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Theories abound on what happened to the Calverts

John and Elizabeth Calvert

A court order declaring John and Elizabeth Calvert dead hasn't dampened the mystery surrounding their disappearance.

Almost two years have passed since the owners of one of the island’s landmarks met an abrupt end, but time hasn’t nudged the facts forward very far. The narrative of the case says they were murdered, a crime committed by former business associate Dennis Gerwing, most likely over issues of money and embezzlement.

But with scarce new facts in between those assumptions, the vanishing of the couple accustomed to traveling in a well-heeled circle remains as wrought with speculation as it did when Gerwing crudely killed himself a few days after their disappearance. It remains a violent ink blot on an island best known for its quiet, uneventful solace.

“It’s not a cold case, but it’s borderline a cold case,” Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said. “Even though it’s a missing persons case, it will remain open.”

The judge’s order has little bearing on the official investigation, though the Sheriff’s Office did send two investigators to the DeKalb County, Ga., court on Oct. 22 to present evidence in the case, evidence that helped the judge decide to declare them dead, Tanner said.

The order was mostly a formality so family and business associates could move on with their affairs.

Authorities remain focused on trying to find where Gerwing took the bodies. The search is broad, spanning anywhere in a five-hour radius that investigators matched up with traffic camera footage showing Gerwing’s car leaving the island. His cell phone records show an 11-hour time frame during which his phone was turned off, something he never had a record of doing before, Tanner said.

The search itself is not just solely in Beaufort County, it’s not just surrounding states,” he said. “Dennis was familiar with Georgia, North Carolina or South Carolina.

“It’s not unreasonable to think that the further the Calverts bodies are away from the investigative corps, the likelihood of (us) finding out about it was less.”

All the previous evidence authorities collected - the cell phone records, tips, Gerwing’s car, soil found on his boots, polygraph tests conducted on seven of the couple’s friends and associates, even Gerwing’s suicide notes - have not produced the answer. Friends of the couple set up a reward fund shortly after they disappeared, but the Sheriff’s Office says none of the few tips it still receives has provided authorities any clues on where their bodies are located. Even the dirt samples taken from Gerwing’s boots didn’t help narrow in on a geographic area to search, Tanner said.

“We were hoping that would be a huge benefit, but it turned out to be no benefit,” he said. “To a degree, it’s like Dennis took it to his grave with him.”

Keeping their spirit alive

The reward fund has failed to turn up definitive information about what happened to the couple, but a new effort has arisen to keep their spirit alive. The reward money will now fund two scholarships. Converse College, Liz Calvert’s alma mater where she served on the board of trustees, established the Liz White Calvert ’84 Spirit of Converse Scholarship. The scholarship will give preference to female students who, like Liz, were the first women in their family to attend college and embody the same breadth of experience, leadership qualities, business acumen and environmental responsibility that made Liz a stand-out student and university supporter.

“We’ve sketched it out to really help young women like Liz to come to Converse and take that education and contribute to the broader community,” Converse President Betsy Fleming said. Liz had been scheduled to speak at a sophomore ring ceremony at the college the weekend after they disappeared. She and John visited the campus shortly before that to attend a Tony Bennett concert and dinner for supporters, Fleming said.

At Georgia Tech, where John earned an engineering degree, the John L. Calvert Memorial Scholarship will be available to members of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity.

The judge’s declaration served as the bookend of hope for the friends of the couple, even those who held out faith that they would be found alive as the months and years wore on. It allowed them to hold a proper memorial service for the couple at an Atlanta church, and the scene was a statement to how much their sudden disappearance shook a major fault line that stretched from Harbour Town to Spartanburg and Atlanta.

The service turned the couple “over to God,” in the words of David White, Liz’s brother, without as much closure as they hoped for.

“It doesn’t do a whole lot of good to dwell on the difficulties of the past,” White said, who became the contact person for the couple after their disappearance, helping to keep their business affairs going. He was never one to spill his guts to reporters or eagerly chat about the latest developments in the case, but he was weary of questions and more reticent to talk now, even when contacted last month by a reporter who’s been in touch with him since the news first broke in 2008.

“I’m trying to look forward,” he said in a brief phone interview.

The mystery

The outstanding mystery is how exactly Gerwing killed the Calverts. Tanner said investigators have some theories on how he did it and what kind of murder weapon was used, but that information is one of the last bits of the case they are keeping close to the vest.

They have said that Gerwing was captured on a surveillance camera stopping at a hardware store on the island before the meeting with the Calverts and purchased three drop cloths. Gerwing claimed the cloths were for painting, but neither the cloths nor the gloves he purchased were ever recovered.

He then went back to Sea Pines Center and carried the cloths into the Club Group. As far as method of killing, authorities are still hoping that not releasing that information will help them solve the case.

“It’s something that we’ve had knowledge of for a good while,” Tanner said. “But it’s not something that we’re willing to put out there.”

