It is said, ambiguous loss is the most traumatic of human experiences, and when someone you love goes missing, it is a trauma unlike any other.
Ambiguous loss occurs without understanding or closure, leaving a person searching for answers. Ambiguous loss confounds the process of grieving, leaving a person with prolonged unresolved grief and deep emotional trauma.
Ambiguous loss can be classified in two categories, psychological and physical. Psychological and physical loss differ in terms of what and why exactly the person is grieving.
Physical ambiguous loss means the body of a loved is no longer present, such as a missing person or unrecovered body, resulting from war, a catastrophe such as 9/11 or kidnapping, but the person is still remembered psychologically because there is still a chance the person may return. Such is the case with a missing person. This type of loss results in trauma and can cause Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
Psychological Loss is a type of loss that is a result of a loved one still physically present, but psychologically absent. Psychological loss can occur when the brain of a loved one is affected, such as traumatic brain injury or Alzheimer’s disease.
When a person goes missing, loved ones are left with more questions than answers, leaving them searching, not only for the missing person but for answers.
Professor Emeritus at the University of Minnesota, Dr. Pauline Boss is a pioneer who has studied ambiguous loss since 1973, and her decades of research have revealed those who suffer from ambiguous loss without finality, face a particularly difficult burden. Whether it is the experience of caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s disease, or someone awaiting the fate of a family member who has disappeared under suspicious circumstances or a disastrous event such as 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina, the loss is magnified because it is linked to lack of closure.
Those experiencing ambiguous loss find it difficult to understand, cope and almost impossible to move forward with their lives without professional counseling, love and support.
Experiencing grief is a vital part of healing, but ambiguous loss stalls the process of grieving, sometimes indefinitely. With the possibility a missing person may be alive, individuals are confounded as to how to cope.
Parents and family members of missing persons say there is no such thing as closure. Dr. Pauline Boss says the idea of closure can lead us astray – it’s a myth that needs to be set aside, like accepting the idea grief has five linear stages and we simply come out the other side and done with it.
Five Stages of Grief
It is widely accepted there are five stages of grief:
While many helpful programs are focused on these various stages, they are not necessarily experienced on order, nor are they inclusive to other issues that commonly arise, and they certainly do not include what a family experiences when a loved one goes missing.
In my nearly 30 years working with families of missing persons and unsolved homicides, I have witnessed all stages of grief and ambiguity, finding the profound effects of a loved one going missing is multi-generational and all encompassing.
Family members of missing persons must live with people’s misconception that the individual or family must move on. Like PTSD flashbacks, a missing loved one is a traumatic event that does not end, and each life event is a reminder the individual, is gone without a trace.
Those of us who have never experienced having a loved one disappear, tend to react to situations using our own experiences and may relate the disappearance of an individual to the death of someone we have loved passing away. The problem is, with a missing person there is no place to grieve, to visit, no physical body to mourn.
Constant daily uncertainty is a major source of stress, emotionally, physically, psychologically and with a missing person, the uncertainty does not dissipate. When others expect one to move on, they commonly do not understand circumstances simply do not allow it.
It is not uncommon for families to experience all phases of ambiguous loss taking a toll both physically and mentally. While I was there to help, I often found myself the one who was thankful as I was blessed to see and meet, the most amazing, strong, and courageous individuals. Getting to know these families made me face my own vulnerability and the fact this can happen to any family.
The most moving of my recollections is of a young mother who had gone missing under suspicious circumstances. Her mother had contacted me and knew something terrible had happened to her daughter, insistent police needed to investigate more aggressively.
She had been missing a year during Christmas of 2002. Her mother called me to discuss her daughter’s case and told me that her granddaughter had written a letter to Santa and wanted to read it to me.
The little girl wrote:
“Dear Santa, I am not writing you for toys this year. The only thing I want for Christmas is for my Mommy to come home.”
My heart broke for this little girl. Little did I know, fast forward fifteen years later, I would be having a conversation with the same child. She had grown into a beautiful young lady and miraculously living a normal life despite growing up without her mother who remains missing. Not all are so fortunate.
Sometimes we forget how many people are impacted when a loved one goes missing. Children of missing persons, siblings, grandparents, parents, and other family and friends. The impact is immeasurable on the family structure and one needing to be studied further. What we do know, is the trauma of ambiguous loss affects everyone differently and a family can quickly spiral out of control without immediate intervention.
