Grim slaying, disappearance have Putnam authorities stymied

Telegraph staffMay 8, 2014 

EATONTON -- The killing and decapitation of an 88-year-old man and the vanishing of his wife have authorities here scrounging for clues why anyone would have preyed on the couple.

On Thursday, as the third day of the investigation wound down, autopsy results were still incomplete in the death of Russell J. Dermond, whose head was severed and hasn’t been found.

His body was found in his garage Tuesday morning by concerned neighbors. Meanwhile his wife, Shirley Wilcox Dermond, 87, has disappeared without a trace.

An acquaintance of hers, a friend from the Eatonton Duplicate Bridge Club, was so shaken when she spoke to a Telegraph reporter that she didn’t want her name printed.

“I tremble,” she said Thursday. “My hands are shaking over this. … This is obviously the work of people who are far from normal. … You don’t know who might be next.”

The woman added, “You couldn’t say anything bad about the Dermonds. Everybody would always say how sweet they were.”

Later on in Eatonton, which lies about a dozen miles southwest of the gated Reynolds Plantation Great Waters community where the Dermonds lived, Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills hoped forensic evidence might shed light on the case.

He said there was no blood-spatter pattern found, which means severing the head was not likely the cause of death for Russell Dermond.

“I want the doctor to tell me if even the death occurred there,” Sills said. “There’s no evidence of a bullet hole in the wall or anything.”

Bogus rumors that Shirley Dermond’s headless body had been found and other scuttlebutt that Sills was withholding information only served to complicate the probe, the sheriff said.

“My community is going hog wild with rumors,” he said. “The focus needs to be, ‘Where is Mrs. Dermond?’ And I think we’re getting away from that and going into this bizarre stuff.”

The Dermonds’ three children arrived from out of state Wednesday and helped rule out that their father was tortured, something investigators suspected due to the condition of one of his fingers, Sills said. Relatives said the deformity was the result of an old injury.

Investigators are interviewing as many people as they can, but so far there is nothing to lead them to Shirley Dermond.

“I have a missing 87-year-old woman,” the sheriff said, “and there’s not a shred of evidence where she went.”

Due to the condition of her husband’s body, the FBI has checked for any sign of organized crime, Sills said. They’ve combed through phone records and financial records.

“Nothing, nothing, nothing,” the sheriff said. “They’ve been married 68 years, and we’re hearing nothing but glorious accolades about these people.”

The Dermonds did not own a debit card and only had a few credit cards, he said. Both of their cars were at their house.

There has been no sign of activity on their account and no ransom note, so there is no apparent motive for the killing and likely abduction.

Investigators and crime-scene technicians from Putnam and Jones counties spent Wednesday processing evidence in the two-car garage of Dermonds’ house at 147 Carolyn Drive. The house sits in a cul-de-sac amid an enclave of lake houses.

The Dermonds, who’d made money in the restaurant business, bought the .85-acre property in 1994 – a month after the historic floods that crippled parts of Georgia – for about $425,000.

They built their $600,000, 3,255-square-foot house five years later on a slope that overlooks Lake Oconee cove, roughly 10 miles due south of Interstate 20.

Those who knew the Dermonds say they had no outside cleaning help, but their house was spotless.

Sitting in his office as he finished a plate of lunch from a grocery-store deli, the sheriff seemed frustrated at how little investigators had to go on.

“We’ve dragged the lake, we’ve used sonar,” he said. “The cadaver dogs have searched the woods (near the house). … But we have nowhere to look.”

* * *

At 9:56 a.m. Tuesday, neighbors who had gone to check on the couple phoned 911 after finding Russell Dermond dead.

“They weren’t there but just a few minutes before they called,” Sills said. “You could tell they were under a great deal of stress when they called it in.”

The Dermonds had missed a Kentucky Derby viewing party Saturday afternoon, a gathering they had RSVP’d their intention to attend.

The couple’s house was unlocked, and there was no sign of forced entry when neighbors went to see about them.

Authorities were all but certain the corpse was Russell Dermond’s after they spoke with a family member who told them about an abnormality to one of his fingers and a surgical scar on his knee.

But it wasn’t until Thursday, though, that Sills confirmed the dead man’s identification after matching fingerprints with records from Russell Dermond’s Navy enlistment in the early 1940s.

After the body was found, deputies in a boat dragged the 13-foot-deep water near the couple’s house. Investigators also called in the cadaver dog, to no avail. The lake search turned up little more than a lawn chair and a sunken Christmas tree.

The Dermonds once owned a boat, but they sold it years ago, the sheriff said.

Sills, a charismatic lawman known for his wit and bloodhound’s nose for tracking down bad guys, spearheaded the case that brought down Nuwaubian cult leader Dwight “Malachi” York, who was convicted of racketeering and child molestation charges.

Sills said that when he first met the Dermond children and kin, he told them, “Everybody’s a suspect but me. Because I know where I was, and I don’t know where anybody else was.”

He said there is no indication the couple’s relatives were involved.

The sheriff described Russell Dermond, who would have turned 89 next month, as “active,” a walker.

He was seen at the Publix pharmacy not far from his house on Thursday, and someone reported seeing him walking on a neighborhood golf course Friday.

One of the Dermonds’ sons was shot and killed in 2000 while he was buying crack cocaine in downtown Atlanta on his 47th birthday.

Mark C. Dermond, who’d lived in Dunwoody, was shot in his neck and torso while sitting in a car, according to accounts published at the time. His killer, also accused of shooting and wounding a man named Grady Harris Jr., who was with Mark Dermond, is still in prison.

* * *

At a news conference Thursday afternoon, one attended by Atlanta and Macon television stations, Sills said investigators were still interviewing neighbors and friends and examining financial records.

“We need to assume or at least pray that Mrs. Dermond is still alive,” he said.

No murder weapon has been found and, Sills said, it appears Russell Dermond was killed sometime between Friday and early Sunday.

Shirley Dermond is not considered a suspect, he said, adding that he didn’t believe the crime was the work of “some traveling serial killer.”

“It’s not the type of neighborhood for random crime.”

“If it was an abduction you would expect some sort of extortion demand. If it was an assassination, … both bodies would be there.”

He said nothing in couple’s background stands out. They had “no apparent enemies … nothing that made them particularly vulnerable.”

Sills said Russell Dermond, who along with his wife had New Jersey roots, retired about two decades ago. They had lived in the Atlanta area before moving to their house on the lake.

The sheriff said deputies have run down information on landscapers or anyone else who might have ties to the neighborhood.

“I’ve looked at the background of the mailman,” he told reporters.

Then he was asked if he or his investigators had any leads.

“If I had a good, solid lead, guess what? I wouldn’t be standing here talking to y’all,” Sills said.

Contact writer Joe Kovac Jr. at 744-4397. Contact writer Liz Fabian at 744-4303.

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