Liz Farrell

10 years later, this couple’s disappearance remains Hilton Head’s greatest mystery

Missing Hilton Head couple: Declared dead after 19 months

John Calvert, 47, and Elizabeth Calvert, 45, owned the company that operates Harbour Town Yacht Basin and another that rented 125 vacation properties. Elizabeth Calvert was also a Savannah business attorney. They lived part-time on their 40-foot y
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John Calvert, 47, and Elizabeth Calvert, 45, owned the company that operates Harbour Town Yacht Basin and another that rented 125 vacation properties. Elizabeth Calvert was also a Savannah business attorney. They lived part-time on their 40-foot y

The call came just as he was getting breakfast at a drive-thru.

“I’m not sure if this will help ...,” the caller began before taking him through a labyrinthine narrative filled with unfamiliar characters and unconnected thoughts.

Someone is dead, the caller told him.

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When that person was alive, he did some dicey things.

He did these other not-so-great things.

He did a couple of really bad things, actually.

And he might have been involved in the disappearance of John and Elizabeth Calvert.

It was about two months before the 10th anniversary of Hilton Head Island’s biggest unsolved mystery, a case that is the subject of a newly released book. It details the true story of a wealthy couple who went missing after discovering tens of thousands of dollars had been stolen from them, the man who last saw them alive and the investigation that ensued.

Though Capt. Bob Bromage of the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office has received many cold-case calls over the years, it had been a while since a tip came in on the Calverts case. And chances were – much like with the hundreds of other tips that came in the aftermath – this too would end up stalled and against yet another wall.

But one never knows when a new fact will emerge, when the dots will connect, when a longtime question will get answered.

Or when something will knock loose and finally lead to the truth.

So Bromage paid attention to what the woman had to say.

“I just sit and listen,” he said of the decade’s worth of calls and gut feelings and paranormal premonitions and “did you ever considers” and “I bet I know where they ares.”

“I listen and listen and listen.”

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The Calverts Case

So many of us can recite the details by heart.

Those who lived on Hilton Head or in the Lowcountry at the time, those who followed the case nationally, those who covered it in the media, those who knew and loved the missing couple, those who knew and loved the only person of interest to be named in the case, we can all retrace the facts for you, re-walk the steps that might have been taken that day and in the days that followed – here’s what happened first, what happened next, what couldn’t possibly have happened … or so we assumed back then.

Without even looking at it, we can describe the photo, the one that was distributed worldwide and flashed across screens in living rooms across the country.

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Elizabeth and John Calvert pose for a photo in front of the iconic Sea Pines Lighthouse on Hilton Head Island in this undated handout photo. Submitted

A middle-age white couple stands in front of the Harbour Town lighthouse. He’s in an oxford. She’s wearing blue. They are both smiling.

This is their eternity.

The Calverts, he was a businessman and she was an attorney, went missing on March 3, 2008, after – or, perhaps more accurately, during – a meeting with their accountant, Dennis Gerwing, at his Sea Pines Center office.

The couple, who lived part time in an Atlanta suburb and part time in Harbour Town on The Yellow Jacket, their 40-foot yacht, had discovered that money was missing from their businesses, which had been managed by The Club Group, Gerwing specifically.

2003 photo of Dennis Ray Gerwing who was found dead, apparently by suicide on March 11, 2008 at a Sea Pines Villa. Gerwing's Hilton Head Plantation home was searched by law enforcement officials in the investigation of the disappearance of John and Elizabeth Calvert. Bill Littell

They wanted to know why. If Gerwing gave them answers that day, we’ll likely never know.

Instead we are left with this: John and Liz were never seen or heard from again and eight days after their disappearance, Gerwing killed himself in the most hideous of ways, leaving behind two notes, both of which afforded him the perfect opportunity to articulate what he had known of the Calverts’ fate – to explain what he or what someone else had done to them.

Gerwing took a pass on that opportunity.

Instead, his shocking death in a blood-coated bathtub at a Sea Pines timeshare, his scrawled admission of stealing what later was found to be $2.1 million from The Club Group’s clients, his wonkish instructions on how to pay it back, the prurient tales of high-spending, wine-drinking and wife-sharing, the enigmatic reference to “it” happening in “SPC,” and the frustrating lack of answers on the Calverts’ whereabouts extended the intrigue in what was an already frothing story that had attracted the attention of national media … and Geraldo Rivera.

Overnight Sheriff P.J. Tanner and his investigators found themselves behind a cluster of microphones and in front of what remains one of the biggest cases of their careers.

