HILTON HEAD ISLAND, S.C. – Days after police searched his home for clues to the disappearance of two of his wealthy clients, accountant Dennis Ray Gerwing locked himself in a villa, climbed into a bathtub lined with a comforter and pillow, slashed his neck and legs with a steak knife, and bled to death.
Gerwing left two suicide notes, one scrawled on a bedsheet, the other on paper. In one of them, according to an unidentified law enforcement source cited by The (Columbia) State newspaper, he admitted skimming money from the missing clients, John and Elizabeth Calvert.
But if he knew anything about the couple's fate, Gerwing apparently took that secret to the grave.
It's a mystery that for almost a month has engulfed this island of oak-shaded homes, guarded subdivision entrances and lush golf courses.
Larry Naylor, who docks his boat next to the Calverts, said he knows the chances of finding them alive are fading.
"People don't know what to think," Naylor said. "It's a very strange event."
The Calverts manage a marina and 125 rental units on this upscale resort island and live part-time on a yacht here. For two years, Gerwing's firm, The Club Group, had been keeping the books for the Calverts' business holdings on Hilton Head.
But the Calverts decided in December to take their business away from the firm and manage it themselves. Gerwing, the firm's chief financial officer, was working out the details when the couple vanished March 3.
Police said Gerwing was the last person to see the couple together, and they searched his home here, leaving it so torn apart that he chose to stay in one of the apartments managed by his company. Three days later, the 54-year-old accountant committed suicide there.
The son of a machinist and a schoolteacher, he was raised in Louisville, Ky., and worked for the accounting firm Arthur Anderson in Indianapolis and Denver before arriving on Hilton Head in 1984. Unmarried and childless, he split his time between a home in a gated subdivision at the tip of the boot-shaped island, and a house in a trendy neighborhood of Columbia.
"We come from pretty common background stock and he worked hard to get where he was," said brother Fred Gerwing.
Dennis Gerwing's Hilton Head house was crowded with pictures taken on photography trips — the Arctic Circle, Patagonia, the Sahara, Alaska.
"He pretty much stayed on the go all the time," his brother said. "He was a great guy and generous and wouldn't hurt a fly."
Porter Thompson, a spokesman for The Club Group who knew Gerwing for 15 years, described him as a "really gentle soul" who enjoyed wine and cooking for his friends.
Investigators said Gerwing had not been cooperating in their efforts to find the Calverts, and hours after he killed himself, they named him as a "person of interest" in the case. But Sheriff P.J. Tanner has refused to say what was in the suicide notes.
Searches of the island, the marina waters and landfills in South Carolina and Georgia have failed to yield any sign of the Calverts. The couple's 40-foot yacht, named Yellow Jacket for John Calvert's beloved Georgia Tech, remains docked at the marina, a teak table and chairs on its deck.
Elizabeth Calvert, 45, works as a lawyer in nearby Savannah, Ga. She and her 47-year-old husband also own a home in Atlanta and are active in the island's social scene.
"As nice a couple as you could hope to find," said Chris Wagner, the bartender at The Crazy Crab at the edge of the marina. As for Gerwing: "If you had money, he liked to talk to you. But if you were just a regular bartender or waitress, he wouldn't give you the time of day."
The Club Group has brought in a firm to review its books and determine if there were any problems with his work. Gerwing's home in Columbia — a brick house with elaborate kitchen and a pool — was for sale for $1.2 million when he died, but it's not clear whether he was having money problems.
Club Group spokesman Tom Gardo said that when the Calverts retained the firm to manage their holdings, both sides knew it was only a temporary, short-term arrangement, and the couple would eventually assume direct control.
"That's not unusual; it's a pretty common type of thing," Gardo said.
If there was foul play, some people wonder how someone like Gerwing might be able to make two people simply vanish, said The Club Group's Thompson.
"I think it seems the immaculate disappearance of the Calverts is something difficult for amateurs to pull off," he said.