True Crime

Filmmaker hopes documentary, podcast can help solve Tara Calico mystery

Melinda Esquibel, right, with Nancy Grace, a former prosecutor and victim's advocate, at the recent Crime Con convention. Esquibel holds a poster of her podcast "Vanished." 

Nancy Grace.jpg

July 2017 

by Rosalie Rayburn

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — It’s been nearly 30 years since college student Tara Calico vanished near her Belen-area home, and the mystery remains unsolved.

One high school classmate is determined to tell the story in a way that will bring the truth to light.

Melinda Esquibel has spent the past seven years researching the case and filming a documentary that is currently being edited. In the meantime, she has embarked on a new project hoping to bring the fruits of her investigation to a wide audience as soon as possible.

In early June, she presented a preview of her podcast “Vanished: The Tara Calico Investigation” at the CrimeCon Convention, an annual event that draws true crime fans. Esquibel said the first episode of the podcast series is available on iTunes, AudioBoom, Google Plan and Stitcher Radio. Podcasts are digital audio files that can be downloaded free to a computer or mobile device.

“What has kept me going is the hope of finding Tara and finding out what happened to her. Her disappearance has rocked the community and shaped us all in one form or another. It’s changed us and because of it we will never be the same. The only thing we can hope for is some healing when it’s all said and done,” Esquibel said.

Esquibel grew up in Belen and went to Belen High School with Calico. They were in marching band together and attended the same University of New Mexico branch campus. But Esquibel left that all behind to pursue the dream of a film career in California.

In the following years, she studied film production, worked at Fox Family Productions and helped produce documentaries such as “Pais: The Life and Death of Frank Pais,” a Cuban revolutionary.

Tara Calico was last seen riding her bicycle on NM 47 south of Rio Communities on Sept. 20, 1988. The mystery of what happened to her has never been solved. (JOURNAL FILE)

Unsolved mystery

The eerie horror of her schoolmate’s fate came flooding back in 2008 when Esquibel’s mother sent her a Valencia County News Bulletin article commemorating the 20th anniversary of Calico’s disappearance.

“I opened the envelope and looked at it and I just started crying,” said Esquibel. “I thought, oh my God! It really did happen all those years ago. I had forgotten about it. It almost felt like it was a dream.”

On Sept. 20, 1988, Calico, then 19, set out on a routine bike ride from her home in the Rio Communities east of Belen. She was planning to play tennis later that day but she never returned. Witnesses said they’d seen a pickup truck following her but neither her body, nor the pink Huffy bicycle were ever found. The next year, a Polaroid photograph surfaced in Florida of a young woman bound, with tape over her mouth. Some experts said details were consistent with Calico’s face. However, the FBI analysis was inconclusive.

Calico’s parents, Patty and John Doel, told their story on “Oprah,” “America’s Most Wanted,” “Unsolved Mysteries” and mailed out thousands of fliers hoping for news of their daughter.

Leads emerged, but nothing led to an arrest.

‘Who did it’

In 2008, former Valencia County Sheriff Rene Rivera, who had followed the case since 1989, told the News Bulletin he knew what had happened. He said he’d been told a truck had accidentally hit her. Rivera believed local boys were in the truck and that they had help hiding her body and concealing the truth. But he said it was hard to make a case stick without a body.

Esquibel returned to Belen at Christmas that year and showed the article to former high school classmates at a dinner. She was excited that finally someone knew who harmed Calico. The response, she said, was, “Oh Melinda, the whole town knows who did it,” followed by what she called “a lot of rumor and speculation.”

Esquibel said that prompted her to start her own investigation, determined to find out what really happened.

It’s been a long and, at times, unnerving struggle. She talked at length with John Doel (Patty Doel died in 2006). She interviewed Rivera and other law enforcement officers involved with the case. She traveled to the remote spot on NM 47 where Calico was last seen. She spent months visiting the sheriff’s office to pore through the case files.  At times, she said, her persistent questioning of people in the tight-knit Belen community provoked a hostile reaction.

Esquibel said she received threats saying “someone would get hurt” if she didn’t stop pursuing the investigation.

“There’s a lot of people that don’t want this case solved,” she said in a recent interview with the Journal.

She returned to Los Angeles, but continued working on the project.

“All the things that have happened to me only justified in my mind that I needed to keep going and that her story needed to be told. It just pushed me harder,” said Esquibel.

Similar case

Progress has been slow. In 2014, Esquibel told the Journal that she expected the film to be released soon. However, based on feedback from networks she changed the scope of the project into a documentary series instead of a single film. A Dubai-based contact is now involved in the editing.

Meanwhile, Esquibel learned of a podcast called “Up and Vanished” produced by filmmaker Payne Lindsey. It focused on the case of Tara Grinstead, a teacher and former beauty queen who went missing in Georgia in 2005.

Melinda Esquibel talks to Payne Lindsey about his podcast “Up and Vanished” about Tara Grinstead a girl who disappeared in Georgia in 2005. (COURTESY OF MELINDA ESQUIBEL)

In June, Esquibel attended the CrimeCon convention in Indiana where she met and gained advice from Laura Richards, a criminal behavioral analyst formerly employed by Scotland Yard who examined the case of murdered child beauty pageant queen JonBonét Ramsey and created a TV show about it. She also talked with Lindsey about his investigation of the Grinstead mystery.

