(CNN) — The Georgia couple is described as “sweet as can be,” and authorities are scrambling to unravel the mystery of why Russell Dermond, 88, was beheaded and how his 87-year-old wife disappeared.
“Mr. Dermond’s head was decapitated, and we do not know the whereabouts of his head,” Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills said in a Thursday news conference.
The Putnam County Sheriff’s Office is treating Shirley Dermond’s disappearance from the Eatonton home — where her husband was found dead Tuesday — as an abduction, the sheriff said.
There is no indication she’s a suspect, and there’s “plenty” to indicate she was taken, he said. Her pocketbook, cell phone and vehicle were all at the home.
“We need to assume, or at least pray, that Mrs. Dermond is still alive, and we desperately need to know her whereabouts,” Sills said.
Evidence at the crime scene — and the fact the Dermonds live in an exclusive, gated and virtually crime-free community that’s not located on a major thoroughfare — leads Sills to believe the attack was not random.
Sills said he can’t recall a burglary in the neighborhood in his 18 years as sheriff.
Authorities have searched the lake in the vicinity of the Dermonds’ home — turning up only a lawn chair and a Christmas tree — and sent cadaver dogs into the nearby woods, to no avail, Sills said. Police have also spoken to neighbors, family and friends.
So far, the investigation has turned up little to shed light on the crimes.
“If I had a good, solid lead, guess what? I wouldn’t be standing here talking to you,” the sheriff told reporters. “The only person who’s not a suspect is Sheriff Sills, because I know where I was.”
Police suspect that Russell Dermond was killed between Friday and Sunday.
The Dermonds’ friends hadn’t heard from them in days and went to their home in the upscale, gated, lakeside Great Waters community, where they found Russell Dermond in the garage.
“I don’t know that that’s the murder scene, but there’s obviously blood,” Sills said.
Sills told CNN earlier Thursday that information suggesting authorities had found parts of Shirley Dermond’s body were “totally false” and asked CNN to “help stop the false reports, as they are interfering with our investigation.”
A Georgia Bureau of Investigation source confirmed the bureau was conducting Russell Dermond’s autopsy but wouldn’t comment further.
The FBI also is assisting and, likewise, reticent, saying only that it “is providing limited support based on the needs and requests from Putman County authorities,” according to Stephen Emmett, spokesman for the FBI’s Atlanta office.
Police are asking for assistance in finding Shirley Dermond, who is 5-foot-2 and weighs 148 pounds. She has gray hair and blue eyes. She is believed to be in danger, Sills told local media.
Anyone with more information should call the Putnam County Sheriff’s Office at 706-485-8557.
Little else is known about the couple, both of whom were born in New Jersey. Police and friends are at a loss for why they would be the targets of such violence.
Compounding the mystery is that the home was pristine. There is no sign of a break-in, a scuffle or anything missing. Their vehicles were at the home, police said.
Part of the Reynolds Plantation development, about 75 miles east of Atlanta, Great Waters is a bucolic neighborhood set back off a moderately trafficked rural road. From the thoroughfare, a divided two-lane road lined with trees and a white fence winds through large, green expanses of tall grass and past a guard shack to the homes. The subdivision boasts a Jack Nicklaus signature golf course.
The 3,300-square-foot home where the Dermonds have lived since 1994 is valued at more than $1 million and sits on Lake Oconee.
Russell Dermond has paid taxes on a 23-foot fiberglass boat, which Sills said the Dermonds recently sold, and Dermond reportedly owned fast-food restaurants. Tax records connect him to a Wendy’s and a Chick-fil-A.
The Rev. David Key of Lake Oconee Community Church said he has known the couple for about eight years and counts them among his church’s 350 attendees. He’s “baffled” as to why anyone would commit such crimes against them, he said, as they were grounded, “beloved in the community” and “sweet as can be.”
They were active in the church and family-oriented, he said. The Dermonds, who have been married 68 years, had three adult children, he said, as well as grandchildren, though he wasn’t certain how many.
“Number one, we are devastated by Russell having died and the violence around that,” Key said. “And not knowing what happened to (Shirley). … It is dealing with the tragedy of what we do know and the uncertainty of what lies ahead.”