Case against former Collier deputy tied to Terrance Williams, Felipe Santos denied appeal
A lawsuit seeking to hold a former Collier County sheriff’s deputy accountable for the 2004 disappearance of a Naples man was denied on appeal Wednesday.
Civil rights attorney Ben Crump, whose firm is representing Terrance Williams’ family, said his team is pursuing other avenues for justice, including sharing information with the U.S. Department of Justice in hopes the agency will open a federal investigation.
Terrance Williams was 27 when he disappeared on Jan. 12, 2004, after witnesses saw him get into Steven Calkins’ patrol car in North Naples.
More on the missing men:What to know about missing Collier men Terrance Williams and Felipe Santos
Marcia Williams, the mother of Terrance Williams, sued Calkins in a 2018 wrongful death action on behalf of her son’s estate and four children. But the Collier County suit came to an abrupt close in 2021 after Crump’s team missed a deadline to file for trial. Marcia Williams appealed to a Florida appellate court.
Williams was the second man to vanish after an encounter with Calkins. Felipe Santos, a Mexican immigrant and Immokalee resident, disappeared at age 23 in October 2003 after his brothers saw him get into Calkins’ patrol car.
There have been no verified sightings of the men since, according to the Collier sheriff’s office. Both men are presumed dead.
The disappearances have attracted national attention including from activist Al Sharpton and filmmaker Tyler Perry, who has offered a $200,000 reward for meaningful tips.
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, but law enforcement has been unable to solve the longstanding mystery.
Calkins has never been arrested or charged in the disappearances. He 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 about Williams’ disappearance.
Calkins has said he gave the men rides to Circle-K gas stations.
Missed deadline by Ben Crump's team
Lawyers blamed the missed deadline in the 2018 suit on “miscommunication” and an extended office shutdown due to the pandemic, court records show.
Yet, circuit judge Lauren Brodie found the team “failed to establish excusable neglect” and issued a final judgment in 2021 that Marcia Williams and her son’s children “shall take nothing” from Calkins.
The Florida appeals court did not issue an opinion this week but simply affirmed Brodie’s decision. Calkins’ lawyer in Naples, John Hooley, declined to comment on the decision beyond writing in an email: “Judge Brodie heard the evidence and reached a conclusion that was upheld on appeal as the proper disposition of the case.”
In an interview last year, Hooley said about his client: “This is not a guy who took Terrance Williams on a one-way ride to the swamp. This is Andy Griffith.”
Crump, who has represented the families of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, said in the emailed statement that the civil lawsuit was “more of a vehicle for discovery and truth” since it was unknown if Calkins had “collectible assets.”
Calkins had long been silent on the disappearances.
After Williams disappeared, Calkins was asked to appear before a federal grand jury, but he refused to testify and later moved to Iowa. In December 2020, as part of the civil suit, Calkins was forced into questioning by Crump and his team.
The lawsuit allowed the team to collect “vital and previously undiscovered information,” Crump said in the statement.
“We are confident that the information uncovered will allow the DOJ to keep the investigation of what happened to Terrance active and moving forward to earn justice for his memory and all those who loved him.”
Janine Zeitlin is an enterprise reporter in Southwest Florida. Connect with her at email@example.com or on Twitter @JanineZeitlin.