The death of Russell Dermond and the disappearance of his wife Shirley has baffled Putnam County investigators, who have called in the FBI to help. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: Hyosub Shin
Photo: Hyosub Shin

Eatonton couple ‘the unlikeliest of victims’

Theirs was a life well lived, friends say of the Eatonton couple at the heart of a murder mystery that continues to confound law enforcement.

Russell and Shirley Dermond were proud parents and loving grandparents, active for their age and happily married for 68 years. Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said they were the unlikeliest of victims.

“There’s nothing that made them particularly vulnerable,” said Sills, who’s leading the investigation into the killing of Russell Dermond and the likely abduction of his wife. Certainly nothing that would indicate the level of depravity directed toward Russell Dermond, whose headless body was discovered by neighbors in his garage Tuesday morning.

Now, the Dermonds’ pastor said, their three children are left mourning for one parent while holding out hope the other will be found.

“They have deep confidence, and they’re going to continue to hold out hope” their mother will be found, said David Key, pastor of Lake Oconee Community Church, where Russell and Shirley Dermond had been members for eight years.

Sills is not optimistic, noting the lack of a ransom note. Still, the search continues, though investigators have little to work with. Shirley Dermond’s car keys, cell phone and purse were all left behind at the couple’s home in Reynolds Plantation.

The couple moved there in 1999, building a $600,000, 3,250-square-foot home overlooking Lake Oconee. One of the reasons they moved to Eatonton, said Key, was to be in roughly equal driving distance to their two sons, who live in Jacksonville, and a daughter, who lives in Asheville.

“It was normal for them to be on the road,” he said. “They would drive to see their children often.”

A third son, Mark Dermond, was shot and killed in downtown Atlanta while trying to buy crack cocaine. His killer remains in prison, and Sills said he doesn’t believe there’s any connection between the slayings.

Russell Dermond, who owned and operated several Wendy’s restaurants, retired about 20 years ago.

Keith and Brad Dermond followed in the family business, according to professional bios found online, but sold their interest in more than 20 fast food chains five years ago.

The couple’s three children arrived in Georgia on Tuesday night. “There is nothing to indicate that their children are involved in this,” Sills said.

The Dermonds, both born in New Jersey, moved to Dunwoody in the 1990s and were longtime members of Horseshoe Bend Country Club, said former golf pro Roger Keller.

“They were as nice as anyone could be. They were friendly to be around and always seemed happy,” Keller told WSB Radio. “They had numerous friends.”

Even as they approached their late-80s, the Dermonds remained engaged in the community.

“They acted as if they were in their 60s,” Key said.

Russell Dermond took daily walks along the golf course in the Great Waters community where they lived; his wife was active with the Eatonton Bridge Club, once serving as the club’s president.

They were expected at a neighborhood Kentucky Derby party last Saturday night, Sills said. When they didn’t show up, neighbors became concerned, eventually going to check on them Tuesday morning.

“Always pleasant, just as nice as the could be,” said Jim Bankston, who used to live down the street from the Dermonds.

Though financially well-off, Key said the couple never flaunted their wealth.

“”They were very unassuming. Quiet, stable people,” he said.

Even those who didn’t know the Dermonds are shaken by what happened to them. The slaying of Russell Dermond was the first murder recorded in Putnam County in eight years.

“It’s a very dark situation, and we’re not through it yet,” Key said. “This darkness is going to linger for a long time.”

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