The death of Dennis Gerwing is raising eyebrows among friends -- and some forensic experts -- who say the man they knew and the circumstances of his death may not add up to a suicide.
Gerwing, the only name so far linked to the disappearance of John and Elizabeth Calvert, died last week in what local authorities call an apparent suicide. Heslashed his inner thigh with a knife, presumably severing the femoral artery, and bled to death behind the locked bathroom door of a Sea Pines villa across the street from his office. His body also had stab wounds to the chest, a law enforcement source told The State newspaper in Columbia last week.
The State's sources confirmed that Gerwing's death is being treated as a suicide, but acknowledge that the circumstances were odd.
National forensic experts agree. And friends and business associates of Gerwing attest there's no way the mild-mannered wine connoisseur they knew would be capable of turning a knife on himself.
Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said at a press conference Friday authorities don't suspect anything other than suicide. He also said last week the gash on Gerwing's leg was caused by a knife.
But Tanner on Monday refused to say whether a knife was found in the locked bathroom with Gerwing. The initial Sheriff's Office incident report on the death lists the weapon used as "unknown." The Sheriff's Office rejected a
Freedom of Information Act request from The Island Packet seeking autopsy results. They said the report was not yet complete and that the death is still part of an active investigation.
Several forensic experts say slicing the thigh is a extremely rare form of suicide. Gunshot wounds are the most common method used by men.
Dr. Werner Spitz, a Michigan forensic pathologist who's testified in several high-profile cases including the Phil Spector murder trial, and served on a Congressional committee that reviewed the autopsy of President John F. Kennedy, said he's never seen a suicide caused by cutting the inner thigh in his more than 50 years of experience. That kind of wound is more often associated with homicide or accident victims, he said.
"That's kind of an unusual place," he said. Spitz, however, said it was impossible to be certain without seeing the body.
Also unusual, but not unheard of, is a person stabbing himself in the chest, according to a second national expert, Dr. Cyril H. Wecht, a forensic pathologist and clinical professor at the University of Pittsburgh.
Wecht said it's possible Gerwing slashed his thigh and then plunged the knife into his chest when the leg wound took too long to have an effect or was too painful.
"You're not going to stab yourself in the chest and then pull it out and get your thigh," he said. "That's absurd."
The human heart is quite protected behind the rib cage, sternum and
"A lot of people don't know exactly where their heart is," Wecht said. "They think it's to the left side of the chest, but it's actually a little more to the center than that."
Two notes were found in the villa where Gerwing died. Law enforcement sources told The State that Gerwing, a former business associate of the Calverts, admitted to stealing money from the couple, but did not say he had a hand in their disappearance.
Wecht said it is "puzzling" that Gerwing apparently admitted to skimming money, but remained silent about the Calverts' disappearance. Typically, people who kill themselves clear their conscience when they offer their last words.
If no knife were found at the scene, that also would "raise some eyebrows," Spitz said.
An autopsy was conducted at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston the day after Gerwing died. Dr. Erin Presnell, head of the school's autopsy section, did not participate, but did say pathologists generally look for certain things to determine whether a death was a suicide.
"With suicidal sharp-force injuries, you don't typically see any defense injuries," she said. "You also could see different non-fatal, sharp-force wounds." Such injuries are commonly referred to as "hesitation wounds," where the person slices or stabs himself, but not deeply enough to cause death.
Gerwing, 54, apparently died about 10 hours before authorities publicly called him a "person of interest"
March 11. Gerwing, the last person confirmed to have seen the Calverts, had been interviewed about their disappearance on one occasion for several hours. He hired a lawyer after that interview, and authorities said he stopped cooperating.
Gerwing's body was discovered in a villa in Swallowtail across the street from his office after two attorneys and Gerwing's boss, Mark King, went to check on him. He reportedly had been staying in the villa since his home was disheveled after being searched by police the previous weekend. His cars and office also were searched. Two lawyers entered the villa and called 911 when no one answered the bathroom door. They never saw the body.
Funeral plans for Gerwing are still pending. Dunbar Funeral Home in Columbia would not say whether it had received the body from Charleston, where the autopsy was conducted.
'NOT A TORTURED SOUL'
Gerwing's long-time friends say the pieces of this puzzle don't fit together. They suspect there's more to the story than authorities are now releasing.
"I think there are a lot of issues here that are unresolved, and (there are) a lot of people here in the public who have a lot of questions that don't add up, if you know Dennis like I did," said Dick Sonberg, Gerwing's neighbor in Sea Pines off and on for 15 years. The two also knew one another through business at Harbour Town Yacht Basin.
Even in tough times over the years when Gerwing lost money on business ventures or had serious medicalproblems, he never seemed depressed, Sonberg said. He enjoyed wine but wasn't a hard drinker or into any other substance abuse, Sonberg said.
"That was not Dennis," he said. "He was always up and going."
Gerwing was the one who volunteered to investigators that he was the last person to see the Calverts, said Frank Fowler, a friend who spoke with Gerwing by e-mail after the disappearance.
"In my heart of hearts, I just would find it very difficult to even conceive that Dennis would be involved in anything that was not above board," Fowler said last week before Gerwing's body was found.
Some friends said they doubt Gerwing was physically strong enough to kill himself. At about 5-foot-8 and a little overweight, he wasn't very athletic, Sonberg said.
Fred Gerwing, Dennis' brother who lives in Louisville, Ky.,said Dennis did not seem suicidal when the two spoke after the Calverts' disappearance. Dennis was concerned authorities were jumping to conclusions about his involvement, his brother said.
"It was totally out of his nature to do things like this," Fred Gerwing said.
Stabbing oneself in the chest usually indicates the person is filled with aggression or doesn't like himself, one funeral director said.
That description didn't match Gerwing, friends said.
"He was not a tortured soul, at least outwardly," said Porter Thompson, spokesman for The Club Group. Gerwing was a shareholder and chief financial officer for the property management company.
The Club Group provided bookkeeping and other services for John Calvert's four island businesses.
Elizabeth Calvert, 45, is a business attorney with Savannah firm HunterMaclean. She and John Calvert, 47, have been married for almost 20 years, splitting their time between an upscale Atlanta home and a yacht, the "Yellow Jacket," in Harbour Town.
The two were last seen March 3. The Calverts suspected Gerwing had stolen money from them, and had planned to confront him that afternoon, sources said.
"Most of the people that I've talked to about this, and even some of the people close to it, are baffled by the method of Dennis' death and the adjudication of what it is," Thompson said. "It appears to be a suicide, but a very Draconian one at that. I think most of us that are contemplating our own death would chose something less painful. I know Dennis well enough to say that he might not even know where his femoral artery is. He's an accountant."
Island Packet Executive Editor Fitz McAden contributed to this report.