The night the losing finally ended only to come roaring back once again, there was a quiet peace inside one man’s house out in Roswell. Yes, the night Atlanta almost won the Super Bowl—finally shaking off that dubious nickname of Loserville—and somehow still lost the Super Bowl, life went on. If only, perhaps, because that man knows the hounding howl of disappointment better than most.
Forget for a moment how at 10:24 p.m. on Super Bowl Sunday, in overtime of a game knotted at 28, the New England Patriots punched in the winning touchdown and sent the Falcons and their followers reeling anew. Forget that TV sets clicked off as hope fell pitch black and, as the sports pundits may forever declare, Atlanta went back to being Atlanta, world headquarters of Choke-a-Cola.
For there in Roswell, minutes after hearts sank, a man named Jeffrey Aloysius Van Note was a voice of reason. Van Note, who wore a Falcons uniform for more seasons than anyone probably ever will, would turn 71 less than 48 hours later. The world would keep turning. The Braves would be back to playing soon enough. Even on that darkest of nights, two sparkling new stadiums shone on our horizons.
There was a hint at least that this, too, this hollowing, soul-wrenching loss, like Tom Brady staring down a 25-point deficit, shall pass—and pass and pass. There was a silver lining for those of us who know the heartbreak of half a century of Falcons’ fandom, and it was this: We are conditioned for dejection. Defeat, we know ye well. We have seen a seemingly insurmountable World Series lead evaporate. We have experienced NBA playoff defeat at the hands of the Patriots’ fellow Bostonians. We know the drill.
“Same old, same old,” Van Note said in the aftermath from his sofa. “How disappointing, man. How very disappointing. Gosh, I thought they had it.”
How, how, how could it happen? How had it happened? And of all days, on Henry Aaron’s birthday? Lady Gaga’s disappearing act at the end of her halftime show set the stage for our Lombardi Trophy hopes to get sawed in half.
Van Note played center for the Falcons from 1969 until 1986. His 1980 Falcons, perhaps the finest Atlanta football team ever to take the field until this Super Bowl bunch came along, coughed up a fourth-quarter playoff lead to Dallas in the divisional round of a loss that haunts anyone old enough to remember it.
Now there is haunting anew after an ending that had been shaping up to be a happy one. We were on the precipice, the verge of what Samuel L. Jackson says in his rallying sermon, our time. Which it kind of is now: ours for all time, our all-time meltdown.
The pain came on slowly, and for many of us here in the weeks after, it has dulled into full-on head-in-the-turf denial. But on that first Sunday night of the rest of our football-loving lives, Van Note’s cellphone beeped and beeped. Friends were chiming in to ask him, What on earth? “I don’t need to hear about it,” he said, ignoring their calls. “I watched enough.”
Like it or not, this stunning shortfall will be seen and seen again. It will be unavoidable. Tom Brady’s boys will forever get over on us in highlight clips and sure-to-be-made ESPN documentaries and lord knows what all else.
Yes, this shall become not just another what-might-have-been, but rather the indignity against which all other such inexorable sporting humiliations are measured. Oh, sure, the Falcons’ run to Super Bowl LI was a fine and sterling rise to prominence, a streak to sporting glory akin to few this city has known. Let there be some solace in that. The Georgia Dome–closing NFC Championship was monumental. The Falcons had sailed through January, and their wins were an unexpected gift. It was time. Our time.
And then it wasn’t. Back in November of 1966 when the old Atlanta Stadium was brand new, Braves’ president John McHale sent a telegram to NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle. The NFL was entertaining bids to host the very first Super Bowl in January 1967. Atlanta made its pitch. An Associated Press dispatch at the time quoted the message to Rozelle: “Atlanta, America’s newest major league city and acknowledged major league sports capital of the Southeast, is situated in a favorable climate and has many outstanding facilities.”
Los Angeles ended up hosting that inaugural Super Bowl, and while Atlanta has since staged two of the big games and will welcome another in 2019, winning a Super Bowl on the field, well, might any of us live to see such? And our Falcons, the players, how might they pick up the pieces?
