Beheading mystery in upscale community still confounds Georgia sheriff

This is the first in an ongoing cold case feature where The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revisits some of the highest profile murders in Georgia history. 

Even the internet is baffled.

On Reddit, where there typically are 10 conspiracy theories floated for every fact, only questions surface in a discussion group devoted to the grisly murders of Russell and Shirley Dermond, the elderly Eatonton couple found dead more than three years ago.

For every theory, there’s a contradiction that debunks it. The lead investigator in the case, longtime Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills, admits the trail for the killers — he’s confident at least two people were involved — has run cold.

“We’ve eliminated many, many, many things,” said Sills, a gruff, plain-talking lawman entering his third decade as Putnam sheriff. “But as far as a suspect, we’re probably as far away as we were 3 1/2 years ago.”

Recently, Sills agreed to open up the case file to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, sharing autopsy photos, pieces of evidence and his personal reflections on why this has been “the absolute most confounding thing I’ve ever dealt with in my entire career.”

‘They had no enemies’

The call came in on Tuesday, May 6, 2014, from inside Reynolds Plantation, a gated community located on Lake Oconee, about 80 miles southeast of Atlanta.

Neighbors of Russell and Shirley Dermond had gone to their home inside the Great Waters subdivision out of concern for their well-being. The couple, married for 62 years, hadn’t shown up at a Kentucky Derby party three days earlier. Phone calls went unanswered.

As their friends entered through the screened porch where Russell Dermond, 88, would watch the Braves on TV nothing seemed amiss. Shirley Dermond, 87, kept a meticulous home. Nothing was out of place. There was no sign of a struggle, let alone a homicide.

Then, inside the garage of the 3,200-square-foot home, one of the neighbors found Russell Dermond’s body, slumped behind one of the couple’s cars. Upon closer inspection, they discovered something beyond macabre — a detail that would escalate this case into the national spotlight.

Dermond’s head was missing, and so was his wife.

Beheadings are rare. Rarer still was the fact the head was nowhere to be found.

Sills initially assumed organized crime involvement. Someone was sending a message, he figured.

Meanwhile, the search for Shirley Dermond commenced.

“I felt she had been kidnapped up until the time her body came up,” Sills said.

RELATED: Arrest made in death of teacher after 11 years

But there was no ransom note. And no apparent motive.

The Dermonds were well-off but not wealthy, at least when compared to many of their neighbors inside Reynolds Plantation. Sills contacted the FBI who told him they had “absolutely nothing connected to (the Dermonds) at all.”

“They had no enemies,” he said.

Family ties?

In every homicide, the search for suspects begins with those closest to the deceased. The Dermonds have three adult children — two sons who live in Florida and a daughter in North Carolina.

It was quickly established they were nowhere near Putnam County when the murders took place. But could they have contracted someone to kill on their behalf? Or maybe the killers were sending them a message?

“They all took polygraphs. The FBI took two of them,” Sills said. “I watched their reactions myself. We did three of them separately.”

Each of the children passed the polygraphs. Subsequent reviews of bank and cellphone records showed nothing that might indicate their involvement.

The Dermonds had a third son, Mark, who was killed in a drug deal gone bad in 2000 in The Bluff, an area of Atlanta infamous for crime. But Mark Dermond was a drug user, not a dealer, and his killer was locked away in prison.

Still, everything was on the table. Sills said he even briefly considered Shirley Dermond. Could she have possibly killed her husband, or had someone do it?

It was a stretch, but Shirley Dermond did have a prescription for the sleep aid Ambien and, “People have done some strange things taking Ambien,” Sills said.

A gruesome discovery, a theory discarded

Ten days after her husband’s body was found, some fishermen on Lake Oconee turned up the bloated body of Shirley Dermond, floating on the water, about five miles from her home.

An autopsy revealed Shirley Dermond was killed by two, maybe three blows to the head with a blunt object, such as a hammer. They weren’t casual blows but deep wounds indicating a particularly brutal attack, Sills said.

“There was an intent for Shirley Dermond’s body to never be found,” the sheriff said.

But the killers were sloppy, binding the elderly woman’s body with two cinder blocks weighing 30 pounds apiece — not enough to keep a body under water forever and a sign the perpetrators were most likely amateurs.

“A professional killer shoots you in the head and leaves,” Sills said. “They don’t tote (a body) five miles down the lake and run the risk of someone seeing all that.”

Meanwhile, her husband’s head remained missing. It still hasn’t been found.

With so little known about who killed the Dermonds and why, fear began to envelop Eatonton, a quiet enclave known as the birthplace of authors Alice Walker and Joel Chandler Harris and, more recently, the home to some of the region’s richest citizens.

RELATED: Tex McIver charged in wife’s death

“This has cast a pall over the whole area,” Atlanta attorney Claud “Tex” McIver, who owns a ranch just outside of Reynolds Plantation, wrote in an op-ed for The Eatonton Messenger. “People are not going out on the weekends like they used to. One family I know, with two small children, won’t come up here anymore.”

Ironically, McIver is the topic of much more conversation around Putnam County than the Dermonds. He is due to stand trial in October for the fatal shooting of his wife, Diane.

Known unknowns

Former U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld could’ve been discussing the Dermond case when he said, “There are things that we know we don’t know.”

Sills, who, according to Eatonton Messenger associate editor Lynn Hobbs remains something of legend in Putnam County, said he is embarrassed he hasn’t been able to find the killers.

But Marietta defense attorney Philip Holloway, a former prosecutor and host of a podcast, “Sworn,” which examined the Dermond mystery, said the sheriff has left no stone unturned.

“This is the most thorough investigation I’ve ever seen,” Holloway said. “I don’t think there’s anything else he can do.”

Here’s what Sills knows, or thinks he knows:

  • There was more than one killer.
  • The Dermonds knew at least one of their assailants: “It had to be some type of acquaintance or there’d be some sort of struggle,” Sills said.
  • The Dermonds most likely were killed outside of their home: “I don’t see how there’s not more blood (at the Dermonds residence),” he said. “That’s impossible to do.”
  • Russell Dermond did not die from the decapitation but instead was most likely shot. The beheading was done to conceal the real cause of death, Sills said, noting that bullets often yield considerable clues traceable to the killer.
  • Robbery was most likely the motive: “I think whoever this was went there because they thought the Dermonds had something, or had access to something of great value,” Sills said.

But that’s not been enough to lead him to any suspects. In the meantime, Sills remains open to any suggestion, no matter the source.

“I had five psychics come down here one day,” he said. “I’ll listen to anything.”

And he remains optimistic.

“This case is going to be solved like the Grinstead case,” Sills said, referring to the 2005 murder of Tara Grinstead, a south Georgia teacher and former beauty pageant queen. The trail for her killer had hit a dead end until a tipster contacted the GBI this past February, leading to the arrest of two former students.

“These people weren’t even remotely suspects,” he said.

If that occurs, Sills has possession of some key physical evidence that could potentially confirm the killers’ identity. The AJC is not disclosing that evidence, per the sheriff’s request.

Until then, Sills carries the burden of a mystery unsolved.

“It has tormented me,” he said.

- Video by staff writer J.D. Capelouto.

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