Without a trace, but strangely similar

Published May 29, 2005|Updated Aug. 25, 2005

Somewhere along the wide, palm-lined streets just north of Naples, Felipe Santos vanished.

He disappeared without warning on a Tuesday morning, on his way to work.

Santos and two of his brothers were driving to a construction job, about 6:30 a.m., when his white Ford struck another car beside the Green Tree Shopping Center.

Damage was minor. No one was hurt.

A Collier County deputy arrived at the scene and wrote up Santos for driving without a license, not having insurance and careless driving.

The deputy put Santos in a patrol car and drove away. Later that day, Santos' construction foreman contacted the Collier County jail so his brothers could bail him out.

But Santos wasn't in the jail. He never had been.

The deputy would later say he never arrested Santos, that he decided instead to drive him to a Circle K store and let him go.

That was more than a year ago, on Oct. 14, 2003, and Santos' family has not seen him since.

Months later, a lawyer from St. Petersburg named Linda Friedman Ramirez started looking into the case, trying to figure why a grown man with a young family would simply disappear. At a loss, she went to the Internet and typed in the name of the deputy, "Steven Calkins."

Instead of finding answers, she stumbled onto a deeper mystery.

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Onto Ramirez's computer popped these words:

Has anyone seen my son?

It was a letter to the editor, published in the Naples Daily News.

The letter came from a woman named Marcia Bugg, who told a sad story. On Jan. 12, 2004, her son Terrance Williams, who was 27, was driving a white Cadillac north of Naples, without a valid driver's license, insurance or registration.

A Collier County deputy stopped him.

"Cpl. Steven Calkins searched him and put him in the back of his vehicle and drove him somewhere!" Bugg wrote.

"He has not been seen or heard from since."

Calkins, now 50, would later say he did not arrest Williams, that he decided instead to drive him to a Circle K convenience store and let him go.

Just like Santos.

When Ramirez read the letter on her computer screen and realized that two people had disappeared in the same way, after last contact with the same deputy sheriff, she felt a chill.

"It was just very, very upsetting."

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Santos' brother filed a complaint with the Sheriff's Office, and Calkins was quickly cleared of wrongdoing. But when Williams' mother filed a new complaint last year, the department opened another investigation into Calkins, who had worked for the Sheriff's Office since 1987. Calkins, a former Illinois farmer, was a veteran road deputy who once received commendations for helping to lift an overturned pickup off a man who was suffocating underneath.

Calkins laid out his version of his encounter with Williams, but the version seemed to change as investigators asked new questions.

Officials ultimately reached a firm conclusion: Calkins was lying. He was fired last August.

Collier County Sheriff Don Hunter acknowledged just before firing Calkins that the combination of two vanished men was "a coincidence in the extreme."

But the sheriff also said the two men were wanted by police, either just before their disappearances or just after. "These men may therefore be purposely avoiding being found by law enforcement," he said.

He added: "I emphasize that there is no evidence to indicate foul play."

No one has been arrested in the disappearances. No bodies have been found. No one contacted by the Times says they have heard from Santos or Williams.

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Collier County is a fast-growing swath of southwest Florida. Swamps are giving way to Starbucks in the affluent suburbia north of Naples, on the Gulf Coast. But in farmland to the east, near Immokalee, the Mexican, Guatemalan and Haitian migrants still hand-pick tomatoes and fruit in blistering heat.

More than a year has passed since Santos and Williams disappeared. Two families are grieving, praying, coping.

"Every day, I think where is he?" said Santos' father, Catarino Santos, who is in his mid 50s and was interviewed by telephone from the rural state of Oaxaca, in southern Mexico.

Santos' daughter Brittany is about to turn 2, but doesn't know her dad. The girl's mother, Apolonia Cruz, 19, is raising her in Oaxaca.

Meanwhile, at an apartment in Naples, Terrance Williams' mother, Marcia Bugg, wakes at 7 every morning to the beep-beep-beep of two of her son's watches, which she keeps at her bedside. Then Bugg, 45, rises and goes to work at a local bank.

"Every morning I read my Bible. When I go to bed I read my Bible, I talk to God and I pray. And that's how I'm coping when I get too stressed out. I don't talk. I am so mentally drained, not physically, mentally. And I'm just so tired because this is constantly on my mind."

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At the time he disappeared, Santos was 23. His family in Oaxaca describes him as humble, hard working, a guy who likes basketball and soccer. He was el segundo, the second of five brothers. Santos, an undocumented alien, had spent three years working in Florida farm fields and construction sites and sending money back home.

On the morning of Oct. 14, 2003, Santos wasn't feeling well. He talked about staying home from work. Apolonia encouraged him to.

"I told him it didn't matter to miss one day," Cruz said.

He left for work anyway, but never made it there.

After the accident near Green Tree Shopping Center, the other driver, Camille Churchill, said the brothers approached her and offered to pay her, saying "No, no police."

