The view toward the south of a railroad crossing where NM 47 intersects with US 60 south of Belen, New Mexico
Tara’s view at the southern end of her bike ride. Photo courtesy of Jordan Jones

LOCATION UNKNOWN

The Case of Tara Leigh Calico

An unresolved mystery of a missing woman

Tuesday, September 20, 1988, was — to all outward appearances — an ordinary, late summer day in Rio Communities, New Mexico. Situated thirty-five miles south of Albuquerque, the western edge of town abuts the Rio Grande River for which the city is named.

Tara Calico, a busy, ambitious, and athletic nineteen-year-old woman had just begun her sophomore year at the nearby University of New Mexico, Valencia Campus. She lived at 403 Brugg Drive with her mother and step-father, and that morning she was preparing to go on a 35-mile round-trip bike ride before an early afternoon tennis date.

It was a ride Tara made whenever time and weather permitted, but on her previous trip, the bike she had ridden had gotten a flat tire. As a result, she had walked herself and the bike more than seven miles back to her home. Along the way, she had declined multiple offers of help. But because of that recent experience and her upcoming tennis date, Tara asked her mom to come looking for her if she weren’t home by noon. Tara then borrowed her mother’s bright pink Huffy 10-speed bicycle, grabbed her yellow Sony Walkman, and headed off toward a popular and picturesque railroad crossing just over seventeen miles from her home.

Like her daughter Tara, Patty Doel, was an ambitious and determined woman who kept a strict (and very full) schedule. She had risen to the job of assistant trainmaster at Santa Fe Railway. Time wasn’t an abstract concept for her; it was her job. When noon arrived and Tara had not returned, Patty got in her car and started looking for her daughter.

Who was Tara Calico?

Born February 28, 1969, Tara Leigh Calico was a young woman with lots of energy and big goals.

A cursory examination of the Belen High School yearbook during the years Tara Calico attended shows that she didn’t let any grass grow under her feet. She was in band, she was in the ski club, she was in the President’s Club, she was on the drill team, she was in the French club, she played tennis, and at least one year she was part of the flag corps for the Belen High School marching band.

Given to packing in as much as possible in the 24-hours allotted her each day, she was athletic and focused; she kept numerous and detailed lists to make sure that she didn’t overlook anything, and in that regard, the day she disappeared was no different than the previous 7,152 days of her life.

The route Tara took

It would have taken Tara just a few minutes to ride her bike through the neighborhood where she lived and then make a left turn that would have her heading south on New Mexico State Road 47. A narrow two-lane road road with light traffic and spectacular views, it is the first leg of a route that connects Belen and Rio Communities with Mountainair, New Mexico, a small town that serves as a central location for tourists looking to explore the three pueblo missions that comprise the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument.

I have driven the route from Tara’s home to the railroad crossing and saw first hand how easy it would be for Tara to get lost in the beauty of the landscape as she pedaled the bike she was riding and imagined her future and how she would get there.

A “pass with care” road sign on the east side of New Mexico State Road 47 as you head north

Pass with care

A couple of hours after Tara left her home in Rio Communities and headed south, Ishmael Delarosa left his home in Mountainair, New Mexico, and headed north to Belen. It was a bit before noon on that fateful Tuesday when he turned onto New Mexico State Road 47. He was in a pulling a trailer with a truck he described as “wore out.” In the back was a dead calf.

Ishmael had two appointments to keep: one, to pick up new calves at the Cottonwood Dairy in Belen; the other, to deliver the body of the dead calf to a veterinarian a few miles north of Belen in Bosque Farms for an autopsy.

As Ishmael Delarosa made his way to his appointments, he did not know that he was about to see something that would change his life and haunt him until the day he died. All he knew was that after he turned north onto the road to Belen, he got stuck behind a very slow truck.

When Ishmael first saw the truck in the distance, it seemed to be parked on the side of the road, straddling the shoulder. As he drew closer, he saw what looked like someone getting in on the passenger’s side of the truck. As he drew closer still, he discovered that the vehicle was not parked, but was traveling at a very slow rate of speed, anywhere from 15 to 20 mph.

