Two missing men, one deputy, zero charged. What happened? The podcast The Last Ride examines systemic problems in media and policing and illuminates the deep wounds that are left when no one is held accountable.

Two missing men, one deputy, zero charged. Join us on a pursuit for answers

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This is the time when we get to share a podcast we love from the NPR network. The Last Ride from WGCU Public Media and the USA Today Network-Florida looks at the disappearances of two young men of color. Felipe Santos and Terrance Williams each vanished three months apart on the same road in Naples, Fla., nearly 20 years ago. They were both last seen with the same white sheriff's deputy, a man named Steven Calkins. The deputy, who has since been fired, said he gave the men rides to Circle K stores, stories that could never be corroborated. Calkins denies any wrongdoing. He's the only person of interest, but he's never been charged. In fact, no one has. These unsolved cases gained renewed attention five years ago when two high-profile figures held a press conference with Marcia Williams, the mother of Terrance Williams. Journalist Janine Zeitlin hosts The Last Ride and picks up the story.


JANINE ZEITLIN: Filmmaker Tyler Perry and notable civil rights attorney Ben Crump came to Naples in 2018 for a press conference. Crump has represented the families of Trayvon Martin, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd. The presence of Perry and Crump and the resulting media attention was a huge victory for Marcia. Early on, she had begged the press to cover these cases.


BEN CRUMP: We're here to announce that we are filing a civil wrongful death lawsuit where he will be subpoenaed and he will be made to come to be deposed and give sworn testimony for the first time to answer all the questions that Marcia Williams has for him. This lawsuit is going to formally say what people have been informally saying, and that is that he intentionally murdered Terrance Williams and Felipe Santos.

ZEITLIN: Finally, someone had said out loud what so many people believed but what Steven Calkins has always denied.


CRUMP: These two young men disappear off the face of the earth, and the last person to see them live was this sheriff's deputy. And his stories were so inconsistent, so unbelievable. And even though he had all those inconsistencies, there were no charges filed.


ZEITLIN: Calkins is a person of interest in the cases. The only person of interest, according to the Collier County Sheriff's Office. No criminal evidence has been found implicating Calkins, yet he was fired from the sheriff's office after lying and changing the story about his interactions with Terrance. Crump said during the press conference that a judge could compel Calkins to talk as part of the civil suit. Calkins had stopped talking to investigators about the cases more than a decade ago. Maybe the lawsuit would bring the answers Marcia Williams deserved. Crump turned it over to Tyler Perry.


TYLER PERRY: Good morning. I really don't want to be here in this moment. I wish none of us had to be here in this moment. This has got to bother you. If you are a decent, human, kind person with a soul, I don't know how you can sit and not be upset that these two people - Black, white, Mexican, doesn't even matter - would be put in the back of a sheriff's deputy's car - someone we are supposed to trust - put in the car and then they disappear. I don't know anyone who that would not move unless you just have a heart of stone.

ZEITLIN: Then Perry announced he was offering a $200,000 reward for tips, and he moved on to address an ugly media pattern. Missing white women get way more coverage than missing men and missing people of color.


PERRY: I hesitate to say this, but it's so true. When somebody goes missing and they are a blue-eyed, blonde woman, it's all over the news. This woman has been struggling privately for many, many years just to get attention. No one would even give her attention.

ZEITLIN: This is a good place to note - I'm blonde-haired and blue-eyed, and I recognize that the fight for attention these families have waged would never happen to my family if I went missing. I saw what media bias looked like in my own community, my own newsroom. It took even longer for the cases to make a ripple outside of Naples, as Perry told it.


PERRY: I had a reporter tell me - an actual reporter from a major network - when I called trying to get attention saying, well, the victims aren't sympathetic. They aren't sympathetic. Those are the exact words that were said to me. So they didn't want to run the story. But you have the power in here to help this story get out.

ZEITLIN: Honestly, I was surprised that a reporter for a major network would be so blatant in their indifference. And maybe this cuts to the heart of what went wrong - Felipe and Terrance weren't initially seen as victims.

