TAMPA, Florida (AP) _ Felipe Santos, an illegal immigrant from Mexico, and Terrance Williams, a black man, had little in common until about eight years ago. That was when they disappeared three months apart in the same area of South Florida, both of them right after crossing paths with sheriff's Deputy Steven Calkins.
Investigations by local, state and federal authorities went nowhere. Calkins, who is white, denied doing anything more than dropping off the young men at different convenience stores. He was never charged but was fired after he stopped cooperating with investigators. The men's families were left to wonder and grieve after public interest faded.
Now their disappearance is back in the spotlight, in part because Hollywood star Tyler Perry and civil rights activists are using the Trayvon Martin case to draw attention to what they see as a string of injustices and incomplete investigations involving minorities.
“They were never arrested, never brought to jail,'' Perry wrote Sunday on Tylerperry.com. “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.''
Santos, who did farm work and construction, was 23 when he vanished in October 2003. He had been driving with his brothers to work when he got into a fender bender. He didn't have registration or insurance, and Calkins arrested him, put him in the back of his patrol car and drove away.
When his brothers went to the jail to bail him out, he wasn't there.
Later, Calkins told investigators that because Santos was so cooperative, he decided not to arrest him and instead dropped him off at a store.
Williams, was 27 and had moved to Naples from Tennessee to be closer to his mother after trouble with the police. His white Cadillac broke down in January 2004. Calkins spotted it and called in to the Collier County Sheriff's Office to run the vehicle number and have the car towed. In the recorded conversation, Calkins and the dispatcher both talked in exaggerated black dialect.
Later, Calkins told investigators that Williams asked him for a ride to a store and he let him off there. Police reports said Williams was last spotted by witnesses near a cemetery.
Don Hunter, the Collier County sheriff at the time, said Calkins' patrol car was tested for blood and signs of a struggle, but nothing was found. A tracking device was put on Calkins' car in case he had dumped their bodies and went back to the scene, Hunter said, but again nothing turned up.
The former sheriff noted that both men would have had some reason to disappear _ Santos was in the country illegally, and Williams was due back in court in Tennessee, where he was facing jail time for failure to pay child support.
Hunter eventually fired Calkins, saying that the deputy became uncooperative and that one of the three polygraph tests he took indicated some deception.
A working phone number for Calkins couldn't be found. In a 2006 interview with the Naples Daily News, he called his involvement in the two cases “coincidence extreme,'' and he told other news organizations that he didn't know anything about the disappearances.
In a September 2004 letter to the sheriff, Calkins said that his use of black dialect was “not meant to be offensive,'' but he admitted it was “in poor taste.'' He also asked the agency to reconsider his firing, saying that he was on medication for stress, anxiety and depression, and that a psychologist said he was “burnt out, overwhelmed, under considerable stress at home and work.''
Hunter, the former sheriff, said that before he retired in 2009, he tried to get the story into the news around the anniversary of the men's disappearance in the hope of generating new clues.
“We've done what we could with it,'' said Hunter, now police chief in Marco Island, near Naples. “What I think it's going to finally come down to is whoever had more recent contact (than Calkins) with Mr. Santos or Mr. Williams.''
On Wednesday, Collier County Sheriff's spokeswoman Karie Partington said that the case is still “open and active'' and that investigators are checking out a tip that came in after Hunter appeared on CNN earlier this week. She gave no details.
“We're pleased with the attention it's received recently,'' she said.
Santos' brother Salvador said: “It has made me feel very good to know of Mr. Perry's efforts to publicize the case, and that the case is getting new attention.''
Williams' mother, Marcia Williams, said a march with Perry and the Rev. Al Sharpton is in the works.
“I want to know where my baby is. That's the biggest frustration I have,'' she said. “As far as the Collier County Sheriff's Office, I pray that they did their job, I pray that they left no stone unturned.''