Stuck on a narrow two-lane road behind the slow moving, older model truck with a camper shell, Ishmael waited for southbound traffic to clear long enough for him to safely pass. As he waited, he did what people often do in such a situation — he tried construct a narrative that made sense from the facts he could observe.

Initially, Ishmael had no idea why the truck was moving so slowly, but then the truck moved far enough onto the shoulder that he was able to see the truck was following a teen-aged woman on a bicycle. She was close enough that the driver could keep an eye on her, but far enough away that with her headphones on, she wouldn’t even hear or notice the truck that was following her. In trying to construct a story that made sense, Ishmael surmised that the driver of the truck was a father who had dropped his daughter off and was following her at a bit of a distance so she could go for a bike ride.

As Ishmael tried to fill out the details of the story unfolding in front of him, he noticed the color of the truck (dirty white or gray), the county the license plate was issued from (Sandoval County, New Mexico), and later he would recall that the last digit was the number 6. One thing that troubled Ishmael was the size of the back door of the camper. How, he wondered, would the bicycle fit through that?

As part of the construction of his narrative, he tried to identify the make of the truck, but many identifying characteristics had been removed. Eventually the traffic heading south cleared long enough for Ishmael Delarosa to safely pass, and in his review mirror, he saw that the vehicle was a Ford. He also got a look at the driver of the truck — a man between 35–45 with red hair that was was cut short. He also had several days’ growth of beard, weathered skin, and what looked like a deep crease on the left side of his face. Another detail Ishmael took note of as he passed the car: some well pressed khaki shirts visible in the back of the truck. He noticed the driver of the truck fixated on the bicyclist’s “rump.” So fixated, that to Ishmael’s way of thinking the man could not possibly be the girl’s daddy.

Having finally passed the truck, Ishmael was concerned the girl might in fact be in some kind of danger, as he continued north toward Belen, he looked to see if there was a place for her to get help should she need it. He saw a couple of cars parked on the side of the road with what appeared to be business men discussing something related to the place where they had parked, two women at a nearby golf course playing and visible from the road, so while he didn’t like the looks of the man in the truck and the way that man’s eyes followed the girl, he also felt that if she needed help, there were people nearby who could and would assist.

When Ishmael Delarosa got home around 4:30 on that late summer afternoon, his wife told him a girl who had gone missing. The details that were reported did not match what he had seen, so at first he didn’t realize he had any information of value. It wasn’t until a couple of days later when he was talking with a friend that he realized that he must have seen Tara just before she disappeared.

Ishmael Delarosa contacted law enforcement and told them his story. He said that he saw an old Ford pickup with a camper following her. He also told them he had locked eyes with the man who was driving the truck and felt that he could identify him if he ever saw him again. Ishmael also provided the details he was able to recall about the license plate to the Valencia Sheriff’s Office. Law enforcement then showed him a suspect and asked if he was the man Ishmael had seen. Ishmael insisted that was not the man, and law enforcement lost interest in what Ishmael had to say.

Barron Freeman

When Barron Freeman set out from his home on September 20, 1988, it was to catch a flight from Albuquerque to Denver. Like Tara, he was inclined to pack in as much as he could into any day, so he set out a little earlier than he needed to get to the airport so he could squeeze in a tour of a piece of property he and his wife had purchased in nearby Tome, New Mexico.

Like Ishmael, Barron Freeman was in a hurry to get somewhere else when he came across Tara Calico. She was headed north, while he was heading south, and far behind her — he estimated one-half to three-quarters of a mile — was a truck with a camper. Like the vehicle Ishmael Delarosa had seen, this truck also had a lone middle-aged male driver who was driving a good distance behind the girl, but going no faster than the bike bike.

Barron immediately thought there was something amiss with the scene unfolding in front of him, and just like Ishmael Delarosa, Barron’s brain got to work trying to construct a narrative that made sense.

As was true for Ishmael, Barron initially thought that the man driving the truck must be the girl’s father. He also thought, as had Ishmael, that the father had dropped the teenager off so she could get some exercise. He thought that maybe they were on some kind of cross country trip. What else could account for a seemingly fully loaded camper driving along at less than 20 mph?