MCCAMMON: Host Janine Zeitlin and journalist Ryan Mills and Melanie Payne spent years following the two cases. We're going to play you another portion of Episode 1 now. This focuses on the case of Felipe Santos, a young immigrant from Mexico who disappeared after a minor traffic accident. Deputy Calkins said he gave Santos a ride to a nearby gas station. Santos was never seen again. Here's host Janine Zeitlin.


ZEITLIN: Felipe was 23. He had been working in the United States a few years and sending money back to his family in Oaxaca, Mexico. He was a farm worker and also worked construction, where the pay is better. Felipe lived with his family in Immokalee, an immigrant-rich farming town that supplies southwest Florida with labor. About 40 miles separate Immokalee from Naples, yet the differences are stark. In Immokalee's downtown, roosters meander through parking lots of Latin grocery stores. In downtown Naples, you can throw a rock and hit a Rolls-Royce. In Immokalee, you see a lot of people riding bikes because they don't have driver's licenses, and many don't have licenses because they're undocumented. Felipe did not have a license and he was undocumented.

The morning of October 14, 2003, Felipe was driving a 1988 white Ford Tempo on Immokalee Road, which connects Immokalee in the east to North Naples on the Gulf Coast. Felipe's brothers, Jorge and Salvador, were in the car, too. They were concrete workers. South Florida was in one of its many construction booms. There were plenty of jobs to go around. The sun had just started to come up. It was before 7. In the lane next to Felipe and his brothers was Camille Churchill. She was headed to her job as a security guard at a gated community, which are plentiful here. She was driving a white Mazda Protege, according to records.

CAMILLE CHURCHILL: He came over without realizing I was passing him, and he kind of made contact with me. I made contact with the next car. My car was spinning out.

ZEITLIN: That's Camille in a 2019 interview with Melanie and Ryan.

CHURCHILL: He was acting like he was going to flee. So I pointed at him and said, go to Green Tree Plaza. And so he did. And we get out of the car. He offered me money. I said, no, I want this on record because it's - I've been in a lot of accidents, and most of them are my fault. And this one wasn't.

ZEITLIN: Nobody was hurt, but Camille wanted the crash on record for insurance. She called the police. In sheriff's records, it says the caller, quote, "chased the Mexicans." They waited for the police. Deputy Steven Calkins arrived on the scene.

CHURCHILL: First thing he says - what happened? I says, you know, we were in an accident. And he just was shaking his head saying, I'm really getting sick of this [expletive]. And I figured he meant the same thing that I was frustrated about - immigrants driving with no license, insurance. It's not just immigrants either. I've had a boyfriend that didn't have a license. He drove all over the place. And it's just - it happens a lot in Florida.

ZEITLIN: Ryan pressed Camille for more details on how Calkins reacted.

RYAN MILLS: I mean, you said he was friendly with you. He was professional with you. Did you see any change in the demeanor when he was dealing with Felipe and his...

CHURCHILL: Not really, no.

ZEITLIN: But what she said reminded me of something I had seen in Calkins' personnel file. The exact date of the report is unclear, but one of his performance reviews noted that Calkins had received counseling around 1999 from a superior for, quote, "his unprofessional behavior toward citizens." Camille said that Calkins did another thing that she found odd.

CHURCHILL: There was something strange, but - I don't know if you have it in your notes, but he took us for a reenactment of the car accident.

MILLS: No, that - this is the first time I've heard about that.

CHURCHILL: No police officer has ever done that in all the accidents I have been in. I got shotgun, and he put Felipe in the back. So he goes - drives down the Immokalee Road, turns around, comes back. And I don't know if Felipe was understanding what was going on 'cause he - I don't think he spoke very good English. He was sitting like this in the cop car, leaning forward, listening to what was going on. I don't think he said anything.

ZEITLIN: That whole reenactment thing - that struck me as weird, too. On the other hand, it could be seen as diligent police work. Ryan asked a Collier County Sheriff's Office investigator about it. That was certainly not standard procedure, he told Ryan, but it wouldn't set off alarm bells.

CHURCHILL: Then when he went to drop me off, my supervisor was there to pick me up to take me to work. So I just got out of the car, said, am I good to go? He said, yes. I got in the supervisor's car and left.

ZEITLIN: Camille's car had a flat tire after the crash, so she left it there. She still carries some guilt for her role on that morning. Felipe had offered her money not to call the cops.

