Hilton Head Island has a history that spans 350 years. It began when Captain William Hilton first saw the slipper-shaped island from his boat in Port Royal Sound. Hilton never actually set foot on the island that would bear his name, but in the years that followed, thousands did, lured here initially by developer Charles E. Fraser, whose vision of an island paradise became a reality. Elizabeth and John Calvert were among those who came. Their disappearance would horrify, fascinate and leave the island looking for answers. Who were Liz and John Calvert? What were they looking for on this resort island? Today is the first of five offering excerpts from a new book on the disappearance: “Deceit, Disappearance & Death” by Charlie Ryan and island author Pamela Martin Ovens.
Elizabeth Calvert grew up in Atlanta, Ga. She was a gregarious youngster at Fernbank Elementary School. By the time Liz reached high school at Druid Hills, the 5’ 4” vivacious young woman had high goals in mind. She enrolled at Converse College in Spartanburg, S.C. after her high school years and there received her undergraduate degree. Even as a recent graduate, she was a booster for the school and would periodically host cocktail parties to raise money for the women’s college.
Entering law school at the University of Georgia in 1987, Liz Calvert studied hard and graduated ready and poised for the legal world. It was not a glamorous start: the brown-haired blue-eyed graduate became a staff attorney at UPS in Atlanta. She worked hard for 14 years and climbed to the top of her sector — president of the legal department.
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Elizabeth said goodbye to UPS when she received an offer from the prestigious Savannah law firm of Hunter Maclean. She joined the firm in 2007 to specialize in taxes, employee benefits, and executive compensation. She was aggressive, engaged in public service in Savannah, and, slightly bored, sought new experiences.
Community organizations wanted her skill and intellect to support their causes. She was named to the board of the Georgia Conservancy and became a trustee at her alma mater. Her husband John enjoyed showering her with unusual gifts and one year presented her with a certificate for a flying lesson. She loved the experience of flying and decided to repeat it — many times. She earned her pilot’s license in March 2006 and bought a plane, regularly winging out of Hilton Head Island airport in her Cirrus SR20 — valued at $400,000.
She was alluring and adventurous, and an advertising supplement to Forbes Magazine featured Elizabeth Calvert, the winsome young pilot from Hilton Head Island. John Tatum, a partner at her law firm, was a fan. He told the Island Packet, “She was just first class, as a person, as a lawyer.”
At UPS, she became a good friend with attorney Teri McClure. Seeking employment at UPS, Teri had interviewed with Elizabeth, who was then vice president of the legal department. Teri had no idea that, one day, she might become the last person with whom Liz Calvert would ever speak.
Over the years, Teri and Elizabeth lunched together, discussed jobs, politics, renovation of the Calvert’s Atlanta home, and sundry matters. They remained close friends, even after Elizabeth left UPS. They spoke often by phone — they were close.
They were so close, in fact, that Teri was chatting on the phone with Elizabeth on March 3, 2008, as Elizabeth drove to that fateful meeting with Dennis Gerwing at Sea Pines Center. Teri told Hilton Head Monthly that Liz confided to her she had discovered problems with Calvert company financial records and she was on her way to confront her accountant, Dennis Gerwing.
Teri joked, “You better meet him in a public place.” Teri said Liz laughed and responded that she expected no problems.
“She was the most trusting person. She did not conceive of anyone harming her. The fact that people do bad things was one of our ongoing conversations. It just wasn’t part of her nature,” Teri said.
Elizabeth Calvert was 45 years old when she disappeared.
John Calvert grew up in Greensboro, N.C. and received a degree in mechanical engineering at Georgia Tech in 1983. The handsome and prematurely grey Tech graduate proposed to Elizabeth while they were vacationing on Hilton Head Island — a place John dearly loved. They were married in 1998 and moved into a white brick home in Atlanta’s historic Brookhaven district, just off Peachtree Road.
John worked many years for several power companies, including Duke Energy. In 2001, he took semi-retirement and then, in 2005, he ventured out on his own — inking the paper that made him the owner of four Hilton Head Island businesses. The Calverts then began to split their time between their Atlanta home and Harbour Town. John, a boating enthusiast, was in his element.
Friends described John as quiet and “not flashy”, but he could be outgoing, according to his friend and Georgia Tech fraternity brother Mark Leinmiller. Elizabeth, on the other hand, Leinmiller said, had “a quick wit, but she’s not going to be the life of the party. They balance each other.”
John did have a whimsical side — he named his boat Yellow Jacket — celebrating the moniker of his Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets.
Leinmiller told the Island Packet that he had seen the Calverts shortly before they disappeared—at a friend’s funeral in Atlanta. Leinmiller told Packet reporters, Tim Donnelly and Jim Faber, that it was entirely out of character for the couple to take off without notice, especially if it meant missing business obligations. “If you knew John and Liz, it just doesn’t fit. It’s like a ‘Thelma and Louise’ kind of thing, where they just disappear.”
Lynn Johnston, who lived next door to the Calverts on Brookhaven Drive in the affluent Buckhead area of Atlanta, told McClatchy Newspapers, “John’s a handyman around the house. He seemed to be very interested in making sure his businesses on the island succeeded.”
Aside from the time John Calvert was on Hilton Head, reporters found there was a dearth of information about his background — graduate of Georgia Tech, fraternity boy, loved to sail, worked for Duke Energy — but that was about it.
“John Calvert? He was like a ghost. I was never able to pin down if John had any relatives,” Dennis Gerwing’s brother Fred said.
John was 47 years of age when he disappeared.
Coming Tuesday: A look at Dennis Gerwing, the Calvert’s accountant and the man suspected in their deaths.
If you know something
If you have information regarding the John and Elizabeth Calvert case, call the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office at 1-888-CRIMESC.
How to get the book
Copies of “Deceit, Disappearance & Death” by Charlie Ryan and Pamela Martin Ovens can purchased at a variety of Lowcountry shops and stores. It is also available at Amazon.com and singlestar.us.