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Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner listens to a question during a press conference regarding the disappearance of John and Elizabeth Calvert and the suicide of Dennis Gerwing. File Staff photo

The island, invariably depicted by outsiders as a playground for the wealthy, began to look, from certain angles in this spotlight, like a boozy paradise whose clubby inhabitants used secrets and rumors to spackle over the holes where the truth couldn’t connect.

It was the perfect setting for a real-life mystery.

And it was an excitement that never should have been exciting.

After the buzzards stopped circling, after clues stopped coming in, after the Calverts were legally declared dead in 2009, the armchair detectives continued to work overtime.

Was it the Russians? Did the Calverts assume new identities and flee the country? Were they buried in a landfill, an alligator-laden swamp, in a shark hole, or are they still in Sea Pines? Why would Gerwing do this? How would he have done it? Was he the only one? How could he be the only one? Wait. Was he murdered? Was the third drop cloth he bought that day for another person, an unwitting accomplice? Was the cut on his hand from the clumsy and inexperienced use of a .22 Baretta semi-automatic? Is this it? Is this all we’ll ever know? Let’s go back to that Russian thing again … let’s go back to the car at airport … did you hear about the poker houses? The mail-order brides?

Lost in this mix were the people, the real ones, the friends and family who don’t just want answers for the sport of it but who need answers for their own peace of mind and so that the Calverts – and Gerwing – can rest in peace once and for all.

“They just want the truth,” longtime Hilton Head resident Pamela Ovens, who knew John Calvert and was friends with Gerwing, said of the friends and loved ones. “Whatever it is.”

In this file photo from 2008, six days after John and Elizabeth Calvert were reported missing, missing posters with photos of the couple began appearing on businesses like this one on Hilton Head Island. File Staff photo

‘Deceit, Disappearance and Death’

Nearly a year after the Calverts disappeared and Gerwing used a steak knife and allergy medicine to end his life, Ovens was at a crafts show, where she was sharing a table with a friend who was selling jewelry.

“I was selling star wands that no one was buying,” Ovens said.

To pass the time between customers, she told her friend about the case.

Before the Calverts disappeared on March 3, Gerwing left his car at the Hilton Head Island Airport, returned to his home and emerged about a minute later carrying nothing – one theory is that he had retrieved a small pistol in his possession and put it in his pocket, leaving the empty holster behind. He then stopped by Grayco to purchase three drop cloths.

He did all this with a witness present, an assistant from The Club Group.

After his 5:30 p.m. meeting with the Calverts that evening – where, friends said, Liz, who had discovered the embezzlement and suspected it went beyond their accounts, was expecting to receive an explanation or a reimbursement, which is why she had not yet involved law enforcement – Gerwing was seen with a fresh cut on the web of his right hand and buying Band-Aids and latex gloves at a drug store on Hilton Head.

He called the witness.

He texted a friend.

John Calvert, 47, and Elizabeth Calvert, 45, owned the company that operates Harbour Town Yacht Basin and another that rented 125 vacation properties. Elizabeth Calvert was also a Savannah business attorney. They lived part-time on their 40-foot y

And then he shut off his phone until late the next morning.

Not long after the Calverts were reported missing, Gerwing was questioned by investigators. His story didn’t add up and he later told multiple friends that he was the last person to see the Calverts alive. He spoke about them in the past tense.

Investigators made a mess searching Gerwing’s Hilton Head Plantation home for evidence, leaving significant areas of the interior covered in a purple chemical used to detect blood, so Gerwing, chief financial officer for The Club Group, decided to stay at Swallowtail, one of The Club Group’s timeshares near Harbour Town, while cleaners restored his house to its former fastidious state.

Sometime between March 10 and 11, the 54-year-old wrote two notes: one on an envelope, another on the bed sheet in the master bedroom.

He was taking himself out of the game, he said.

He acted alone, he said.

“It happened in SPC,” he wrote, referring to what investigators believed to be Sea Pines Center, where The Club Group’s offices are located and where the Calverts’ meeting with him was scheduled.

Around 4 p.m. March 11, two hours after the sheriff’s office had announced that he was a person of interest in the disappearance of John, 47, and Liz, 45, and just before a candlelight vigil for the Calverts, which was being held a short walk away, Gerwing was found dead.

He had taken about 1,200 mg of Benadryl and used a serrated knife from one of the drawers in the downstairs kitchen to cleave his throat, his inner wrist, his outer wrist, his inner arm, his calf and his thigh in motions that appeared more punishing than strategic.

That evening, a group from the vigil walked to Swallowtail, stood outside and watched as Gerwing’s body was removed from the condo.

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Beaufort County investigators remove the body of Dennis Ray Gerwing from a Sea Pines Villa who was found dead, apparently by suicide on March 11, 2008. File Staf photo

That, in short, is the story.

