William DeShazer/Naples Daily News
The Last Ride investigates a disturbing mystery, examines systemic problems in media and policing and illuminates the deep wounds that are left when no one is held accountable. Listen to The Last Ride on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.
Nearly two decades ago, I was searching through my Southwest Florida newspaper’s archives and spotted this tragic headline:
It topped a 2004 letter to the editor written by Marcia Williams.
Her letter read, in part:
Please help me find my son, Terrance Williams. On Jan. 12, my son was driving to Naples from Bonita Springs. According to eyewitnesses, at approximately 9 a.m. he was pulled over by a Collier County Sheriff’s deputy.
Cpl. Steven Calkins searched him and put him in the back of his vehicle and drove him somewhere! He has not been seen or heard from since.
We miss him terribly! Please answer a heartbroken mother’s plea.
The letter, buried on page D17 of the Naples Daily News, was stunning for many reasons.
For one, Terrance Williams was the second young man of color to go missing after being seen in the patrol car of Deputy Steven Calkins, a veteran of the Collier County Sheriff’s office. Terrance disappeared in January 2004.
Michel Fortier/Naples Daily News
Three months earlier, in October 2003, on the same street in Naples, Felipe Santos vanished after getting into the same deputy’s patrol car. Both men were driving illegally. Instead of taking them to jail, Calkins said he dropped them off at different Circle-K stores. But his stories could never be backed up.
Marcia Williams didn’t know about the disappearance of Felipe Santos when she wrote the letter, but her plea helped to connect the hurting families.
As the story coalesced — two missing men, one deputy, zero charged — another stunning aspect was that there was so little media coverage. It was straight out of the “missing white woman syndrome” lesson from journalism school on how media often fail missing people of color while saturating coverage on young, pretty missing white women.
The letter from Terrance’s mother led to one of my first investigative stories as a young reporter. I’ve followed the mystery throughout my career. Over the years, my colleagues and I sought to tell the haunting story of these Florida disappearances in a more impactful way, especially once previously confidential audio and case notes were released.
The disappearances gnawed at the families, the police, us, and our community. Maybe a podcast could get the cases to more people? Spur new ideas? Jostle memories?
The Last Ride, an eight-episode deep dive into the mystery, is the result.
‘I’m not going to give up’
I met Marcia Williams in 2005.
When I interviewed her, I recall seeing boxes of her son’s belongings in her Naples home. A suede coat. A Ralph Lauren shirt with the tag still attached. All just left behind. “I pray every night. I know God is tired of me,” she said then. “I’m not going to give up.”
By that time, Calkins had been fired after an internal affairs investigation related to Terrance’s disappearance found about two dozen instances where his statements were untruthful, misleading or contradictory. Several law enforcement agencies investigated, but they never found criminal evidence to implicate him.
David Ahntholz/Naples Daily News
I also interviewed Felipe Santos’ father. He told me Felipe came to the United States from Mexico at 19 with dreams of making money and starting a family. And, in the news reports I’ve dug up, I still look to be the last reporter who interviewed Calkins.
I think he only talked to me back then because I dropped in the fact that we share a hometown in rural Illinois.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” he told me as his children played in the yard of his Naples home.
Struggling to get attention on the case
In the many years since, there have been several major developments.
Filmmaker Tyler Perry became an advocate for the families of the missing men and offered a reward for tips. Perry stood with Marcia Williams at a 2018 press conference and underscored how hard it was to draw media interest to the disappearances.
“When somebody goes missing and they are a blue-eyed, blonde woman, it’s all over the news,” Perry said at the time. “This woman has been struggling privately for many, many years just to get attention.”
After Terrance went missing, his family pleaded for coverage from national outlets. Most didn’t take much notice until Perry learned of the story nearly a decade after the disappearances and used his platform to highlight them.
William DeShazer/Naples Daily News
When we were putting together The Last Ride, the 2021 disappearance of 22-year-old Gabby Petito dominated headlines. Stories of her disappearance, the discovery of her remains and the search for her boyfriend, who killed her and then himself, were immediate and nonstop.
The difference in coverage between her disappearance and the missing men was stark.
In 2022, The Columbia Journalism Review came out with a tool that uses data to analyze such disparities. Many people in the media are aware of these disparities but haven’t bothered or figured out how to fix them.
Most missing people are found quickly. So, it’s understandable that the media doesn’t cover all of them. Yet I have firsthand experience of witnessing when they — we — should have.
The pursuit for answers
Five years ago, the family of Terrance Williams filed a civil lawsuit against former deputy Calkins.
Nicole Raucheisen/Naples Daily News
Attorney Ben Crump announced the suit at the 2018 Naples press conference: “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.”
Around that time, my colleagues and I started reporting The Last Ride. Veteran reporters Ryan Mills and Melanie Payne were just as haunted by the cases. Why were they never solved? Did law enforcement drop the ball? Did we?
Our pursuit of answers went from Florida to Tennessee to Illinois to Iowa. We interviewed investigators, witnesses, Tyler Perry, Ben Crump and advocates and relatives of the missing men. We scrutinized hundreds of pages of records. And we followed the civil suit to its abrupt conclusion. Steven Calkins successfully fought the suit. The podcast features compelling court audio, dramatic polygraphs and questioning of Calkins.
This mystery began as a local story, but the issues are universal.
Janine Zeitlin is the host of The Last Ride and an award-winning Florida journalist.
The Last Ride is distributed by the NPR Network, reported by veteran journalists with the Naples Daily News and The Fort Myers News-Press, part of the USA Today Network, and produced in partnership with WGCU Public Media. Listen on Spotify or Apple Podcasts.
This story originally appeared on NPR