Motive in Lake Oconee killings may be ‘something crazy’

jkovac@macon.comMay 17, 2014 

Russell Dermond and Shirley Dermond

EATONTON -- Action was winding down the other day at the Eatonton Duplicate Bridge Club. Card tables were being folded, chairs put away, scores tallied. There was an open bag of pretzels, a half-eaten pan of apple cobbler, coffee.

By then, the Putnam County sheriff had come and gone.

He had dropped in to dispel rumors about the disappearance of bridge club president Shirley Dermond, 87, whose 88-year-old husband was found dead and decapitated at their Lake Oconee home May 6.

Russell Dermond’s slaying and his wife’s disappearance has puzzled authorities ever since.

Shirley Dermond’s May 1 bridge club gathering was the last time anyone recalls seeing her.

Three days ago, as the club’s most recent Thursday meeting drew to a close, a friend of Shirley Dermond’s said, “I pray and have my devotion every morning, and my prayer is that God will reveal where she is.”

Twenty-four hours later, Shirley Dermond was missing no more.

Friday afternoon, some men fishing for crappie found her body in Lake Oconee.

* * *

When the Oconee River was flooded to build the lake in the late 1970s, trees were left standing, in part, to create underwater habitats for fish.

Dermond’s body was found in 46 feet of water, in a part of the lake where the tops of underwater trees jut close to or above the surface.

A source familiar with the investigation told The Telegraph that the body had been “placed” where it was found. The source did not elaborate.

Even so, the revelation indicates that Dermond’s corpse was not adrift and that authorities now have evidence of how her killer may have tried to hide her body.

Such clues could prove helpful in determining the validity of tips should people claiming to know specifics of the crime come forward, or when potential suspects are questioned.

At a Saturday morning autopsy, a medical examiner used dental records to confirm that the body pulled from the lake was Dermond’s.

Sheriff Howard Sills said she had died of blunt-force trauma to the head and was dead before her body was put in the water.

On the phone Saturday afternoon, the Dermonds’ son, Keith, had trouble finding words to describe his family’s pain upon learning of his mother’s death.

“We take some comfort in the fact that she’s at peace. ... So many different emotions -- relief and sadness -- it’s hard to describe,” he said. “I never would have dreamed our family would be going through something like this.”

Keith Dermond, 55, said investigators have referred to his parents’ killings as “a targeted crime.”

“We’ve had two weeks almost to think about all this and just cannot come up with anything that sounds logical,” he said.

“Especially with nothing of any value taken. There wasn’t a robbery of any kind. I just think it was a random thing, or if it was targeted they hit the wrong house, or something crazy like that.”

He couldn’t imagine why anyone would want to harm his folks, who ran an Atlanta-area chain of Hardee’s restaurants until they retired 20 years ago.

He said, “I just don’t understand it at all.”

* * *

Friday when the fishermen spotted Shirley Dermond’s body, it was face down about three miles northwest of the Wallace Dam.

The body was roughly 200 feet from an uninhabited spit of woodland on the Greene County side of the water near Riley Shoals.

Some of the nearest houses overlooking the location are on Long Island Drive, on the Putnam County side, but the closest residence is more than a third of a mile away.

The area lies just under three and a half miles in a southeasterly straight line from the Dermonds’ home in the Great Waters subdivision.

By lake, as the open water snakes in a Z around Long Shoals and past a slew of coves in the nearly 19,000-acre reservoir, the spot is more than five miles away from the couple’s dock.

A few miles north of Ga. 16 and about a dozen miles due south of Interstate 20, the place the body turned up is more or less equidistant from Eatonton and Sparta.

The Ritz-Carlton Lodge lies a little less than four miles to the north, slightly farther by boat.

Authorities will no doubt go house to house in the area hoping to find anyone who may have seen anything or anyone had a camera trained on the water. Investigators will also likely check to see if boat ramps were monitored by cameras about the time the Dermonds were slain -- sometime in the first weekend of May.

Sills said Friday that “the head of Mr. Dermond will be quite difficult to locate.”

Nonetheless, crews were on the lake Saturday searching.

If in fact the culprit put Russell Dermond’s head in the lake at the spot his wife’s body was found, retrieving it may be impossible to find.

The snarled labyrinth of submerged tree limbs and trunks there is all but impenetrable for divers and, quite possibly, underwater viewing devices.

* * *

Late last week at Eatonton’s Plaza Arts Center on North Madison Avenue, where the bridge club meets, the 12 women and four men on hand were about to go home.

It had been raining outside. The mood seemed somber. Someone pointed out the last score sheet bearing Shirley Dermond’s name, a tally from May 1. She often won the weekly games, but she and her partner had come in seventh that day.

Marilyn O’Neill, who has taken over as interim club president, said she was only filling in “until hopefully Shirley comes back.”

Dermond had been playing bridge locally since she and her husband built a retirement home at the Great Waters development a dozen or so miles northeast of town in 1999.

O’Neill spoke fondly of Dermond’s needlepoint work, one with an angel in particular. “It had pearls and crystals. Just gorgeous.”

Dermond sometimes took homemade chocolate cakes to the Tuesday and Thursday bridge games.

She and other members on occasion traded books. More often, though, they talked about their families and enjoyed one another’s company.

“She had a great laugh,” member Carole Stickline said, “a great sense of humor.”

One friend said Dermond, who’d had knee-replacement surgery, enjoyed dancing.

Pat Turney, another member, described the Dermonds as “the perfect retired couple. ... So sweet.”

Donna Paige, who lives in a lakefront home near the Dermonds, carpooled to bridge meetings with Shirley Dermond.

Paige is the friend whose devotional prayer was that Dermond would be found. She also prays the Lord “will reveal who did this.”

Paige tries not to let her mind puzzle over what might have become of the slain couple.

“I did the first night or two. The first night I found out I was awake all night,” she said. “But I don’t think that’s going to bring Shirley or Russell back.”

Paige, tall and slender in her early 80s, worked for many years as an Atlanta accounting firm’s office manager.

Since Dermond vanished, she said, “A lot of people have fear. But we’ve never had anything on the lake. Ever. And we’ve been here 22 years. ... It is hard to believe that something like this could happen. Especially to Shirley and Russell Dermond, who were cream-of-the-crop people.”

Paige met Dermond about a decade and a half ago when they were part of another bridge club.

Dermond, she said, has a grandson at the University of North Carolina, which Paige’s granddaughter attends.

Paige said Dermond’s family meant the most to Dermond. “She talked a lot about her daughter and her daughter’s horses.”

Russell Dermond, she said, was as kindhearted as his wife.

“They had a friend who had a stroke, and Russell would go to his house several times a week to go over what the therapist had told the friend to do,” Paige said.

She added that in the wake of his killing and Shirley Dermond’s disappearance, some people wondered why the bridge club wasn’t on hiatus.

“I said, ‘Shirley would not have it any other way,’ ’’ Paige said. “Shirley was always ready to go and do.”

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