When a person goes missing, children are displaced, families can suffer financially due to loss of income or assets becoming tied up in the legal process, siblings of missing persons, children especially, face numerous obstacles when being raised in a household where ongoing trauma is occurring and they must live in the shadow of someone no longer there.
With missing children, parents are faced with the “not knowing” on a day to day basis. When an adult child goes missing, parents are not only left with the “not knowing”, they also face the possibility of raising their grandchildren.
As with the young girl who I watched grow up, her grandmother somehow found the courage to raise her granddaughter while continuing to search for anything leading to her missing daughter. She had found a balance providing a healthy and loving environment for her granddaughter, while facing she may never see her own daughter again.
Though not the product of abstract academic research, it was written by parents of missing children, with the assistance of law enforcement and youth professionals, containing critical information, guidance and tools parents need to help find their missing child while making every effort to focus on staying healthy. The guide contains much information to simply help families make it through a day.
Many of the parents who helped write the handbook, I had the honor of working with over the course of decades. Following, we will summarize the first 48 hours a family must make it through when a loved one goes missing. While it is focused on families who have missing children, this handbook is an important resource for anyone with a missing person in their life, regardless of age.
While the handbook contains steps to take to effectively work with law enforcement, media volunteers, how to disseminate fliers, and more – the most important part of the handbook is Chapter 7 focusing on maintaining health, preparing for the long term, the importance of not utilizing substances and medications to deal with the loss, and uniting with your remaining children focusing on their security and potential emotional issues.
“Hanging onto my sanity for a minute at a time often took all of my energy. I could not begin to look several days down the road,” said Colleen Nick, mother of Morgan who vanished June 9, 1995.
When your child is missing, you are overwhelmed with questions from police, neighbors, family and friends, and the media. At times, a parent may be faced with decisions they never thought they would have to make. One can begin to feel isolated, confused and utterly desperate with nowhere to go for support, but there is hope and it is found in the experience of other parents of missing persons who are courageous, and in my opinion, heroic.
The First 24 Hours (A Child is Missing: A Family Survival Guide)
Request police issue a “Be On the Look Out” (BOLO) message.
Limit access to your home until police have arrived to collect evidence. It is important not to touch or remove anything from your child’s room.
Ask for the contact information of the law enforcement officer assigned to your case. Keep in a safe place.
Provide law enforcement with facts related to the disappearance of your child, including what has already been done to find the child.
Have a good photograph available of your child and include a detailed description of your child and what your child was wearing.
Make a list of friends, family and acquaintances and contact information for anyone who may have information about your child’s whereabouts. Include anyone who has moved in or out of the neighborhood within the last year.
Make copies of photographs of your child in both black and white and color to provide to law enforcement, NCMEC, and media.
Ask your law enforcement agency to organize a search for your child both foot patrol and canine.
Ask law enforcement to issue an AMBER ALERT if your child’s disappearance meets the criteria.
Ask law enforcement for guidance when working with media. It is important not to divulge information law enforcement does not want released to media possibly compromising the recovery efforts of your child.
Designate one individual to answer your phone notating and summarizing each phone call, complete with contact information for each person who has called in one notebook.
In addition, keep a notebook with you at all times to write down thoughts, questions, and important information, such as names, dates and telephone numbers.
Take good care of yourself and your family because your child needs you to be strong. Force yourself to eat, rest and talk to others about your feelings.
The Next 24 Hours
Ask for a meeting with your investigator to discuss steps being taken to find your child. Ensure your investigator has a copy of Missing and Abducted Children: A Law Enforcement Guide to Case Investigation and Program Management. They can call NCMEC at 1-800-THE-LOST to obtain a copy. In addition, ask them to contact the Crimes Against Children Coordinator in their local FBI Field Office to obtain a copy of the FBI’s Child Abduction Response Plan.
Expand your list of friends, acquaintances, extended family members, landscapers, delivery persons, babysitters and anyone who may have seen your child during or following their disappearance or abduction.
Look at personal calendars, newspapers and community events calendars to see if there may be any clues as to who may have been in the area and provide this information to law enforcement.
Understand you will be asked to take a polygraph. This is standard procedure.
Ask your law enforcement agency to request NCMEC issue a Broadcast Fax to law enforcement agencies throughout the country.
Work cooperatively with your law enforcement agency to issue press releases and media events.
