EATONTON, Ga. -- Putnam Sheriff Howard Sills, in a wide-ranging interview with The Macon Telegraph on Thursday, referred to the slayings as “a big case ... a terrible case,” one investigators are relying on hard-nosed police work to crack.
Sills said he has been working such long hours that at times he has lost track of days.
A hometown boy, he likened the probe’s plodding nature to “plowing hard ground at Rockville with a dull point and a slow mule.”
Even so, he said, “there are things that we’ve found out that I can’t elaborate on.”
Shirley and Russell Dermond, retirees who lived in the Great Waters subdivision overlooking Lake Oconee, were in all likelihood killed sometime May 2 or 3, the first weekend of the month.
Sills has narrowed the timeline to a 24-hour window between that Friday afternoon and Saturday afternoon.
Russell Dermond, his head severed, was found dead in his Carolyn Drive garage on the morning of May 6 when concerned neighbors went to his house. The 88-year-old’s head has not been found. His manner of death is unknown.
The body of Shirley Dermond, 87, was found last Friday in Lake Oconee a few miles northwest of the Wallace Dam, roughly five miles down the lake from the Dermond home. She died of blunt-force trauma to the head before her body was dumped.
Nestled in a golfing community about a dozen miles northeast of Eatonton, the Dermonds’ house, pored over as a crime scene for more than two weeks, was turned back over to the Dermond children Thursday, Sills said.
Now as the days wear on, Sills knows a fruitful tip could crack the case, so he is working to secure more reward money for information that leads to the killer or killers.
The 40-year law enforcement veteran believes because of the separation of the bodies and physical strength involved that he is hunting more than one person.
The decapitation also factors in to make Sills think at least two assailants took part.
“That takes a little effort to do that. Even if the (dead) person’s not alive. And then we have Mrs. Dermond’s body in the lake five miles away,” the sheriff said.
He realizes this holiday weekend will lure scores of people to the water where crucial evidence may lie.
Although the Department of Natural Resources suspended its search earlier in the week, DNR officials were back on the lake Wednesday to revisit one of the spots they had already explored and thought they had located a lawn chair.
Sills considered the chair could have belonged to the Dermonds and might have been involved, but Wednesday’s closer examination revealed it was a stump and another dead end.
Asked about why the killings may have happened, he said the Dermonds “were probably targeted because of something that they had or something people thought they had. ... Or some sort of extortion that didn’t go through.”
Sills would not discuss specifics of what investigators have learned as they have combed the Dermonds’ financial records and background to sniff out potential motives.
But, he added, “it’s nothing random” as best he can tell for now.
Asked what kind of person or people may be responsible for the killings, Sills said, “I would say it was a particularly brutal savage that did this. Whether he did it as a result of self-preservation or he did it as a result of just pure meanness, it takes a certain level of depravity to throw an 87-year-old woman in the lake and cut off the head of an 88-year-old man.”
The sheriff said it was apparent the culprit at least tried to conceal the deaths “and buy time.”
Though speculation about motives has run the gamut and gossip about the case has spun up rumors galore, Sills has done his best to keep investigators focused.
At a 9 a.m. meeting Thursday, he told his team, “We’ve got to concentrate on what we know. Where we go is driven not by speculation but by the evidence that we have. ... Real things lead to real results.”
In his interview with The Telegraph, the sheriff said the biggest break in the case may, in the end, be something as simple as a phoned-in tip.
“Most crimes are solved by somebody telling somebody something,” Sills said. “Somebody knows about this, and we want them to call us and tell us.”