How Missing Person Organizations Benefit Us All

How Missing Person Organizations Benefit Us All

Tragedies can affect communities and society as a whole. Sometimes it only takes one person to make a difference that impacts us all.

Missing Person organizations support families in their time of crisis, and missing person investigators help them get the support they need.
(Morgan Nick vanished on June 9, 1995, in the small town of Alma, Ark.)

It was 24 years ago, on June 9, 1995, that a little girl vanished at a Little League baseball game in the small town of Alma, Ark., within the River Valley at the edge of the majestic Ozark Mountains. Beautiful Morgan Chauntel Nick, age 6, with long blonde hair and blue eyes has not been seen since.

Morgan Nick is the eldest of three other children. She loved cats and according to her mother Colleen Nick, she was a shy little girl. A Girl Scout, Morgan loved bubble gum and said she wanted to be a doctor or a circus performer when she grew up.

(The baseball park in Alma, Ark., where Morgan Nick vanished.)

The evening of her disappearance, a friend of the Nick family had invited them to a baseball game about 30 minutes away. Colleen told Dateline; the game started late at approximately 9:00 p.m. that night.

Morgan sat in the bleachers with her mom nearly the entirety of the game but towards the end, two kids, a boy and a girl, a few years older than Morgan, asked if Morgan could go catch fireflies with them.

Colleen recalls initially telling Morgan no, but other parents told the worried mother that the kids play in the parking lot all of the time and would be safe.

Colleen ended up telling Morgan she could go play with the other children. “She threw her arms around my neck, kissed my cheek, then the kids all ran out to the parking lot,” said Colleen. “I could turn my head and see she was right there in sight. I checked on them three or four times.”

At the end of the baseball game, Colleen watched as the team walked off the field, momentarily looking away from Morgan who was playing behind the bleachers. When she turned around, she could see the two other children, but Morgan was no longer with them.

Colleen asked the children where Morgan was, and they told her Morgan was at her car emptying sand out of her shoes. “Already, when I couldn’t see Morgan, my heart started beating really fast,” Colleen said in a Dateline interview. “We were somewhere we hadn’t been before. She wouldn’t go anywhere by herself, and there wasn’t even anywhere to go,” Colleen said. “There was no concession stands, no bathrooms.”

Confusion and panic set in for Colleen.

Within minutes a spectator called the police to report Morgan missing. Police responded within six minutes.

Chief Russell White of the Alma Police Department told Dateline that the initial officer on the scene immediately suspected “we might have a bigger problem.” “They did have a lot of manpower or resources, but they did a whole lot right that first night,” Colleen said.

“The other two kids that were playing with Morgan separately told the police about a creepy man in a red pick-up truck with a white camper shell on the back,” Colleen said.

Authorities immediately began an intensive investigation.

“We reached out for help from local agencies, the state police, the FBI,” Chief White said. “We were running a pretty big crew. The FBI brought in lots of extra people and resources and we did not have, like a computer system that could handle this kind of case, which helped tremendously.”

According to Colleen, Morgan’s case files fill up an entire room at the police department. “We have tons of tips coming in every week,” Chief White said. “It’s very unusual for a 24-year-old case to still have so many leads.”

Despite the thousands of leads received in Morgan’s case, she remains missing.

(Colleen Nick, mother of 6-year-old Morgan Nick who vanished June 9, 1995, from Alma, Ark.)

A Mother Fights Back

“She’s not a number. She’s not a statistic. She’s not a case file. She is a daughter, a sister, a granddaughter, a friend. And she is someone worth fighting for,” Colleen told Dateline. “If you’re not on the front line fighting for your daughter, no one else will. So, it is my job to make sure she never gets lost. Until someone can prove to me that Morgan is not coming home, then I am going to fight for her.”

In the years following Morgan’s disappearance, Colleen started the Morgan Nick Foundation to help prevent other families from going through what she has experienced, to raise awareness of other missing children, and educate the public on safety for children. The foundation also provides crucial support to other families of missing children.

Over the years Colleen has received a countless number of recognitions and awards from the FBI, state of Arkansas, to the International Homicide Investigator’s Association, for her work throughout the state of Arkansas throughout the country.

