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

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 records.

“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.

They were concerned after the couple failed to show for a party.

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 shot and decapitated, and his head was nowhere to be found.

"More than one person perpetrated this crime. I'm confident of that. Ben Franklin said three people can't keep a secret if two are dead. Somebody knows about this," Sills said.


More than a week later, fishermen found his wife in Lake Oconee with two concrete blocks tied to her legs.

The sheriff was there when they pulled out her body.

“That gnaws at me more than anything, because if they can do this, they'll do it again if they haven't already done it before," Sills said.

There's no security video of the suspected killer or killers. One neighbor did see a man in the couple's yard the weekend of the murders, but it wasn't much help.

“Because of the foliage, couldn't tell me if he was tall, skinny, black or white."

With no break in and no sign of anything taken, investigators have been at a loss for a motive, but local residents speculate.

“It almost sounds like a hit, doesn't it?” Showni Benton said.

“I tried to think of what we have missed. What? And I don’t know,” Sills said.

The sheriff said possible motives they’ve considered include attempted extortion and revenge.

A reward still stands for information that leads to an arrest.

Christian Boone with the Atlanta Journal-Constitution contributed to this article.