Van Note, a cornerstone of the franchise whose No. 57 jersey hangs in the Falcons’ Ring of Honor, would not endeavor to answer.
“I don’t worry about that,” Van Note said that bad, bad night. “Shoot fire, you know what? I’m gonna forget about this.”
If he can do it, maybe we all can.
Nah, no sir. No way in hell.
This article originally appeared in our March 2017 issue.
The Putnam County Sheriff’s Office in Eatonton, halfway between Macon and Athens, could pass for a public bathhouse on the beach at Jekyll Island. Just a quarter mile up U.S. 441 from a Horton Homes and a Huddle House, its facade of muted peach, vanilla, and gray split-faced concrete block was no doubt meant to hide the fact that the place doubles as the county lockup.
One morning earlier this year, Sheriff Howard Sills—a sandy-blond whiskey cask of a man—sat in his office, the phone to his ear. Photos from his 41-year career in law enforcement looked down from the walls and shelves. Sills and President George W. Bush. Sills as a ruddy, shotgun-toting fugitive hunter in DeKalb County in the 1970s. Sills in a seersucker suit and a straw boater, triumphant after nailing a bank robber, above the warning “Criminals Beware!”
Sills was on the phone discussing what the authorities in these parts sometimes refer to as a sho’nuff whodunit—this one a landscaping atrocity in a Lake Oconee subdivision. When you’re sheriff of the county where you were raised, where your great-great-grandparents were the first locals not to live in a log cabin, you answer such calls with a certain humbleness. The way Sills sees it, as sheriff, “you’re your community. If you don’t feel every damn pain they feel, then you ain’t doing it right.”
Case in point: Four years ago, the Br’er Rabbit statue outside the Uncle Remus Museum, a mile north of the jail, was stolen. To outsiders, this could seem laughable. To members of the museum board and a few others, the theft was akin to high treason. Sills treated it with a seriousness usually afforded a capital murder case. When he finally made arrests—“three feeble minds and one foreign national from Tobago,” as he described them recently—he charged them with felonies. At a civic club dinner sometime later, a guest asked if perhaps the crime didn’t justify the charges. “Listen up,” Sills responded. “I charged those boys with felony theft by taking because that is the crime they committed. If I sign a warrant saying it was something else, that would be a crime.”
Now, on the phone, Sills was confronted with a case that appeared as if it might call for a similar level of diligence. Someone had chopped down a man’s shrubs. The man had replanted the azaleas and some other bushes, and then the vandal had gone and hatcheted them again. An arrest was unlikely.
But then the sheriff learned why.
“The perpetrator was a beaver?” he said.
He looked up to greet a visitor.
“Nuisance beaver,” Sills said. “Mornin’.”
On the morning of Tuesday, May 6, 2014, Sills took a different kind of call. It came from a house also at the lake. Someone was dead.
Putnam, a county of 21,000, has doubled in size since 1980, due in part to outsiders flocking to Oconee’s fairway-lined shores. South of Interstate 20, an hour and change from downtown Atlanta, the manicured havens and fishing retreats have attracted thousands of retirees. An elderly person dead in a home isn’t uncommon. But murders? Murders are practically unheard of.
A deputy leaned into Sills’s office. There were bodies all over the house.
Sills was out the door. He knew when bad trouble stirred, you best get a move on, because whatever unleashed it might be up and gone.
His Suburban was a 100-mile-an-hour black streak. Sills blew across the Rooty Creek bridge on Eatonton’s east side. From there, it was a dozen-mile shot out Sparta Highway and up Old Phoenix Road. Spring had settled in. Coastal Bermuda hayfields flashed by green and crisp. It was warm, already in the mid-70s.
In the three and a half decades since the Oconee River was dammed, pockets of affluence have sprung up, and so have the amenities to serve them. There’s an eight-screen movie theater, a Publix, and—across the water, on the Greene County side—a Ritz-Carlton. What was largely wilderness half a lifetime ago is now, in a manner of speaking, the city part of the country. Heck, one of the good neighbors up the lake befriended a blue heron and routinely fed it Vienna sausages from Walmart.
