Crime

‘Psychopath’: 5 years after grisly Lake Oconee murders, who killed the Dermonds — and why?

Murders, perhaps more often than you might think, make very little sense.

They routinely defy explanation. The reasons people lash out at one another in life-taking fury or cold-blooded calm can be as unreasonable or unknowable as they are tragic. Killers, even the ones who are caught — the ones who confess and plead guilty — are frequently asked by judges at sentencing, “Why’d you do it?”

The reply, commonly enough, is “I don’t know.”

I mention this because as the fifth anniversary draws near for perhaps the most puzzling high-profile murder case in the recent Georgia history, almost nothing is known about who did it.

Trying to make sense of it is all but futile.

The May 2014 slayings of Russell and Shirley Dermond, both in their late 80s, left many Georgians stunned. Married for 68 years, they moved away from metro Atlanta around the turn of the century and retired to the Great Waters subdivision, a gated golfing enclave on Lake Oconee.

Their four-bedroom, $650,000 home in a wooded cul-de-sac overlooked a cove on the lake’s Putnam County shoreline about 12 miles northeast of Eatonton.

BEHIND OUR REPORTING

Why did we report this story?

The gruesome May 2014 slayings of Russell and Shirley Dermond left many Georgians stunned. It’s one of the most prolific unsolved murder cases in recent history, and the couple’s deaths still haunt Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills. Despite a lack of new developments, veteran crime reporter Joe Kovac Jr. wanted to shed new light and insight on the killings that occurred five years ago this month.

The circumstances of their deaths are as gruesome as they are unfathomable. On May 6, 2014 — after they hadn’t shown up for a neighbor’s Kentucky Derby party three days earlier —concerned friends, a husband and wife, stopped by the Dermond house on Carolyn Drive.

The front door was unlocked. Inside, in the Dermonds’ two-car garage, the body of 88-year-old Russell J. “Russ” Dermond was lying in a small pool of blood between the couple’s Lexus SUV and Lincoln Town Car. His head had been cut off.

The couple, aghast, called 911.

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Russell and Shirley Dermond in an undated family photo.

Shirley Wilcox Dermond, 87, was nowhere to be found. A week and half would pass before fishermen discovered her body in the lake. By water, the spot she surfaced was about five miles from her house. She had been weighed down with concrete blocks that were bound to a rope around her legs. She had not been decapitated and appeared to have been killed by a blow to the head.

Not much else is known.

There are no suspects. The Dermonds had no known enemies, although the sheriff has also said their deaths at least seem to be the handiwork of “a vicious enemy” — or at very least someone with such a capacity for savagery.

The killings rattled Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills.

“Every anniversary since the first one has troubled me. And I woke up this morning like I wake up every morning. ... It’s the first thing I think about,” Sills recently told the Telegraph.

He says he wishes there were something new to report. Leads have been plentiful, but none have panned out.

The mystery, Sills said, “is a yoke around my neck.”

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A 2017 view of the Dermonds’ former home on Lake Oconee. The house was sold for $650,000 in 2015, about a year after the Dermonds were slain. Joe Kovac Jr. jkovac@macon.com

He added: “It’s an embarrassment to me really, if you want to know the truth about it. ... We haven’t been able to gain any ground on this case after five years. ... Whoever did this is still out there. And whoever did this will do anything.”

My coverage of the case began soon after it began.

I have spent hours, days with Sills as he has pondered what little evidence there is.

He does not like to speculate or guess at what might be. Nor does he much care to wonder about whys when it comes to cracking unsolved cases.

“Damn the why,” Sills told me for a profile of him and the case that I wrote for Atlanta magazine on the one-year anniversary of the slayings. “Get the evidence. Make the case . . . The why can be a significant, if not the most significant factor in determining the who, so you don’t ignore it. But let’s not dwell on the esoteric. Let’s dwell on putting this bastard on the chain gang. Or better, put his ass in the electric chair.”

Sills went on: “If God and the law give me the opportunity, I’m gonna send the son of bitch to hell in my hand. I’ve gotten up every day of my life and asked God Almighty to give me the opportunity to hurl a hoodlum into hell. This son of a bitch or sons of bitches or bitches need it, and they need it in the worst sort of way. And I hope the hell I can deliver it. Nothing would please me more.”

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Putnam County, GA, 04/22/2019: Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills speaks with The Telegraph about the five-year anniversary of the unsolved death of Russ and Shirley Dermond. “I woke up this morning like I wake up every morning. ... It’s the first thing I think about.” Sills said about the gruesome murder. Jason Vorhees jvorhees@macon.com

Time can be an investigator’s best friend.

Killers slip up. They talk. They say too much.

Sometimes their consciences get the best of them. Sometimes accomplices, associates, girlfriends blab.

But sometimes time erases all traces. And sometimes any shred of an answer is little more than a guess.

Here are some plausible, or perhaps not-so-plausible, theories of what might have happened to the Dermonds:

A thrill kill?

Is it possible that someone motoring up Lake Oconee in a boat on the first Friday in May 2014 or the next day just happened to single out the Dermond home and, to satisfy some murderous urge, struck at random? Sure, anything is possible. But is it likely? No. In fact, it is probably the least-likely scenario in the Dermond case.

Russ Dermond was last known to be alive on Friday, May 2. Investigators confirmed he had been at a nearby Publix grocery store that day. Now, might someone have knocked on the couple’s door and pushed his way in when someone greeted him? That, too, is possible. There was no sign of forced entry, and almost nothing in the house was out of place. In fact, the place was spotless.