Esquibel was struck by the similarity of the case in Lindsey’s podcast to the disappearance of Tara Calico. She learned that a few months after his podcast aired in August 2016 someone called the Georgia Bureau of Investigation with a tip that led to a couple of arrests. That gave her hope.

“It’s possible that people who hear my podcast may know more information and can contribute to help solve the Tara Calico case,” Esquibel said.

Searching for answers

  • Staff
  • Apr 10, 2010

For nearly 22 years, family, friends and the community have wondered what happened to Tara Calico. Her disappearance in September 1988 has now led one of her former classmates to look into the case and produce a documentary about the teenager who went missing during her daily bike ride on N.M. 47 south of Rio Communities.

Melinda Esquibel, owner of Mundo Maravilla Productions, first met Calico in junior high school. Both girls were in band, and Esquibel was quickly taken aback by the girl who she says looked after her during a band trip to Arizona.

"I was alone during the trip, and I remember she took me under her wing," Esquibel said of Calico, who was a year ahead of her in school. "I thought it was so nice of her. After that, we became better friends."

Tara Leigh Calico was 19-years old when she disappeared. She was a sophomore at UNM-VC, worked at a local bank and had plans to become a psychologist.

Calico left her Rio Communities house at about 9:30 a.m. to go on her regularly scheduled bike ride. She took her mother's pink Huffy bicycle because her bike had developed a flat a day or two before. When she failed to return home, her mother, Patty, went out looking for her, thinking that she would find her walking home with a disabled bike.

Patty, who died in May 2006, never found her daughter — no one has.

Esquibel, who lives and works in Los Angeles, says she had always wondered what happened to her friend, but when she read an article about the 20-year anniversary of Calico's disappearance, she decided to ask questions and make the documentary, which she's titled "Tara Calico: Gone Without a Trace."

"I read the article, and it was the first time I had ever heard that they (the police) knew what happened to Tara," she said. "I came to New Mexico on a visit, and I was talking to a friend about what happened. My friend said, 'The whole town knows what happened to her.'"

Esquibel said the more people she talked to, the more she heard the same story over and over again. It was at that point that she realized that the whole situation was unjust, and she wanted to do something — anything really that could possibly make a difference.

"People are still very emotional and sensitive about this, I didn't want to be disrespectful to her family, and I wanted to make sure that it was welcomed," Esquibel said. "It wasn't until a year later that I decided to do it — after I got permission from her stepfather, John Doel."

The main purpose of the documentary, Esquibel said, is to bring awareness of who Tara was to the world and, hopefully, to find some answers. For the past few months, Esquibel has interviewed several people, including newspaper reporters and police investigators.

"I'm hoping in the process of releasing this documentary, it will spark enough emotion in the people who still know where her body is buried to come forward so we can locate her and put her to rest," Esquibel said. "I think it's important to share Tara's story because she's touched so many people all over the world."

When she started filming the documentary earlier this year, Esquibel also created a Web site,, and a Facebook fan page, Tara Calico: Gone Without a Trace, which has more than 600 fans.

During her research and talking with friends, Esquibel has obtained lost footage of Calico during the Junior Miss competition at Belen High School. Parts of the video and still photographs have been posted on both sites.

While Esquibel continues to research the case and film the documentary, she's also been able to contact several of her friends from high school.

Some are willing to talk, but others won't.

"I think some of the reasons are because people don't like to be in front of the cameras and a lot of them are shy," she said. "Also, I think it's because they live in this town and it could negatively affect them. I just want them to know that it's been more than 20 years, and we can't tell a story if they don't help us tell that story.

"I know what an incredible person she was, but they know details about her that others wouldn't know and they need to share that because so many people want to know."

Valencia County Sheriff Rene Rivera is one of those who has been interviewed for the documentary, and he says he hopes that it will help with the investigation.

"I think it will be able to touch more people outside Valencia County, and even New Mexico," said Rivera, who has been working on the case since 1996. "I'm hoping that someone may see this and have the information we need."

Rivera said local and federal investigators believe they know what happened to Tara that fateful day, but haven't had the evidence to prosecute the case. The sheriff said while he has enough evidence for an arrest warrant, he doesn't have enough to prosecute the case.

"I believe I know who did this," he said," but without that evidence — the bike or her body — we won't be able to prosecute," he said.

Rivera says while others have tried to investigate the Calico case on their own, he's willing to work with anyone to finally solve the case.

"I'm willing to do anything to try to get the evidence to prosecute," Rivera said. "And if that means working with anyone who's doing a documentary, or who has an interest in the case, I welcome them."

Both of Tara's parents have passed away, but her stepfather and siblings still want and need answers, Esquibel said.

"This community changed the day she disappeared, and everyone wants to know who took her and what happened that day," she said. "Her family has a right to mourn, and we all need closure."

Esquibel said she will be "shopping the documentary around" at several film festivals, and has received interest from at least one news organization.

Anyone who might have information about the case or who knew Tara and would like to participate in the documentary can call Melinda Esquibel at (505) 400-7927.

Contact Clara Garcia