The sheriff tore past Turnwold Plantation, where Joel Chandler Harris got his first taste of the newspaper trade, then sped east past Wards Chapel, where Alice Walker was baptized. He came to an ivy-shrouded subdivision sign. “Great Waters,” it said. Beyond it lay a 600-parcel development built around a Jack Nicklaus Signature golf course. The time was 10:15 a.m.
On Carolyn Drive, a mile and a half into the subdivision, Sills stopped at a cream stucco four-bedroom house. Two American flags were tacked to the mailbox. The front yard was trimmed in crape myrtles, boxwoods, and pine straw. In the driveway was that day’s edition of USA Today. The previous day’s as well. There, in a shaded cul-de-sac that backs up to the water, was the neighbor who had discovered the death. It had been days since he’d seen or heard from the elderly couple who lived in the house. The neighbor had phoned them several times. Nothing. So he’d gone over to check. The door was unlocked.
There had been some confusion after he called for help. Bodies were not all over. There was just one.
Sills stepped out of the Suburban and stuck a Glock 18C in his waistband. He went in the house through the kitchen door, the same door the neighbor entered. Then he headed for an open door that led to a cramped two-car garage. The garage was dimly lit, but the white walls helped Sills see. On the floor between a Lincoln Town Car and a Lexus SUV was a man’s body on its back. The man’s age was hard to guess—because the body had no head. It had been cut off. And it was gone.
Sills thought, Not only are you looking for a bad guy, you’re looking for a real bad guy.
Sills and two deputies swept the rest of the 3,200-square-foot home. The north-facing windows afforded a spectacular view of the lake. The wooded backyard sloped down toward a covered dock.
Sills assumed right away, and correctly, that the dead man was the homeowner. But there was another problem: The victim’s wife of 68 years was nowhere to be found.
Sills was struck by the pristine condition of the house. A horror scene it was not. Aside from the headless body in the garage, and save for an unmade bed and an off-kilter lampshade in the living room, it was showroom-perfect. The lampshade caught Sills’s eye only because everything else was so neat. What blood there was—a considerable amount—had pooled and dried near the body.
The best Sills could remember, there hadn’t been a double homicide in Putnam County since May 1984, 30 years earlier. It involved the rape and murder of an elementary and high school classmate of Sills’s. The killer, serving life, also shot and stabbed to death the woman’s 5-year-old daughter.
In minutes, the mood inside the lake house swung from wild intensity to who the hell did this?
This, the sheriff told himself, ain’t local talent.
Russell J. and Shirley Wilcox Dermond were New Jersey natives. He was 88. She was a year younger.
For most of the 1990s, they lived in a neighborhood along the Chattahoochee River, on the south side of the Cherokee Town & Country Club below Roswell. Before moving to Georgia from the New York area in the late 1980s, Russ Dermond had been an executive for the company that makes Westclox and Seth Thomas clocks. But he didn’t exactly come here to retire; not long after arriving, he acquired a chain of metro-area Hardee’s restaurants. The establishments provided Keith and Bradley, two of the couple’s four children, with jobs in the food service industry.
Real retirement didn’t come until the late 1990s, when Dermond and his wife built their $1 million place on the shores of Lake Oconee. Golf at the Great Waters subdivision was one of the attractions for Russ, who had once played in tournaments at Roswell’s Horseshoe Bend course with Bradley.
Most of this Sills learned in the hours after Dermond’s body was identified. He also learned that the couple’s oldest son, Mark, had occasionally stolen from his parents, and that on his 47th birthday in the summer of 2000, Mark was shot and killed in his car during an Atlanta crack cocaine buy that went sideways. His killer remains in prison.
Russ Dermond was a reader, a walker. Someone reported seeing him strolling the golf course near his house on Friday, May 2, four days before his body was discovered. It may have been the last time anyone but his wife and his killer saw him alive.
He and Shirley had RSVP’d that they’d be at a neighbor’s Kentucky Derby party on Saturday. They never showed. Shirley, who played bridge and was a crossword whiz, had worked a puzzle in that Friday’s USA Today. It was still on the kitchen table. The couple’s Saturday mail was in the mailbox out front.
