Crime

New details as mystery reigns in year-old Dermond lake murders

147 Carolyn Drive, Eatonton, Georgia. Click here for Zillow profile.
147 Carolyn Drive, Eatonton, Georgia. Click here for Zillow profile. Zillow

There was terror in her voice the morning the murder mystery came to light.

She was on the phone, gasping, breathless in the 11 seconds it took someone to answer and say, “Putnam County 911.”

“Yes, uh, I have an emergency,” the woman, 68, said. “I think I have somebody dead. ... Oh, my God. Oh, my god.”

Come Wednesday, a year will have passed since that emergency call, since the frantic woman’s husband found the decapitated body of their 88-year-old friend, Russell J. “Russ” Dermond.

Within hours of the May 6, 2014, discovery there in the Great Waters subdivision, a dozen miles northeast of downtown Eatonton, investigators concluded that Dermond’s wife of 68 years had disappeared.

The FBI was called in. A $45,000 reward was offered. Potential evidence was gathered. The couple’s relatives and acquaintances were questioned, and then ... nothing.

In the 12 months that followed, no reasons or explanations have emerged. Nor any suspects.

But guesses abound about what befell the Dermonds: Why Russ was left lying in his home’s two-car garage with his head cut off; why his wife, Shirley, 87, was beaten to death, her corpse sunk in Lake Oconee, only to surface a week and a half later.

The neighbors who alerted the authorities about Russ’ death live about a mile from the Dermond place. The neighbors had hosted a Kentucky Derby party the previous Saturday, May 3. The Dermonds had said they’d attend but never showed. So the neighbors, a few days later, went to check on them.

The neighbors, the woman and her 75-year-old husband, were no doubt the first people in the Dermond home after a crime that has puzzled and frustrated investigators from the outset.

Besides the headless body sprawled in the garage between the Dermonds’ Lexus SUV and their Lincoln Town Car, little in the home was amiss. Their front door was unlocked.

The neighbors who made the 911 call did so on the Dermonds’ cordless phone. The husband who found Russ slain can be heard on the recorded line in the background searching the house in vain -- apparently for Shirley.

“There’s nothing back here,” he said.

Seconds later, at his wife’s side, she asked, “Did you find both of them?”

“No,” the husband said.

‘A MAN’

Unsolved murders and disappearances, by nature, generate their share of speculation.

But when the worst happens in the seemingly best of places, folks cannot help but wonder why or how. Especially when someone was decapitated, the whereabouts of his head unknown. And when the crime scene, in all likelihood, was a $769,000 lake house.

Among locals who didn’t even know the slain couple, an uneasiness set in. The notion of such an atrocity in an exclusive, golf course-ringed neighborhood struck at people’s deepest fears: If it happened there, is anywhere safe?

The two-story Dermond home, a four-bedroom, four-bath, 3,500-square-footer in a wooded cul-de-sac overlooking a cove, is now on the market.

Howard Sills, Putnam’s homegrown, two-decade sheriff, knows the area as well as anyone.

Sills, 59, professorial and occasionally profane, has explored all avenues, obvious and not so, including the circumstances surrounding the murder of the Dermonds’ eldest child, Mark C. Dermond. He was shot in the neck and torso 15 years ago while buying crack cocaine in downtown Atlanta the night of his 47th birthday.

His killer remains in prison, and people on the slaying’s periphery -- relatives, friends and others -- appear to have played no role in his parents’ deaths.

At this point, maybes are about all the sheriff and his investigators have when it comes to potential culprits.

Are there clues? Yes.

Sills has told The Telegraph that he and his deputies are not muddling along in the dark.

Progress, gradual as it may be, has been made.

There have, since early in the probe, been developments or findings not shared publicly that, in the event of an arrest, could prove useful in convicting the killer or killers.

Though Sills declined to elaborate, he mentioned the sighting of a potential suspect outside the Dermond house at 147 Carolyn Drive.

“A man,” the sheriff said, “we’ll just leave it at that, was seen on the property during the period that the murders could have occurred.”