Talk to law enforcement about the use of a reward.
Report all information and/or extortion attempts to law enforcement immediately.
Have a second telephone line installed with call forwarding, Caller ID and call waiting. If you do not have one, get a cell phone so you can receive calls when you are away from home and forward all calls to it.
Make a list of what volunteers can do for you and your family.
Contact your child’s doctor and dentist and request copies of medical records and x-rays to provide to police. Ask the doctor to expedite your request based upon the circumstances.
Take care of yourself and your family and do not be afraid to ask others to help take care of your physical and emotional needs. Your remaining children need to know you are also there for them while staying strong and healthy for them all.
The resounding message here is family members of missing persons must take care of themselves and include others in their journey to help them along when they are tiring.
It was June 9, 1995, on a beautiful evening in the small town of Alma, Arkansas. Alma is located along I-40 within the Arkansas River Valley at the edge of the Ozark Mountains with a population under 5,000 people.
That evening was the first time 6-year old Morgan Nick had gone to a baseball game. Her mother Colleen was attending the Rookie League game at the Alma ballpark and Morgan had whined about having to sit next to her mother in the bleachers. There was a nearby sand pile with other children playing and Morgan wanted to play. It was within eyesight and only seconds away, so Colleen consented.
Morgan Nick, age 6, vanished from Alma, Arkansas on June 9, 1995
Morgan ran to the sandpile, laughing with the other children while Colleen turned her head back to watch the Marlins and Pythons. A player whacked the ball and two runners tied the game, then a run was scored, and the Pythons won the game. The sound of the crowd cheering was deafening.
When Colleen stood up, she could see Morgan’s playmates walking down the hill away from the sandpile, but where was Morgan? It was approximately 10:30 p.m.
The children told Colleen, Morgan was pouring sand out of her shoe near her mother’s car parked nearby. Colleen frantically searched. Morgan was gone.
Later, the children would tell police they saw a man approach Morgan. Another abduction attempt had occurred in Alma the same day and police had a composite sketched based on witnesses of the other incident.
Thousands of leads later, numerous appearances on national news talk shows, even America’s Most Wanted, and Morgan’s mother is nowhere closer to knowing what happened to her daughter. Police have interviewed hundreds of persons of interest, searched homes and wells, and dug up slabs of concrete with backhoes, but Morgan remains missing 23 years later.
The stakes are high when a person vanishes involuntarily.
Morgan’s mother Colleen spent years keeping Morgan’s room the way it was when she vanished. She bought Christmas presents and a birthday present each year, hoping Morgan would someday return to open them.
The emotional toll is beyond words.
On Morgan’s Birthday, September 12, 2014, Colleen wrote an Open Letter to Morgan, posted on the NCMEC blog.
A Letter to Our Missing Daughter Morgan Nick
Today is your 26th birthday. Today marks twenty birthdays without you here. We miss you so desperately and our hearts are ragged with grief. We have searched for you every single day since the day you were kidnapped from us at the Little League Baseball field in Alma, Arkansas.
You were only 6 years old. We went with our friends to watch one of their children play in the game. You threw your arms around my neck in a bear hug, planted a kiss on my cheek, and ran to catch fireflies with your friends.
It is the last time that I saw you. There have been so many days since then of emptiness and heartache.
On this birthday I choose to think about your laughter, your smile, the twinkle in your sparkling blue eyes. I celebrate who you are and the deep and lasting joy that you bring to our family.
I smile today as I think about your 5th birthday. For that birthday, we took you to the Humane Society with the promise of adopting a kitten. You, my precious little girl with your big heart, took one look around the cat room and picked out the ugliest, scrawniest, most pitiful looking kitten in the entire place. Such a tiny little thing, that it was mostly all eyes.
Dad and I used our best parental powers of persuasion to get you to pick a different kitten, to look at the older cats, to choose any other feline besides that poor ugly kitty. It looked like someone had taken the worst leftover colors of mud, stirred them together, and used them to design a kitten.
You planted your five-year-old feet, looked us straight in the eye and declared that this was the kitten you were taking home. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. You would not budge, and you resolutely refused to take a second look at any other cat or kitten in the room. You had a fire of conviction in your heart.