“When something so tragic happens to your child, there is a need to do something of great value,” said Colleen. “We are trying to fill the gap that wasn’t filled when we needed it the most.”

24 years later, Colleen continues to selflessly work within her community and nationwide to the benefit of families and children throughout the country.

The National Impact of John Walsh

(Adam Walsh, age 6, who was abducted from a Sears department store and murdered July 27, 1981, in Hollywood, Fla.)

We often forget there is a personal story behind many monumental efforts in this nation and John Walsh is certainly the epitome.

Adam Walsh, age 6, was a little boy whose disappearance and murder changed the way society looked at missing children.

On the afternoon of July 27, 1981, Adam’s mother took him shopping at a local mall in Hollywood, Fla. Reve Walsh had wanted to inquire about the price of a lamp at the Sears department store.

Momentarily, Reve left Adam at an Atari video game display where several other little boys were taking turns playing on the display. When Reve returned, she couldn’t find Adam or the other boys and was told by the store manager that the security guard had asked them all to leave the store.

Adam was paged over the intercom as his mother searched the store and mall for about an hour. She then called the Hollywood Police Department at approximately 1:55 p.m. to report Adam missing.

Tragically, on August 10, 1981, a severed head of a child was found in a drainage canal alongside the Florida Turnpike in Vero Beach, about 130 miles from Hollywood. It was confirmed it was Adam. His body has never been found.

(John Walsh, creator and host of America’s Most Wanted which first aired in 1988. Photo courtesy of Fox 5 News.)

A Legacy

Early on, Adam’s parents John and Reve Walsh were critical of the police investigation which led to John’s anti-crime activism and the creation of America’s Most Wanted which he is well known for.

Lesser known is his impact on laws and organizations for missing children. During the 1980s, John and other child advocates lobbied Congress to pass a law that would protect missing children and educate the public on the importance of child safety resulting in the Missing Children’s Assistance Act and the first national clearinghouse of information for missing children.

National Center for Missing & Exploited Children

In 1984, the United States Congress passed the Missing Children’s Assistance Act, signed by President Ronald Reagan creating the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC) and a 24-hour hotline 1-800-THE-LOST.

Headquartered in Arlington, Virginia, NCMEC has regional office in California, Florida, New York and Texas.

According to NCMEC, in 2018 there were 424,066 entries of missing children in the FBI National Crime Information Center (NCIC).

35 years later, NCMEC provides support to thousands of families of missing children each year, missing children’s case management, provides training to law enforcement agencies throughout the country, and offers numerous educational programs that fight child exploitation, sex trafficking, and provides critical information to keep our children safe.

Black & Missing Foundation

Tamika Huston vanished into thin air on or around May 27, 2004, from Spartanburg, S.C. and subsequently found murdered.

Spartanburg was Derrica Wilson’s hometown and she recalls watching as Tamika’s family struggled to gain any media coverage on a local or national level while Tamika was missing. A few months later, Natalee Holloway – a white woman – went missing and dominated news headlines, becoming a household name.

“It was heartbreaking to see the difference in the media attention these two cases were getting,” Derrica told Jet Magazine.

(Natalie (left) and Derrica Wilson, co-founders of Black and Missing Foundation. Photo courtesy of Jet Magazine.)

Derrica and her sister-in-law Natalie decided to team up to ensure other families did not face the obscurity that Tamika’s family had experienced. “We combined our professional backgrounds – mine in law enforcement and Natalie’s in media – to create an organization that joins the very important elements in the field of missing persons,” said Derrica.

Founded in 2008, a veteran law enforcement official and a public relations specialist began channeling their skills for a greater good.

Eleven years later, Black and Missing Foundation has become the primary voice for minority missing providing a platform of hope for the overwhelming number of missing persons of color.

AMBER Alert

(Amber Hagerman was abducted and murdered on January 13, 1996, in Arlington, Texas.)

On the afternoon of January 13, 1996, 9-year-old Amber Hagerman was last seen riding her bike in a parking lot near her home in Arlington, Texas. A witness reported seeing a man in a black, flat-bed truck snatch Amber from her bicycle.

Four days later, Amber’s body was found in a creek approximately 3.2 miles from her home. Her murder remains unsolved.

