Crime

Son of slain Dermond couple says Lake Oconee mystery ‘haunts us’

'Murder at Great Waters' Podcast, Part 1

This month marks the third anniversary of the slayings of Shirley and Russell Dermond. Their bizarre deaths shook their exclusive neighborhood at Lake Oconee and saddled investigators with a murder mystery that remains unsolved.​ ​Russ Dermond, 88
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This month marks the third anniversary of the slayings of Shirley and Russell Dermond. Their bizarre deaths shook their exclusive neighborhood at Lake Oconee and saddled investigators with a murder mystery that remains unsolved.​ ​Russ Dermond, 88

When Keith Dermond answered his phone the other afternoon, the newspaper reporter calling for this story didn’t have to ask many questions.

Because lingering questions are plenty. Questions are all there are.

What happened to your mother and father?

Who would do such a thing?

Why?

Two years after the slayings of 88-year-old Russell J. and 87-year-old Shirley Wilcox Dermond, answers remain elusive.

The pair were living out retirement in a Putnam County golfing haven on the shores of Lake Oconee.

At the turn of the century, after Russell’s career in the Northeast as a clock company executive and later, in Atlanta, running a chain of Hardee’s restaurants, the Dermonds settled on the lakefront.

Their place in the Great Waters subdivision was about a dozen miles northeast of Eatonton. New Jersey natives, they lived in a cul-de-sac on Carolyn Drive in a 3,200-square-foot home with big windows overlooking a tree-shrouded backyard and a dock.

It was there, to use the parlance of criminal investigators, that on or about the first weekend of May 2014 someone killed them.

Russ Dermond, an avid golfer, was found dead with his head cut off near a Lexus SUV and a Lincoln Town Car in his two-car garage.

A neighborhood man and his wife, friends of the Dermonds, made the grim discovery. The friends had gone to check on the Dermonds on the morning of May 6, a Tuesday, after not hearing from the couple for a few days. The Dermonds had planned to attend a Kentucky Derby party but never showed.

Ten days later, fishermen found Shirley’s body in the lake, five miles by water from the Dermond home.

‘It’s unfathomable’

The killings soon became the case everyone wanted to know about — the case they needed to know about. In part because if something so awful, so grotesque could happen in an enclave tucked away from perceived inner-city frights, well, who among us is safe?

Everyone seemed to have a theory. News emerged that one of the couple’s sons had been shot to death in an Atlanta drug deal a decade earlier. Might that be connected? Some wondered about a Mafia hit. Others figured it was extortion. A handful pegged it as a decapitation by Middle Eastern extremists. At least one man suggested it was the work of an agitated mama alligator.

None of it checked out. And very little has.

Don’t for a second think we are not pursuing you.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills

For Georgians, in a day when true-crime television shows and murder serials are wildly popular, it became the real-life nightmare next door. What may be most disturbing about it is how little is known. Aside from a pair of bodies, the killer or killers left barely a trace. What’s more, the culprit or culprits are still out there.

Authorities are hunting them.

Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, whose department is overseeing the probe, said if he could send a message to the killer or killers that it would be this: “Don’t for a second think we are not pursuing you.”

Sills said he and his deputies run down every lead they receive, no matter how absurd the tip may seem. They even met recently with a few self-proclaimed psychics who asked if their services might be of help.

The sheriff is also in touch with federal authorities who have been on the case since it began.

“We are still working with the FBI and plan on doing something in the next couple of weeks,” Sills said Friday. “Nothing earth-shattering, but part of the ongoing investigation.”

Keith Dermond, one of two surviving Dermond sons, lives in north Florida. He got his start in fast-food management in the early 1990s while working with his father in metro Atlanta.

On the phone the other day, Keith Dermond, who is 57 and has a deep, deliberate voice, was asked what he and his siblings think happened to their parents.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I mean I really don’t have a good answer. It just … the whole episode is something you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemy. … It’s unfathomable how horrible the whole thing is, and the more detail you get into the worse it gets.”

He went on.

“It’s bad enough to lose both of your parents at the same time, but in the way it happened. We would have been devastated if they’d just had a car accident. But to have it all happen this way, and then just compounding and compounding and compounding with the details and then the fact that they haven’t even caught anybody. They don’t even have a clue. We don’t even know why,” he said.

“The only thing I can put it remotely similar to would be somebody that had a 5-year-old that just disappeared and they’ll never find out what happened. That’s got to haunt you. … It just haunts us.”

Could the police have done more?

“If you could have had Sherlock Holmes on the case from Day One, I don’t know that he would have solved it either,” he said. “How could you do something like this and not leave any clues to this point? That’s hard to believe.”

‘Some psycho’

Keith Dermond wonders about how the security cameras were not working at the Great Waters guard shack when his folks were killed.

The shack sits at the edge of Wards Chapel Road. It was pure bad luck the cameras were out. They’d been zapped in a lightning storm days earlier and no one noticed they weren’t functioning.

Thinking back, Keith Dermond also thinks about how visitors’ license plates weren’t routinely recorded, how almost anyone could have driven in undetected. But then there is no telling whether the killer or killers came by car at all, what with Shirley Dermond’s body disposed of miles down the lake in nearly 50 feet of water.

“It’s hard to believe they took her so far away from the house. Did they really go from the house to where they left her all that way in a boat?” he said. “That’s hard to believe too. So just so many mysterious things. Just none of it seems to make sense.”

He spoke of the couple who discovered his father’s headless body, the family friends who called 911 the morning of May 6.

“I can’t imagine being the one to find them,” Keith Dermond said. “Of course, I never saw … I mean, I didn’t even really want to go in the garage when they first took us into the house and (see) the blood marks, the stuff like that.”

The house sold a year ago for $650,000. It had at one time been valued nearer to $1 million. Even so, Keith Dermond said his folks, who don’t appear to have been robbed by their killer, were not super-rich.

“They were well-off,” he said, “but they weren’t wealthy people, especially in the Reynolds (Plantation) scheme of things.”

It’s a shame that now none of us are ever gonna feel the same way about the area — ever.

Keith Dermond

He considered other possible motives, whether the slayings could be the work of “some psycho” or serial killer with no reason at all.

“I mean at least that would be a reason so to speak. … All the other things, the cults or gangs, none of it seems to make sense,” he said.

“It’s very hard to catch somebody when you don’t even know their motive. You have no clue as to what you’re looking for. I always thought that, you know, maybe it was some kind of a serial killer kind of thing … just because of the weird things that they did. But the thing is, … a lot of the times serial killers are very hard to catch. They know what they’re doing. … But you think there would be other crimes.”

Keith Dermond also spoke of investigators’ prospects of catching the bad guy or guys.

“Unless somebody comes forward and gives them a clue, what else do they have to go on?” he said. “It’s two years later. … I think the only chance we have at this point (is) that he trips himself up.”

As for the place his parents chose to live out their days, the northeastern Middle Georgia lake country, the place they made friends and played bridge and went to church, Keith Dermond said, “It’s a shame that now none of us are ever gonna feel the same way about the area — ever.”

He said he and his brother and sister have not given up hope, but that it is hard to have faith and hard to imagine justice ever being served.

His parents had wanted their ashes scattered in Lake Oconee when they died.

That hasn’t happened.

“We almost don’t feel that’s appropriate anymore,” Keith Dermond said. “We don’t know what to do.”

Joe Kovac Jr.: 478-744-4397, @joekovacjr

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