“There was a person sitting around the corner from me,” Ovens said of the crafts show. “And she looked at me … she said ‘You better be careful what you’re saying.’ It was scary! And I thought , well … well, if you tell everyone then it’s not as scary.’”

Ovens knew then that she was going to write a book about the Calverts case.

Nine years later and along with co-author Charlie Ryan, Ovens has published “Deceit, Disappearance and Death on Hilton Head Island,” which they premiered in late February at a luncheon hosted by the Long Cove Women’s Club.

They wrote the book using sheriff’s office reports, written statements from witnesses, photos from the scene of Gerwing’s suicide and interviews with key figures in the case, including Bromage, Tanner, lead investigator Angela Viens, Gerwing’s brother Fred, co-workers of the Calverts, and Gerwing’s longtime but then-estranged girlfriend Nancy Barry, who was living in his million-dollar Wilmot Avenue home in Columbia.

The book goes into great detail about the facts of the case and explores the plausibility of popular theories on the whys, the whos and the wheres.

“My feeling was, if we wrote the book and got the information out there, then someone would be able to help finish this and discover the real truth,” Ovens said. “... I would really be happy if we could solve this for both families.”

Ryan, who also collaborated with Ovens for “My Life with Charles Fraser,” a biography about the developer of Sea Pines, is a former Hilton Head resident and now lives in Charlotte with his wife, Becky, to be closer to their grandchildren.

To write the Calverts book, the two communicated daily by phone, by text and by email for more than a year.

Ryan did not know the Calverts or Gerwing, but was aware of the case and people’s “tremendous interest” in it, something that was evident at a recent book-signing, where the line was out the door.

Charlie Ryan and Pamela Ovens are the authors of “Deceit, Disappearance and Death on Hilton Head Island,” a book that traces the Calverts case from the beginning to where it stands now. Peter Ovens Submitted

“Almost everyone who came to the table had an opinion to express,” he said.

Ovens and Ryan also have opinions.

Ryan is doubtful that Gerwing could have killed himself, never mind kill the Calverts and bury the bodies.

Ovens is sure Gerwing did.

Both believe there might have been other parties involved.

“See I think he could (have done it) because he had so much Benadryl in his system,” Ovens said. “... It slows your metabolism, it slows everything down. You’re pumping blood a lot slower than normal. When you look at the places he cut himself, it’s not like blood is gushing out of these cuts at all.”

“But there’s blood 360 degrees around the bathroom,” Ryan said. “It’s all over.”

“Yeah, little splashes of it. Little spatters.”

“No, not ‘little splashes,’ if you look at the pictures.”

“We have different viewpoints on this” she said, “and everyone who reads (the book) will have different viewpoints.”

Solving the case

In 2010, Sheriff Tanner and Capt. Bromage rounded up retired law enforcement professionals in the area and started a cold case committee.

The first case they took on was the Calverts’, which Bromage stresses is still considered a missing persons investigation. While they’ve been legally declared dead, no physical evidence of their death has been found.

For more than a year, the committee re-examined the physical evidence, the phone records, the interviews, the SLED reports, the FBI findings and the facts of the Calverts’ disappearance and Gerwing’s suicide.

They, like the rest of Hilton Head, hoped they would find the answers.

“I think everybody wants to come up with their own solution to this,” Bromage said, “and they’d love for it to be correct and to play out and say ‘I was instrumental in this case moving forward.’”

But no new findings emerged.

In fact, no new findings have emerged from any of the tips investigators have received over the years, including the one from earlier this year.

But, Bromage said, the sheriff’s office hopes that by making the information from this case file available to people like Ovens and Ryan, it will “develop some appropriate interest from the right people who may have some knowledge about what happened.”

Ovens has a feeling it will.

“Someone knows something,” she said. “And ... I think that someone will talk. Someone will finally crack.”

She’s convinced of it.

“You can’t keep everything in all the time. It’s just not … humans need to get things out.

“And I think it’s going to be sooner than later.

“It’s just interesting,” she said. “So interesting …”

Where to find the book

  • Pretty Papers in the Village at Wexford
  • By Hand Ink in Sea Pines Center
  • Pyramids on Main Street
  • Pyramids in Sea Pines Center
  • Markels in Bluffton
  • The Store in Old Town Bluffton, which will host a meet the authors event from 4 to 6 p.m. March 15
  • Poseidon in Shelter Cove Mall
  • Boat House Grill
  • J. Banks Design
  • Beaufort Book Store in Beaufort
  • Grayco
  • Sonest Resorts
  • Gifted at Village at Wexford

Coming this week

The Island Packet will run excerpts from Charlie Ryan and Pamela Ovens’ “Deceit, Disappearance and Death on Hilton Head Island” Monday through Friday.