Sills turns 60 this year. He has a Br’er Bear body and a Br’er Rabbit brain. His white mustache is as beefy as the Cohiba Habanos he puffs. His voice skews oratorical with a hint of glee lurking offstage.
He’s been sheriff of Putnam County for almost 20 years, and if you listen to his counterparts around the state, the Lake Oconee killer couldn’t have picked a worse place to get away with murder. Sheriff Butch Reece, in Jones County just to the south, calls Sills “the smartest lawman I’ve ever known.” Reece remembers a serial burglar who was breaking into area churches some years back. The only decent clue was a shoeprint the culprit left behind when he climbed atop a podium to grab a speaker. Sills asked around. Eventually, he came up with the name of a guy in Covington and went to the man’s house. Inside, Sills reached under the man’s bed. “The first shoe he pulled up, he recognized the tread on it,” Reece says. “I guess in another life he was a bloodhound.”
Baldwin County Sheriff Bill Massee, a lean seven-termer with a rancher’s bearing, hired Sills as his chief of investigations in the late 1980s. Massee recalls a day when dopers were selling near an elementary school. He and Sills took the call. Massee pounced on two guys and Sills, in a Brooks Brothers suit, dived into the suspect’s Pontiac.
“Sills is hanging out the driver’s window,” Massee says, “holding onto the steering wheel, getting dragged around this parking lot. Ripped the knees out of his new suit.”
Sills wasn’t exactly born for this work. Or perhaps he was. His parents were alcoholics, and he was raised by his grandparents in a railside hamlet west of Eatonton. Ask Sills about his childhood, and he might text you a story about the time he was seven and his grandfather, a pharmacist who grew pecans, promised him a nickel for every nuisance blue jay the boy shot:
When Old Doc Sills left for the drugstore the next morning, I got the old .22 rifle and went to work with a genuine fervor. I killed so many that I filled a big peach basket within about an hour. I then went to the barn and got myself an empty 100-pound croaker sack. I set out down the road to Mrs. Callaway’s and asked her could I shoot blue jays in her yard. “Of course, child. You can kill all of them. They eat all of my pecans.” After Mrs. Callaway, I proceeded on to Miss Sally’s, Aunt Genie’s, Miss Beatrice’s, the McElhenneys, and was warmly welcomed at each curtilage. And, further, usually treated to a Coca-Cola, cookies, or some treat after the completion of my slaughter . . . My granddaddy finally got home that evening and I eagerly drug the bag over in front of his old Falcon station wagon . . . I was sure I was about to be the richest seven-year-old child in all of Putnam . . . I dumped out 30 or 40 pounds of dead blue jays. He looked like he had seen Sputnik itself rising from outer space toward his heart. “Goddamn, boy. How in hell did you do that?” I told him I had been at it all day till it got so dark I couldn’t aim no more. He then replied, “Jesus Christ.” . . . I said, “Pop, aren’t you gonna count my jaybirds?” He said, “Hell no!” and handed me a dollar bill and three quarters.
Sills was 13 when his grandfather died, and he began spending time with “Big George” Lawrence, a distant relative, and his wife, Louise. Their place was in Eatonton, a block from Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy’s boyhood home. Lawrence, a district attorney of statewide renown, was the son of a Baptist preacher. It was Lawrence who’d been handpicked by Governor Lester Maddox to take down the Dixie Mafia and a Jefferson-area moonshiner who orchestrated the 1967 car bomb death of Floyd Hoard, the D.A. in Jackson County. In all, Lawrence put away more than 100 killers.
Sills learned at Lawrence’s knee and could draft search warrants as a teenager. In high school, he played Macbeth. “I had a flair for the dramatic,” he says. At 21, working as a deputy in neighboring Milledgeville, his partner was a cop named Louis “Dude” Hill. One day, a five-year-old boy got stuck 30 feet down a well. Sills called in a tow truck, hooked a cable to his right foot, and was lowered into the hole. Dude begged him not to. Dude knew the child’s family.