Area residents were outraged and began calling radio and television stations to vent their anger and to also offer suggestions to prevent such crimes in the future. One resident, Diana Simone suggested utilizing the Emergency Alert System (EAS) to notify the public when a child has been abducted so the public could also assist in the search. Simone followed up with a letter, with her only request to ensure the program would be dedicated to Amber Hagerman.

The program was eventually taken to NCMEC with a request to implement a national initiative that would eventually become known as the AMBER Alert. What began as a local effort in the area of the Dallas-Fort Worth area has grown into a seamless system used by every state in the country. Since the inception of the program in 1996, through December 31, 2018, 956 children have been safely recovered specifically as a result of an AMBER Alert being issued.

 “When something so tragic happens to your child, there is a need to do something of great value,” as Colleen said. “We are trying to fill the gap that wasn’t filled when we needed it the most.” Most certainly, the advancements made in the last 35 years are proof the efforts of one person can make a difference.

Mother of 5, Jennifer Dulos, Still Missing

Mother of 5, Jennifer Dulos, Still Missing

Police arrest estranged husband and his girlfriend in connection with her disappearance…

Jennifer Dulous, 50, was last seen on May 24, 2019. The last time anyone heard from her, she was dropping off her five children at school in her black Chevrolet Suburban. Following that last point of contact, police investigating her disappearance have been following a trail of tangible and circumstantial evidence that paints a picture of a marriage fraught with control and intimidation, followed by an ugly custody battle that may have been the motive for a grisly, violent act. 

On June 1st, police arrested Jennifer’s estranged husband, Fotis Dulos, and his girlfriend, Michelle Troconis, charging them with tampering/fabricating physical evidence and hindering prosecution. The evidence cited in the arrest warrants includes blood spatter found in Jennifer’s garage, where police believe she was violently attacked. In nearby Hartford, police found Jennifer’s blood on clothes and sponges in multiple trash cans. Surveillance footage shows a man and woman arriving in a car, then the man dumping the clothes and other items into different bins. The description of both the man and woman match descriptions of Fotis Dulos and Michelle Troconis. 

As far back as May 2017, police were able to confirm through court documents that Jennifer and her husband were in the grips of an ugly custody battle at the time of her disappearance. During those custody proceedings, Jennifer alleged that her husband had presented with growing “irrational, unsafe, bullying, threatening and controlling behavior,” and raised a concern for the physical safety of both herself and her children. This fear was only compounded by the fact that as early as June 2017, Fotis Dulos made threats that if Jennifer did not adhere to his terms of their divorce, he would kidnap the children. Fotis now denies that he ever said those things to Jennifer. Jennifer also added that Fotis had bought a gun, which he now claims was purchased legally and only for the purpose of home security. On June 3, 2017, Jennifer Dulous said, “I am afraid of my husband. I know that filing for divorce and filing this motion will enrage him. I know he will retaliate by trying to harm me in some way.” 

More court transcripts with quotes from Fotis Dulos seem to corroborate that perceived rage. During one of the divorce proceedings, he is on the record saying to the judge, “Your Honor, I am sorry, but why do I always get the raw end of the stick? I really want to see my children. I have spent 2 percent of the time with them since January. I’m not Charles Manson.” That proceeding was in March, just months before Jennifer disappeared. Initially, Jennifer and Fotis were sharing custody of their children, alternating weekends and complying with other orders in the agreement, such as an order to not expose the children to any romantic partners of either parent. When Fotis Dulos violated that order by allowing the children to spend time with his girlfriend, sole custody was transferred to Jennifer. While some supervised visitation with his children was eventually restored, the children were still not to have contact with Traconis. 

There was another factor in the Dulous’ rapidly deteriorating situation that might bring new context to these charges. In addition to the emotional toll Fotis Dulos cited after prolonged separation from his children, there was also a mounting pile of debt accumulating to facilitate the costs of waging the custody battle. In addition to legal fees for personal counsel, Fotis was also staring down the barrel of costs for a court-appointed guardian for all five children ($175,000), a child psychaiatrist that wrote the report entered into evidence ($40,000), a family therapist, three psychologists, and court-approved monitors who supervise Fotis’ visits with the children. 

