The Murders of Elderly Georgia Couple Russell and Shirley Dermond: A Beheading and No Leads

Playing Sheriff Determined to Solve Cold Case Murders of Elderly Couple on Lake Oconee

He thinks of them every morning. He thinks of them every night. They hover like specters and he cannot explain to the living why they are dead. 

Howard Sills has been the sheriff of Putnam County in rural Georgia for the past 21 years. Before that, he was a detective. He had solved every murder case that came his way.

Until someone killed Russell Dermond, 88, and his wife, Shirley, 87.

Shirley and Russell Dermond had been married for more than six decades.
Handout

He knows every inch of their 4,225-square-foot, million-dollar home and every word in every report that fill boxes and boxes stacked in his office. He has been investigating their murders for four years.

What he doesn't know is who would kill an 88-year-old man and then decapitate him? Who would take an 87-year-old woman, bash her head in, then tie her ankles to 30-pound cinder blocks before dumping her into Lake Oconee, six miles from her home?

"It's very, very frustrating," Sills told InsideEdition.com. "Very troubling. I get up every morning and I think about this case."

He has no witnesses. He has no suspects. He has no motive, no DNA, no fingerprints. He doesn't even have a crime scene.

And where in the world is Russell Dermond's head?

***

"Putnam County 911."

"Yes, uh, I have an emergency," said the woman on the other end. "I think I have somebody dead. Oh my God. Oh my God."

On the morning of May 6, 2014, word came down to sheriff Sills that several people were dead at 147 Carolyn Drive in Eatonton, inside the exclusive, gated subdivision of Great Waters on Lake Oconee. He would find only one body, and so would begin the most frustrating case of his life.

There is virtually no crime inside Great Waters, let alone murders. Such things don't happen in this enclave of mostly retirees living in expensive homes.

Sills' family has been in Putnam County for seven generations, before it even was a county. He is 62, shaped like a fireplug and is a dead ringer for character actor Wilford Brimley. He exudes Southern charm, calls women "ma'am" and men "sir," possesses a dry wit and has a take-no-prisoners outlook when it comes to policing. He's been a cop for more than four decades.

"I tell it like it is, or I don't tell it at all," he says.

He had no idea what to expect when he pulled up to the Dermond home. "We didn't know if the perpetrator, or perpetrators, wasn't still in the house," Sills recalled. So first, he and his deputies had to clear the four-bedroom, five-bathroom house. 

When Sills walked into the garage and saw Russell Dermond's body, he felt a bit relieved, despite it having no head. "I knew it had been there for several days, so I knew we weren't about to encounter whoever did it," he said. 

A canvas of the grounds showed nothing out of place. "The house was immaculate," Sills said. It looked, the sheriff thought, like it had just been staged by a real estate agent. Shirley kept a very clean house.

The only imperfection was the Dermonds' unmade bed. An unfinished USA Today crossword, which Shirley did regularly, was on the kitchen table. 

"There was no sign of a struggle," Sills said. "It was obvious to me that the decapitation had been done post-mortem ... if you've ever seen an arterial wound, it spurts blood everywhere and we didn't have that there."

Towels had been placed around the blood pooling from Mr. Dermond's body, so it wouldn't seep under the garage door and out onto the driveway, the sheriff said. 

"They made a little makeshift dam. They definitely did not want anyone to see that for several days and they certainly succeeded."

Shirley Dermond was nowhere to be found. 

The woman who made the 911 call, and her husband, were at the Dermond home when Sills arrived. They were friends who had invited Shirley and Russell to a May 3 Kentucky Derby party. The Dermonds had not shown up and hadn't answered their phone since the gathering, so the couple went to their home to check on them. 

They had looked in every room, calling out as they went. It wasn't until the husband walked the length of the garage that Russell Dermond's headless body came into view.

"It was a very clean cut," the sheriff said, just above the collar line. Whoever did it knew what they were doing, he said. It wasn't done in a frenzy.

Gunshot residue was later found on Mr. Dermond's shirt. Sills believes he was most likely shot in the head. 

He thinks the head was taken, not as a trophy, but because it contained evidence — perhaps a bullet, which was never found, or DNA from the killer or killers in the form of blood or tissue. 

At this point, the sheriff and his deputies had a dead husband and a possibly abducted wife on their hands. Scenarios bounced around Sills' brain like Lotto balls: Shirley had been kidnapped; Shirley had something to do with what happened; Shirley was already dead, just not in her house.

An all-points bulletin went out. "Every electronic billboard in Georgia had her picture on it," Sills said.

Shirley Dermond's body was found in a lake, tied to cement blocks.
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Cadaver dogs were brought in. The cove surrounding the Dermonds' dock was dredged. The state Department of Natural Resources sent down "the most sophisticated underwater equipment that's available today," Sills said. "You could see a Coca-Cola can on the bottom of Lake Oconee at 60 feet."

The FBI became involved, as did other police agencies. They found no trace of Shirley Dermond.

Ten days later, two fishermen made a horrifying discovery — a woman's body, floating face-down in the lake, her ankles crudely tied to cement blocks. Decomposition and expanding gasses had sent the corpse to the surface.

Sills was called. From a boat, he heaved Mrs. Dermond's bloated body from the water. She was far beyond the search area that had already been dredged. The 5-foot, 2-inch woman's body had swelled to twice its weight from being submerged for so long. The coroner would later determine she had been dead when she went into the lake.

The cause of death was blunt-force trauma to the head.

