EATONTON, Ga. — Nearly every day for the past six years, Putnam County Sheriff Howard R. Sills has done some sort of investigative work concerning the unsolved double-murder case of Russell and Shirley Dermond.
Sills talked with agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) on Thursday about the case and how technology that wasn’t yet developed six years ago might be useful to authorities in solving the case.
“We met and talked about three hours today about this case,” Sills told The Union-Recorder earlier this week. “We talked about some technological stuff that we’re working on right now.”
Sills said he could not elaborate on what was discussed with FBI agents from the Macon field office, however.
“We looked back over some of the crime scene photographs and talked about a lot of things during our meeting,” Sills said. “A lot of what we talked about concerning technology was about what is available today that wasn't available primarily then.”
Sills said they re-examined aspects of the case, as well as timelines to see whether some of the technology in place today might help going forward with the investigation.
Sills said he didn’t know if he would describe the conversation as promising, “but anything is a step forward at this point.”
When asked if some of the technology was the way to go at this time, since other ideas have been exhausted, Sills quickly replied.
“I would ride my bicycle from here (Eatonton) to McIntyre (in Wilkinson County) backward with thumbtacks in my butt if I thought it would solve this case,” Sills said.
Sills said this case has baffled him more than any other murder in his career.
“Once I knew the backgrounds of Russell and Shirley Dermond, I have always thought that this was some sort of extortion,” Sills told the newspaper. “Mrs. Dermond might have been taken and held against her will until some sort of demand was made. And since that demand could not be satisfied, both she and her husband were killed. And now, that’s my gut feeling, and do I have any evidence to support that — no. But, I can’t find anyone who had an ax to grind with them and I can’t find any connections to any kind of criminal enterprise or other activity, whatsoever.”
Sills said he has discovered no evidence indicating that the killings were carried out randomly by anyone driving through the gated area or coming up by boat to the couple’s million-dollar home.
“Clearly, there was more than a person involved,” Sills said.
The elderly couple, who lived in the affluent gated community of Great Waters at Reynolds Lake Oconee in Putnam County, was brutally slain sometime over the weekend of the Kentucky Derby in May 2014.
The 88-year-old Russell Dermond, a World War II veteran, is believed to have been shot in the head and was beheaded afterward. His wife, Shirley, was beaten to death and her body taken six miles away by boat to one of the deepest portions of Lake Oconee. Her body was anchored by two 30-pound cinder blocks that were placed into a nylon bag and then thrown into the lake, according to Sills.
“It was a synthetic-type bag,” Sills said. “That bag was tied to her feet.”
Russell Dermond’s head has never been found. His body was discovered by neighbors in the garage of the couple’s home.
The veteran sheriff said some of the evidence, including two towels found around the corpse of Russell Dermond, had been of value to them.
“The towels belonged to the Dermonds and, yes, there was other evidence found at the scene, but I can’t go into any of that evidence,” Sills said. “I’ll just say that there was valuable evidence that we have yet to match up to anything.”
The sheriff said he believes Russell Dermond’s head was severed by some “very sharp” instrument.
Sills said he believes he knows the answer.
“If Russell Dermond was shot in the head like we believe was the case, there is likely a bullet inside and if that weapon that was used to kill him was used to commit another crime and that case got solved, then the bullet from that weapon could be used to match it back to the killing of Russell Dermond,” Sills said. “I think the head was taken and discarded to prevent evidence from being obtained from it.”
Sills, who has helped solve dozens of murder cases during his career, said he believes it was the intent of the killers that the body of 87-year-old Shirley Dermond would never resurface.
He said he also believes that when Shirley Dermond’s body was tossed into the lake, the killers could easily have thrown Russell Dermond’s head into the lake at the same time.
“We used some of the most advanced underwater electronic equipment that the Georgia Department of Natural Resources Law Enforcement Division has in an attempt to find Shirley Dermond’s body, as well as the head of her husband,” Sills said. “But there’s no way for us to search all of Lake Oconee to try to find the missing head. It’s impossible.”
It originally had been thought by authorities that Shirley had possibly been abducted and taken from her home for ransom.
The FBI, who has assisted the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office in the investigation, launched an intensified search, placing Shirley Dermond’s photo on digital billboards throughout the area, but received no information.
Ten days later, Shirley Dermond’s body surfaced near where two men were fishing in a boat on the lake, just inside Greene County.
The case remains as much a mystery today and is it did when the crimes first happened.
Anyone with information about this unsolved double-murder is asked to call the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office at 706-485-8557.