“Ain’t worth it,” Dude said. “Boy ain’t no good.”
Sills went in anyway and rescued the boy. Fifteen years later, Sills was back in Baldwin County as an investigator, and he caught a thief. The guy looked familiar.
“You ever fall in a well as a child?” Sills asked him.
“How’d you know?”
“I’ll be damned,” Sills responded. “Dude said you wasn’t gonna be no good.”
Sills studied criminal justice at Georgia Southern in the mid-1970s while working full-time as a Bulloch County deputy. A couple of quarters shy of graduation, he left school, married, and eventually became a cop in DeKalb County.
“School, quite candidly, was interfering with my work at the sheriff’s office,” he says. “But I can still tell a van Gogh from a Degas.”
When Sills attended the FBI Academy, he wrote a paper titled “The American Police Officer: Adrenaline Junkie?” He argued in the affirmative, that there may be no greater high than the buzz from plucking a bad guy from the ether.
Sills was sworn in as sheriff in bordering Putnam County in December 1996. He has been reelected every four years since. He oversees a department of 65. Since 2008, he has twice been the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association’s sheriff of the year and served a term as its president. “He never sleeps—or doesn’t seem to,” says J. Terry Norris, the association’s executive director. “He’s the most tenacious person I’ve ever met. He wants to protect the public. He’s a relatively cultured redneck, and I love him.”
Sills listens to NPR and reads the Drudge Report. His wife subscribes to Garden & Gun. He takes the Oxford American. Most Saturday evenings, he can be found in the backyard study off his garage in a leather easy chair, shoes off, sipping Bombay and Schweppes (Dickel whiskey and Coke in the winter), his GE Superadio tuned to “A Prairie Home Companion.”
It’s like he’s resting up for something. Sills craves the chase. In January 2005, a masked gunman stole $243,000 from the Lake Sinclair branch of the People’s Bank. Sills and a deputy found the getaway car abandoned a mile away in Baldwin County. Its seats were covered with plastic bags. There were smudges on its body and inside, wipe marks where the bandit tried to cover his tracks.
“Go over it with a Q-tip,” Sills told his forensics guru, Tracey Bowen.
On the underside of a door handle, she found a perfect print of a right middle finger and ran it through a Georgia database. Nothing. Sills enlarged it and sent it to an FBI lab for a national search. A couple of months and no response. There was a backlog; the case wasn’t a priority. Finally, Sills told Bowen to call and ask to speak to a lab supervisor. “Get to crying,” Sills said, “and tell ’em your boss is gonna fire you.” It worked. The print came back to Terry Alexander Wade, an Ohio man with a rap sheet that included three prior armed robberies.
Sills hopped a plane to Ohio. He wanted to surprise Wade and search his house before Wade had a chance to hide anything. But while Sills was en route, Wade went in to pay a traffic ticket and was locked up after someone noticed he was wanted for a Georgia bank heist. Wade gave jailers his mother’s address. Sills searched her house in Springfield, Ohio, but found nothing incriminating. He went home.
Several weeks later, Sills was scouring phone records and turned up an address northeast of Dayton where Wade’s wife lived. Sills flew back to Ohio, and when he arrived, Wade’s wife was loading a moving van. Damning evidence emerged, including a journal in which Wade noted armed robbery statutes in various states.
Investigators also learned that Wade’s wife’s cellphone, which Wade sometimes borrowed, had pinged off a cell tower near Lake Sinclair about the time of the stickup. “He said he had been in Georgia but didn’t know where,” Sills says. “And that we somehow magically got his fingerprint.”
Before Wade went on trial, one of his jail mates in Eatonton, a repeat drug offender who’d run out of strikes, was sentenced to life. Wade heard about that and phoned his wife. The call was recorded.
“Baby, get me a new lawyer—a law firm,” Sills recalls Wade saying. “This is f–ked up down here. A brother went to court today and got life for selling a $15 rock of crack cocaine. What the f–k you think they gonna give me for robbing that bank?”
Wade got life without parole.
