Ex-deputy tied to Collier missing men Terrance Williams, Felipe Santos prevails in lawsuit
A nearly 20-year-old mystery is no closer to being solved after a lawsuit targeting a former Collier deputy last seen with two missing men ended earlier than expected this week due to a missed deadline by a legal team.
Steven Calkins was sued in a 2018 wrongful death action by Marcia Williams, the mother of Terrance Williams, on behalf of his estate and his four children.
“The decision is disappointing to say the least and will be appealed," the legal team for the Williams family said in a statement.
Terrance Williams was 27 when he disappeared in January 2004. Felipe Santos, a Mexican immigrant, vanished at age 23 in October 2003. Both are presumed dead. Calkins did not arrest the men but was the last person known to have seen them both while on patrol in north Naples.
Calkins was fired from the Collier County Sheriff’s Office in late 2004 following an internal investigation that found he was deceptive in a polygraph and gave inconsistent statements. The same year, Calkins was asked to appear before a federal grand jury, but he refused to testify and later moved to Iowa.
The disappearances have drawn national media attention and were highlighted last summer in Naples protests about police accountability. Filmmaker Tyler Perry has offered a reward for tips and spoke at a 2018 Naples press conference announcing the suit, which was ordered to non-binding arbitration before trial.
In Collier court filings, lawyers blamed their failure to file for trial on “miscommunication” and an extended office shutdown due to the pandemic.
But circuit judge Lauren Brodie found the team “failed to establish excusable neglect” and issued a final judgment this week that Marcia Williams and her son’s children “shall take nothing” from Calkins; that was also the arbitrator's decision.
Marcia Williams, who referred questions to her legal team, is represented by the civil rights firm of Ben Crump, which has represented the families of Trayvon Martin and Breonna Taylor. Williams expressed hope in an interview last year that the suit would lead to answers about what happened to her son.
“I am looking for the truth,” she said in October.
Her legal team said they were unavailable for interviews but noted: "Cases should be decided on the merits, not by procedural errors caused by a global pandemic."
Naples attorney John Hooley represented Calkins. He pointed to Calkins' life-saving work at the sheriff’s office and the extent to which law enforcement investigated Calkins, who has never been charged with a crime related to the disappearances.
“This is not a guy who took Terrance Williams on a one-way ride to the swamp. This is Andy Griffith,” Hooley said. “Marcia Williams lost her son and is upset and angry and wants somebody to be responsible. The only one she can actually put a finger on before he disappeared is Steven Calkins.”
The sheriff's office partnered with the U.S. Attorney's Office, Florida Department of Law Enforcement and the FBI to investigate Calkins, the former sheriff has said.
Judge Brodie ordered the case to non-binding arbitration in January 2020.
Court-appointed arbitrator Robert Doyle issued his decision in November. In it, he acknowledged problems with Calkins' stories about his interactions with Williams. The “evidence presented does not show Defendant Calkins in a good light."
“Further, the information he related about the disappearance of Felipe Santos is eerily similar to what he said about Terrance. The changing nature of Calkins’ testimony and his later unwillingness to cooperate with the investigation make his stories unbelievable.”
He noted the dispatch call when Calkins reported Terrance Williams’ car as abandoned after witnesses saw Calkins pat Williams down and place him in his patrol car. Williams was Black.
“Calkins, who is white, made racially insensitive remarks” and described the car as a “Homie” Cadillac and “did not report any encounter with the owner.”
However, after hearing arguments and reviewing the facts, he decided the Williams family should not receive monetary damages, noting a lack of evidence connecting Calkins to Williams’ death.
Terrance Williams was legally declared dead in 2009, the records show.
“Being an uncredible witness or even a liar does not make Calkins a murderer or guilty of manslaughter,” Doyle wrote. “The Williams family has suffered a terrible tragedy in the loss of a son and father. But they have not been able to show the cause of that tragedy with the more persuasive and convincing force and effect of the evidence.”
Doyle notes that Marcia Williams "was candid in stating her belief" that "Calkins is responsible for the disappearance and death of her son" is based on her "mother's intuition."
But Doyle writes that he could not ignore witnesses presented by Calkins, "at least one who was credible," who "testified to seeing Terrance Williams after the day he was supposed to have disappeared at the hands of Calkins."
However, the witness did not testify at the hearing and there was no cross-examination of him, the decision says. "Terrance's family did not see (Terrance) again after his encounter with Deputy Calkins."
A spokeswoman for the Collier sheriff's office said none of the reported sightings of Terrance Williams or Felipe Santos after their disappearances "have been verified as credible information."
The agency has remained in contact with both families and there have been no sightings of the men from their families, she said.
In his decision, Doyle acknowledged the difficulty in deciding the case “at a time when the nation is struggling with understanding the extent of both overt and systemic racism. Statistical evidence has been widely reported showing that people of color are more likely than white people to be arrested and to suffer injury or death during the process.”
On Dec. 21, Judge Brodie ordered the unsealing of the confidential arbitration decision since no one requested a trial "on a timely basis."
The order states: "Therefore, the Court 'shall' enter judgment in accordance with the arbitration decision."
The motion for trial was due by Dec. 14.
The order set off a flurry of motions that Brodie heard before issuing her final judgment this week.
Pandemic and access to justice
Marcia Williams’ legal team, in an emergency motion filed two days after Judge Brodie's Dec. 21 order to unseal the arbitration decision, argued that their intent to proceed to trial was discussed several times — in court and out of it.
The motion states: "Everyone knew that a trial had been requested in pleadings, noted in motions, discussed during status conferences, and being planned for by the Court and parties."
Lawyers also noted that the Dec. 8 deposition of Calkins in Iowa took place after the arbitration. The deposition, which was not available in public records, lasted more than 10 hours, court records show.
Judge Brodie noted in her Feb. 8 order that the "Court is not a mind reader and cannot guess the strategies and thought processes of the parties and their lawyers" and ruled that she is required to follow procedures and not disregard “time constraints as prescribed by Florida law,” while pointing to two occasions in 2019 “when no one from the plaintiff’s office called in or appeared.”
“This is not the first time that there has been a calendaring issue.”
She did not rule on the issue of legal fees.
The legal team's plan to appeal to state appellate court is among the few legal recourses left, said Pamella Seay, an FGCU justice studies professor not involved in the case. "The law likes finality, so if you’ve got a case that has reached its finality as it has in this particular instance, it’s done. You don’t get to go back."
An appeal would have the potential to highlight the challenges of navigating the court system during the pandemic, Seay said. “This would give the court an opportunity to address the current situation relating to the response to the coronavirus and how it has impacted access to justice.”
If the family won an appeal, the case, depending on what the appellate court decided, could potentially go back for a rehearing in arbitration or to trial, among other options, Seay said.
If a state appellate court dismissed it, the case could potentially go to the Florida Supreme Court, but the chances there would be "somewhere between slim to none" given rules around abiding by deadlines, Seay said.
"There really isn't a next step," she said. "The U.S. Supreme Court would never have jurisdiction."
Another option, Seay said, could be for the Williams family to sue the lawyers for malpractice, but she did not think it would be a viable claim and "malpractice does not give you that justice that you are seeking."
Seay was pessimistic about both options. "I don't think there's going to be any resolution in their favor."
Janine Zeitlin is an enterprise reporter in Southwest Florida. Reach her at email@example.com or on Twitter @Janine Zeitlin. Consider supporting local journalism by subscribing.