the young woman in the photo wore no makeup, Patty Doel felt fairly certain the girl in the Polaroid was her daughter. “She used to keep herself fixed up, and had a permanent in her hair,” Mrs. Doel told the Associated Press. “Before the perm, without the makeup… I got out the old pictures, and it’s her.”
The Disappearance of Michael Henley
But more compelling than the girl’s similar appearance was the fact that the young boy in the photograph bore a striking resemblance to another child who had gone missing in New Mexico. Michael Henley had vanished a mere five months before Tara, just 45 miles southwest of Belen, in the Cibola National Park. This chilling link between the Polaroid and New Mexico only amplified the mystery surrounding Tara’s disappearance. Had some unknown person or person abducted both children?
On April 21, 1988, Michael Henley of Milan, New Mexico disappeared on a camping trip in the Oso Ridge area of the Zuni Mountains. Henley’s father and a family friend had brought the 9 year old with them to hunt wild turkey. About 20 minutes after their arrival at the campsite, while the adults were busy setting up, Henley vanished. It seemed likely he had wandered away from the campsite and got lost in the rough, craggy landscape.
Henley’s father quickly reported him missing, but the hunt was hamstrung by a sudden high-altitude storm. Snowfall made navigating the craggy and boulder-strewn landscape nearly impossible. To make the search yet more urgent, when last seen in the afternoon heat, young Henley had been wearing nothing more than a flannel shirt, pants and a pair of tennis shoes.
Four hundred volunteers, state police officers, and National Guardsmen clambered through the wilderness within a 10-mile radius of the campsite, scouring every inch. Civil Air Patrol volunteers crisscrossed the sky during daylight hours, coordinated by a cadre of local ham radio operators.
Tennis shoe tracks were found in the snow, but, as the Roswell Daily Record reported, “Several searchers in the area were wearing shoes with soles similar to the boy’s.” There was no way to know if trackers were closing in on the missing child, or wasting crucial time retracing areas that had been searched already.
Attempts to use bloodhounds were also stymied. There were “searchers walking over searchers in some areas,” Roger Robb, the search field coordinator, told reporters. “We have scent over scent over scent.” Rescuers posted signs along every stretch of asphalt in the vicinity—This way, Michael, stay on road—in hopes that they might point Henley to their base camp. The intensive search lasted more than a week but yielded no clues as to what had happened to the boy.
Months passed. The mystery of Henley’s disappearance gradually vanished from the news cycle. It seemed clear that the boy had wandered from camp, become disoriented, and died of exposure. In the final stages of severe hypothermia, incoherent victims often exhibit a behavior called “terminal burrowing,” in which they crawl into a tight, enclosed space for self-protection. This tendency to conceal oneself among boulders or under fallen logs can make the search for missing hikers – especially those in the deepest peril – nearly impossible. In the harsh and isolated terrain where Michael Henley was last seen, his remains might never be found.
But then, more than a year after he went missing, the Polaroid appeared. The boy in that image lies on his left side, in a powder-blue t-shirt, looking afraid. A swath of black duct tape masks his face from nose to chin. His eyes look at the camera plaintively.
“It’s the best lead we’ve had in 16 months,” Cibola County Sheriff Ed Craig said of the TV segment. He showed a videotape of the episode to Michael’s parents.
“The majority of the family believe that that’s Michael,” the boy’s father said. “Michael’s best friend believes that’s Michael. His sister believes it’s Michael.” But Michael’s father, himself, felt unsure. “I don’t know,” he said. “Maybe it’s just because I don’t want to see my son like that.”
Building Hope, Renewing the Search
Tara’s mother and both of Michael’s parents flew to Florida to speak with Port St. Joe police and examine the Polaroid first hand. After a couple of hours discussing the case with investigators and scrutinizing the Polaroid, all three came away convinced that the photo showed their children.
That conviction was both a solace and a torment. “He looks scared,” Michael’s mother said of the boy in the photo, “real scared, but he looks healthy and I’m grateful for that.”
Patty Doel was even more effusive: “Strange as it may seem, I would thank him for keeping her alive,” she told the Associated Press. “I would thank him for taking care of her, seeing that she’s fed, seeing that she’s clean. I hope he values her life as much as we do.”
Mrs. Doel and the Henleys returned home to New Mexico, reassured that their children were alive and that someone was at least feeding and clothing them. And, though the situation depicted in the Polaroid was clearly grim, Tara and Michael were together. At least they were not alone.
The Polaroid was forwarded to FBI crime labs to compare facial measurements with other photos of the missing pair. “It was inconclusive,” FBI Special Agent Doug Beldon of the Albuquerque field office told The New Mexican. “The lab was unable to say yes or no.” Similar authentication efforts were later run by Los Alamos National Laboratory, which concluded that Tara was not the girl in the photo, and by Scotland Yard, which concluded that she was. (“[T]hey gave us a definite ID that it was her,” Patty Doel said.)
