On Sunday, there was a part of me that had a hard time celebrating Mother’s Day. It’s the part that remembers all the mothers whose children have disappeared. One mom in particular.
Let me stop here for a second to let that sink in. Are you feeling the same shock as me? For 18 years, Marcia has lived with that pain, of not knowing what happened to her only child.
“We want you to understand that we are on a serious mission in this life and will not give up until we have some sense of closure,” Marcia writes in her poem “Patience.” “There will be moments too hard to speak about. We are an elite group of people. We are victims of the missing.”
Can you imagine what that’s like? I barely can. And tragically, Marcia has plenty of company.
Let’s find the missing people of color
Though you wouldn’t necessarily know it from news coverage, African Americans are more likely than other groups to go missing. We are 13% of the population but make up a larger proportion – nearly 35% in a recent year – of the more than 1,500 Americans reported missing every day.
Marcia’s story is the one that has grabbed my attention and captured my heart. As a director and actor, I do a lot of work in comedy. But this is a tragedy where I had to get involved. I can’t let it go.
Every day of her long vigil, Marcia has fought for answers, and for justice. To date, here’s all she knows for sure: On that January morning in Naples, Florida, Collier County Sheriff’s Deputy Steven Calkins pulled Terrance over in his old, white Cadillac at the Naples Memorial Gardens Cemetery. Terrance was driving without a license. But instead of taking him to jail, Calkins claims he gave the young man a lift to a nearby Circle K gas station. Calkins says that’s the last time he saw Terrance Williams.
Finding out that much took some doing for Marcia. When the authorities showed little interest, she became the lead investigator. Brutal necessity made this mother inventive. She got together with other family members to call everywhere in Naples that might lead to Terrance.
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They tracked down the Cadillac in a tow yard, where they were told it had been picked up at the cemetery. That’s where the ingenious Marcia went, bringing a notary friend. The two took sworn affidavits from the cemetery workers who had seen Calkins take Terrance away.
Marcia confronted the sheriff’s office with what she had found and documented, and the office began asking questions. When a dispatcher called Calkins at home just a few days after he drove away with Terrance, somehow Calkins could remember neither Terrance nor the white Cadillac. In the following weeks, during an internal police investigation, his story shifted and twisted, to something neither provable nor disprovable.
Sheriff’s investigators found a call Calkins had made to dispatch the day Terrance disappeared.
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When I first heard this recording, I remember being sickened. That call, and a prior performance review saying Calkins “needs to improve on community relations,” might give a sense of who this person is.
During those fraught weeks after Terrance disappeared, Marcia wrote a letter to the editor of the Naples Daily News, asking the public for help: “Please answer a heartbroken mother’s plea.” The response she received was chilling. It came in the form of a phone call from the Mexican Consulate.
The caller told Marcia about another young man of color who had also vanished in Naples, three months before Terrance. Felipe Santos, a 23-year-old undocumented immigrant from Mexico, had gotten into a fender bender one morning on his way to a job site. The sheriff’s deputy who arrived on the scene took him away in the back of his cruiser. Felipe Santos was never seen again.
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That deputy was Calkins. As with Terrance, Calkins did not take Felipe to jail. He claimed to have dropped him off at a Circle K.
In Mexico, Felipe’s mother is grieving, too. At the time he vanished, Felipe had just had his first child, a baby daughter. For the past 18 years, that girl’s mother has missed her partner, and the girl has grown up without her father.
Security camera footage from the Circle Ks that Calkins had mentioned was scanned without a glimpse of Calkins and the two young men. There are no witnesses that attest to Calkins’ story. He failed a polygraph. Calkins was fired – not for murder, for lying.
No charges were filed against him. Since there are no bodies, mounting a homicide prosecution is remorselessly hard. Calkins picked up and moved to Iowa. It would take nearly two decades before he was brought in for a sworn deposition. By then, he could shrug off all the many lapses in his recall.
‘Never Seen Again’
I had something to do with making that deposition happen. In 2012, I heard about Marcia. I reached out to her and heard the pain, the frustration, the anger in her voice. Well, I have a voice, too. I thought, there’s no way this could be happening in America now. We cannot be back, living in Emmett Till’s mother Mamie’s heartache again.
What can I do to help? I put up a reward for information. I enlisted civil rights attorney Ben Crump to file a wrongful death civil suit against Calkins. And I’ve been working on a documentary. This Tuesday, this story will be told in great detail as part of a new CBS series, “Never Seen Again,” on Paramount+.
Nowadays, much of the country has woken up. We’ve witnessed police brutality against people of color, with one video after another. But before our cellphones had cameras, before Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland and Ahmaud Arbery, before Eric Garner and George Floyd, there was another, more insidious strain of the problem. A version that doesn’t explode with raw aggression, but seeps along by way of sheer neglect.
When the person who has gone missing has blond hair and blue eyes, the case is all over the news. Every resource goes into finding out what happened and, if foul play is suspected, catching the killer. But if the victim isn’t white?
I thought about Marcia this past Mother’s Day. I want answers for her. I carry her in my heart, I pray for her. I don’t care what your race is. I don’t know any parent who would not be standing with her, to help find out what happened to her son.
Tyler Perry is an American actor, director, producer and screenwriter.