The disappearance of John and Elizabeth Calvert in March of 2008 left Hilton Head Island horrified, fascinated and searching for answers. What happened to the popular island couple? And how involved was their accountant, Dennis Gerwing, apparently the last person to see them alive?In the wake of the disappearance, the media descended on the island. Among those covering the case were Dan Brownstein and Tim Donnelly, two Island Packet reporters. Today is the third of five offering excerpts from a new book: “Deceit, Disappearance & Death” by Charlie Ryan and island author Pamela Martin Ovens.
The first media foray into Harbour Town following reports of the disappearance of prominent residents John and Liz Calvert was by two young reporters who would be in the vanguard of chronicling the strange island events in the first months of 2008.
Island Packet reporters Dan Brownstein and Tim Donnelly were journalists with advanced degrees in their field. Donnelly had a BA in Journalism from the University of Maryland, and Journalism and Philosophy degrees from George Washington University. Brownstein had graduated from Otterbein College with a BA in Communications and Broadcasting and had earned his Master in Business Administration from the University of South Carolina.
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They were well-armed to take on a major story.
But, they had never encountered a humongous, stop-the-presses, news-flash, special-bulletin, gorilla-size news blast such as the Calvert story.
Brownstein said, “It was probably the highlight of my time on Hilton Head Island. Everyone was talking; the interest was so intense, we woke up each day with absolutely no clue what the story would be the following morning. It filled us with adrenaline. We felt terrible that these things had happened to people, but it was a great time to be a reporter.”
Donnelly and Brownstein might have been young, but they were not the least bit hesitant to immediately put their noses to the ground and begin to investigate. Donnelly was no stranger to gossip on the island and had seen a few things. He reported in a story in the Packet on August 26, 2007, “If you’ve been on Hilton Head for a few years, you’ve probably heard some pretty potent rumors.”
Donnelly’s story quoted island gossip that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie had purchased a home in Wexford, that Oprah Winfrey was buying a house on Brams Point or Daufuskie Island, and a bartender at a local restaurant had slipped drugs into the drinks of a number of women, resulting in several deaths, followed by the bartender’s suicide. Oh, and what about the rumors that Lindsay Lohan was in a rehab center in Shipyard?
Donnelly went so far as to do in-depth research on rumors and what caused them. An expert on the subject told him, “The need to share juicy news is high, especially in a small town like Hilton Head. There is a degree of collegiality that comes with gossiping with people you know. People feel connected and bonded.”
Donnelly rushed to Sea Pines following initial calls to Packet editors that said something major was afoot at Harbour Town. Donnelly had some doubt in his mind that the latest rumor—two high profile people were missing—was for real. Was this just more juicy “bonding” in a small town?
Donnelly passed through a security gate at the exclusive plantation and drove directly to Harbour Town. There, he parked his car, climbed out, slammed the door and began to ask questions of anyone he encountered at the Yacht Basin.
“Everyone was skittish, people were on edge, and I could sense this was something more than just a missing person thing,” Donnelly said. After a few jousts with locals, he soon realized that people would say little this early in a possible criminal case. He abandoned his random interviewing encounters and headed directly for the yacht Yellow Jacket. Donnelly knew the Calverts lived on the boat when on Hilton Head Island.
The Calvert yacht was docked on the far side of the Basin in slip 83. Donnelly hurried there and drew up dockside, shouting, “Is anyone home?” There was no reply. He paced back and forth along the dock, leaning toward the boat, trying to peer into its windows.
With no one answering his calls, he climbed aboard and began to look around. He again peered through windows and noticed a light was on in the cabin. He put his ear to the cabin door and heard a muffled noise from what he thought was either a radio or television broadcast. He knocked on the cabin door and again asked in a loud voice if anyone was aboard.
“I got no response, and then I saw a newspaper at the helm. I walked over and picked up the paper, and I opened the wrapper. Inside was that morning’s edition of the Island Packet,” Donnelly recalled.
Just then a patrol boat pulled alongside Yellow Jacket and an officer shouted at Tim, “Can I help you?”
Donnelly moved to the dock and said, “I’m looking for John and Elizabeth Calvert, do you know what happened to them?”
“The fellow just sort of turned his head and motored away,” Tim recalled.
Not to be put off, the reporter retraced his steps around the Yacht Basin and entered the marina office. He asked if anyone knew anything about the Calverts.
“I was stonewalled,” Donnelly said, “they deflected my questions and then threatened to call the police on me. I told them to stop bull-------- me and tell me what’s going on.”
Harbourmaster Nancy Cappelmann took charge and asked Donnelly to step outside. She said the Calverts were missing, that the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office had been contacted and that they were very worried. Donnelly called Dan Brownstein and Jim Faber at the Packet offices to relay details—they had, potentially, a big story on their hands.
“We were careful—lots of missing person cases go awry. This case was high profile, but we didn’t, at first, want to make too much of a deal of it. Sometimes missing people show up the next day,” Brownstein said.
Brownstein called the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office and spoke with Captain Toby McSwain, who was responsible for security for the Hilton Head Island area of Beaufort County. “I asked Toby if the Calverts were missing and he said there was a meeting ‘right now’ where that very thing was being discussed. He said he had been hoping that we were not calling about the Calverts. The Sheriff’s office was trying to keep a lid on the case until they could sort everything out. It became, very quickly, a dramatic story,” Brownstein said.
The journalistic groundwork was exhaustive. Brownstein and Donnelly would find, in the weeks ahead, that the national media sought them out as the two most learned reporters on the case and they were often followed by a string of big TV names. They loved the job.
The disappearance of two prominent Hilton Head Island people was a big deal. It was surreal to see cable news trucks lined up at the Sea Pines Welcome Center,” Donnelly said. “Here we were, in a usually very sleepy little town, six weeks before the Heritage PGA Tournament. And underneath the calm, there was this awful crime happening.”
The McClatchy-owned newspaper had freed Donnelly and Brownstein to devote all their time to following the Calvert case. “It was pretty easy, on such a small island, to follow police wherever they went. We were behind hedges at Swallowtail Villas and Sea Pines Center when the Sheriff’s Office was investigating the scene where the Calverts were last seen, and the site of Gerwing’s assumed suicide,” Brownstein said.
A Fox videographer followed Dan Brownstein as he covered the story. The Fox representative simply attached himself to Brownstein, who seemed to know everything about the case. This was becoming the norm—national media that flocked to and from the island in spurts clung to both Donnelly and Brownstein, recognized local reporters, who were in constant touch with developments. They apologetically used Brownstein and Donnelly’s research and legwork.
“Good Morning America” said that national reporters were giving adulation to Brownstein and Donnelly’s reporting and the morning news and entertainment program came calling to the Packet newsroom.
Day in and day out, the two reporters followed the cops. Each time a new detail of the story leaked out, there were Brownstein and Donnelly, peppering questions. Sheriff P.J. Tanner was playing the whole thing close to his vest and only when throngs of national reporters came knocking on his door, did Tanner decide to hold regular press briefings.
Donnelly and Brownstein fired lots of questions at Tanner’s press briefings, and at one such get-together, the sheriff fired back, this time publically accusing Brownstein of writing Nancy Drew Mysteries, pricking Dan on national television. To Dan, it felt good. He was doing his job.
Donnelly and Brownstein were everywhere as they chased the story. There was an intense interest in the mystery at every level. Details—the public wanted details.
Brownstein and Donnelley would deliver.
Coming Thursday: The death of suspect Dennis Gerwing spawned a number of theories. Was it a suicide? Was it murder? Or something even more sinister?
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.