Despite what might have been a major break in the case, the release of the photo and its frequent airing on “Unsolved Mysteries,” “America’s Most Wanted,” and even “Oprah” stirred up lots of commotion but no solid leads.
Both families organized volunteers, printed flyers, and tried to keep the story alive in the news. Patty Doel and her husband were sworn in as auxiliary deputies, which allowed them to contact other law enforcement offices under the auspices of the Valencia County Sheriff.
Over the following weeks, sightings of Tara were reported in different locations across the South, as if her captor were still drifting from town to town. Michael was reportedly sighted in Arkansas. Each new rumor rekindled the hope that Tara and Michael would someday – miraculously – be returned to their families. At some point, wouldn’t their captor slip up? Wouldn’t the pair of them seize some chance to make a break for it?
Michael Henley Was Not the Boy in the Polaroid
Then, in June 1990, the case took an abrupt and decisive turn. A rancher riding a fence line discovered a scattering of bones in a thick copse of junipers. The remains were those of a child, and they were six or seven miles from the campsite where Michael Henley had disappeared more than two years earlier.
Scraps of clothing found at the scene were consistent with what Michael was wearing when he vanished. Sheriff Craig informed the boy’s parents of his suspicions. “What makes it so hard to identify is he didn’t have enough medical records – broken bones, x-rays. He’d only been to the dentist twice.” One by one, other missing local children reports were accounted for. It took five days for the Cibola County Medical Examiner to make a positive identification: the remains were Michael’s, and his death had been a tragic accident. Michael’s father told reporters that it was no relief to know what had happened to his son.
Michael Henley was not the boy in the Polaroid.
The Henley family now knew what had become of their son, and they could settle into grieving, with a casket and a ceremony and a gravesite; but Patty Doel had no such closure. Whether she was conscious of it or not, Mrs. Doel faced a sort of choice.
Tara’s Mother Will Not Give Up
Once Michael Henley was taken out of the Polaroid equation, the identity of the young woman it showed became problematic. If the boy wasn’t Michael – the only solid link to New Mexico – what were the chances that the young girl was actually Tara? The girl in the Polaroid certainly looked younger than a woman of 20, and her face was narrower than the most recent photos of Tara. The mark on the girl’s right calf was far from distinct as a scar. Thousands of young women read the novels of V.C. Andrews.
Over the years Mrs. Doel’s conviction about the Polaroid was never shaken. In 1997, seven years after Michael Henley had been laid to rest, she weighed in on a website discussion board about the case:
I am Tara's mom and I would like to respond to questions that Crushed Velvet posed. Tara did not have any book with her when she disappeared. We can only guess that the abductor either gave the book to Tara because V.C. Andrews was one of many authors that Tara read. Another other possibility is that the book was placed in the photo because the ultimate subject of that book was brainwashing.
There is no hedging in Mrs. Doel’s language – no “if” or “perhaps” or “seems likely.” In her mind, the beautiful young woman in the Polaroid was absolutely her daughter. Over the years, the hope that had come with the photo’s discovery hardened into a kind of certitude, and that seemed to leave Mrs. Doel in an impossible no-man’s-land as a parent coping with loss and with uncertainty and with hope.
Patty Doel’s search for Tara never lagged. She made television appearances, sent out hundreds of thousands of fliers, and never seemed to begrudge a press interview that might keep her daughter’s story alive.
Michele Doel, Tara’s younger sister, told me about coming across one of her mother’s old to-do lists recently:
Write letter to FBI
“A moment or opportunity was never missed to find Tara by our mom and dad,” Michele told me. “It is impossible to describe in words – an indescribable emotion. Unfortunately only those who have gone through this can understand the emotions that change from year to year, month to month, day to day and minute by minute.”
Over those years, two other Polaroid photos were discovered, which may or may not be photos of Tara. Neither has been released to the public. The first, discovered at a Southern California construction site, is a blurry image of a girl’s face, her mouth covered with duct tape. The film used was not available until 1989, and the girl seems to be lying on a sheet similar to the blue-striped pillowcase in the original photo.
The final Polaroid shows a woman loosely bound and blindfolded in gauze, wearing large framed glasses. She seems to be riding on an Amtrak train next to an unidentified man. The image is on film that was not available until 1990.
“Mom believed they were Tara,” Michele Doel told me. “They had a striking, uncalming resemblance. As for me, I will not rule them out. But keep in mind our family has had to identify many other photographs and all but those three were ruled out.
