“Deceit, Disappearance & Death on Hilton Head,” a book by Charlie Ryan with Pamela Martin Ovens, examines a 10-year-old Lowcountry mystery and revives an intriguing island-wide conversation spiced with mischief, mayhem, and possibly murder.
Story by Carolyn Males
March 4, 2008 dawned all wrong on this lush island rimmed with saw grass, meandering waterways and sandy beaches. On that strange day and those that followed, many of us began to look at this slice of paradise in a different way.
Elizabeth and John Calvert, who operated several Hilton Head businesses including the Harbour Town Yacht Basin and 125 resort rental properties, had gone missing the night before under mysterious and disturbing circumstances.
The couple had suspected chief financial officer of The Club Group, who had previously provided them with administrative and accounting services, of embezzling money. Early that evening they’d gone to confront him at his Sea Pines Center office. Then poof! The Calverts were gone, never to be seen again. Gerwing, who’d claimed both husband and wife had left right after their meeting, soon came under suspicion for their disappearance. Then on March 11, before he could be questioned further, the 54-year-old accountant was found dead of stab wounds in a locked blood-splattered bathtub in a nearby villa.
Suspecting foul play in the Calverts’ case, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office found itself with a possible major crime investigation on their hands. The following months were filled with search warrants, forensic examinations, interrogations, divers checking lagoons and creeks, cadaver dogs sniffing through garbage dumps, aerial surveillance, assistance from the Behavioral Science Unit of South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), plus all the other technical procedures needed to conduct a missing person inquiry. The island buzzed with theories heightened by the presence of cable news satellite news trucks stationed near the Sea Pines gates. Meanwhile two Island Packet journalists, Tim Donnelly and Dan Brownstein, launched their own probe, reporting on investigative findings while tracking down speculations about motives, rumors, dead-ends, and leads – all of which became a daily must-read for locals and visitors alike.
The idea that something so sinister could happen here sent a thin wire of fear quivering in the backs of our brains. Even the gentle bubbling of the marsh seemed to percolate with danger. In Harbour Town, Yellow Jacket, the 40-foot Hatteras yacht the Calverts lived on when they were in Hilton Head, stood silent and ghostly, the only sign of life, their cat TC padding around its deck.
For those who knew the Calverts and Gerwing, it was a traumatic event, one that cried out for closure, a reason for it all. The well-liked married couple had always been punctual about appointments and conscientious about obligations. They’d been daily fixtures at Harbour Town’s Crazy Crab restaurant. The gregarious Gerwing had hung out there, too, as well as at Red Fish restaurant. Their absences had left holes in the social fabric of Sea Pines and suggested a sense of danger lurking beneath the canopy of live oaks. For the rest of us, the dual mystery became cocktail conversation fodder with creepy elements, sort of a Lowcountry version of the perennial missing Jimmy Hoffa punch line – if they were murdered, where were the bodies?
Meanwhile, rumors about all three abounded. A Mafia hit? Cocaine deals? Bodies slipped into a marsh as food for gators? Had the Calverts gotten in deep with sinister figures and ended up the U.S. Federal Witness Protection Program? Even Ninja warrior revenge was floated. With no physical evidence, no bodies, and no cell phone or credit card trail, investigators had little to go on. Nevertheless, in 2009 a probate judge in DeKalb County, Ga., (where the two entrepreneurs kept their primary residence) would declare them dead.
Gerwing’s death, it would turn out, was quickly ruled a suicide. He had left notes confessing his theft of company funds but was silent on the Calvert’s disappearance. Even so, it was an odd way to end one’s life. Slashing himself in the thigh, calf, wrist, and neck would have been undoubtedly painful. If he was distraught, why not just shoot himself? (He owned a gun.) Why not down a bottleful of pills? And what about his nude body positioned so awkwardly in the dry tub on a comforter and pillow, his head near the faucet, his legs splayed over the edge of the porcelain rim? And then there was the bright red spray of blood across the floor, walls and vanity attesting to the violence of the act. This was clearly not your run-of-the-mill suicide.
But was it murder? To some the savagery of the method would suggest that but the investigative report indicated that there was no evidence anyone else had been in the room.
And just what exactly had happened eight days earlier? That’s when 45-year-old Elizabeth Calvert, left her job as an attorney with HunterMclean a prestigious Savannah law firm, went home to the Yellow Jacket to change clothes, then burning with anger, hopped in her Mini Cooper and drove to Sea Pines Center. As she strode across the pavement, surely she had no idea what awaited her and her husband who’d gone there a few minutes earlier. Was John Calvert, 47, already dead by the time she crossed Gerwing’s threshold? Or had they been kidnapped or spirited out by unknown others?
All these questions persist.
With an eye to the mystery’s 10-year anniversary coming up, writers Ryan and Ovens set out on an exhaustive quest for answers. They filed a Freedom of Information Act request with the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office and poured over 600-plus pages of documents. They also reviewed an ocean’s worth of news, broadcast and social media stories. Along with talking to former Packet reporters Donnelly and Brownstein, the authors sat down with Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner and his lead investigators on the case, Angela Viens and Bob Bromage. Rounding out their investigation, Ryan and Ovens interviewed forensics specialists, studied crime scene photos and pathology reports and spoke with people who had known the missing couple and Gerwing.
The authors’ book “Deceit, Disappearance & Death on Hilton Head Island,” explores the compelling story behind the story. The mystery deepens with oddball elements and entanglements: Russian strippers and escorts, a rumored Wexford gambling den, an unusual three-way relationship, a puzzling boat sighting on Calibogue Sound, used tractor deals with Kazakhstan, abandoned cars, purchases of large drop cloths and Latex gloves, and oh so much more. It’s curious stuff for those who like to believe we live in paradise, where nothing bad ever happens.