The unexpected obstacle we faced was we were not able to adopt on that Saturday but had to wait until Monday to finalize. For the rest of the weekend and all-day Monday, you fretted and pouted and worried someone else would take “your” kitten home with them. We tried to assure you that no one else would want that cat. We didn’t want to say it was because it was so tiny, or so ugly, or so-nothing-at-all-but-eyes. You could see only beauty and you were in love.
Finally, Monday afternoon came, and dad brought it home with him after work. In that moment, your daddy was your biggest hero because he had saved your kitten.
You tenderly snuggled that little bit of fur into your arms and declared that her name was Emily. You adored your new kitten and she loved you right back. Emily gained some weight and filled out a bit. Her colors started to take shape. We began to see the same beauty in her that you had seen in that very first moment.
Where you went, Emily went. You played together. You ate together. You watched Barney together. You slept together.
Which brings me to the photo. It captures everything we love about you. I would slip into your room late at night and stand there, watching the two of you sleeping together, in awe of your sweetness, and my heart would squeeze a little tighter.
So many birthdays have passed since then. So many days since a stranger ripped you from our hearts.
My sweet girl, if you should happen to read this, we want you to know how very important and special you are to us. You are a blessing we cannot live without. We feel cheated by every day that goes by and we do not see your smile, hear your bubbly laughter, or listen to your thoughts and ideas. We have never stopped believing that we will find you. We are saving all our hugs and kisses for you.
Please be strong and brave, with a fire of conviction in your heart, just like the day you picked out your kitten!
On this birthday we promise you that we will always fight for you. We will bring you back home to our family where you belong. We will always love you! We will never give up.
Love Mom (Colleen Nick) & Dad
One cannot help but feel the Nick family’s loss. So many birthdays, so many Christmases, so many days wondering if Morgan is alive. How on earth have they done it?
Hope is incredibly important in life for health, happiness, success and coping. Research shows optimistic people are more likely to live fulfilling lives and to enjoy life. In addition, hope relieves stress reducing the risk of many leading causes of death such as high blood pressure and heart attacks.
Having hope takes a special kind of courage I have found so many families of missing persons have mustered during the most difficult time of their lives . . . not just one season but many Seasons of Hope.
(Kiera Bergman has been missing from Glendale, Ariz., since August 4, 2018.)
Kiera Lanae Bergman, 19, was last seen by her best friend and roommate, Destiny Hall-Chand. The two young women worked together at a Glendale furniture store, just west of Phoenix, Arizona.
Hall-Chand told the Arizona Republic that she and Bergman were at work on August 4, when Bergman became upset and asked to leave work early. According to Hall-Chand, Bergman’s ex-boyfriend picked her up.
When Hall-Chand returned to their Glendale apartment near 51st Avenue and Thunderbird Road, Bergman was not there but her car, keys, wallet, and purse were.
Hall-Chand said she sent numerous texts to Bergman and eventually received a response she deemed strange.
After Bergman failed to come home or show up for work the following day, Hall-Chand called the Phoenix Police Department and filed a missing person report.
“She was saying that she was going to go out with some guy she met at the store a couple days ago, which is something that’s not like her,” Hall-Chand told KPHO-TV. “That’s not something she would do.”
Bergman reportedly told Hall-Chand she would contact her as soon as she got a phone charger.
That was 14 days ago.
(Kiera Bergman was last known to be at her Glendale, Ariz., apartment on August 4, 2018.)
“Her family is concerned for her welfare,” said Phoenix Police in a press release.
Bergman moved from San Diego to Glendale in March, to be with her boyfriend. Family members told the Arizona Republic he and Bergman had split up before her disappearance.
Kiersten Bragg, Bergman’s mother left her home in San Diego to travel to Phoenix to search for her daughter.
Bragg told Good Morning America it wasn’t like Bergman to be out of contact, adding she last spoke to her daughter via text on July 30, but she wasn’t “her normal, happy self.”
“If we knew something, our minds wouldn’t be racing and thinking of all the different possibilities.”
In addition, Bragg told ABC News that prior to the breakup with Bergman’s ex-boyfriend, they frequently fought and her daughter did not seem as happy as she was before. After the couple split, Bergman moved into an apartment with Hall-Chand.
AZ Central reported the boyfriend says he has been questioned regarding Bergman’s disappearance.
Those concerned for Bergman’s safety have more questions than answers.
Jon-Christopher Clark, 23, told the HuffPost “I didn’t want to do anything that would give an indication I was hiding anything but also didn’t want anything on the record that would have them say I was doing anything or had any part in this.”
