PORT ST. JOE, Fla. – A mysterious photo of a young boy sent to police and media here has rekindled interest in a 20-year-old mystery surrounding a Polaroid of a young boy and girl, seemingly bound behind their backs, their mouths covered with tape.
The recently received picture shows a young boy with black marker etched across his mouth and face, as if it had been taped shut. The boy is similar in appearance to one of the youths in a Polaroid found here in 1989 that spawned national attention from police and the media.
"I think we were just dumbfounded," said Gulf County Sheriff Joe Nugent, who was a deputy 20 years ago when the Polaroid was found. "It is kind of weird these photos came in near the anniversary of the original case, but if somebody is trying to send us a clue, send us one we can act on."
The development sparked memories for many and revived several unanswered questions: Who are the children in the pictures, are they dead or was it a hoax, and what is the connection to Port St. Joe?
"It obviously is two kids with terror written all over them," Nugent said of the 1989 Polaroid. "It's kind of a bad time when you have to look at something like that."
Port St. Joe Police Chief David Barnes received two letters, postmarked June 10 and Aug. 10 from Albuquerque, N.M. The children in the 1989 picture are believed by some to be two children Tara Calico and Michael Paul Henley reported missing in New Mexico.
One letter contained a photo, printed on copy paper, of a young boy with sandy brown hair. Someone had drawn a black band in ink on the photo, over the boy's mouth, as if it were covered in tape like the 1989 picture. The second letter contained an original image of the boy.
On Aug. 12, The Star newspaper in Port St. Joe received a third letter, also postmarked in Albuquerque on Aug. 10 and depicting the same image, of a boy with black marker drawn over his mouth.
None of the letters contained a return address or a note indicating the child's identity.
Nugent said investigators as recently as this spring had looked at the case file again, so he immediately made the connection between the latest picture and the Polaroid photo found June 15, 1989, in Port St. Joe.
A witness at the time noticed the photo on the ground in the parking lot of a convenience store a Junior Food Store at the time, now an Express Lane after a white van, driven by a man with a mustache, thought to be in his 30s, exited the parking lot.
Although the witness did not know if the photo dropped from the late 1980s Toyota cargo van, and there remains no substantive proof it did, Nugent said, police staged an unsuccessful road block to intercept the vehicle.
Nugent remembers the case causing a stir in Port St. Joe, the region and the country.
"I'd just started and that was the biggest thing we worked around here," Nugent said. "Months and months of people calling and giving tips, and psychics calling, and we were never able to track anything down for sure."
The case file contains "stacks and stacks" of letters and clues gathered during the investigation.
The original Polaroid received national attention when it aired on the television program "America's Most Wanted." Two stories about it appeared in The News Herald in August 1989.
A mystery lives on
Though the Federal Bureau of Investigation never positively identified the young girl and boy in the photo, they were initially thought to be Calico and Henley.
Calico, then 19, was last seen on the morning of Sept. 20, 1988, riding a pink bicycle in Valencia County, N.M.
Henley, 9, also of New Mexico, disappeared in April 1988, while hunting with his father in the Zuni Mountains in northwestern New Mexico.
Henley's parents believed the boy in the 1989 photo might be their son, but his remains were found the next year not far from where he disappeared, and there were no signs of foul play.
With the arrival of the Internet era, the mystery not only has lived on, it has become the subject of numerous discussion boards and Web sites, particularly as it relates to Calico.
One site, forthelost.org, talks about Henley and Calico, and suggests another missing boy is actually the person in the picture. Another site, charleyproject.org, makes the case that Calico is the girl and talks about two other disturbing pictures that cropped up over the years with a girl resembling Calico in distress.
There even is a Wikipedia page dedicated to Calico and this case.
Albuquerque, where the latest letters were mailed from, is about 35 miles from Calico's hometown of Belen, N.M., and 111 miles from the Zuni Mountains, where Henley's body was recovered.
A real look of fear'
Nugent could not tell whether the boy in the photos sent in the recent letters is the same boy in the 1989 Polaroid, and it's just another mystery for investigators to solve.
"Unless something just pops up (from the investigation of the recent letters), I don't know why these letters were mailed here," Nugent said.
He does believe the letters' New Mexico postmark and arrival near the 20th anniversary of the day the original Polaroid was found might be more than a coincidence.
Nugent also is intrigued with the timing of a phone call received the same day The Star turned over its letter to the Sheriff 's Office. A woman claimed she had been having visions about the case over the years and said she believed Calico to be buried in California. Nugent said the woman related that she worked with a runaway in a strip club in California and that the runaway was later reported murdered and buried.
Nugent said the woman described seeing a light blue Oldsmobile car and the name of Tara Calico in a vivid dream she has had over the years.
Thus far, California authorities have dismissed the woman's claims, Nugent said, but added the timing of her call and the letters is strange.
"It's all just very weird," Nugent said.
All the letters have been placed in evidence bags and have been sent to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement lab in Pensacola where they will be submitted to testing for fingerprints and DNA. The FBI is not involved in the latest development.
Nugent said those tests likely will take at least a month and any new evidence gleaned from the letters would be passed on to New Mexico authorities where the case of the missing children remains open.
"If anybody has any information, we'd be happy to contact the New Mexico authorities and pass it on to them," Nugent said. "Somebody somewhere knows something about it."
And he hopes someone is finally willing to share what they know.
"Nobody knows for sure if it was a setup," Nugent said. "Some people think it was a staged photograph, but it was a real look of fear to me."