Also, he said recently, “I’m considering some new forensic testing of evidence we have.”

It is not certain how Russ Dermond was killed, just that whatever caused his death was a traumatic head injury. He could have been shot, beaten or suffered some as-yet-unknown end. He was decapitated after he died, likely on May 3 or the day before.

His wife, who was not beheaded, died from blows to the skull, wounds possibly inflicted with “something like a hammer,” Sills said.

Sills said Shirley Dermond was struck more than once and was dead when she was dropped in the lake. Her body was found floating by fishermen on May 16.

Weighed down by a pair of 30-pound concrete blocks, her corpse bloated and surfaced facedown in 46 feet of water. By boat, the spot lies some five miles from her home, in a wide bend above the Wallace Dam.

Sills had not until earlier this year wanted it known that the blocks were what Shirley Dermond’s killer had apparently used to anchor her to the lake floor.

The FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit has provided Sills with a broad description of the culprit.

“Someone who likes guns and knives,” Sills said, recalling some contents of the FBI’s report.

Such insight -- helpful as it may be down the road -- does little to narrow the field of suspects. That said, it points out a daunting truth.

Practically anyone could be the killer.

‘VERY, VERY SAD’

For a decade and a half, from about the turn of the century on, the Dermonds had called Lake Oconee home.

Russ, once an avid golfer when he and Shirley lived near Roswell, had called it a career after more than 10 years in the restaurant business. He ran a chain of metro-Atlanta Hardee’s eateries. Before that, he spent most of his working years as an executive for a New York-area clock company.

Shirley, a housewife, was, like her husband, a New Jersey native. She liked to read, play bridge, go to church. She’d gone to her duplicate bridge club meeting in Eatonton the Thursday before her death. It was the last time she was seen alive.

Russ, who would have turned 89 last June, was seen at the Publix grocery store near his house the Thursday of Shirley’s bridge outing. Someone also reported seeing him the next day strolling the neighborhood golf course.

An investigators has said the Dermond home was kept so neat and clean that “you’d eat off the floors.”

Out at the Great Waters entrance, there is now a security gate, one of those arms that goes up and down when you’re let in. The guard shack lies a shade under two miles from the Dermond house. Its security cameras had been knocked out by a storm in the weeks before the killings and were of no use to the authorities.

Down a sloped yard from the slain couple’s house, at the water’s edge, there is a lighted dock. A green canvas covering its boat slip bears the swirled script of the Reynolds Plantation logo.

A real estate listing touts the home’s “expansive views” and mentions “fresh paint, new carpet.”

Despite what the listing describes as “large windows found in every room,” the house sits in a tree-shrouded lot. From the street or the water, even in early spring, seeing anything distressing happening inside would have been all but impossible.

In recent months, the eldest of the Dermonds’ surviving three children, Keith Dermond, who lives in Florida, recalled how his parents moved to the lake in the late 1990s “to get away from the hustle and bustle of Atlanta.”

“They made some great friends and loved when family visited,” Keith Dermond, 56, said in February, adding that he hadn’t heard “from the sheriff or anyone in months.”

When asked how residents were coping in the year since the killings, a 77-year-old woman who lives a few doors down from the Dermond house told a reporter that she didn’t want to discuss the matter.

Another neighborhood woman described the circumstances of the case as “horrible.”

“We’re sad,” said the woman, 74. “We’re very, very sad. They were lovely people from all I know. ... I can’t imagine this happening.”

The Rev. David W. Key Sr. of Lake Oconee Community Church, where the Dermonds were members, says shock and despair linger.

“It may have shattered any kind of false security that we’ve had,” Key, 52, said last week. “Now part of the challenge is that we live with unanswered questions.”

On Sunday, the likely anniversary of the couple’s death, Key planned to lead an afternoon memorial service at the church.

His message, he said, would touch on coming to grips with “something that should not have happened.”

“That’s what makes it even a stranger story. Looking at all the couples, they would have been the last you would have picked out,” Key said. “They weren’t gaudy, they weren’t pretentious. They were just really down-to-earth.”