Sills’s no-nonsense approach to criminals means politicians want him in their corner. When Roy Barnes last ran for governor, Sills says Barnes, through an emissary, offered the sheriff his choice of state appointments in exchange for Sills’s backing. Sills went for broke: He asked for a spot on the Georgia Supreme Court. It was a joke. Barnes balked. Sills wasn’t a lawyer. He kept his day job. (Barnes can’t recall extending such an offer “one way or the other.”)
Sills may best be known for his dealings with the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors in the 1990s and early 2000s. Or more precisely the cult’s charismatic leader, Dwight York, a Brooklyn hustler whose thousands-strong flock streamed into the county. They built plywood pyramids northwest of Eatonton. Amid ever-shifting tenets, they mostly worshipped York, who one year claimed to be an alien from another planet, then a Native American chieftain, and later a reincarnated pharaoh. Meanwhile, he mounted failed bids to commandeer the local government by steering zealots onto voter rolls.
Sills and a small contingent of federal investigators heard of rampant child molestation at York’s compound. Their case would become the largest prosecution of its kind in Georgia history—209 counts in all, with 13 victims named in the indictment, though there were more, Sills says. In 2004, York was sentenced to 135 years in prison on federal charges that included racketeering and sexual exploitation.
Three years ago, Sills moved out near Lake Oconee, though not on it. He embraces newcomers while still appealing to the “indigenous” crowd, as he calls them. Some of whom, Sills says, to hear them talk “you’d think Atlanta was Connecticut.”
His wife, Janet, says, “He tells the truth. Even when people don’t want to hear it.”
On May 8, 2014, two days after Russ Dermond’s body was found, television reporters—“TV buzzards” in Sills-speak—milled outside his office. Inside, the sheriff swigged Pepsi and scarfed down a cold vegetable-plate lunch his wife had dropped off two hours earlier. Then he went to answer questions.
He said Russ Dermond’s head was still missing.
What he did not divulge was that the cut was remarkably clean. “It was not the skill of a surgeon,” he would say months later, but “whoever did it took time doing it.” It was as if the collar of Russ Dermond’s T-shirt had been used as a guide for a very sharp knife, the likes of which had not turned up. After an autopsy revealed no fatal wounds on his body, the cause of death was, by the process of elimination, declared an as-yet-unknown head wound. Dermond’s decapitation appeared to be postmortem.
Another detail Sills kept under wraps during those first weeks was that authorities thought Russ Dermond had been tortured. The tip of one of his index fingers was smooshed, as if in a vise. But in helping identify her father by phone, Leslie Patton told Sills the flattened finger was a World War II injury.
Sills told reporters he prayed Shirley Dermond was still alive, that if abducted she’d be found. He said the couple had no known enemies, that there was nothing to indicate whether the killer came by road or lake.
“Could it have come from the water? Yes. Could it have come from the street? Yes. Could it come from outer space? Yes. It’s totally unknown,” Sills said. “This is quite candidly the most frustrating [case] that I’ve ever worked.”
He said locals were not panicked, but “I don’t care if it’s Buckhead or Bangladesh; you have a crime like this in a neighborhood, people are gonna be upset.”
Someone asked if investigators had any leads.
“If I had a good, solid lead, guess what? I wouldn’t be standing talking to y’all.”
Did the Dermonds know their attacker?
“It’s indicative of that,” Sills said. But someone could easily have knocked on their door, waited for it to open, and barged in.
Were relatives under suspicion?
“Nothing to indicate at all that their children are involved . . . And I never say never, but there’s certainly nothing that leads us to believe that they are . . . Everybody’s a suspect except me . . . I’ve looked at the background of the mailman.”
More than one killer?
Possibly, Sills said, but impossible to be sure. All avenues were being explored.
As the back-and-forth wound down, a reporter asked, “With the amount of evidence that you’ve collected so far, would you consider this a professional job?”
“A professional what job?” Sills said.
“There doesn’t appear to be a lot of evidence for it to be an amateur,” the reporter said.
“Is it a professional robbery?” Sills said. “Nothing seems to be gone. Is it a professional burglary? Nothing seems to be gone . . . Uh, I don’t know any professional decapitators.”
