Three major black leaders – NAACP President Ben Jealous, the Rev. Al Sharpton, and filmmaker Tyler Perry – have descended on Naples, Florida, to press for an investigation into the case of two Florida men who disappeared nearly a decade ago after being seen in the company of the same now-fired Collier County Sheriff’s Office policeman Steve Calkins.
During a press conference held in Naples on Thursday, Tyler Perry offered a $100,000 reward for information which could lead to a resolution of the case. Area man Anthony Denson Jr. told Perry that the officer in question had “chased me down the beach;” Perry was visibly shaken by the encounter.
“Wow. I have been praying for an answer for this family and I wasn’t expecting this moment. I am beyond overwhelmed by it. And just like this man has come forward, I am sure there are others.”
Perry, Sharpton, and the NAACP hope their appearance will allow others to speak freely about the disappearances.
While blacks number just 13% of the U.S. population, they are nearly three times likelier to go missing, comprising over 33% of cases known to the FBI.
Sharpton said that Perry had confronted him on the lack of attention given by minority activists to these disappearances, leading him to help organize the action. “Why aren’t you civil rights leaders dealing with cases of missing people? … [he said] if we fight for what’s right, how do we forget about people who just disappeared? And I felt guilty, because he’s right. All of us have not done all we should,” he said during the conference.
Calkins, who is white, repeatedly denied any involvement in the disappearances. He instead claims that he did nothing more than drop the men off at a convenience stores.
Felipe Santos, 23, is an undocumented immigrant who vanished in October 2003 following arrest by Calkins. He was driving to work when he was involved in a minor traffic accident with his brothers, after which the officer ascertained he did not have registration or insurance. Taken away, his brothers were later unable to find him in jail. Calkins claimed that Santos was so cooperative that he had decided to drop him off at a local Circle K.
Terrence Williams, 27, is black. He ran into Calkin in January 2004 after moving to Naples to spend time with his mother following trouble with police in Tennessee. His car broke down and needed to be towed. In a recorded conversation, Calkins and a dispatcher were heard to use exaggerated racial voices when discussing Williams.
“Well, I got me a ‘homie’ Cadillac on the side of the road here, signal 11, signal 52, nobody around,” Calkins said. “It’s gonna come back to one of the brothers in Fort Meyers.”
Calkins claimed that Williams “asked him for a ride so he would not lose his job and that it was just up to the Circle K,” later explaining he “was very clean cut. That’s one of the reasons I helped him. Outside of his long dreadlocks, I mean he, he seemed to be a very clean young man … very respectful of me and very well-spoken.” He said that when Williams went missing, he made a call to the store to verify Williams’ identity.
Williams did not work at that Circle K, and no one at that Circle K remembered the call or Williams. Disturbingly, Calkins made a call for a background check using a fake birthdate that Williams had previously given out when in trouble.
“Terrance would know that date of birth, but nobody else would,” said Collier Sgt. John Morriseau to the SP Times.
Calkins pulled over Williams between 9 a.m and 10 a.m., but did not call into dispatch until 12:49 PM, leaving a potential 2 hour window of opportunity.
Authorities say they investigated the disappearances, including treating Calkins as a potential suspect. They interviewed him, finding multiple inconsistencies in his statements. His car was tested for blood or signs of a struggle, but none was found. They secretly put a tracking device on his vehicle, hoping he would lead them to the scene of the crime, but Calkins never went to any crime scene.
They have also modified department policy. Officers in the county are now required to inform dispatchers when transporting anyone in a police vehicle.
Calkins’ personnel file brimmed with praise before the incidents. A lieutenant wrote that “I like having heroes on my team,” after Calkins saved the life of a 78 year old man having a heart attack; a captain wrote in 1996 that he was “proud to have worked directly with you and I know your performance will always be of high quality.” Captain Jim Williams, who works with the county’s Professional Responsibility Bureau, said that while “nobody would like to solve this better than this agency” but there was “no evidence” that indicated the men had even had unpleasant exchanges.
Calkins claims no knowledge of what happened to Santos, and says that he was “duped” by Williams, who he says lied about having a valid registration or permit in his vehicle. He says both men had reason to disappear. The officer was fired in August 2004 after giving inconsistent accounts and refusing to cooperate with investigators.
“They were put into the back of Deputy Calkins’ car and never heard from again. And to this day Deputy Steve Calkins is a free man. I guess it’s time to march in Naples now,” Perry wrote in April.
He called for racial profiling to be labeled a hate crime investigated by the FBI, saying “that way local government can’t make the decision on whether or not these people get punished.”
Perry urged others to come forward with information on the case, saying “you do not have to be afraid. The sheriff here has assured me that [the tipster] will be safe and anyone else that wants to say anything or speak out about this will be safe.”
Williams’ mother was grateful for their appearance. “I think people are afraid to speak up. They don’t want to get involved.”
Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk was as well. The involvement of the men would “have a positive effect on the continuing investigation,” he said.