“I told them I would not like a lie detector test because, “One, they are not admissible in court, and two, whatever you guys gather from that is basically your interpretation on my feelings,’” Clark continued. “So, I didn’t want [investigators] to pretty much gather [their] conclusions off of something that is not guaranteed.”
Investigators picked Clark up at a hotel last Monday and transported him to the police station for questioning.
Clark has been dating Bergman since December of last year and has
(Jon-Christopher Clark was dating Keira Bergman since December 2017.)
consistently denied he was involved in Bergman’s disappearance. Police have not named Clark as a suspect.
While it is common for police to ask the significant other of a missing person to come to the station to talk, Clark claims he wasn’t given the opportunity to voluntarily come in as he alleges 20 tactical officers surrounded him while checking out of a local hotel.
“They handcuffed me, put me in the back of a car and. When we got to the interview room [they] handcuffed me to a table the entire time,” Clark said.
Chris Bragg, Bergman’s father is concerned something tragic has happened to his daughter.
Bragg was told Hall-Chand and Clark called police together, but Clark left before police arrived which he thinks strange. Bragg acknowledges he left before police arrived, saying he was staying with a friend and was unable to connect with Phoenix Police detectives until they picked him up at the hotel on Monday.
“They served a search warrant on my phone, car, the pace I was staying at and talked to all my friends and family,” Clark said. “DNA was one of the stipulations of the court order, so they took my DNA — did swabs, all kinds of fingerprints, my wrists, hands, everything — and took numerous pictures of me and my tattoos.”
Clark claims to have fully cooperated with investigators, except for voluntarily agreeing to take the polygraph.
Bragg took a tour of his daughter’s apartment last week and noted his daughter’s bedroom was the only room in the house that evidence had been removed by crime scene technicians.
“The bedding was stripped off the bed, taken as evidence, but aside from that, it looked like a college kid’s apartment,” Bragg went on to tell HuffPost. “It didn’t have a whole lot of furniture and wasn’t really nice.”
The scariest part of this whole situation is Bragg claims detectives told him they had found his daughter’s personal items in a very strange place in the home.
“Her ID for work, her purse with her wallet, ID and credit cards, was found thrown in the back of her closet,” Bragg said. “That is strange. What woman throws her purse in the back of her closet?”
When HuffPost called Phoenix Police, they would not confirm or deny Bergman’s personal belongings were found in a closet.
Bragg calls his daughter’s disappearance devastating.
“We just want her back, Bragg said. “Please just call the police. A piece of our heart is missing, and without it we don’t feel whole. It’s heartbreaking. Pleas somebody saqy something.”
(Kiera Bergman’s mother and family old vigil outside her daughter’s apartment in Glendale, Ariz.)
At a vigil family and friends held at Bergman’s apartment on the evening of August 11, her friend Hall-Chand told KPHO TV and KTVK TV that she doesn’t know what to think about her best friend’s disappearance. “I don’t know. I don’t know what to think, I don’t know what to believe, I don’t know,” she said. “It’s just, I know there’s something wrong. I’m just hoping she’ll come home, and everything will be OK.”
Phoenix Police Public Information Sergeant Vincent Lewis told KNBC that investigators are stymied in their search for the missing young woman and there is no information obtained through their investigation that determines she is a victim of foul play.’
However, Bergman’s family believe something horrible has happened to her.
“She’s a beautiful, sweet, super talented young woman,” says Bragg when describing her missing daughter. “She’s caring, she’s very strong-minded, she’s just a sweet loving person.”
Bergman’s mother told the Arizona Republic she had a message for her daughter. “Wherever you are, if you can hear this, if you can see or hear it, just know we are doing everything we can and fighting so hard to find you.”
(Flowers sit outside Keira Bergman’s Glendale Ariz., apartment, placed there by family and friends.)
Keira Bergman’s disappearance has caught the attention of national news and appeared in USA Today and Newsweek and one private investigator that has worked many missing person cases in the state of Arizona.
Thomas Lauth. Founder of Lauth Missing Persons has worked over twenty-years on missing person cases and considered an expert in the field. The family and friends give various and multiple accounts of arguments between Kiera and Jon Christopher Clark, and it would seem the hostility grew worse around the time of Kiera’s disappearance. Mr. Clarks excuse for not submitting to the polygraph is not supportive of someone wanting to clear his name and allow investigators to focus their efforts elsewhere. Mr. Clark’s behavior following Kiera’s disappearance is highly suspicious and he should submit to a polygraph.