The disappearance

John and Elizabeth Calvert had been married for 20 years when they disappeared on March 3, 2008, after a business meeting with 54-year-old Dennis Gerwing, chief financial officer of The Club Group, a property management and real estate firm. John owned the company, which operates the Harbour Town Yacht Basin, another business that rented nearby villas and several ancillary companies centered around the marina. Liz was an aggressive business attorney with HunterMaclean, a law firm in Savannah.

By the morning after their meeting with Gerwing – in which they confronted him about missing money – people knew something terribly wrong had happened. It was uncharacteristic of them to miss business obligations and not be reachable on their Blackberries.

Later that afternoon, news of a full-scale search reached The Island Packet newsroom, kicking of a month of near non-stop reporting on the latest tidbits of the case. The story caught the attention of the drive-by media, the cable news channels who parked their satellite trucks near the entrance of Sea Pines. Authorities were mum on official details early on, and the national media helped spread false rumors in the early confusion surrounding those first days of the story. Tanner said the inquiries from national media have long since evaporated, though CNN ran an update of the case in November under the Nancy Grace’s Cold Cases section of its web site.

‘Meet him in a public place’

Five people spoke at the funeral, representing five different aspects of the couple’s life, including John Calvert’s aunt, his only living close relative; Liz Calvert’s brother, David White; Kyle Webb, a longtime friend and Georgia Tech fraternity brother of John’s, and Nancy Cappelmann, the Harbour Town harbormaster and a close friend of the couple.

The fifth speaker was Teri McClure, maybe the last person to speak to Liz Calvert before the couple entered the business meeting with Gerwing.

McClure first met Liz Calvert 13 years ago when McClure was interviewing for a job at UPS, where Liz was vice president of the legal department. They worked side-by-side as lawyers, went to lunch together three or four times a week, shared discussions about their jobs, politics, the ongoing plans to renovate the couple’s Atlanta home and the dogs the two friends got around the same time. Their friendship continued after Liz left UPS for the Savannah office of the law firm Hunter Maclean.

McClure was talking to Liz by cell phone when she and John were on their way to the meeting with Gerwing on March 3, 2008. By then, Liz had told McClure she had noticed something wrong with the couple’s finances, and that they were on their way to confront Gerwing about it, and review the records from when he had handled the books for the couple’s various businesses. But still, Liz didn’t anticipate any problems with the meeting, and expected Gerwing to have a reasonable explanation for the missing money. McClure even joked on the phone: “You’ve got to meet him in a public place.”

“She was the most trusting person. She really did not conceive of anyone doing harm,” McClure said. “The fact that people do bad things was one of our ongoing conversations. It just wasn’t part of her nature.”

The motive

The motive for the Calverts’ disappearance first began to take shape after Gerwing was loaded into the back of a white Beaufort County Coroner’s van. His employer announced Gerwing had acted alone in stealing $2.1 million from a number of Club Group clients, including the Calverts. That figure would eventually rise to $4 million by the time the Calverts were declared dead in October, according to court documents. More than $100,000 of that amount came from the couple.

E-mails suggested Liz Calvert had discovered the missing money and had confronted him at least twice, including on the day before that fateful business meeting, when Gerwing had asked her to return with her husband the following day.

Gerwing had already survived something many former Sea Pines executives hadn’t been able to: the fall-out from Bobby Ginn’s bankruptcy in the mid-1980s. Gerwing came to the island after working for the national accounting firm Arthur Andersen. He was named head of finance and administration for Ginn Holdings Corp. in 1985. At the time, that company was the largest holder of resorts on the island. It controlled Sea Pines, Shipyard, Wexford, Port Royal and Indigo Run.

But Ginn’s purchases were highly leveraged. By the end of 1986, the company unraveled and was embroiled in a messy $100 million bankruptcy. Gerwing, along with his close friend and former roommate, Mark King, grew their property and amenity management company, The Club Group, out of those ashes. The company managed golf and tennis operations in Shipyard and Port Royal, and expanded a year later to manage operations in and around Harbour Town for a group of owners. By 2005, John Calvert had arrived to the island and had bought that partnership’s Harbour Town holdings. The Club Group would continue to keep the books for the next three years. King has denied that he knew anything about Gerwing’s crimes.

In his personal life, Gerwing was known to spend a lot of money, much of it on women, travel, gourmet food, fine wine and toys like his powerboat. He owned a home in an upscale Columbia neighborhood that was still occupied by his ex-girlfriend at the time of his death.

The manager of an island strip club identified Gerwing as a frequent customer. Authorities confirmed he was dating a married woman. Rumors persist that he hired escorts and gambled.

He financed a restaurant in Savannah, according to his suicide note, and had lost heavily in the stock market. On top of that, he was dealing with the Calverts, who had shifted their bookkeeping in-house and appeared to be about to expose Gerwing for swindling millions of dollars, mostly from property regimes.

Saying goodbye

At the funeral, the lingering frustrations of not knowing where the bodies are located, and still not quite understanding why Gerwing chose to murder the couple to cover his embezzlement, cast a shadow on an already sad event, people who attended said.

