5 years later, sheriff still agonizes over brutal cold case murders

On May 6, 2014, neighbors found Russell Dermond's decapitated body inside the garage of his home in Putnam County, Georgia. The body of his wife, Shirley, was discovered 10 days later floating in Lake Oconee.

PUTNAM COUNTY, Ga. — A few days ago, Howard Sills, Putnam County's plain-spoken, sometimes-philosophical sheriff, rose from bed at 5:38 a.m., bedeviled yet again by crimes as confounding and macabre as any in the state's annals.

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“I think about it most every day,” said Sills, now in his third decade as Putnam’s top cop. “I look in the mirror and there I am, still unable to solve this damn case.”

On May 6, 2014, neighbors of Russell and Shirley Dermond, an elderly couple who lived for 15 years inside the Reynolds Great Waters gated community, home to some of the county’s wealthiest citizens, called 911 to report a gruesome discovery. The body of Russell Dermond, 88, was inside the garage of the couple’s 3,200-square-foot-home, slumped behind one of the couple’s cars.

But there was something else, a detail that would propel this case from a local murder mystery to a national whodunit. Russell Dermond had been decapitated, and his head was nowhere to be found.

Shirley Dermond, married for 62 years to the retired clock manufacturing executive and fast food franchisee, was also missing. Her body would surface 10 days later, discovered about five miles from her home by a couple of fishermen on Lake Oconee. An autopsy later revealed Shirley Dermond, 87, was felled by two, maybe three blows to the head with a blunt object. They were deep wounds, signaling an unmistakably lethal intent.

At first, the murders appeared to be the work of professionals; Sills said he initially assumed the beheading was meant to send a message. But the FBI couldn’t find any connections to the Dermonds in any of their investigations. The couple had no known enemies.

And besides, would seasoned killers take the risk of transporting Shirley Dermond’s body — which they clearly didn’t want discovered — on a public lake, then weigh it down with just a pair of 30-pound cinder blocks?

Professionals likely would not expend the time it takes to decapitate, Sills said. "They shoot you in the head and leave," he said. Russell Dermond was most likely shot — gun residue on his collar indicates that — but the sheriff believes his head was removed because the killers knew the bullet could be traced. The head has yet to be found.

Read more of this article at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution here.