By Bob Allen
A Baptist minister who leads a multi-denominational church in central Georgia says the congregation is in shock and uncertain about what to expect next in the wake of a murder and possible kidnapping mystery involving two of its elderly members.
“It’s really kind of a limbo, shock kind of dynamic,” David Key, pastor of Lake Oconee Community Church, described as a normally quiet resort community reeling from the grisly murder of Russell Dermond, 88, a resident retired from the fast-food restaurant business, and the disappearance of his wife, Shirley, 87.
“We may never find Shirley,” Key said.
Key said the couple were active members at Lake Oconee Community Church, an independent, multidenominational church attended by about 350 people and organized on Memorial Day weekend in 2001. They were at church as recently as Easter Sunday.
Key, the church’s founding pastor, is a graduate of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary and director of Baptist studies at Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta.
Becky Matheny, a former Baptist campus minister long active in moderate Baptist life, is pastor of spiritual/communal development. She said by email she is in Turkey with a group from the church on a two-week trip to Greece and deferred comment to Key.
Worship pastor Gary Arnold also has Baptist roots. He studied at Belmont University in Nashville, Tenn., earned a master of church music degree from Southern Seminary and was ordained to the ministry in 1981 at Highland Baptist Church in Louisville, Ky.
Putnam County Sherriff Howard Sills told local media that Russell Dermond was found dead Tuesday morning in the home he purchased in 1994 for $138,000 in the Great Waters Community, a lakefront gated resort built around a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course about 70 miles east of Atlanta.
His wife, Shirley Dermond, was not at the residence. Police say she is not a suspect and are treating her disappearance as a possible kidnapping.
Sills said he does not think the crime was random. There was no sign of forced entry and nothing was missing from the home. Both cars were there, and Shirley Dermond’s wallet, cellphone and purse were left behind.
The home, today valued in excess of $1 million, is located in a gated community with 24-hour security. Officials said the property could have been accessed from a boat dock on Lake Oconee, a large body of water that spans four counties, but at this point that is just a theory.
Police believe the crime occurred over the weekend. The couple reportedly had been expected at a party Saturday night but did not attend. A neighbor went to check on them because they had not answered a phone call and found Russell Dermond’s body in the garage.
Coroner Gary McElhenney told WMAZ-TV the body was decapitated. The sheriff would neither confirm nor deny that detail but said evidence, including signs that the body was moved, rule out the possibility that an 87-year-old woman could have committed the crime.
Sills called the case the “most baffling” he has seen in nearly 40 years in law enforcement. It is the first murder in Putnam County since 2011. “We virtually have no crime in the community in which this occurred,” the sheriff told local media.
The couple with New Jersey roots moved to Georgia after retiring from owning Wendy’s and other fast-food restaurants.
Key told local media that knowing the couple, it’s hard to imagine why anyone would have a motive to harm them.
“They were very gentle, wonderful, kind of unassuming individuals,” Key said. “It really is a shock to the community that this has happened to them.”