Those wounds were vicious, Sills said, and penetrated her skull. He doesn't know where she was killed. "We don't really know that the Dermonds were murdered at their home," he said. "All we know for sure is that Mr. Dermond's body was there and after he was dead, his head was removed by a knife."

The knife hasn't been found, either. 

Now the case was a double homicide. And the investigation turned to who would kill an elderly couple in such a strange and heinous way. Sills got little sleep. For three solid months, his department worked on nothing else. The house was scoured inch by inch.

"We kept that house as a crime scene, and processed it, and worked on it and looked for fingerprints and used Luminol and lasers and things like that ... We'd do it, and I'd have my people go back and tell them to do it again."

A reward was offered for the murders of Shirley and Russell Dermond.
Putnam County Sheriff's Office

The case ate away at him during the day and invaded his dreams at night. "It's the most frustrating case of my career," Sills said. "It truly bothers me."

Sills thinks the couple knew their attackers. He thinks more than one person was involved, simply because of all the moving parts in their killings.

"There was no evidence of a break-in. Their jewelry was still there. Their Rolex watches were still there. Somebody thought they had something and they didn't have it. Or they couldn't get it."

Mr. Dermond, despite his age, was physically fit. "He was a World War II veteran. His personality, as I understand it, he would not have been the type to go [down] easily."

The couple had retired to this leafy enclave of homes priced at $1 million or more 14 years before their murders. They were from New Jersey and had married not long after he left the Navy. She was a homemaker. He was an executive at the firm that made Seth Thomas and Westclox clocks.

In the 1990s, they moved to Georgia, where Mr. Dermond acquired 19 Atlanta-area Hardee's franchises. Their two sons, Keith and Bradley, worked with their dad. 

The Dermonds had their million-dollar home built on the shores of Lake Oconee in the late 1990s. The 600-parcel Great Waters community boasts a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course. Mike Mills, the bassist and a founding member of R.E.M., owns a lakefront lot.

The Dermonds were now officially retired. Their sons took over the the restaurants. 

She played bridge. He played golf. He later gave up the game, but remained an avid walker. She was last seen at her weekly bridge game a few days before she went missing. He was last seen walking the golf course four days before his body was discovered.

"The Dermonds were not controversial at all. They lived a very sedentary life. They went to church. Mrs. Dermond played in the local bridge club. He walked on a routine basis ... I've got every check they've written for the last eight years, their credit cards, everything. There's no reason that we can determine why anybody would have ill feelings for them at all," the sheriff said.

The couple's three adult children, Keith, Bradley and Leslie, were questioned and each was separately given a polygraph test. "They were nothing but cooperative," Sills said. They lived out of state, but Sills knows what each was doing when their parents were killed. They had nothing to do with it, he says.

Their parents' wills divided their estate equally between the three.

Murders just don't happen in Great Waters. There is virtually no crime at all behind its gates. Once in a while, there are reports of home alarms going off, but "they're always false alarms," Sills said. Sometimes, people report something missing from inside a vehicle.

There are surveillance cameras at the entrance, but a recent electrical storm had knocked them out at the time of Dermond murders. But anyone with a boat could have pulled up to the couple's private dock covered by a green canvas awning.

"It is a host of contradictions and a lot of bad luck," Sills says of the case. "These people certainly weren't deserving, nobody's deserving, of this. Especially at their stage in life. But what worries me the most is, whoever did this is still out there. And anybody who would do this, will do it again. And I've got a duty to protect the public."

***

On the fourth anniversary of the Dermond murders, sheriff Sills is still investigating the case.

It still confounds the heck out of him, but it no longer gives him nightmares. As from the beginning, the case just doesn't add up.

"There's nothing — there's nothing at all," he said. "It doesn't make any sense for his head to be cut off. For her body to be dumped six miles away, tied to cinder blocks, that doesn't make any sense either. None of it makes any sense. We've done everything. We have had the FBI in to do a profile."

The bureau's description said the killer or killers liked guns and knives, which didn't tell Sills anything he didn't already know.

For the past few years, investigating the case has largely consisted of running down tips from the public and contacting other law enforcement agencies when murders of elderly people occur, or deaths involving decapitation. 

"Every time there's a head, I have to send the dental records," the sheriff said. That's happened two or three times since the Dermonds were killed. A woman in Alabama writes often saying her brother's a serial killer. It's not true. She has brother, but he's not a serial killer. "She's just crazy," says Sills.

He's heard it all — the Dermonds were in the Witness Protection Program, and whoever they'd crossed had sent assassins after them.

"An assassin walks in and shoots you in the head with a .22 and leaves," the sheriff notes. Someone suggested a mother alligator had attacked Mr. Dermond in his garage then dragged Mrs. Dermond into the lake. Another tipster said "Mr. Dermond was being serviced by this prostitute in Athens who was murdered by her jealous boyfriend," who then came after Mrs. Dermond.  

"It ranges from the totally absurd to something that might be credible," he said. A person who claimed to have certain revelations about the case said water played a role in the murders.

That was about as helpful as the FBI profile. "Well, obviously, they lived on a lake and Mrs. Durmond's body was found in 60 feet of water," Sills says with equal parts humor and equal parts scorn.

He has not, and will not, stop trying to find who killed an unassuming couple wanting only to live out their golden years in peace.

"Six months into the investigation, I began to realize that this case was going to be one of those cases where we're going to need somebody to give us a telephone call and tell us something.

"We have not given up. We are not going to give up."

Someone, somewhere, knows who did this, he believes. And they need to pick up a phone.

"I need that information, we need that information, the Dermond children need that information, our society needs that information," the sheriff said. 

The Putnam County Sheriff's Office can be reached at 706-485-8557

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