Both Dulos and his girlfriend have been released on bond. Norm Pattis is the defense attorney of record for Dulos seems to be playing his cards close to the vest—so close in fact that both he and his client failed to appear at several official proceedings, such as a deposition last month, and another court appearance earlier in June. Pattis commented that the description of the evidence recovered from the trash cans in Hartford “was a very awkward set of facts,” and has yet to reveal his client’s alibi for the time frame in question when his estranged wife disappeared. “There is an explanation, but we’re not going to give it,” Pattis said, going on to say that they would wait until it was time to present the case to a jury before releasing that information to the public. Pattis further incurred public outrage by stating publicly that Jennifer has likely pulled a “Gone Girl,” making reference to the Gillian Flynn novel  and film of the same name, in which a wife deliberately stages her own disappearance with the intent to implicate her husband. Author Flynn responded to the theory, “It absolutely sickens me that a work of fiction written by me would be used by Fotis Dulos’ lawyer as a defense and as a hypothetical, sensationalized motive behind Jennifer’s very real and very tragic disappearance.”  

PD, Barron volunteers continue search for Jayme Closs

PD, Barron volunteers continue search for Jayme Closs

Jayme ClossThe news cycles this week have been dominated by another missing persons case in middle America, where a familiar refrain is ringing out across the media: “This does not happen here.” It’s a repeated sound byte from law enforcement and Barron, Wisconsin citizens alike as search efforts continue for 13-year-old Jayme Closs, who remains missing following the murder of her parents in their home on October 15th, 2018.

A mysterious 911 call led law enforcement to the Closs home that evening. The dispatcher could not reach the person on the end of the line; however, a commotion could be heard in the background. The 911 call log later revealed the call made from Denise Closs’ cell phone came from inside the Closs home. The call log does not offer useful information about who made the call, the nature of the disturbance, or the content of what was said—if anything. The dispatcher characterized the commotion as “a lot of yelling.” Responding officers noticed signs of forced entry when they arrived at the scene, their description quoted across media claims the door appeared to have been “kicked in.” Inside the house, they discovered James Closs, 56, and Denise Closs, 46, shot to death around 1 AM on October 15th. Their 13-year-old daughter, Jayme, was nowhere to be found on the premises.

Law enforcement officials have fielded more than 1,000 tips from citizens hoping to help find Jayme, but no solid leads have emerged from the tip line. In recent decades, developments in technology used by law enforcement have closed mile-wide gaps in missing persons investigations, especially those of minors, where every second counts. One of these developments is the growing ubiquity of surveillance cameras and CCTV footage in public places and on private property. Jayme Closs’s disappearance has caused many online armchair detectives to draw parallels between her case and that of Mollie Tibbetts, another Midwestern young woman who went missing from sleepy Brooklyn, Iowa over the summer. The major break in her case came from a surveillance camera in which the suspect’s car was seen driving back and forth on the stretch of road where Mollie was known to regularly jog. Private investigator, Thomas Lauth, notes while Jayme disappeared from a town comparable to Brooklyn, the lack of surveillance cameras in comparison to larger municipalities will likely hinder the investigation.  In addition, Lauth told Vice, although law enforcement released an Amber Alert, it likely did not unearth credible leads because authorities did not release information about any vehicles associated with Jayme’s disappearance. “Amber Alerts are effective when there is a vehicle description that goes with it. The public is very important in a case like this if there was a vehicle on the actual Amber Alert.”

Jayme Closs

Now as the search enters its second week, Chris Fitzgerald of the Barron County Sheriff’s Department is turning to the public for more help. In a press release on Monday, the department expressed a need for droves of volunteers to continue the expanding search for Jayme on Tuesday, October 23rd. “Two thousand volunteers are needed and should report to the staging area at 1883 Hwy 25, Barron, WI… Jayme remains missing and endangered and has been added to the top of the FBI’s Missing Persons list, and is currently on digital billboards nationwide,” said Sheriff Chris Fitzgerald in the press release.