Key recalls the Dermonds being in church the weekend before they died, and how so much time has passed since.

“A year ago,” he said, “I would have expected (the authorities) to have found something by now.”

‘THAT CASE’

These days there are few places the sheriff can go without someone recognizing him and asking about “that case.”

Last May, some of Sills’ news conferences about the Dermond killings were aired live on Atlanta news channels. He became the face of an unsolved crime that fascinated viewers and newspaper readers across the region.

Not long ago, Sills was at a restaurant in Chattanooga, Tennessee, when a woman walked up and asked, “Are you a police officer?”

“Yes, ma’am,” he replied before emphasizing where. “I’m the sheriff of Putnam County, Georgia.”

“Yeah,” the woman said, “you’re the one with that case.”

And it has worn on him.

He has passed up vacations, worked weekends and spent countless hours late at night trying to unearth a thread that leads to a suspect.

Might the slayings be the work of burglars the Dermonds walked in on?

Perhaps, Sills says, but the usual things a burglar might steal -- televisions, jewelry, electronics -- were apparently not taken.

Shirley, the sheriff says, appears to have been up and dressed for the day, while Russ, in a robe, T-shirt, boxer shorts and slippers, may have, when the killer arrived, just been into his morning coffee-drinking and reading routine.

How their killer or killers arrived is anyone’s guess.

“I still think they came by car, but there is no question whatsoever that Mrs. Dermond’s body was, in my opinion, disposed of by boat,” Sills said. “They could have come by boat.”

As for the number of assailants involved, Sills said, “If one person did this, he spent the weekend. It’s just my opinion that it would just be impossible for one person. One person may have made the initial assault, or something like that, but somebody had some help at some juncture.”

He said one “plausible theory,” as he put it, is that the killings involve “some sort of extortion or robbery-type thing by somebody” the Dermonds “at least initially knew.”

It is possible that whatever the killer sought, if anything, was something the Dermonds didn’t have.

‘A LOT OF BRICK WALLS’

On a recent afternoon, Putnam sheriff’s Detective Dave Henry was in Sills’ office.

Aside from Sills, Henry knows more about the Dermond case than anyone.

Henry is 62, a slim, deep-voiced, Vidalia-born career cop. Before joining Sills’ staff in 2012, he helped train police investigators in Iraq.

Henry spent most of his years as a homicide detective at agencies in Gwinnett County.

He was the lead investigator in the 1999 shooting deaths of a woman and her 2-year-old daughter whose bodies were found in the trunk of a burned-out car. Their killer, a stranger who’d abducted them at a park south of Atlanta, was sentenced to life without parole.

Henry also had a hand in the 1997 murder-for-hire probe that sent Kelly Gissendaner to death row for arranging the stabbing death of her husband.

The Dermond case has all but consumed him.

“Seems like every free minute I’ve got, my mind is rehashing stuff, trying to think of things we may have missed or overlooked,” Henry said.

“I try to keep an open mind. I try to keep the blinders off, because I don’t want to get tunnel vision on any one person or any one theory. ... Everybody’s got their own theory on what happened -- and a lot of them are possible.”

Tips, meanwhile, have run the gamut.

None, of course, has panned out.

“Anything that is halfway sane is a very plausible theory,” Henry said, “at this point.”

He recalls one tipster, though, who was convinced that the killer is an al-Qaida or Islamic State operative.

Some have suggested professional hit men as the culprits. Others figure the Dermonds fell prey to a cult.

Still others wonder if the slayings were a plot by religious zealots to embarrass the sheriff for sending Nuwaubian leader Dwight York to federal prison for life in a heralded case from a decade ago.

Leads have, at times, looked promising. They have merited days, weeks of inquiry. They have led investigators to other parts of Georgia and out of state.

Yet they have all, not unlike the villain whose misdeeds provoked them, faded into oblivion for the time being.

“There’s been a lot of brick walls in this case,” Henry said. “I mean, just dead end after dead end.”

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

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