Evidence elusive, but theories narrow in Eatonton murder investigation

Story so far

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution will continue to follow each development in the deaths of Russell and Shirley Dermond, an Eatonton couple investigators say were killed, likely in their lakeside home inside a gated, exclusive community. Here is how the story has unfolded.

May 6 Russell Dermond's headless body is found in the garage of their Reynolds Plantation home. Shirley Dermond, 87, is missing1, possibly abducted, police say.

May 8 Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills says investigators are baffled by the crime. The Dermonds had no known enemies, nothing was missing from the home and there was no sign of forced entry. Shirley Dermond's whereabouts remain unknown.

May 9 Autopsy is conducted. Russell Dermond, 88, was likely killed before he was beheaded, according to a medical report.

May 15 Keith Dermond, the couple's 55-year-old son who lives in Florida, told the AJC in an exclusive interview that he and his two surviving siblings had resigned themselves to the idea that their mother wouldn't be found alive. Keith Dermond said his parents were safety conscious and religiously armed their home security system. He says they have no known enemies.

May 16 Shirley Dermond's body is found by fishermen in Lake Oconee. Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said she was a homicide victim.

May 17 An autopsy is conducted on Shirley Dermond. It concludes that she died of blunt-force trauma to her head. She died before her body was placed in the lake.

About Eatonton

Location: About 80 miles southeast of Atlanta

County: Putnam

Population: 6,480

Median household income: $22,498

Average home price: $114,417

Race: 57 percent African-American; 35 percent white

Source: 2010 U.S. Census

Everyone in Eatonton, a town famous for its storytellers, has a theory about what happened to Russell and Shirley Dermond, and, until this weekend, the often-wild speculation has gone unchecked.

But the discovery of Shirley Dermond’s body Friday near Wallace Dam in Lake Oconee — 11 days after her 88-year-old husband’s decapitated body was found in the garage of the couple’s home inside Reynolds Plantation — has brought some clarity to investigators desperate for leads.

“Now we know whoever did this came by boat,” Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Saturday.

And, considering the location of the Dermonds’ home, which overlooks a narrow peninsula off Lake Oconee, the killers “knew exactly where they were going and how to get there,” Sills said.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the perpetrators are local but does indicate a solid familiarity with the the lake, which they most likely traversed in the dark.

“No one’s going to carry a dead body across the lake during the daytime,” Sills said.

Such details have generated widespread interest in this macabre case, nowhere more so than in Eatonton, birthplace of celebrated authors Joel Chandler Harris and Alice Walker.

“People have come in with all kind of stories,” said Teresa Hunt, owner of Tangles Salon just off the downtown square. “I’ve heard a lot of people say it was a mob hit.”

Sills doesn’t buy that theory, telling the AJC earlier in the week that Dermond, a fast food restaurant franchisee retired for 20 years, wasn’t in the witness protection program.

While hard evidence, and firm conclusions, remain elusive, former FBI profiler Clint Van Zandt said there is good reason to believe the killers — at least two or three, he said, a conviction Sills shares — will be captured.

“This is a crime that can be solved,” said Van Zandt, a former supervisor in the bureau’s Behavioral Science Unit. “It has to be solved.”

“People who commit a crime like this tend to talk,” he continued. “It’s going to take some help from the community, but it can be done.”

Shirley Dermond’s body was discovered Friday by two fishermen near the Long Shoals boat ramp on the Greene County Line. The 87-year-old mother of three and grandmother of nine was hung up in the tree line, though it seems apparent she wasn’t meant to be found, unlike her husband.

“That’s a way to continue the trauma to the family and the community,” Van Zandt said.

It worked.

On Thursday, the Dermonds’ oldest son said, “The not knowing is horrible.”

“The thought of her suffering is too much to bear,” Keith Dermond, 55, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution from his home in Jacksonville.

An autopsy completed Saturday morning revealed she died of blunt force trauma to the head. Sills said she was already dead when the killers discarded her body in one of the deepest parts of the lake.

There is broad consensus the Dermonds were targeted, for whatever reason.

They were obviously well-off, living in an exclusive gated community where homes are valued in the millions.

But nothing was stolen from their home, located on a cul-de-sac, with no next door neighbor.

The cuplrits are most likely seasoned criminals — “You don’t escalate from shoplifting to decapitation,” Van Zandt said.

“This is way over the line on the sociopathic scale,” he said.

Decapitations are extremely rare, Van Zandt said, and almost always personal. Taking Russell Dermond’s head, which remains missing, “makes a tremendous statement,” the longtime profiler said.

“This is the kind of thing you’d see from a Mexican drug cartel,” he said.

But their victims are rarely, if ever, elderly grandparents with no known enemies.

“Once you’ve thoroughly examined their life, you have to look at the lives and relationships of their children,” said Van Zandt, adding he is not implicating the Dermond’s three adult children in the crime.

Sills has interviewed each of them in person.

“I put them through the mill” with questions, he said, adding they’ve been fully cooperative.

“There is nothing to indicate that their children are involved in this,” the sheriff said.

A third son died in 2000 while trying to buy drugs in Atlanta, but investigators don’t believe that has anything to do with their case.

“Someone was sending a message,” he said. “What you’ve got to figure out is what’s their intent, and who are they sending that message to.”

Those questions may be the toughest to answer.

Some observes, including Van Zandt, question why the sheriff hasn’t asked the GBI to assist in the investigation.

“I’d want everybody I can get,” he said.

But Sills maintains his deputies are up to the job.He enlisted up to 70 deputies from seven neighboring sheriff offices along with 10 FBI agents while searching for Shirley Dermond.

“If you can tell me something the GBI knows how to do that I don’t know how to do then I’ll be glad to call them” Sills told Channel 2 Action News on Wednesday.

In a speech made last year while accepting an award as the Georgia Sheriff of the Year, Sills made it clear that if a crime happens in his community, he’s the one responsible for solving it.

“If you’re calling the state patrol to work every wreck you have, if you’re calling the GBI to work every investigation you have, if you’re calling somebody else every time something happens in your community, sooner or later, you’re going to see a referendum to do away with you, because they’re not going to know who you are,” he said.

Just about everyone you ask in Eatonton is confident Sills, Putnam’s sheriff for 18 years, will solve the case.

Most people in Eatonton interviewed by The AJC are confident Sills will solve the case.

“The whole community is behind him,” said salon owner Teresa Hunt. “He’s very respected here.”

Sills told The AJC Saturday he expects there will soon be an increase in the $20,000 reward offered last week by the FBI for information leading to the recovery of Shirley Dermond.

“I think they need to throw as much money out there as they can,” Van Zandt said. “The type of people who would know about a crime like this would sell out their own mother.”

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