Soon, however, Barron had to make a u-turn so that he could get to his original destination: the airport, and it was after he made that turn and started heading north that he noticed the New Mexico license plate on the truck. Obviously this was not a father and daughter on a cross-country trip.

But like Ishmael, Barron didn’t know what to make of the scene unfolding in front of him. Mindful that the man in the truck might be her father and he might have a gun and be prepared to defend her, Barron did not think that stopping to help her was a safe option. Instead, after passing the truck, he made a point of slowing down so that the girl on the bike would signal him if she needed help.

When Barron passed her at a slow rate of speed and she didn’t even acknowledge he was there, he figured that probably was her father and he probably was following her to make sure she stayed safe, and then he punched it.

He had a plane to catch.

Points of convergence

Both Ishmael Delarosa and Barron Freeman had trouble getting the Valencia Sheriff’s Department to take their statements, Barron more so than Ishmael but as the anniversaries of Tara’s disappearance mounted, both became more persistent.

Both had witnessed a man in early-middle age driving an old truck with a camper on it going the same rate of speed as a teenage girl on a bright pink bicycle, and they both saw it within 15–30 minutes of each other. On the same road.

Neither of them saw any teenagers following Tara.

The investigation

In 1988 it was common for police to treat a young woman gone missing as a probable runaway who had most likely run off with an invisible guy who the family and her boyfriend knew nothing about.

However, because of the circumstances of Tara’s disappearance, and her mother’s immediate action, law enforcement did not wait 24 or 48 eight hours to start looking. They took immediate action, and by 4:30 that day, the first news stories about the disappearance of Tara Calico were breaking.

Unfortunately, those efforts bore little to no fruit, and I think that is because law enforcement thought they knew who did it.

Why would the Valencia Sheriff’s Department have ignored them?

In terms of credibility, Ishmael Delarosa and Barron Freeman were, to my mind, more reliable than many of the other witnesses interviewed by the sheriff’s office, but in September of 1988, the notion that there would be some random bad guy trolling for victims on narrow two-lane rural roads would have been seen as fanciful.

Complicating matters, the sheriff’s office had some local suspects in mind who they thought were good for the crime. Young men close to Tara’s age with drug problems and law enforcement connections. Whether they were trying to protect the young men or shake them down is not clear, but what is clear is that the Valencia County Sheriff Department thought that the person or persons who made Tara disappear had to be local, and that’s where they kept looking.

How could Tara have disappeared so completely?

I scoured the internet in search of more information. In addition to dozens of articles about the case, I came across a podcast put together by Melinda Esquibel, a woman who was a year behind Tara at Belen High School, and who knew her from marching band.

The podcast is Ms. Esquibel’s first reporting effort. She has assembled twenty-four episodes of varying length and quality, but three episodes stood out for me:

  • Episode 5: A recorded interview with Ishmael Delarosa
  • Episode 7 : A recorded statement by Barron Freeman made 20 years later to the Valencia County Sheriff
  • Episode 10: A discussion of a timeline put together by Patty Doel, Tara Calico’s mother

Episode 10 is a combination timeline/overview of Tara’s presumed movements on September 20, 1988. I say presumed because it was a recreation made by Tara’s mother, Patty Doel, and it was a combination of what Patty knew (the time Tara left the house, the time she was expected back), what Patty knew from experience (the route Tara took and approximate riding speed), as well as what Patty had learned over the course of the year after Tara’s disappearance about who saw Tara and when and where they saw her on that fateful day.

The timeline allows you to follow on the road just exactly where Tara went that day, and although it is 31 years later, there is a lot that is still the same.

Episodes 5 and 7 were interesting for a different reason. As I listened to Ishmael Delarosa and Barron Freeman each make their statements, the hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I was reminded of another series of crimes I had heard about on an entirely different podcast.

David Parker Ray, “The Toy Box Killer.”

More than one witness saw a man in a truck following close behind Tara Calico, and in at least two instances, the witnesses had initially thought the man following her must be her father.

Born in Belen, New Mexico, in 1939, and shipped off to Mountainair, New Mexico, to live with his grandparents at the age of 10 when his parents divorced, David Parker Ray was familiar both with the area where Tara Calico lived and the long stretch of road that she often traveled on her bike rides.

