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Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills: Profile of cop over Dermond couple case

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Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills is an enigma to the hundreds of news journalists reporting about him and the bizarre murder and missing person case he is currently overseeing in the state of Georgia. And the local paper, the Eatonton Messenger, says the Southern sheriff has said he isn't talking anymore about the case until he has something to talk about.

But a quick look by the Atlanta Top News Examiner shows that he is as open a person as one might ever expect to find based upon his disclosures made after being named the Georgia Sheriff of the Year in 2013 while serving as the Putnam County Sheriff.

During his acceptance speech, the man charged with finding a missing elderly woman after her husband was killed and decapitated, teared up when he told the audience of law enforcement officers that "In all the years I've been sheriff...and all those many years I came as chief deputy to sheriff association things, I never have had any of my family here." And he began to cry, but pulling himself together, he told the audience that, "You know, the older I get, the more damn emotional I get."

It is that emotion that comes across in his dealings with the press as he gives them updates. The seasoned lawman comes across as the kindly grandfather out hunting for a missing loved one of his own. And maybe that's just how this man feels about his cases, working them as if they are cases involving his own family. And that is understandable, since his other disclosures at his recognition dinner among his peers including facts about his adoption.

My sister is here tonight. Sally Jenkins...She is not my biological sister. She, uh, we grew up together from first grade on. And we are distantly related, by blood. I, uh, was adopted by my grandparents when I was a child. Legally adopted. And I am very grateful to them. Around eighth or ninth grade one day, Sally Blake basically took me home, and they kept me."

Sheriff Sills went on to talk about how Sally's mom, whom he considers his mom, is in a retirement home in North Carolina, so she was not able to make it the night his peers bestowed such an honor on him, but wept when he told the audience that "she actually called me a little while ago" anyway. And she told him she was proud of him.

He acknowledged that "Big George," officially known as George Lawrence, who died some years ago, was the one "I learned the law from," stating that George was the district attorney at home. And that he really does miss his mentor.

Yet Sills refused to stand at the podium and speak about himself ad nauseam professionally, insisting, instead, to put the focus on those who turned out to support him--and who do it everyday, like his wife, his sister, his brother-in-law, his chief deputy Col. Russell Blenk , his administrative assistant (aka Director) Teresa Slade, and his "best damn detective" Lt. Harry Luke.

Even the county commissioner and a county mayor showed up in support of this seasoned lawman when it came time for him to be honored by his law enforcement community peers. And that's saying something, since many elected sheriffs go toe-to-toe at times with those who control other aspects of a community during the course of their duties.

Interestingly, the Putnam County lawman chose to spend a portion of his time on stage discussing his hobby of Paleontology, the study of prehistoric life, likening the Tyrannosaurus "T rex" as "the baddest ass of them all," saying T rex "was the sheriff of the dinosaurs." But he also pointed out that the dinosaurs suffered from a brain so small that the part of it that did the thinking was only the size of a walnut, despite the height, length and weight of these large dinosaurs.

And then the sheriff began talking about how one of the most powerful offices in the land--the sheriff's office--was being done away with in some states and communities, like Connecticut. He said that Rhode Island has no elected sheriffs, as their sheriff's are a "division of the department of safety" instead. He quoted one New Hampshire representative as saying that the state police, not local sheriffs, should be the ones running investigations.

Putnam's sheriff appears to be concerned that the office of sheriff will go the way of dinosaurs, as if the county lawman leader will one day be extinct in the wake of a public seeking to downsize so much they fold that office into an arm of more state government, and he cautions his fellow lawmen to maintain the integrity of the office, by observing a strict and honorable code of conduct, as one way to prevent that from happening.

In addition, Sheriff Sills insists that his peers need to refrain from having their agencies personnel answer the phone as "law enforcement center" instead of "sheriff's office" when they greet phone callers. He feels that is eroding the office of the sheriff in the simplest of terms, which might explain why you do not see him make press conferences in conjunction with the GBI or FBI, but rather, on his own, in the Dermond case.

"You are the only person in Georgia law that has the duty to protect the lives, persons, property, health and morals of the people. Nobody else has that duty. City police are authorized to enforce laws, state patrol are authorized by the legislature to enforce laws on the highway, and GBI has certain authorizations, but nobody has the duty that you do. The Supreme Court said that a long time ago," Sheriff Sills said.

And on a final note, long before he would become involved in one of the most bizarre cases in the state, Howard Sills told his peers at the Georgia Sheriff's Association dinner that "if you're calling the state patrol to work every wreck you have, if you're calling the GBI to work every investigation you have, if you're calling somebody else every time something happens in your community, sooner or later, you're going to see a referendum to do away with you, because they're not going to know who you are," the sheriff said.

The Russell and Shirley Dermond case has propelled this Georgia Sheriff Association's Sheriff of the Year front and center in his community in Putnam County and around the nation, so he will probably never have to worry that someone does not know who he is in Eatonton, Ga. and beyond for some time. But whether he is remembered as the lawman who sought and achieved justice for the victims in this case will be determined by the success of his investigation, which is currently one being done in conjunction with many other law enforcement agencies in the country, including the GBI and the FBI. Because the one thing Mr. Sills stressed more than maintaining independence of his office in his speech was that the job must get done--by the sheriff's office.

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