But Calkins came to the scene, next to a Mobil station. The deputy checked the license tag of the white Ford and found it registered to Santos, who had no driver's license. Calkins asked for proof of insurance and Santos said he didn't have any.

"At that time I placed Felipe under arrest for having no D/L and put him in my back seat," Calkins wrote in an undated memo.

But then he changed his mind. "I then decided not to take (Santos) to jail as he was being very polite and cooperative."

Calkins said instead of simply leaving Santos behind _ making it too easy for him to drive his car away illegally _ he drove Santos to a Circle K a mile away.

"Because the police took him, I was sure he was in jail," said Santos' brother Jorge, 27.

Now back in Mexico, he seeks understanding.

"If we just knew something, a little information," he said.

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Terrance Williams grew up in Chattanooga, Tenn. He wore dreadlocks and liked to look good; he was so fussy about his appearance he even ironed his T-shirts.

In Tennessee, he worked construction and had four children, but was not married. He got into some scrapes there. He pleaded guilty in a robbery in 1995, according to court records, and got 11 months, part of which was probation. His mother says he owed child support and spent 55 days in jail after a DUI charge. After that, he decided to fly down to Florida to be near his mother.

Collier sheriff's spokeswoman Sheri Mausen says, "On Jan. 14, 2004, Williams was to appear in court in Hamilton County (Tenn.)." If he failed to show up on that child support case, but was found in Hamilton County again, "he would have had to serve 60 days in jail and pay a $5,000 fine," Mausen said in an e-mail.

Jan. 14 was two days after Williams' encounter with Calkins.

Williams worked at a Pizza Hut in Bonita Springs and shared an apartment with a roommate. But he still spoke almost daily with his mother. They would spend Sundays driving to the mall, browsing at stores and eating dinner at Chili's, Red Lobster or at home.

That's why Bugg was so worried when her son didn't call on the Monday he disappeared.

On Tuesday, she checked in with his roommate and struggled to stay in control. "I said okay, . . . we're not going to panic."

But Williams didn't call Wednesday either, and Bugg's hopes disappeared with her son. Collapsing, she left work early.

"I told my husband . . . "He's not coming back.' "

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Calkins told investigators he came upon Williams on Jan. 12, 2004, near Naples Memorial Gardens Cemetery, when he saw an older white Cadillac that "appeared to be having some problems."

At some point, Calkins got on his cell phone and asked a Cpl. Dave Jolicoeur to run the VIN number of the Cadillac, to confirm who owned it.

This conversation was taped, and when sheriff's investigators later reviewed it, they were not amused. The two white men talked in exaggerated black dialect about a car that belonged to an African-American man:

"What the f--- are you doin'?" Calkins asked.

"What are you doin' sucka?" Jolicoeur responded.

"Well, I got a "homie' Cadillac on the side of the road here, signal 11, signal 52, nobody around," Calkins said.

"All right."

"The tag comes back to nothin', it's a big old white piece of junk Cadillac. . . . I'm towin' it," Calkins said.

"You tow it baby, give me the VIN number."

After reading the dispatcher the VIN number, Calkins predicted, "It's gonna come back to one of the brothers in Fort Myers."

Later, after learning there was no registration for the car, Calkins said, "That's a hell of a deal."

"It's a homes' car."

Jolicoeur later explained that he and Calkins were using language from the "Dirty Harry" movie Sudden Impact. Jolicoeur admitted to "poor judgment" and said this type of conversation had "just kind of become an ongoing thing with us and, unfortunately, I got caught on tape saying that."

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According to Calkins, Williams asked him "for a ride so he would not lose his job and that it was just up to the Circle K at Wiggins Pass Road."

As Calkins later explained, Williams "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 . . . and very respectful of me and very well-spoken."

So, Calkins said, he drove Williams to the Circle K and then let him know his license tag had expired. He did not explain why he didn't tell Williams about the expired tag earlier. Calkins did not arrest Williams for driving without a valid license.

Calkins said Williams told him he had a valid registration and receipt in his glove compartment in the Cadillac. So, as Calkins tells it, he left the Circle K, and drove back to the Cadillac alone.

The glove compartment was empty.

"Bing, bang, boom. I gave the kid a ride and he duped me, obviously," Calkins explained. He said he phoned the Circle K and the clerk told him she didn't know any Terrance.

Although Calkins' statement doesn't indicate it, Williams actually worked at a Pizza Hut about 2 miles further north in Bonita Springs.

Investigators found a slew of problems with Calkins' account. Among them:

+ He told dispatcher Jolicoeur he was investigating an abandoned car ("signal 11"), even though his later statement indicates Williams was driving it when he stopped him.

+ Phone records show Calkins never used his cell phone to call the Circle K, as he had claimed.

+ No one at the Circle K remembered getting a call from a deputy that day.

