5 years later, murders of Lake Oconee couple continue to confound

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.

“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.

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

icon to expand image

A case that weighs on him

To reporters and casual acquaintances, he’s the same ol’ Sheriff Sills: Genial, opinionated, charmingly profane — the man his late friend Fred Bright, the former district attorney for the Ocmulgee Circuit of the Eighth Judicial District, said was “born and raised to be the sheriff of Putnam County.”

But the Dermond case has weighed on him like none other in his 46-year career — and that includes his decision, as a first-term sheriff, to take on the powerful United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors, a black religious sect that had constructed an Egyptian-style compound on 440 acres in Eatonton, Putnam’s county seat.

The cult’s leader, Dwight “Malachi” York, would eventually designate the land a sovereign nation.

Sills’ predecessor had steered clear of the Nuwaubians. But the new sheriff, sensing the sect was dividing his community along racial lines, challenged them on zoning violations. They responded with a carefully orchestrated smear campaign, depicting him as a corrupt racist and wife beater.

But Sills stood firm, and after area doctors informed him that an inordinate number of York’s female followers — many of them quite young — had recently become pregnant, the cult’s days were numbered.

York would eventually plead guilty to molesting 13 children and was sentenced to 135 years in prison.

“Used to be everyone knew me for the Nuwaubian case,” said Sills, 63.

Now, he said, the Dermond drama will define his legacy.

Friends and colleagues offer encouragement. It’s one unsolved case, they tell him. Most sheriffs or police chiefs have way more than that.

But few have generated more attention than this one — featured in three podcasts, so far — and Sills admits his frustration has sometimes gotten the better of him.

“I began to suspect people I know couldn’t have had anything to do with it,” he said.

Author Bill Osinski, who chronicled the downfall of the Nuwaubians in his book, “Ungodly: A True Story of Unprecedented Evil,” said Sills generally sees the world in black and white and is driven to do the right thing in a world that often rewards the opposite.

“He may sound like the typical country sheriff, but Howard is highly educated and very intelligent,” Osinski told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in a 2014 profile of Sills. “He’s attuned to the past of the South yet has got a much broader perspective than you might assume.”

‘Somebody knows who did this’

While Sills has no suspects in the Dermonds case, he has collected some physical evidence that could eventually confirm the killers’ identity. Because it might compromise the investigation, the AJC is not disclosing the information shared by the sheriff.

He says he thinks the Dermonds’ killers were motivated by money. (And there was definitely more than one perpetrator, he says.) But nothing was stolen from their home. Sills said it’s just one of many contradictions that make this case all the more exasperating.

“I think whoever this was went there because they thought the Dermonds had something, or had access to something of great value,” he said.

They didn’t. The Dermonds lived comfortably but were far from the wealthiest people living inside Reynolds Lake Oconee, the sheriff said.

Sills also believes the Dermonds knew at least one of their killers, as there were no signs of a struggle.

In 2015, a year after the deadly crimes, Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills inspects the already collected documents related to the murders of Russell and Shirley Dermond.  (Photo: Christian Boone/AJC)

icon to expand image

The Dermonds have three adult children — two sons in Florida and a daughter in North Carolina. They all passed polygraphs, two of which were administered by the FBI, and nothing links them to the crimes, Sills said.

A third son, Mark, was murdered in a drug deal gone awry in 2000. But he was merely a user, not a dealer, and his killer remains behind bars. Speculation that the Dermonds were targeted for revenge is fanciful at best.

While theories abound, Sills and his deputies continue chasing every lead.

“Last week I got a call about the case. It was from a plausible guy,” he said. “Worked it for two days. Nothing.”

He tries to remain optimistic, heartened by developments in another well-known Georgia cold case. In 2017, 12 years after the South Georgia history teacher the Tara Grinstead was reported missing, the GBI received a tip leading to the arrest of two former students charged in connection with her death.

“Somebody knows who did this,” Sills said. “They need to tell us.”

He hopes he’ll still be sheriff, if and when that happens. He plans to seek re-election one more time, then likely retire. The job wears you down, but this is one case Sills vows to see to completion.

“If I’m retired, and this thing is still unsolved, I’ll probably be asking whoever the new sheriff is to let me continue to work it,” he said.