Recent history provides us with just enough happy endings – Elizabeth Smart, Jaycee Dugard, the trio on Seymour Avenue in Cleveland – to keep alive some ember of hope that Tara Calico might someday return, which is why Patty Doel’s situation, and that of the parent of any missing child, is so agonizing to contemplate.
The Toll of Grief
In the early days of psychotherapy, grief over the loss of a loved one was not considered a disorder; it was a normal, fitting reaction to loss. But, over recent decades, therapeutic trends have changed.
Leeat Granek, in Grief as Pathology, traces how, at least in clinical practice, grief has come to be treated as though it were a disorder. It was part of what Granek sees as a trend. What once might have been considered normal shyness is now often diagnosed and treated as social anxiety disorder. What might have been considered “mild malaise” could now be considered a major depressive disorder that demands medication and therapy. In the same way – for good or ill – grief has been “pathologized,” and is now often considered reason enough for professional intervention.
This common practice of conflating the normal with the pathological when it comes to grief has led some clinicians to call for a distinct set of diagnostic criteria for what has come to be called “complicated grief” – or a variety of grieving that is far from the typical.
The Mental Health Desk Reference describes such “pathological grief” as “the intensification of grief to the level where the person is overwhelmed, resorts to maladaptive behavior, or remains interminably in the state of grief without progression of the mourning process toward completion.” The entry goes on to list some of the causes of such grief:
Circumstances surrounding a loss may preclude or make completion of the grieving process difficult or impossible. Uncertainty of the loss, not knowing if a person is truly dead, precludes adequate grieving (e.g., missing children, a soldier who is listed MIA, or disaster victims where whose bodies are not recovered).
This seems to clearly describe Patty Doel’s tragic situation. The Polaroid photo offered her enough plausible evidence that she could never lay Tara to rest – nor could she disown the hope that her daughter was still alive somewhere.
Later in the same online post mentioned above, Mrs. Doel confessed, “In June of 1997 I literally lost what was left of my mind and have been recovering from acute depression, panic attacks, etc., since that time.”
The post is simply signed “Mom.”
In J.W. Worden’s book Grief Counseling and Grief Therapy, one of the “clues” he lists that may indicate the presence of complicated mourning reads: “The person who has sustained the loss is unwilling to move material possessions belonging to the deceased. Someone who preserves the environment of the deceased just as it was when the death occurred may be harboring an unresolved grief reaction.”
This was certainly true of Mrs. Doel, who not only kept Tara’s room intact, but also added yearly Christmas and birthday presents to the pile on the girl’s empty bed.
In 2003, Mrs. Doel and her husband finally left New Mexico behind for a new life Port Charlotte, FL.
“Here, there’s not anything I can do that doesn't remind me of Tara,” Mrs. Doel told the Albuquerque Tribune as she was preparing for the move “It will be a good change for us.” But the move was not easy, and it did not represent any abandonment of hope. “It’s really hard to move,” she said. “If she were to come home I could not ever tell her we gave up on her.”
When they moved, Mrs. Doel took Tara’s bed, along with the gifts she still hoped her daughter would someday unwrap. “They,” she told the reporter, “will be the last things I pack."
“Patty Doel became a force of nature,” the Albuquerque Tribune said of her after her death, “hurling all her grit and passion into a heartbreaking search that her husband said eventually contributed to her failing health.” At the age of 64, Patty Doel succumbed after a series of strokes.
By the time Patty Doel passed away, on May 11, 2006, her husband had all but abandoned hope that Tara had survived whatever fate happened to her.
“Patty knew that I felt that way,” John Doel told the Valencia County News-Bulletin, “but she continued to hope to hear from her. We would discuss it frequently, and I would tell her my reasons that if she 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’s sister, though, still nurtures a conviction that the truth will someday be discovered. “We continue to remain suspended,” Michele Doel told me. “Hoping for good news, hoping for the best, keeping faith and not giving up, yet dreading the worst. To this point the worst has been the not knowing.”
It is hard to imagine Patty Doel’s lot as a parent, and harder still to imagine facing that lot with such fortitude and fiber. Even her newspaper obituary reflected her indomitable hope that her daughter was alive somewhere: “Patty is survived by her husband, John; four children; four grandchildren; nieces; and sisters.”
Tara Calico is one of those four children.
Note: In a cruel coda, in June 2009, almost exactly 20 years after the discovery of the original Polaroid photo, police in Port St. Joe, Florida received the first of two photocopied images of a young boy. In one of the images someone had used a marker to cover the child’s mouth with ink – like the duct tape bindings in the original photo. A similar image was sent to the local newspaper, The Star. None of the letters bore a return address. All were postmarked in Albuquerque, New Mexico.