In the United States, as of May 31, 2018, there were 87,608 actives missing person cases in the National Crime Information Center at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. There were 2,286 listed as missing within the state of Arizona.
Anyone with information should call the Phoenix Police Department at 602-534-2121.
For more information on missing persons investigations, please visit our website.
Dalton Jack was at his construction job in Dubuque, Montana on the night of July 18th, 2018. He was working almost 100 miles away from his home in Brooklyn, Iowa. There, he had a sweetheart who was missing him—anxiously waiting for him to return so they could soon travel to the Dominican Republic to watch Jack’s older brother get married. Her name is Mollie, and Jack is just one of many who love and adore her for being “the sweetest, kindest, most caring person.” Now Jack, along with family and friends, police, and even the FBI, are conducting a furious search to find Mollie Tibbetts in the days following her mysterious disappearance from a rural Iowa farming community.
Later that evening of July 18th, around 10 PM, Jack opened a SnapChat message from Mollie. She was at his house, watching his dogs for him while he worked. “It was just a selfie with a caption, and I don’t remember what the caption said,” he said. “It looked like she was inside.” The next afternoon, Jack got a call from Mollie’s coworker, saying that Mollie did not call into work that day and never showed up to work her shift. That’s when Jack noticed that Mollie had not opened any of the messages he’d sent her since he received her snap the night before. Jack began contacting her family and close friends to see if anyone had heard from her. No one had. They called the local hospital, but Mollie wasn’t there either, prompting Jack to make a lengthy drive back to Brooklyn.
Misinformation in the media has reported that Mollie was snatched while on a regular evening jog. Jack told authorities that it was unclear what time Mollie’s last snap chat was sent, but it was a few hours before Jack actually opened it—around the time Mollie would have regularly gone out for a jog, as the weather was starting to cool off. “I read somewhere that she was running in a cornfield. That’s obviously not true,” said Mollie’s aunt, Kim Calderwood. “The run happened and then she was at the house as far as we know. I don’t think she would’ve run in the dark,” Calderwood said.
The investigation into Mollie’s disappearance has left local law enforcement mystified. Brooklyn, Iowa is a close, friendly farming community, where no one is a stranger to their neighbors. Poweshiek County Sheriff Thomas Kriegel cannot remember anyone in the community ever being missing for this long in the past, but the geography of Brooklyn is making the search difficult. “We’re surrounded by farm ground — corn and soy beans. Right now, the corn is probably eight, nine feet tall. The only way you can search it is basically walk down every other row,” he said. “It’s difficult. Even the planes flying over have a difficulty looking down in the corn rows.” The police at this time have named no suspects, having cleared Dalton Jack after validating his alibi in Dubuque. They have not yet ruled out abduction. They hope to utilize the data from Mollie’s cell phone and her fitness tracker to answer some questions about what happened that night. According to the New York Post, “Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation spokesman Mitch Mortvedt said Wednesday that investigators believe they’ve ‘put together a pretty solid timeline’ of what 20-year-old Mollie Tibbetts was doing before she was last seen jogging in her hometown of Brooklyn, Iowa.” The article goes on to say investigators only wish they could comb the information faster in the interest of finding Mollie.
In just a week, the search party has ballooned from dozens to hundreds, with the FBI recently joining the effort. In the first days of her disappearance, friends and family tweeted to celebrities with Iowan roots who might use their fame to spread Mollie’s face and name across the country, in the hopes that someone has seen her. Celebrities who participated in this effort, including Adam Devine, Brandon Routh, American Idol winner Maddie Poppe, Kurt Warner, and comedian Tom Arnold.
In the meantime, her family agonizes over their missing daughter, but they have not given up hope that Mollie will soon return to them, safe and unharmed. “We know that Mollie knows how much we love her and how important she is to her entire family,” a cousin told PEOPLE. “We want her to know that we will never stop looking for her.”
This is a developing story…
Carie McMichael is the Communications and Media Specialist for Lauth Investigations International, writing about investigative topics such as missing persons and corporate investigations. For more information on missing persons topics, please visit our website.
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.
Pictured 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.
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
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.
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
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
In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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