+ Calkins later called another dispatcher, gave Williams' date of birth, and asked for a background check. Calkins said he was alone. But investigators came to strongly doubt his story, because where would he have gotten the date of birth? Not from the car, because it had no registration. Not from Williams, because he wasn't by the car anymore. Even more troubling, the date of birth that Calkins gave was not Williams' real birth date, but a false one Williams previously gave out when in trouble.

"So Terrance would know that date of birth," Collier Sgt. John Morrisseau said, "but nobody else would."

+ Investigators gave Calkins three lie detector tests. He passed some questions but failed others.

The polygraph examiner asked: "After you dropped Terrance at the Circle K, did you have any further contact with him?"

Calkins said no. According to the lie detector test, he failed that question.

"I might have been a little sloppy, I might have been a little lazy, and for that I'm truly sorry," Calkins told investigators in a sworn statement on March 30, 2004, that was among his last acts as a Collier County deputy. "But I honestly believe that I have not lied about anything."

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Collier County sheriff's officials said they have pursued the case aggressively. They interviewed Calkins. They went over his patrol car looking for blood, but found none. They soared over North Naples in helicopters, scanning swampy spots where someone might ditch a body. They check in with the medical examiner's office when bodies are found.

"Nobody would like to solve this better than this agency," said Capt. Jim Williams of the Professional Responsibility Bureau, similar to internal affairs.

"It won't be over until they're found," said Morrisseau.

Since the Santos case, the Sheriff's Office has changed its policies. Deputies on patrol are now required to let dispatchers know any time they are transporting someone in their patrol cars.

But sometimes people disappear. And sometimes lightning strikes twice.

Both men had reasons they might not have wanted to see police. Santos was an undocumented alien who spoke limited English, cited for driving without a license. And if Calkins' story is to be believed, Williams knew he had duped an officer and might face charges. Plus, according to the Sheriff's Office, he faced the Tennessee child support case.

Deputies say they know of no obvious motive for Calkins to harm Santos or Williams.

And Calkins stopped both men on busy streets in broad daylight and "no evidence . . . indicated that they were even having heated exchanges . . . let alone any physical kind of contact," Williams said.

Inside Calkins' personnel file, there is little hint of trouble, but plenty of testimonials. A lieutenant wrote, "I like having heroes on my team," after Calkins helped give CPR to a 78-year-old man suffering a heart attack in 1997, and a captain said in 1996 that "I am proud to have worked directly with you and I know your performance will always be of high quality."

About the only sour note was his explanation in 2000 for refusing to take "Field Force Training."

"I need to take care of my family at night. I am 46 years old and have seen enough. I have the nightmares to prove it."

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He opens the front door for a reporter and steps onto the porch of a nicely kept white house with green shutters, in a lush subdivision, not far from the Circle K stores where Santos and Williams disappeared.

He is tanned and wearing khaki shorts, no shirt, and reading glasses. His graying hair is brushed back, probably longer than the days when he wore a uniform.

Former Cpl. Steven Calkins says he is married and has three children. He closes the door and the kids are out of earshot.

"I was just doing my job as far as I'm concerned," he said.

Calkins said a road deputy like him sees all kinds of people, all day long, and who can predict what happens afterward. He said he has no idea what became of Santos and Williams.

"I don't know if these guys are missing, I don't know anything about it," he said. He expressed frustration that no one in the Sheriff's Office comes by to tell him what is happening. He said he's sympathetic to the families of Santos and Williams.

"I hope and pray everyone is fine and they're all . . . with their families."

Calkins said he was a good deputy who did not deserve to be fired.

For him, the question is why he got kicked out of the department after so many good years. He said it's not fair. He can't explain why it all happened.

"Call it bad luck," he said. "Call it fate."

Times staff writer Marilyn Garateix contributed to this report.


Two men disappeared in Collier County more than a year ago, after getting rides from then-Collier sheriff's Cpl. Steve Calkins. Calkins says that after an Oct. 14, 2003 accident (1), he drove Felipe Santos to a Circle K store (2) Calkins says that on Jan. 12, 2004, he gave Terrance Williams a ride from a cemetery (3) to a different Circle K store (4). Calkins denies knowing what happened to the men afterward.

(2) Jan. 12, 2004: Calkins says he drove Williams to this Circle K store.

(4) Oct. 14, 2003: Calkins says he drove Santos to this Circle K store.

In the small dining room of her Naples apartment, Marcia Bugg stands surrounded by the belongings of her son Terrance Williams, who has been missing with no trace for more than a year. Bugg uses the alarms on Williams' watches to wake her up each morning.

Former Collier County sheriff's Cpl. Steven Calkins says he picked up Terrance Williams near Naples Memorial Gardens Cemetery, top, then drove him to a Circle K convenience store where Calkins says Williams said he worked. Calkins, who had worked for the Sheriff's Office since 1987, was fired last year.