The reporter tried again. “There are professional hitmen.”
“The totality of this,” Sills said, “is just very different.”
Cue the kooks, the great unhelpful, the psychics and busybodies who can’t resist injecting their cluelessness into the fray when tragic intrigue, no matter how remote the locale, achieves escape velocity via satellite truck.
“My community is going hog-wild with rumors,” Sills said later. “We are inundated with unnecessary foolishness.”
Everyone had a theory about what had become of the Dermonds. They were in witness protection (they were not), their cover was blown, and someone they’d crossed caught up with them. Or, more fantastical, a mother gator protecting her young attacked Russ in his garage then dragged Shirley away.
Some heard about the 2000 murder of the Dermonds’ son and assumed the attack on them must be connected. Investigators looked into that first thing. It was a dead end.
One evening in mid-May last year, Putnam dispatchers received a call from a man who lived along Bluegill Road at the bottom end of the county near Lake Sinclair. He was convinced he might have information that could be of import in the Dermond case. Dispatchers passed him along to Sills, who answered as he usually does, “Howard Sills.”
“Peculiar thing,” the man on the other end said. “There was a chicken come up to my house yesterday.”
“A chicken?” Sills said.
“Yes sir,” the fellow said.
The line fell silent. Sills let the moment hang.
Then the man said, “He just come out of the woods.”
“A rooster or a hen?”
“I couldn’t tell you.” The man said he’d tossed it some bread and gone back to watching TV. An hour later, someone in jeans and a white T-shirt dashed into his yard and snatched up the chicken.
“Oh,” Sills said, “you saw somebody actually take the chicken?”
“I didn’t see ’em take it, but they was running across the yard with it.”
“Man or a woman?” Sills said.
“Young man? Old man?”
“Young man. Moved too good to be an old man.”
“Well,” Sills said, “maybe it was his chicken.”
In the minutes after Russ Dermond’s body was found, Sills sent a deputy to fetch security-camera surveillance footage from a guard shack at the entrance to the neighborhood. The deputy came back with bad news. About a month earlier, a storm had knocked out power, and the security camera, unknown to anyone, had stopped recording. Sills cursed his luck.
He and his investigators set out canvassing the neighborhood.
One of the couple’s nearest neighbors, next to a vacant lakefront lot that has belonged to R.E.M. bassist Mike Mills since the 1990s, was out of the country in Turkey. Her house sitter hadn’t seen anything unusual. Nor had residents in another cul-de-sac across the cove.
Sills called a meeting at the Great Waters clubhouse. The place was finally on the rebound after the recession. A sign outside promised “Endless Crab Legs.”
The gathering, though it gave investigators a chance to scope the locals, wasn’t much help.
Sills was worried. He needed something to chase, someone to catch.
Someone to send away—forever.
Of the three or four dozen murders Sills has investigated, all but six resulted in guilty pleas. Five killers have gone to death row.
Robert Wayne Holsey killed Baldwin County sheriff’s deputy Will Robinson in 1995. He was executed last year. In 1997, the evening before Holsey was sentenced to die, Sills wrote much of the prosecution’s closing argument—down to props and stage directions—and performed it for state attorneys. Behind locked doors, Sills, riffing from two legal pads full of notes, snatched up the fallen deputy’s blood-stained badge and shirt with a bare hand.
“Don’t you put gloves on when you pick it up,” he instructed prosecutors. “Say it is an honor to have Will’s blood on your hands.” Alongside a handful of deputies and courthouse staffers, district attorney Fred Bright, who would deliver the argument the next morning, sat rapt in the jury box. Sills went biblical. He unleashed Exodus and pronounced Holsey, a repeat violent offender, the ox that gores and gores again.
“You’re laughing and crying at the same time,” Bright says. “He’s screaming; he’s shouting at the top of his lungs. His face is beet-red.”
For more than two decades, Bright has seen Sills carve up defense attorneys from the witness stand. “A smart defense lawyer will ask Howard few or no questions,” Bright says. “The more questions they ask, the deeper hole the lawyer digs for his client. Howard has a sharp mind. He cuts right to the chase. Jurors relate to him. He couldn’t care less about being politically correct or who he ticks off.”