Barron is a town of around 3,300 people, so two thousand volunteers? That’s more than half the town turning up to search, but it could serve as a coping mechanism for some who cannot wrap their heads around Jayme’s disappearance. Many in the community say not knowing her fate is the worst part, leaving them in a stagnate stasis of fear, where they don’t forget to lock their doors or fail to be vigilant of their children.  But the Barron County Sheriff’s Department just might meet their requirement of 2,000 as support for Jayme and her family only continues to grow and expand. On Monday, the Barron Area School District held “A Gathering of Hope” as a chance for the community to gather in solidarity for Jayme and to connect the community with support resources, such as counseling services. It’s a familiar atmosphere, the kind felt in the community Brooklyn, Iowa, following the death of Mollie Tibbetts. Mollie and Jayme were both young women who vanished from small towns under peculiar or perilous circumstances—their absence disrupting their entire communities as citizens begin shaking their heads, “This does not happen here.”

Carie McMichael is the Communication and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International, a private investigation firm based in Indianapolis, Indiana–delivering proactive and diligent solutions for over 30 years. For more information, please visit our website.

33-Year Old Murder Investigation Tied to Indiana Missing Woman

33-Year Old Murder Investigation Tied to Indiana Missing Woman

Tina Marie McKenney Farmer

Tina Marie McKenney Farmer

Investigators in Tennessee have tied a missing Indiana woman to their murder investigation 33 years after her disappearance.

New Year’s Day in 1985, a young woman was found dead near Jellico, along Interstate 75, in Campbell County, Tenn. Police believed the woman had been murdered several days prior to being located along the highway. Campbell County is on the border of Tennessee and Kentucky.

In 1985, investigators were unable to identify the young woman until decades later Tennessee Bureau of Investigations (TBI) agents saw a post about 21-year old Tina Marie McKenney Farmer’s 1984 disappearance posted on a missing person’s blog. TBI investigators then cross-referenced Farmer’s fingerprints with the unidentified homicide victim and got a match. Her identification was announced September 6, 2018.

Farmer’s family last saw her on Thanksgiving Day in 1984.

Farmer is believed to be the victim of the still unsolved “Redhead Murders” committed by an unidentified serial killer also known as the Bible Belt Strangler who operated in Arkansas, Kentucky, Mississippi, Pennsylvania, West Virginia, and Tennessee. Independent private investigators believe the serial killer is a truck driver based out of Knoxville and that he could still be out there, having moved locations, possibly changing modus operandi, going undetected.

It is presumed the murders began in approximately 1978, continuing through the 1980’s until 1992. The victims, many who have never been identified, predominately have reddish hair and thought to be engaged in prostitution or hitchhiking, their bodies dumped along major highways. Farmer had been bound and strangled and was 2-5 months pregnant at the time of her death. She was found fully clothed.

Of the six to eleven victims of the Bible Belt Strangler, only two have ever been identified.

It is believed most of the victims who remain unidentified is due to being estranged from their families due living “high risk” lifestyles and may not be native to the state their remains were located.

Some were found nude and some partially or fully clothed. There were also some variations in the methods the serial killer used to murder his victims.

Lisa NicholsLisa Nichols, 28, was found on September 16, 1984, along Interstate 40 near West Memphis, Arkansas. She had been a resident of West Virginia. It is thought Lisa may have been hitchhiking away from a truck stop. Lisa was identified in 1985 by a couple who had let her stay with them for a period of time. Lisa had been strangled and left alongside the freeway wearing only a sweater. Lisa is thought to have been the serial killer’s second victim.

 

 

Wetzel County Victim is thought to be the first of the Bible Belt Strangler’s victims, although some law enforcement is skeptical her death is connected to the Bible Belt Strangler. On February 13, 1983, two senior citizens reported to police that they thought they saw a mannequin before discovering it was a human corpse alongside Route 250 in Wetzel County, near Littleton West Virginia. It was determined the body had been dumped in the area fairly recently because the body was void of snow that covered the ground. It is presumed the victim had died approximately two days prior, however cause of death has never been determined, and one of the old victims being between 35-45 years old. She was well groomed, not consistent with someone being transient.

 

Campbell County Victim was found April 3, 1985. It is believed she had died one to four years prior to being located. She was one of the younger victims, estimated to be between 9 and 15 years old. She was located by a passerby near a strip mine, approximately 200 yards off Big Wheel Gap Road, in Campbell County, 4 miles southwest of Jellico near Interstate 75.  Thirty-two bones including her skull were recovered, along with scraps of clothing, size 5 boots, and a necklace and bracelet made of plastic clothing buttons.

