88-year-old Russell Dermond and 87-year-old Shirley Dermond had enjoyed 68 years of blissful marriage. They lived in 3,300-square-foot home in Reynolds Plantation, a gated community on the banks of Lake Ocenee, Georgia, around 80 miles southeast of Atlanta.
Russell was raised in New Jersey. He graduated from north Jersey’s Farleigh Dickinson University in three years. In the mid-1940s, he served in the Navy and went to work for General Time Corp. where he was director of information services and data processing. He had owned a number of restaurants before his retirement. Throughout his career, he was said to be a hard worker. Shirley graduated from Barnard College and was a stay at home mother, looking after the couple’s children.1
The couple were nothing out of the ordinary. They were regular churchgoers and enjoyed reading, playing golf, going to the movies, and lunching with friends. This uniformity is exactly why it was so shocking when Russell and Shirley were brutally murdered.
On the 6th of May, 2014, police received a phone call from inside Reynolds Plantation. Neighbours of Russell and Shirley had become concerned about the couple when they hadn’t seen or heard from them in several days. They had been scheduled to go to a Kentucky Derby party three days earlier and hadn’t returned any phone calls. Neighbours decided to conduct a welfare check. They entered the screened porch where Russell typically watched television; nothing appeared to be amiss and the screened porch was immaculate as usual.
However, when the neighbours decided to check out the garage, they were met by a gruesome scene. They discovered the body of Russell slumped down behind one of the couple’s cars. He had been decapitated. Investigators embarked on the scene. It was soon discovered that Russell’s decapitated head was missing and Shirley was nowhere to be found.
Now, investigators had the tedious task of not only searching for Shirley, but searching for the killer or killers as well as uncovering a potential motive. Due to the decapitation, an early theory was that the murder was somehow related to the criminal underworld; maybe somebody was attempting to send a message. However, this was ruled out early on. The murder also didn’t appear to be a robbery gone wrong. There was no sign of a forced entry and the house had not been ransacked and nothing had been stolen. “Quite candidly, this is the most baffling case we’ve ever worked,” said Punam County Sheriff Howard Sills.
Sheriff Sills announced that investigators were scrupulously examining the couple’s home for any evidence which could lead to the killer or killers or lead to Shirley. “There’s been nothing we’d consider a lead,” he said.2 They considered that whoever had murdered Russell had potentially abducted Shirley. Investigators dragged Lake Oconee and used a robot to search a particularly deep area in the lake near Reynolds Plantation. Furthermore, a number of investigators trawled through the surrounded woodland but to no avail.
On the 16th of May, Shirley’s bloated body was discovered floating on Lake Oconee by two fishermen, around five miles away from the couple’s home. An autopsy uncovered that Shirley had been killed by blunt force trauma to the head, potentially a hammer. The wounds were particularly deep indicating a frenzied and brutal attack.
The killer or killers had intended on Shirley’s body never being found. Two large cinder blocks had been tied to her body that weighed 30 pounds each. This led investigators to theorise that the killer or killers were sloppy since they were unaware that such a weight was not enough to keep a body submerged forever. “A professional killer shoots you in the head and leaves. They don’t tote a body 5 miles down the lake and run the risk of someone seeing all that,” said Sheriff Hills.
Investigators would later reveal that they believed the killer or killers had come to the Dermond home via boat. This would explain why they weren’t spotted on the security camera footage from the entrance to the gated community. Due to the lack of evidence, investigators could not determine a motive.
The search for the killer or killers focused on those who knew the Dermonds early on in the investigation. The Dermonds had three adult children – two sons who lived in Florida and a daughter who lived in North Carolina. It was quickly established that none of them were in the area – or even near the area – when the murders occurred. Investigators had even considered that maybe they had paid somebody to murder their parents but no evidence to corroborate this theory could ever be uncovered.
The brutality of the murder propelled the case to national spotlight. As the weeks ticked by with no resolution, fear began to envelope the area. “This has cast a pall over the whole area. People are not going out on the weekends like they used to. One family I know, with two small children, won’t come up here anymore,” said Claud McIver, who owned a ranch in the area.
Those who worked on the case have long speculated that at least two people were involved and Russell or Shirley must have been acquainted with one of the killers hence the lack of struggle and forced entry. They also theorise that the couple were killed elsewhere because there wasn’t much blood at the scene.
While initially they believed that robbery wasn’t a motive, some investigators have said that they speculate that the killers had been motivated by robbery and had anticipated that the couple were wealthier than they truly were. However, it should be noted that Shirley’s purse and the couple’s cell phones were left in clear view yet weren’t stolen.
Russell’s head was never retrieved and the murder was never solved. “We’ve eliminated many, many things,” said Sheriff Sills. “But as far as a suspect, we’re probably as far away as we were 3 ½ years ago…”3