NAPLES, Fla. (AP) — Filmmaker Tyler Perry is offering a $100,000 reward for information in the decade-old case of two men who went missing after separate encounters with a sheriff's deputy in southwestern Florida.
Perry joined the Rev. Al Sharpton and NAACP president and CEO Ben Jealous at a news conference Thursday in Naples to discuss the missing-person investigations of Terrance Williams and Felipe Santos.
Santos and Williams disappeared three months apart in the Naples area in 2003 after crossing paths with Collier County Sheriff's Deputy Steven Calkins. He was never charged but was fired the next year.
Perry said the media was not paying enough attention to missing-person cases involving minorities. Williams was black and Santos was an illegal immigrant from Mexico.
When he announced the reward, a man stepped from the front of the crowd to tell Perry something, indicating he had information to offer.
"Wow. I have been praying for an answer for this family and I wasn't expecting this moment," Perry said after the encounter. "I am beyond overwhelmed by it. And just like this man has come forward, I am sure there are others. You do not have to be afraid. The sheriff here has assured me that he will be safe and anyone else that wants to say anything or speak out about this will be safe."
Sharpton said Perry called him to admonish him and others about the cases.
"Why aren't you civil rights leaders dealing with cases of missing people?" Sharpton said Perry asked him. "And he began telling me the story of Terrence Williams, saying if we fight for what's right, how do we forget about people who just disappeared? And I felt guilty, because he's right. All of us have not done all we should."
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.
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 dropped him off.
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.
A phone number listed for Calkins was not in service.
"I think in this community, people are afraid to speak up," Marcia Williams said after the news conference. "They don't want to get involved.'"
Williams said she has shown news reports of her son's disappearance to his four children. The youngest, a 12-year-old, told her: "Now I understand," the youngest said to her.
A brother and friend of Santos attended the event but declined comment.
Both cases remain open and active, current Collier County Sheriff Kevin Rambosk said.
"We have vetted all tips received thus far and continue to monitor and update national databases," he said. "Today, however, is different" because Perry and others' involvement would "have a positive effect on the continuing investigation into these cases."