New search coming in Putnam slaying

jkovac@macon.comMay 13, 2014 

As the hunt for a decapitation killer and potential kidnapper entered its second week, authorities were planning a Wednesday combing of wooded, vacant lots in an exclusive Lake Oconee subdivision.

The upscale Great Waters development in Putnam County, home to the slain Russell Dermond and his missing wife, Shirley, has for eight full days been an investigative focal point in a homicide and possible abduction.

The body of the beheaded 88-year-old husband and grandfather was found by concerned neighbors in his Carolyn Drive garage on May 6.

His wife, 87, was gone, and it had been a few days since anyone had heard from them.

Putnam Sheriff Howard Sills said Tuesday that deputies continued talking to locals who may have known the retired couple.

“We have gathered a tremendous amount of forensic evidence, and we continue to,” he said.

The sheriff said investigators were running down “lead after lead.”

“The psychics are calling, the idiots are calling,” Sills added. “Unfortunately we’ll have one legitimate call and there are eight idiots that call. ... We still desperately need that call that will break this case open.”

On Tuesday, crews in boats using sonar devices searched the lake around the couple’s dock and others near it.

“Do I have any particular reason to look up under those docks? No. ... It’s more of an elimination thing,” Sills said.

Wednesday’s land search of what looks to center on more than a square quarter-mile of trees and brush will be more due diligence than anything.

“No different than the lake,” the sheriff said. “I have no reason to think there is anything over there.”

The Dermonds’ property sits in a cul-de-sac overlooking a cove roughly a dozen miles northeast of Eatonton, the county seat. Not quite four miles to the northeast, across golf links, woods and water, lies the acclaimed Ritz-Carlton Lodge at Reynolds Plantation. Less than eight miles north of it sprawls Interstate 20, an hour’s drive from Atlanta or Augusta.

Russell Dermond owned a chain of Hardee’s restaurants in the Atlanta area before retiring to the lake in the late 1990s. He is survived by two sons, a daughter and nine grandchildren. A date for his funeral has not been set. An obituary said the service will be private.

Russell Dermond, a Hackensack, N.J., native, would have turned 89 on June 6.

He was seen May 1 at a Publix supermarket, about eight miles by car from his house. Investigators said he may have been spotted walking along a golf course near his home the next day.

Authorities have said crime of any consequence is all but nonexistent in the Great Waters community north of Sparta highway and east of Ga. 44.

In fall 2012, though, the Dermonds did report that someone unknown to them rang up $2,000-plus in online purchases on their American Express account.

According to the Eatonton Messenger newspaper, there were seven charges in all -- five at Macys.com and two at Amazon.com.

Since Russell Dermond’s death and Shirley Dermond’s disappearance, deputies from Jones, Morgan, Baldwin and Greene counties, along with the FBI and the U.S. Marshals Service, have helped Putnam investigators.

“They understand the gruesomeness of this crime, and they also understand the perplexing nature of this crime,” Sills said.

“They know that if Howard Sills says he doesn’t have any leads, then we don’t have anything concrete to go on. And they know also how I work, and how I work is any violent crime, not just this one, the whole staff goes to work -- and we work nonstop. And they know we’ve extended ourselves beyond our normal capabilities.”

To contact writer Joe Kovac Jr., call 744-4397.

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