EATONTON, Ga. — It’s now been seven years, and still authorities have not caught the killer or killers or Russell and Shirley Dermond.
But that doesn’t mean they’ve given up or are no longer following leads that might yield the person or persons who brutally murdered the victims, who lived in the plush, gated community of Great Waters at Reynolds Lake Oconee in Putnam County.
Although he can’t say much about one of the latest leads that he is following in the open murder investigation, Putnam County Sheriff Howard R. Sills said he is optimistic that it will finally be the lead that will solve the case and bring to justice those responsible for the May 2014 killings.
“I’ve been working on some technological things that did not exist in 2014,” Sills told The Union-Recorder during a recent interview. “And I have obtained some data that, with the help of the FBI, we have analyzed. I am now waiting on some additional data to see if that possibly matches up with something that could lead us to a suspect or suspects.”
Sills said he could not go into the specifics because it might impact the integrity of the investigation.
The sheriff said the new lead is the closest concrete-type lead that he has had since he spearheaded the double-murder investigation.
He said he had looked into lots of other leads in the past, but they didn’t pan out.
“And this one might not pan out, either,” Sills said. “I just don’t know yet.”
That’s not the only lead that he has looked into during the course of the investigation regarding the killers of 88-year-old Russell, known as Russ to many of his friends, and his wife of 50-plus years, Shirley, 87.
One came to his attention through a tip involving a real estate developer-turned serial killer.
That man was Todd Kohlhepp. Between 2003 and 2016, he confessed to killing seven people in South Carolina. He pleaded guilty in court to seven counts of murder, two counts of kidnapping, and one count of criminal sexual assault. He was sentenced to serve seven consecutive life prison terms.
“I cannot actually say he never came here or didn’t on the night the Dermonds were killed, but talking with law enforcement officials in South Carolina and all, there’s nothing we could come up with that linked him to this area at the time of their deaths,” Sills said.
The sheriff said within the first week of receiving the citizen tip about the possibility of Kohlhepp’s involvement in the slayings, he scoured cellphone information.
He explained that when he receives a tip about an individual, he goes and looks up whether or not that person has ever been arrested, and, if so, on what charges.
“Those kinds of tips can be helpful from time to time, and sometimes, they don’t go anywhere,” Sills said, noting he devised a special form. “Anything that is called in concerning the Dermond case, dispatchers fill out that form.”
The sheriff finds out about any such tip immediately and he acts on it right away.
“For instance, if I find out Joe Blow was arrested in Tifton, I then find out what cell number he had at that time,” Sills said. “I put the Vi-Cap on it within a month.”
Sills said the Vi-Cap Program is one used by the FBI.
“You can put the particulars of a case into the Vi-Cap Program and then anybody in law enforcement can call the FBI and say they have X Y and Z, and would they check By-Cap to see if there is anything else like it,” Sills said.
Another lead that didn’t pan out involved a case in Galveston, Texas area where a man killed his victim and then decapitated him.
The Texas killing was similar to what happened to Russell Dermond, a retired veteran of World War II in that after he is believed to have been shot and his head was cut off. Authorities have never found his head.
In the Texas case, authorities have never found the victim’s head, either.
“As soon as I found out about that case, I was on the phone with the sheriff’s office out there,” Sills said, noting the suspect in that murder case was eventually caught in around Denver, Colo.
Again, there was no connection to the Dermond murder case in Georgia.
“The closest nexus was that this guy had an uncle who lived over in northwest Georgia at one time,” Sills said. “There’s no record of this man ever being in Putnam County, though. Ironically, this same man did live in a Texas town where a niece of the Dermonds once lived.”
The man killed in Texas was a much younger man.
“What happened in that case was that the victim was a boilermaker,” Sills said. “His home was about 90 miles from his job. He literally lived in his pickup truck. One night he was sleeping down by a boat ramp, underneath a bridge. He later was killed and beheaded.”
Sills said he discounted any connection to that case and that of the Dermonds about two years ago.
“Other than the fact that the person killed was beheaded and the head taken away, there were no other similarities at all,” Sills said.
At one time, Sills flew down to below Miami, Fla. in search of a lead in the Dermond murder case.
Like so many other potential leads, the one there fizzled out, too.
When asked about what he believes might have been a possible motive for the elderly couple’s deaths, Sills shared a theory.
“I sill think that the killers came there to get something from the Dermonds, and either the Dermonds wouldn’t give it to them or they didn’t have it to give to them,” Sills said. “That’s what I think.”
He also theorized that the killings could have possibly been due to some type of grudge from many years ago.
“Sure, it could have been, but I can’t figure out what that grudge could have been,” Sills said. “If it just hadn’t been four days before the Mr. Dermond’s body was discovered, then we might have known more than we did right away. It doesn’t do a detective any good to worry about what could have been, would have been or should have been.”