 

 

 

Cheatham County Victim was located March 31, 1985 in Cheatham County, in Pleasant View, Tennessee. Believed to be between 31-40, her skeletonized remains we found clothed, along with a hat with a Palm tree graphic. Her body was found on the side of Interstate 75, between mile markers 29-30.

An examination of her teeth indicates some crowding and overlapping of her teeth.

 

 

Knox County Victim was found in a white Admiral refrigerator alongside Route 25 in Knox County near Gray, Kentucky. The refrigerator has a decal of the words “Super Woman” on the front. The victim, who died of suffocation and had been deceased for several days.

She was found nude with the exception of two distinctive necklace with one heart pendant, the other a gold Eagle and two different socks, one white, the other green and yellow stripes. There were reports the victim may have been on a CB radio prior to her death soliciting a ride to North Carolina. Forensic examination indicates she was between 24-35 years old and had previously given birth to a child.

 

Greene County Victim was found on April 14, 1985 in Green County, in Greeneville, Tennessee. Despite being in advanced decomposition, the autopsy determined the victim had died due to blunt force trauma and possibly a stab wound, approximately 3-6 weeks before being found. Investigators were able to obtain her fingerprints, dental information and DNA in an effort to identify her.

The victim is estimated to be between 14-20 years old. It was also determined the victim had been 6-8 weeks pregnant but had recently miscarried prior to her death.

 

As of May 31, 2018, there were 8,709 case of unidentified persons in the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. In addition, the number of active missing person cases in NCIC was 87,608 as of May 31st.

When unidentified remains are located, a forensic examination is conducted, and information is collected that will assist in locating the individual such as age range, race, physical description, dental records, fingerprints and most importantly – DNA. In addition, a facial composite is typically made depicting how the person “may look” when the were alive. At times, even post-mortem photographs are used to try to engage the public to help identify the individual.

Records containing physical descriptors, such as height, weight, eye color, hair color, scars, marks, and tattoos, to include clothing and jewelry is regularly cross-referenced within NCIC with the Missing Person files to potentially get a match, positively identifying the subject.

What did not exist in the 1980’s to help identify those who have no names, and remain unidentified, now gives investigating law enforcement agencies and families of missing persons hope their case or loved one’s disappearance will be solved through the use of DNA.

The use of DNA technology and creation of a national database to help identify missing and unidentified persons emerged in the early 1990’s with pilot program in 14 state and local laboratories. CODIS is the acronym for the Combined DNA Index System.

The FBI administers the National Missing Person DNA Database (NMPDD) as part of the National DNA Index System (NDIS). The NMPDD and NDIS cross references DNA records stored in the Missing Person, Relatives of Missing Person, and Unidentified Remains Indexes of NDIS.

During a missing person investigation, it is recommended that DNA be collected from several family members, to include mitochondrial DNA from maternal relative, to help maximize the potential for such associations.

Despite these efforts, when limited or no genetic information is available, associations may not be possible through database searches.

That’s when investigators commonly use other methods in an attempt to give an identity to an unidentified person and turn to the public.

With websites like the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children (NCMEC), the National Missing and Unidentified Persons System (NAMUS), along with numerous blogs and sites where independent investigators known as “Arm Chair Detectives” get together and discuss cases, police find themselves surfing the web for information about missing persons to compare to open cases of unidentified persons.

It is often said, solving cases requires the cooperative effort between law enforcement, the media, advocates, and especially the public.

Thomas Lauth, private investigator and owner of Lauth Missing Persons has worked missing person cases throughout the United States for over 20 years. “First, in the 1980’s police reports of missing persons were treated differently, not with the urgency they are treated now, and many cases presumably not even reported,” said Lauth. “Tina Farmer, who was identified by a TBI detective going above and beyond and finding a public post online – the needle in the haystack, gives other families and other investigators hope and obviously the public can play a key role.”

For more information on missing persons, please visit our website. 

