Liz Farrell

Did Hilton Head’s greatest mystery get solved in Daufuskie author’s latest novel? | Opinion

Roger Pinckney has a “ripping good” story to tell about the unsolved case of a missing Hilton Head Island couple who disappeared in 2008.

But first, let’s hear one about his father.

“I wish he was still alive,” Pinckney said Friday morning. “He had a real knack for walking into a crime scene and knowing exactly what happened.”

Pinckney’s father, also a Roger, was Beaufort County’s coroner from 1945 to 1980.

Just before the elder Pinckney retired, Marines discovered a skeleton in the woods of Parris Island.

All the recruits were accounted for; nobody else had been reported missing who hadn’t been found.

Who was this person? What happened?

“They called the old man,” Pinckney said.

The coroner rolled up in his Suburban, got out, examined the splayed bones and said, “Negro male. About 40 years old. Died Aug. 27, 1893.”

He returned to his vehicle.

The colonel ran after him.

“Wait a minute. Come back here.”

How could anyone possibly have known all that?

“Well, look,” the coroner said to the Marine. “The pelvis tells me it’s a male. He’s still got most of his teeth. That tells me he’s no older than 40. He has a brass ring on his finger. I’ve never seen a white man wear a brass ring on his finger.”

The way the skeleton was situated?

“Tells me he drowned.”

The place he was found?

“Waters haven’t been that high here since the storm surge of 1893, midnight 27th of August.”

Case closed.

When he announced his retirement, the elder Roger Pinckney was similarly direct.

“I’ve had enough,” he told the newspaper.

County Council wasn’t giving him the money he needed to run his department, he said in the March 31, 1980, edition of The Beaufort Gazette, “so I decided I just won’t run.”

“The old man was so tough he could put a plate on a dead man’s face and eat supper,” Pinckney said Friday.

And, he said, if his father were still at it today, he certainly wouldn’t have taken part in any sort of cover-up.

Which brings me back to Pinckney’s story about John and Elizabeth Calvert.

In August, Pinckney published his 15th book, “Dead Low Water,” a novel based on the true story of the wealthy couple who lived on a yacht in Harbour Town.

The couple disappeared from Sea Pines Center on March 3, 2008, after confronting their accountant, Dennis Gerwing, about tens of thousands of dollars missing from their business accounts.

Eight days later, Gerwing — who is believed by law enforcement to have killed and disposed of the Calverts by himself — was found dead and curiously wounded in a timeshare bathtub from what the medical examiner termed a “motivated suicide.”

Though they were declared dead by a judge in 2009, the Calverts have never been found. Gerwing did not confess to their murders, nor did he leave behind any clues as to their location. Forensic evidence has not yet pointed investigators in the couple’s direction.

Because of that, the case continues to hold intrigue among the county’s armchair detectives, who don’t believe Gerwing killed himself and who think law enforcement either didn’t try hard enough to solve the case or are covering up for Fill-in-the-Blank (Russian mobsters, the Calverts themselves, Sea Pines power players, the government).

Count Pinckney among the suspicious.

“(The Calverts) worked out at the gym and drank Perrier water and Skyy Vodka,” he said. “A wheezy, overweight wine connoisseur couldn’t have done that by himself. Not without leaving behind any DNA.”

On the night the Calverts disappeared, Pinckney was at his waterfront home on Daufuskie Island, where he says he saw boaters leaving Harbour Town. They appeared to be headed toward a large ship that was very oddly anchored nearer to Tybee Island.

From a distance, he could tell the boaters weren’t from here, he said, because they became stuck on the shoals that everyone knows to avoid when traveling out of the sound and into the sea.

He wonders if the Calverts were on board.

“Part of me says they’re still alive and that’s why the investigation was so brief,” he said. “(Sheriff) P.J. Tanner is a very proud man. I don’t think he would give up unless he was told to give up.”

To this day, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office continues to work the Calverts case.

“I think everybody wants to come up with their own solution to this,” cold case investigator Maj. Bob Bromage said in March 2018, “and they’d love for it to be correct and to play out and say ‘I was instrumental in this case moving forward.’”

While Pinckney doesn’t attempt to actually solve the mystery of the Calverts in “Dead Low Water,” he includes plenty of Easter eggs for those who have followed the case from the beginning or for anyone interested in Hilton Head lore.

On the fictional side of things, he had fun imagining the possibilities.

“It’s a ripping good story,” he said.

A summary describes the book this way: “Southeast of Savannah a hydrogen bomb is missing. The Air Force can’t find it. But that’s not the only thing missing. Nobody can find the owners of an upscale marina on nearby Hilton Head. The sheriff has given up and the couple has been recently declared legally dead, life insurance paid, bills settled. Boeing is sponsoring the next big golf event. Best not throw sand in the wheels of commerce. But Hampy and Phantom won’t give up so easy. Somebody must have seen something. And somebody did.”

The protagonists, Hampy and Phantom, are game wardens based on real people Pinckney knows.

“They are totally outrageous individuals,” he said of the real-life versions, laughing. “Some of their exploits are more extreme than what I’ve put in the book.”

Which is saying something because the book includes “an endangered species, cocaine buried in the dunes, a murder or three, Gullah hold-outs, the Russian mafia, Russian strippers, assorted hippies, marijuana smoke on the wind and two little girls looking for a daddy …while the lost nuke is still ticking.”

Squeezing in time between magazine assignments, Pinckney wrote the book in about a year.

“I don’t know if I’ve got another novel left in me or not,” he said. “I might.”

As for his hope that his work might inspire those who know more about the Calverts’ disappearance to finally come forward, he has a bible verse for them.

“What’s whispered in private closets will one day be shouted from the rooftops.”

Roger Pinckney will be signing copies of “Dead Low Water” from noon to 4 p.m. Oct. 12 at the Freeport Marina on Daufuskie Island.

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Columnist and senior editor Liz Farrell graduated from Gettysburg College with a degree in political science and writes about a wide range of topics, including Bravo’s “Southern Charm.” She has lived in the Lowcountry for 15 years, but still feels like a fraud when she accidentally says “y’all.”