“I think for the family, for Liz’s brother, and for the folks that spoke who are good friends of Liz and John’s, people in their wedding or people that worked with them, I think there was a sense of closure,” said Bill Barnett, who served on the board of trustees at Converse College with Liz, and is also the mayor of Spartanburg.

“Whether it’s a slam-dunk guaranteed end of the story, I’m not sure.”

If resolution of the case was missing, what was present at the service was a showing of how much the couple meant to hundreds of people from around Hilton Head, Atlanta, Spartanburg and beyond who gathered in the church to say their goodbyes.

“There was a wonderful crowd. I think that they were two individuals who were greatly loved by many,” said Fleming, who first met Liz when Fleming was interviewing to become president of Converse College. Liz grilled Fleming on what her plans were to shake up the status quo at the college. She said the funeral “was a wonderful celebration of each as an individual and them as a couple; their talents, their gifts, and just how much their lives meant to other people, how much they gave of themselves in terms of humor, personality.”

The scholarships are the schools’ way of coping with the loss. “We expect Liz and John to live on for generations,” Fleming said.

Five theories about what happened

  1. DENNIS GERWING DIDN’T REALLY KILL HIMSELF, BUT WAS MURDERED
    This is one of the most common rumors on the island, but it can be debunked. First, the bathroom where Gerwing sliced himself and bled to death with a cheap, serrated steak knife was full of blood spatter, but no fingerprints or footprints that belonged to anyone beside Gerwing. Plus, he had locked the door behind him. What’s strange is the empty wine bottle downstairs with two glasses, noteworthy because Gerwing didn’t have any alcohol in his system. Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said authorities consider the Gerwing suicide part of the case closed. Considering the amount of the blood at the scene, it is highly likely blood would have been transferred out of the bathroom if another person were involved, authorities say. “That’s already been verified through various ways,” Tanner said.

  2. ORGANIZED CRIME PLAYED A ROLE
    There’s no obvious evidence that the mob or another organized crime syndicate was involved. However, the Calverts’ disappearance did involve a substantial amount of embezzled money (more than $4 million investigators say Gerwing took from the Calverts and other Club Group clients). How was Gerwing able to steal that much money over several years without drawing attention? And on what did he spend the money? Privately law enforcement officials say this is one of those cases in which even outlandish theories can’t be ruled out.

  3. THE CALVERTS’ BODIES WERE DUMPED IN THE OCEAN
    While this is a possible scenario, an unknown boat would have to have been used. Gerwing’s powerboat was being repaired in Charleston and no one saw the Calverts’ yacht leave Harbour Town. A pile of dirt, a shovel and muddy boots at Gerwing’s home in Hilton Head Plantation seem to suggest the bodies were buried somewhere. Sheriff P.J. Tanner said the removable third-row seating of Gerwing’s GMC Yukon was missing when investigators looked at it, the car had been freshly vacuumed, and a pile of dirt was found in Gerwing’s home that looked out of place in the otherwise tidy house. Criminal profilers that authorities consulted with said Gerwing likely took the bodies far away. “The chance of them being local percentage-wise is low,” Tanner said. “The further away from the crime scene, the more comfortable the suspect in this case would have been.”

  4. THE CALVERTS ARE ALIVE AND WELL… JUST NOT HERE
    Many signs point to this not being the case. The couple’s bank accounts have remained untouched; their cell phones are still missing and inactive; their cat was left on the yacht unattended and they had business obligations scheduled for the days following the disappearance. Authorities say they have confirmed the Calverts are not in any sort of witness protection program. The police have their passports. “They were worldly, in the sense of (there are) a lot of rumors that they were in protective custody, which is not so,” Tanner said. Still, the Sheriff’s Office put out bulletins about the case in 180 countries.

  5. GERWING HAD HELP
    The circumstances of the case have led some to wonder if Gerwing had help. First, it is still not known how his second vehicle was moved from the general aviation side of Hilton Head Island Airport to his home, or how John Calvert’s Mercedes ended up at the Marriott in Palmetto Dunes, where investigators discovered it four days after the disappearance. Then, consider the logistics of murdering two people, presumably just out of eyeshot of shoppers and diners at the Sea Pines Center. Could the pudgy Gerwing really kill two people without creating a mess or too much noise? Could he then remove all of that dead weight undetected from the second floor of the shopping center? But as far as authorities are concerned, Gerwing acted alone.
    “There’s no evidence that suggest anything different,” Tanner said. “Different people have had different opinions of Dennis Gerwing. You have those who say he was as weak as water. Both John and Liz Calvert were not big people. Then you’ve got others who say he was very capable of doing it. He had a very hot temper. Physically it wouldn’t be any problem doing it.
    “He was pumped up. There was a point in time during the encounter when he was enraged,” he said. “People are capable of doing lots of things in those types of situations. Based on people we interviewed, he was very capable of doing it."
The Sheriff’s Office published a detailed timeline of the case and facts of the investigation on its web site: http://www.bcso.net/blog/20081210_PressConference_Calvert.htm