Sills has since had occasion to address a national convention for district attorneys on the topic of death penalty prosecution closing arguments. He says, “I told ’em, ‘If you can’t make snot run out of your nose and tears pour out of your eyes, you ain’t gonna get it, boy. You’ll never get that death penalty . . . You’ve got to make those people on the jury so goddamn mad that they want to send that son of bitch to hell . . . It’s nothing but emotion. It is the highest theater, the grandest drama that ever came.’”
In the Dermond case, the drama was pure suspense.
Until the afternoon of May 16 last year.
Down where the Oconee opens up, in a bend above the Wallace Dam, the lake swings north toward the Ritz lodge four miles away. It was there, five miles from the Dermond home, that two fishermen found Shirley Dermond’s body.
Ten days had passed since her husband was found slain, and now here she was in the water, her back to the sky. Her body had been weighed down and placed where it was found. Sills won’t elaborate, just that her killer meant for the 46-foot-deep water to be her tomb. Her body had swelled and bobbed to the surface, snagging in a treetop left over from when the river was flooded to build the lake.
When the sheriff got there on a patrol boat, he reached over the side and wrapped his arms around the body. Good God, he thought. It was bloated twice its living size. He needed help heaving it into the boat. An autopsy revealed she was dead when she was dropped in, killed by a blow to the head. Unlike her husband, she was not decapitated.
A few hours after he pulled Shirley Dermond from Lake Oconee, Sills held a press conference in the lobby at the jail.
Sills, in a green polo shirt with the sheriff’s office logo on it, looked drained. Fresh off the lake, his hair was wind-blown.
He said finding Shirley “jumps us about two checkers up on the checkerboard.”
It meant that whoever killed the Dermonds either arrived by boat or used one. A reporter asked if Shirley’s body might have been found sooner had other agencies been brought in. Sills seethed but didn’t show it. He said his deputies and wildlife rangers, among others, had crisscrossed the lake for days. He said Lake Oconee was an “18,000-acre impoundment that covers the breadth of four counties.”
“I suppose,” he said, “we could have called in the whole United States Navy.”
Someone asked what kind of person the killer might be.
“A homicidal individual,” Sills said, “that doesn’t deserve to breathe the air of this earth.”
After everyone left, Sills leaned back in his swivel chair.
His almost-bald head was sunburned. He needed a drink.
He was losing the race.
From the outside, an unsolved murder is a sea of unknowable whys. On the inside, it’s worse. There is plenty to shoot for but little to shoot at. You can comb for clues, interview neighbors. You can question the kin, the bridge club, the landscapers. You can collect forensics, pore over phone records, finances.
Sometimes you can bag all the blue jays and have little to show for it. He was convinced the Dermonds were not slain at random.
“Damn the why,” Sills boomed, imploring himself for answers.
“Get the evidence. Make the case . . . The why can be a significant, if not the most significant factor in determining the who, so you don’t ignore it. But let’s not dwell on the esoteric. Let’s dwell on putting this bastard on the chain gang. Or better, put his ass in the electric chair. If God and the law give me the opportunity, I’m gonna send the son of bitch to hell in my hand. I’ve gotten up every day of my life and asked God Almighty to give me the opportunity to hurl a hoodlum into hell. This son of a bitch or sons of bitches or bitches need it, and they need it in the worst sort of way. And I hope the hell I can deliver it. Nothing would please me more.”
A text message chimed in from a cop buddy in Atlanta who’d seen Sills on the news: “You look tired.”
Then came an email, encouragement, from his friend Bright, the district attorney: “I know you’re going to solve it. You always do.”
Sills, reclining in his chair at the end of an 18-hour day, said, “I don’t know that I am.”
This article originally appeared in our May 2015 issue.
Since 1961, Atlanta magazine, the city’s premier general interest publication, has served as the authority on Atlanta, providing its readers with a mix of long-form nonfiction, lively lifestyle coverage, in-depth service journalism, and literary essays, columns, and profiles.