March 19, 1999

Up until his arrest on Friday, March 19, 1999, the then 59-year-old David Parker Ray’s criminal record was negligible. However, the escape of Cynthia Vigil changed all that.

Several days earlier, Cynthia Vigil had been kidnapped from Albuquerque by David Parker Ray and his girlfriend, Cindy Hendy. The evening of her abduction, David Parker Ray had impersonating a police officer when he approached Cynthia outside a bar on Central Avenue in Albuquerque, New Mexico. In short order David Ray, with the help of his girlfriend, had captured Cynthia Vigil, shoved her into the back of his camper, and handcuffed her to a structure in the back.

Then, the three of them began 146 mile drive to the home David and Cindy shared on Bass Road in Elephant Butte Lake. As David and Cindy had wrestled Cynthia Vigil into the camper the captive had realized three things. David Ray was not a police officer, she desperately needed help, and she needed that help now.

After an ill-fated attempt to escape. Cindy Hendy and David Ray Parker stopped the truck and more firmly secured Cynthia Vigil in the camper. Then, they continued onto Elephant Butte, stopping once for gas, and threatening Cynthia with her life when they did so that she would not attempt another escape.

Held captive and tortured on-and-off for days, Cynthia Vigil made her get away while David Parker Ray was at work and his girlfriend, Cindy Hendy was distracted on the phone. Despite the dire situation in which she found herself, Cynthia Vigil summoned all her resources and managed to do what no one else before her had: escape.

Wearing nothing but what was described as a “slave collar” around her neck and the injuries she had sustained over the days of her torture and imprisonment, Cynthia Vigil ran through the neighborhood and found refuge at the home of elderly neighbors of David Parker Ray’s who summoned law enforcement.

The crimes committed against Cynthia Vigil would be the last in what turned out to be David Parker Ray’s forty-five year crime spree that focused on, but was not limited to, the torture and murder of numerous women and at least one man.

So what does any of this have to do with Tara Calico?

The road that Tara Calico was on that late summer day as she was being shadowed by a man in a truck with a camper was a road that was very familiar to David Parker Ray. And he was the kind of man who, when he saw an opportunity, would wait until he could act on it to minimize the risk to himself. If he did kidnap Tara Calico, it would not be the first time he had taken a woman in broad daylight and put her in the back of his truck.

Then there is this fact: On September 22, two days after Tara Calico went missing, Billy Ray Bowers of Phoenix also went missing. He was never again seen alive, and it wouldn’t be until the arrest of David Parker Ray and Cindy Hendy, that the truth of what happened to Billy Bowers would finally be known.

Who is Billy Ray Bowers?

The last time anyone who cared about Billy Ray Bowers saw him alive was on September 22, 1988. He had been working at the used car lot — Canal Motors, that he co-owned with a man named Bill Stone — with one of their employees — a talented, but ill-tempered mechanic by the name of David Parker Ray.

When Billy Bowers went missing on September 22, 1988, those who loved him knew immediately that something was wrong. Police departments, however, did not get too concerned when a middle-aged man went missing. Bowers’ family offered a reward and conducted their own search in an effort to find Billy, but it wasn’t until Cindy Hendy, David Ray Parker’s girlfriend, was looking to cut a deal that they got answers to their questions.

In September 1989, years before Cindy Hendy and David Parker Ray would join forces to become a couple who bonded by working together to kidnap and torture women for their shared sadistic sexual pleasure, the body of a man was pulled out of Elephant Butte Lake.

The circumstances suggested homicide, but without an identity for the victim, it was impossible to know where to look for his killer, and no progress was made until Cindy Hendy was looking at the possibility of spending the rest of her life in prison.

In an effort to get her sentence reduced, Cindy Hendy told investigators that David Parker Ray had told her about a man he had murdered in the late 80s. How he had put the man’s body in Elephant Butte Lake. How the body had surfaced a year later. How after that misstep, David had changed his burial procedure for all the bodies he put in Elephant Butte Lake. She told investigators that and David went so far as to pull the bodies back out of the lake, defile the bodies further, and then re-submerge them.