Though the Dermonds lived in a gated community with a guard shack at the entrance, a recent electrical storm had rendered surveillance cameras there useless. So someone in a car could have slipped in undetected. Because the couple lived on the lakefront with a dock, arrival by boat is just as probable. The lake provided “unlimited access by anyone,” Sills said.

Yes, that rare person whose sole motive to kill was merely for the sake of killing might be responsible. Strangers in the night, though, are perhaps among the rarest attackers of all. And how often do they go so far as to decapitate a victim?

Might the attacks be the work of a serial killer? Yes, but then where is the series, the pattern, the next one, the next kill? Investigators have considered other beheading-slayings and murders with remote similarities. So far, there are no apparent connections.

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The former Dermond house at 147 Carolyn Drive, which overlooks a cove on Lake Oconee. The house has since been sold. Zillow

A heist?

Did someone think the Dermonds had money?

Russ Dermond had been an executive for a clock manufacturer in the New York area. He later semi-retired to Atlanta where he oversaw a chain of Hardee’s franchises. He and his wife then moved to Great Waters around 2000. They were well off but not ostentatiously rich. Their net worth, including their home, was somewhere in the $1.5-million range.

They didn’t collect art or, as far as anyone knows, keep stores of cash at their house. But someone might have thought they did. There’s a chance the crime could have been a burglary, that the Dermonds surprised someone who’d broken in. But the gruesome nature of their deaths seems overly personal for such a chance encounter.

Maybe the killer or killers believed there was something of value, and upon confronting the Dermonds the assailant or assailants may have threatened the couple with extreme violence, possibly threatening to harm one or the other unless they forked over loot. But if there was no such bounty to be had, did the killer come for something that the Dermonds did not have?

When asked about his best guess on a motive for the killing, Sills said, “I still think it was some sort of extortion, robbery of some sort that the Dermonds didn’t have or didn’t have access to something that somebody wanted. I still believe there’s more than one perpetrator involved. I still believe that Shirley Dermond wasn’t murdered here at (their) house. But most importantly, I still believe that somebody knows about this, and they need to tell us.”

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A guard waves at residents as they enter the Reynolds Plantation Great Waters community on Lake Oconee soon after the Dermonds were killed in 2014. Jason Vorhees jvorhees@macon.com

A grudge?

Murder victims tend to fall prey to people close to them or people they know. But that can also make for a near-infinite pool of suspects.

Even so, stranger-on-stranger slayings are rare. The lengths taken to murder the Dermonds — an attempt to make Shirley’s body disappear in the lake, and to sever Russ’s yet-to-be-found head — may denote some degree of closeness, a deep anger. The aim could have been to make them both vanish, to dispose of the Dermonds in a rage fueled by revenge, an unknown grudge, a long-ago slight or a spur-of-the-moment feud.

But such clashes are rarely secrets. It is possible, too, that there might have been some past business dealing that left someone despondent enough to resort to double homicide, or to collect on some unpaid personal debt or slight. The Dermonds have three living children — a fourth child, a son, their eldest, was killed while trying to buy drugs near downtown Atlanta in 2000. None of the couple’s kids or relatives is believed to be a suspect. Friends, neighbors and acquaintances have told of no known run-ins that might have precipitated such violence.

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Shirley and Russell Dermond in undated family photographs.

A hit?

Who orders a hit on an octogenarian husband and wife? Shirley played bridge with a club in Eatonton. Russell was fond of strolls around his neighborhood golf course.

Soon after their deaths, word from a few commenters on social media was that the slayings bore the trademark handiwork of a drug hit. The decapitation, so the speculation went, had all the earmarks of cartel vengeance. Investigators have all but ruled that out, however.

I have considered the possibility that Russ’s decapitation, and the fact his head has never turned up, might have been taken as “proof of death” to show someone or provide irrefutable evidence that the deed was done. But that seems a bit too Hollywood. Besides, news of the killings spread nationwide in a matter of days. It is just as likely, if not more so, that the killer — as has occasionally happened in other decapitations — shot Dermond in the head and removed his head so that investigators would find no bullet, which might be traceable to a gun.

The day Sills dragged Shirley’s body from the lake, a gaggle of reporters at a news conference peppered him with questions. I wrote of the exchange in my piece for Atlanta magazine. Sills was asked about the possibility of the slayings being the work of a hit man.

“Would you consider this a professional job?” a reporter wondered. “A professional what job?” Sills replied. The reporter answered, “There doesn’t appear to be a lot of evidence for it to be an amateur.”

Sills, perhaps thinking aloud, responded, “Is it a professional robbery? Nothing seems to be gone. Is it a professional burglary? Nothing seems to be gone . . . Uh, I don’t know any professional decapitators.” The reporter then suggested, “There are professional hit men.” To which Sills said, “The totality of this is just very different.”

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The entrance to Reynolds Plantation Great Waters community on Lake Oconee near where in May 2014 Shirley and Russell Dermond are thought to have been slain. Jason Vorhees jvorhees@macon.com

A message?

Might the murders have been a warning, a message, to someone close to the Dermonds? Could someone have been trying to scare someone the couple knew, or might the killer have been sending a message to force someone to do something, to pay up or else?

There doesn’t seem to be any link to their eldest son, Mark, who was murdered in Atlanta in 2000. The couple was not all that close to him by then, investigators have said. Even so, Mark Dermond’s slaying was one of the first things investigators delved into after the killings.

Mark Dermond’s killer, who had shot him during a drug buy not far from the Georgia Dome, is still in prison and has no known ties to Russ and Shirley.

Whoever killed the Dermonds, Sills is all but certain the culprit is not local.

“I’m not sure that they’re from Georgia,” Sills said recently. “But I’m pretty convinced they’re not from here. Or they’re some sort of true psychopath that leads a different life.”

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