For more of Kym Pasqualini’s work and expertise on missing persons, visit her website, Missing Leads

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Disappearance of Tara Calico

The Disappearance of Tara Calico

Polaroid found in parking lot of a convenience store in Port St. Joe Florida in July 1989

Polaroid found in parking lot of a convenience store in Port St. Joe Florida in July 1989.

Tara Calico’s disappearance has baffled investigators for decades. In July 1989, a color Polaroid of an unidentified young woman and a little boy was found by a woman in a convenience store parking lot in Port St. Joe, a beach town approximately one hour south of Panama City, Florida.

The woman who found the photograph in a vacant parking space said she saw a man driving a windowless Toyota cargo van parked there when she arrived at the store. The man was described as being in his 30’s with a mustache. The photograph had recently been taken. Officials at Polaroid said the picture was taken after May 1989 because it was not available until then.

In the picture, the young woman glares at the camera, her mouth covered with black duct tape, hands bound behind her back, alongside a young boy who looks scared, his mouth taped and hands bound behind his back as well.

vc andrewsPictured alongside the bound woman is a copy of V.C. Andrews book, My Sweet Audrina, a 1982 best-seller about a young girl who is haunted by her sister’s death. The thriller touches upon rape, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, and autism.

The photograph made the national news and a “Current Affair where family and friends of a young missing New Mexico woman saw a haunting resemblance. Tara Calico vanished in Belen, New Mexico, 10 months earlier on September 20, 1988. They contacted Tara’s mother, Patty Doel, who insisted she meet with investigators and see the photograph firsthand.

After viewing the photograph, Patty insisted the picture was her missing daughter, even noting a discoloration on the leg of the woman pictured being identical to a large scar on Tara’s leg she had sustained in a car accident. Not to be overlooked, V.C. Andrews was also Tara’s favorite author.

The photograph has been carefully analyzed by the Federal Bureau of Investigation who felt the photograph was not of Tara while Scotland Yard declared it was her.

The Disappearance

On Tuesday, September 20, 1988, Tara left her home at approximately 9:30 a.m. to go on a daily bicycle ride along New Mexico State Rd. 47 in Belen, a route she took almost every morning. A small town, Belen only had a population of 7,152 in 2015.

Tara Calico missing from Belen, New Mexico since September 20, 1988

Tara Calico missing from Belen, New Mexico since September 20, 1988

Sometimes accompanied by her mother, Patty had warned her daughter to carry mace with her when she rode but Tara rejected the suggestion. On the morning of Tara’s disappearance, she playfully told her mother to come and get her if she did not return by noon because she had plans to meet her boyfriend at 12:30 p.m. to play tennis.

When Tara did not return, anxiously Patty drove south along Tara’s usual bike route but could not find her. In the process of searching, she spotted a Boston cassette tape lying on the side of the rugged road. She immediately called the police.

Later police would find pieces of Tara’s Sony Walkman alongside the road. A pink Huffy bike would later be found in a ditch at a secluded campground approximately 20 miles from Tara’s home.

Several witnesses told police they had witnessed an older light-colored pickup truck, about 1953, with a camper shell following close behind her as she rode along the highway. Quite possibly, Tara would not have even noticed if a vehicle was following behind her while she listened to Boston on her Walkman.

Unidentified Boy

The boy in the disturbing photograph remains unidentified to this day. Initially, when the photograph was found, the mother of Michael Henley said she was “almost certain” the boy in the Polaroid was her missing son. Sadly, Michael Henley was found deceased in June 1990 in the Zuni Mountains near where his father and he were hunting when the child vanished in April of 1988. It was determined he died of exposure.

Another missing child case has caught the attention of law enforcement as the picture strongly resembles David Michael Borer missing since April 26, 1989, from Willow, Alaska, about five hours south of Fairbanks. 

Resemblance between missing child David Borer and the unidentified boy in Polaroid

Resemblance between missing child David Borer and the unidentified boy in Polaroid

David was last seen walking along Parks Highway about 11 miles on his way to a friend’s home or to the Kashmitna River sandbar.