CHURCHILL: Thinking back, I should have took the money and ran. If I would have known - but we don't have a crystal ball to tell us what's going to happen in the future.

ZEITLIN: She didn't see Calkins arrest or handcuff Felipe, but she assumed Calkins would take Felipe to jail. So did Felipe's brothers, Jorge and Salvador, who saw Calkins put Felipe in the patrol car. Certainly these were logical conclusions. Felipe was driving without a license and without insurance. The Santos family grew concerned when Felipe didn't return home. They grew even more concerned when they checked the jail, said Julia Perkins with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. She and the coalition have helped advocate for the family.

JULIA PERKINS: They started to get answers about where he wasn't, right? He wasn't in jail. He wasn't in any of the local hospitals. There wasn't any more information. I think as that developed, they started to get more and more worried, right? Where, then, could he be?

ZEITLIN: This question would go unanswered. There has never been another confirmed sighting of Felipe Santos since he was seen in Deputy Calkins' patrol car. But why did the police initially think that Felipe had fled the country, and why was his family so convinced that he didn't?

MCCAMMON: Some of the most compelling moments in The Last Ride are the recordings of polygraph sessions with and interrogations of then-deputy Steven Calkins. Listeners hear how Calkins was questioned about his failure to report the traffic stop with Terrance Williams.


ZEITLIN: Records show that Calkins did not radio the traffic stop in as required by policy, nor did he enter it into his mobile data terminal. A sheriff's sergeant asked why Calkins didn't initially report his interactions with Terrance.


STEVEN CALKINS: I was in a hurry. I was going to the substation. That was my time of the day to go to the sub. That's why I keep saying it was around noon. I know it was around noonish. I don't check out this stuff sometimes the way I should. There's a lot of radio traffic this time of the year. I'm old-fashioned. It's a bad habit - not getting on the radio right away on things.

ZEITLIN: Calkins told me in an interview several years ago that he didn't report giving Terrance a ride because he was having a busy day and wanted to get to lunch. However, dispatch records show he did report other calls that day.

MCCAMMON: During a third polygraph session, the interviewer begins to push back on Calkins' inability to answer whether Williams was with him when he called in for an ID.


UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: Out of all the things I asked you in here today, was Terrance with you when you ran his April 1, 1975, date of birth over your Nextel? That's the question that you can't answer. And when you do say no to it, you're not telling us the truth about it.

CALKINS: Maybe it's not a yes-or-no answer. Maybe it's an I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: I can't see how it can be...

CALKINS: I can't remember.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: We want you to tell us the truth about it so that when you're answering the questions...

CALKINS: I am telling the truth.


CALKINS: I told the truth right along. You guys keep trying...

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: You told the truth about some things, but not about this.

CALKINS: I told the truth about everything.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: Steve, you had a lot of time to sit back and think about it. You know...

CALKINS: The whole day was insignificant to me.


ZEITLIN: Then, the questioning took a darker turn.


UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: The fact is that every time we ask you a question, we have to go back and get clarification. And every time we have to go back and get clarification, it makes - it looks like you're trying to hide something. And if you're trying to hide this, what else are you trying to hide? Do we got a body laying around in the sticks somewhere that we don't know about? I mean, are we going to be clearing - are we going to be widening, you know, Immokalee Road down through Wiggins Pass someday and all of a sudden find out that we got a dead body out there? You know, I don't think any one of us want to sit here and say that that's the case.

But you have to look at it from an outsider's point of view. I mean, we're working, like we work any case, to prove what you're telling us is truthful. If what you're telling us is truthful, then you should not be having a problem, Steve. You know, I mean, I don't know what to tell you. The only thing we're trying to do is make sure that what you're telling us is the truth.

CALKINS: I think I've told you everything I want to tell you.


CALKINS: In fact, I've told you everything I can think of.

UNIDENTIFIED INTERVIEWER: Well, obviously not everything.

ZEITLIN: The examiner issued his official findings - deception indicated.

MCCAMMON: That was Janine Zeitlin, host of the podcast The Last Ride from USA Today Network-Florida and WGCU Public Media. You can find all eight episodes wherever you get your podcasts.

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