Because of Cindy Hendy’s information, investigators were finally able to identify the body that had surfaced in September of 1989 as that of Billy Ray Bowers. Law enforcement was unable to prove that David Parker Ray had abducted, murdered, and discarded his co-worker, but circumstantial evidences points to exactly that.

As for Cindy Hendy the information she shared that allowed law enforcement to identify the body of Billy Ray Bowers got her what she wanted — a reduced sentence. After serving less than 20 years for her part in a series of astonishingly vile crimes, she is a free woman.

The prevailing parrative

To this day, it is widely thought in some circles that Tara was accidentally killed by a former classmate from high school who had a drug problem. It is also thought that the parents of the former classmate helped to dispose of Tara’s body and cover up the crime, but as I listened to Melinda Esquibel’s podcasts, I found that premise hard to accept.

I grew up in a small town at a time that it was not uncommon for people in their late teens to be using psychotropic drugs and doing a lot of underage drinking. Their parents often tried to fix their children’s drug problems by ignoring the behavior completely, but eventually, someone would overdose or have a really bad experience, and pretending it hadn’t happened was not an option. These things could be hushed up, but there would still be notices in the newspaper about who had been transported to what hospital on what day.

Also, in September of 1988, there were no cell phones, no quick and easy way to communicate and get together the resources to make a person disappear. It is hard for me to believe that a group of drug-addled teens would be able to kill Tara (accidentally or otherwise) and get her body and bike cleared from the scene in the small window of time from when she was last seen by independent witnesses until her mother would have passed the spot she had been taken.

To my mind the fact that Tara disappeared so completely — between the time she was last seen and the start of her mother’s search — points to a more experienced criminal. Someone who had done this before. Someone who had been stalking her for miles. Someone with a place to stash a girl and her bike and drive off with and hide her where she would never be found.

Ambiguous loss

Ambiguous loss is defined as:

a loss that occurs without closure or clear understanding. This kind of loss leaves a person searching for answers, and thus complicates and delays the process of grieving, and often results in unresolved grief.

Such loss takes one of two forms.

There is the “Psychological Loss” like what the loved ones of dementia patients often experience — the body of the person they love is still there, but the person they knew is gone.

Then there is the “Physical Loss,” like what Tara Calico’s family experienced. Surrounded by all of the things that were part of defining who Tara was, only to never see her again and not know what became of her.

As Toby Smith wrote in the November 3, 1996, Albuquerque Journal, shortly after the eighth anniversary of Tara’s disappearance:

The case has put several lives on hold, cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and caused countless tears. Still, there has been no trace of Tara. Hers has become the most famous missing-person story in New Mexico, a story that won’t go away.

The FBI steps back in

While Ms. Esquibel’s has yet to solve the mystery of what became of Tara Calico, her efforts to have been successful in renewing the interest of the law enforcement in Tara’s case, and on October 1, 2019, the FBI announced a $20,000 reward.

With the passage of so much time, there is probably no way to prove that David Parker Ray abducted her even if he did, but I hope the FBI investigates him thoroughly enough to at least eliminate him as a suspect.

Neither of Tara’s parents lived long enough to know what happened to her.

In early November of 2002, her father David Calico died in the aftermath of a robbery in which is nitroglycerin pills were taken, leaving him with chest pains and no medication.

Then, in June of 2006, her mother, Patty Doel, died from the complications of a series of strokes that those closest to her believed had been brought on by the stress of Tara’s disappearance and the lack of answers.

As for Ishmael Delarosa, like those who loved Tara, he never forgot the girl on the bright pink bicycle, and he always looked for her.

Sources

Albuquerque Journal, Albuquerque, New Mexico

Casefile: True Crime Podcast, Case 96, Parts 1, 2, and 3

FBI Most Wanted, fbi.gov

Lordsburg Liberal, Lordsburg, New Mexico

Santa Fe New Mexican, Santa Fe, New Mexico

The Tara Calico Investigation, taracalico.com

Wikipedia

Crocheter on a mission to make the world a better place — one stitch at a time. Twitter: @crochetbug. Crochet blog: https://www.crochetbug.com

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