While the Lowcountry wondered what had become of popular Hilton Head Island couple John and Elizabeth Calvert, Dennis Gerwing, the chief suspect in their disappearance, spent the days before his death in a state of agitation. He learned that a forensic audit of The Club Group accounts had been ordered and that it would reveal he had stolen over $2 million from the entities he managed. This is the fourth of five excerpts from “Deceit, Disappearance and Death on Hilton Head Island,” a new book on the Calvert case by Charlie Ryan and island author Pamela Martin Ovens.
An entire community was holding its breath and it was palpable. There was more to come, and events began to escalate on March 11, 2008. The firm Novit & Scarminach was general counsel to The Club Group. Scarminach needed Dennis Gerwing’s signature on various documents to close a loan.
Except—the next morning Dennis was a no-show at the appointed time that Scarminach had requested for the document signing. Scarminach looked at his watch and eventually placed a call to Dennis. Dennis did not answer. Scarminach waited a while, and then put another call to Dennis’s Swallowtail villa. He repeated the call, several times.
Scarminach, busy with a myriad of matters, shook his head and walked down the hall to the office of his partner, Dan Saxon.
“Dan,” Scarminach said, “why don’t you go over to Swallowtail and see if he’s okay—take Peter with you.” Peter Strauss was a reasonably new associate with Novit & Scarminach.
The attorneys accessed the front steps to the front door of Dennis’s villa, pounding on it, to no avail. Saxon knew The Club Group managed the multi-unit, two-story residential complex and the company would have a key to the apartment.
Saxon called Scarminach and asked him to call The Club Group president Mark King. Unknown to Saxon, King also had been worried about Gerwing’s whereabouts and had, earlier in the day, stopped by the villa. He rang the doorbell, “five or six times,” and he had waited. There was no response.
King had looked in the windows of the units and had seen nothing. He came by the second time and, from the road, saw Dennis’s car. He called the unit’s telephone number, but there was no answer. He called several times more during the day, and time after time, the phone rang and rang—and rang—with no response.
Receiving Scarminach’s call, King hurried back to Swallowtail with his Club Group property manager Bob Long where they met Saxon and Strauss. The group hesitated before using their key to open the door and rang the doorbell once again—waiting for five minutes as they repeatedly pushed the button that tripped the chime inside the villa.
King then unlocked the door but there was a privacy deadbolt lock engaged on the interior side of the door, barring entry.
Having no other choice, King and Long took turns hitting the door with their backs and shoulders and finally broke through. They entered a dark and silent villa that had all blinds shut, and called out for Dennis. No one answered.
They quickly moved to the second floor and saw an empty bed with what appeared to be a note scrawled on its bed sheet. Dan Saxon recollected that he looked down and there, on the floor, was a single pill. Saxon said, “I believe the pill dispenser was on the bedside table.”
Moving on, they found the door to the master bath locked.
The attorneys and King called out for Gerwing, this time pounding on the bathroom door.
“Dennis! Are you in there?”
Pushing indecision aside, Saxon whipped out his cell phone and called 911, reporting a possible suicide at 2899 Swallowtail. Then, they waited.
Emergency units from the Hilton Head Fire & Rescue Department came streaming into the Swallowtail parking lot shortly after 3:30 pm. They entered the villa, did a quick check of the entry area, and called out Gerwing’s name.
The firemen and the attorneys rushed up the stairs of the two-story structure and found the door to the bathroom also locked from the inside. Captain Chad McRorie and Senior Firefighter Scott Layne of Hilton Head Fire & Rescue hesitated. McRorie asked if there could be someone inside the bathroom who might he be armed. The response was negative, and McRorie removed a small piece of the door jamb adjacent to the door hardware. He then utilized a knife blade to force the door latch, and slowly pushed open the door.
“Is anyone in there?” McRorie shouted.
McRorie opened the door slightly — approximately ten inches — allowing him to look inside. Neither McRorie nor Layne entered the bathroom, but they could see blood — lots of it.
There was blood on the bathroom floor and the vanity and a white male subject was lying in the bathtub, covered in blood. A veteran in situations such as this, Captain McRorie told Layne and the attorneys to follow him outside.
McRorie quickly ordered the area outside Swallowtail Villas be secured and entry denied to all personnel. He then waited for responding police officers and told them what he had seen in the bathroom. Saxon said Club Group’s Mark King was in shock. “Mark was sitting on a curb, his head in his hands.”
It was 3:58 pm. Beaufort County Sheriff’s responders moved up the stairs of the villa and pushed the partially open bathroom door completely open.
In the bathroom, they found Dennis Gerwing, nude, covered in blood — dead. The bathtub contained no water. Strangely, Dennis’s head was near the faucet. Ordinarily, a person would sit in a bathtub with feet at the faucet and back against the rear of the tub. Under Dennis’s body, was a comforter and pillows. A serrated knife with a black handle was found near his right hip.
The bathtub was not large, but it was deep. Both of Gerwing’s legs were bent at the knees; the legs splayed laterally over the end of the tub. The entire top surface of the tub was covered with dried blood, as was Gerwing’s body.
The scene was indeed gruesome.
On the counter of the bathroom sink — a note — printed in blue ink.
It was strange — if Dennis wounded himself in multiple areas before getting in the bathtub, it would seem likely he would have collapsed on the floor from such violence to his body. If he wounded himself in the bathtub, he would have had to get out of the deep tub, walk around, leave bloody footprints on the floor, and get back in the bathtub. That would be difficult to do as he began to bleed out.
Benadryl was the only drug found in Dennis’s bloodstream. Some said the amount was enough to kill him. Did he ingest enough of the drug to dent the searing pain of his first incisions? Could the high-dose of Benadryl make it possible for Dennis to continue to violently cut and slash his body?
Was there someone else present—someone wielding the serrated kitchen knife?
If so, how could that person exit the bathroom and leave no trace of blood?
Coming Friday: Where does the investigation stand? And what about the speculation in the days that followed Dennis Gerwing’s death? Did he commit suicide or was he murdered. Did the investigation bring closure to the families of the deceased and missing?
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 be purchased at a variety of Lowcountry shops and stores. It also is available at Amazon.com and singlestar.us.