David once hitchhiked to Wasilla, approximately 30 miles from his home and described as a very independent young child,

Canine searches tracked his scent to Parks Highway, but the scent was lost at the road and there have been no signs of him since.                                                          

A missing lead

In 2008, the Sheriff of Valencia County claimed he had received information about what happened to Tara. A witness came forward telling law enforcement two teenagers had been following Tara in a Ford pickup truck, trying to talk to her and grabbing at her. Apparently, they accidentally hit Tara and panicked, then killed her. No further information surfaced from this allegation and no arrests were made.

Tara’s stepfather, John Doel, disputed the sheriff’s claims telling media the sheriff should not have released this information without enough circumstantial information to make an arrest.

More haunting photographs surface

boy picIn 2009, twenty years after the Polaroid was found, pictures of a young boy were mailed to the Port St. Joe police chief, David Barnes. The sheriff received two letters with photographs included, one postmarked June 10, 2009, and the other postmarked August 10, 2009, from Albuquerque New Mexico. One letter contained a photo copy of a young boy with very light brown hair with a band of black ink drawn over the boy’s mouth as if it were covered in the 1989 Polaroid.

The second letter contained the original picture. On August 12th, the Star Newspaper in Port St. Joe received a letter, also from Albuquerque, with the same picture, with the same hand-drawn mouth covering. Law enforcement has never been able to confirm the original Polaroid and the pictures received in 2009 are of the same boy. None of the three letters contained information indicating the child’s identity. Though there was not a reference to Tara’s case, police felt confident it was potentially connected.

Two other Polaroids have been found over the years some believe may be of Tara. The first was found near a construction site. It was a blurry photograph of a seemingly nude girl with tape over her mouth, light blue striped fabric behind her, similar to the fabric seen in the original Polaroid. It too was taken on film not available until 1989.

girl polaroid

Copy of Polaroid found in Montecito, California.

The second photograph is of a terrified woman bound on an Amtrak train (possibly abandoned), her eyes covered with gauze and big black framed glasses, with a male passenger taunting her in the photograph.

Photograph found, taken with film not available until February 1990 of a woman bound and gagged on an Amtrak with unidentified man

Of the many photographs and unidentified remains Patty had to view to help police throughout the country rule out, these three could never be ruled out by her mother.

Sadly, Patti Doel passed away in 2006, never finding out what happened to her daughter. Tara’s father passed away in 2002. However, with advancement in technology, Tara’s remaining family and stepfather still hold out hope they will one day find out what happened to her.

Valencia County Sheriff’s Office is not actively pursuing any of the photographs as possible leads. Instead, they are working with the FBI analyzing local suspects given the information provided to the sheriff’s office years ago that Tara was killed by local residents of her small community. Supported by witness reports claiming Tara was followed prior to her disappearance and she was also receiving threatening notes placed on her vehicle prior to her disappearance.

Michele Doel, Tara’s stepsister, told People Magazine when asked if the Polaroid with the young unidentified boy is Tara she responds, “If I had to say yes or no, definitively, yes, that is her,” says Michele. However, she added “Does that make sense? No. That’s not the story that makes sense.”

Current lead investigator Sgt. Joseph Rowland at Valencia County Sheriff’s Department said the vehicle in the first polaroid was identified as a van and the sheriff’s department received many tips about vans that were not fruitful.

Mother never lost hope

Patty Doel died in 2006 after suffering several strokes after relocating from New Mexico to Florida with her husband John.

Friends and family say her daughter was always on her mind, never giving up hope she would one day find her.

Tara flyer

She and her husband John even had a bedroom they kept for Tara, placing passing birthday and Christmas gifts there.

Even after the strokes, Patty would see a young girl on a bicycle and point and write her daughter’s name. Her husband would have to tell her it wasn’t Tara.

Tara’s older brother Chris told People Magazine he believed the stress of his sister’s disappearance and lack of resolution significantly shortened his mother’s life.

“The police would send photos of every possibility, including pictures of bodies, dismembered bodies, and every time mom got an envelope with the newest pictures, she had to look at them,” Chris told People. “She couldn’t not look , but it tore her up every time.”

The first Polaroid told Patty her daughter might still be alive, she survived whatever and whoever abducted her.

A case that is not exactly cold, Tara’s family holds onto hope; and many of the missing person investigators have taken the case into retirement with them. A case that happened long ago but is never forgotten.