The Tuesday work day began at the pool store with no updates from daddy.
“I walked in the door that day, Beth [my dad’s assistant] was on the phone with my grandfather, and she gave the phone to me right as I walked in the door,” I later told police. On the other end of the line, my “Pawpaw” didn’t greet me with his normal, enthusiastic “Hello, there!” the way he always, always said on the phone.
“He said that he was really concerned, and he wanted me to look everywhere. Everywhere I could think of to find daddy,” I told the police. Sonny Burnett knew something was wrong because he spoke to his son every morning around six or seven, a habit that began after my parents divorced in 1983. Living in Tulsa, there was little he could do from there in the meantime except call.
Looking in all the places
I understood my assignment and first visited the Little Rock Yacht Club where daddy moved his houseboat the previous month. The pool store had keys to the boat, which I used to unlock the sliding glass door and search inside. Strewn around the boat and on the bed were the drawers I’d helped daddy pull out straight from his bedroom furniture and bathroom vanity when he moved out of his house on June 22, the day he filed for divorce from Scharmel. The divorce would have been final the next day, July 22.
Next, I went to daddy’s liquor store, Target Package Company, on the corner of Roosevelt Road and MLK Drive in Little Rock. The door played “Home! Sweet Home!” (the 19th century standard, not Motley Crüe) when it opened. Daddy built his pool business out of the back office of this place. My brother and I grew up hanging out at the liquor store, hiding in the shelves, playing dare games in the walk-in refrigerators and making crafts with old cigar boxes. I think at one time there was a cardboard cutout of Billy Dee Williams selling Colt 45. The person managing the store that day hadn’t seen daddy, and his bookkeeper also confirmed he hadn’t seen him since Friday. I didn’t stay around for small talk.
From there, I drove to Scharmel’s condominium at Linden Court where she lived with her young son before moving them into the Canal Pointe home. I can’t speak for my brother, but as a teenager preparing to move away for college, it didn’t bother me at all that a little boy was being raised in my dad’s house. I later learned daddy felt extreme guilt about it, which stemmed from his parents divorce and Sonny shacking up with a new family. Neither daddy’s black Cadillac Fleetwood nor Scharmel’s green Acura Integra were parked at her condo.
I had time to investigate Canal Pointe again and found no new clues. The day before, I’d looked through the windows because I knew daddy would want me to see if there was anything damaged the way Scharmel had destroyed his things in the past. At that time, the gated Canal Pointe subdivision was just being developed, and daddy’s next-door neighbor was building a house. I asked the construction workers on both Monday and Tuesday if they’d seen him. They confirmed seeing Scharmel’s car and a red truck on Saturday or Sunday.
Something has happened
When I returned to the office, Scharmel had faxed daddy a reminder about their couples counseling session that night at 6 p.m., which was strange because she would later tell police that on Sunday, she told daddy she agreed to the divorce and would not contest it. He hadn’t shown up on Monday morning at his divorce attorney’s office to sign papers.
“Scharmel might have done something, and I just wouldn’t put it past her,” Sam said on Tuesday. Sam Sr. was my dad’s divorce attorney and a friend of Pawpaw’s. And through that relationship, daddy met Sam Jr., who was now a paralegal after losing his bar license due to his conviction in relation to Roger Clinton in the 80s. By some stroke of luck that day, daddy wasn’t with him to get busted as well. But Sam Jr. was a different man now with a wife and new baby girl. He’d last seen his friend on the lake on Sunday after daddy was finally ticketed $35 for shooting water balloons using a sling shot (something like this) from his boat. Daddy pulled up to Sam’s lakeside property, Sam told me. He was sitting there with his baby girl on his lap when daddy told him he now knows it costs more to go parasailing than it does to get a ticket for shooting water balloons.
But when Sam said that it scared me. He called several times that day as did his other friends. Pawpaw called again before 1 p.m. and said he would fill out a missing person report in Tulsa, and he told me I might think about doing that in Little Rock. I called my mother at work. She said the phone was ringing on her desk as soon as she returned from lunch.
“Mom,” I said anxiously without saying hello. “They want me to file a missing person report on dad.”
“Who wants you to file this report?” mom replied.
“Jeff and Sam,” I told her. “No one has talked to dad since Sunday night, mom. Not even Pawpaw Sonny.” Mom said her body went numb and felt sick.
“Heather, let me call Jeff,” mom said. Jeff and his wife were longtime friends with my parents. While Sam oversaw dad’s personal legal matters, Jeff handled his business affairs. Mom knew both of them. She called Jeff’s office as a crowd of coworkers gathered by her cube to listen and offer support. Jeff confirmed the request for a missing person report and that I must do it because I am his next of kin as his adult child. Everyone worried had reason to be as it was extremely unlike him to not contact anyone, even if he was out of town or home sick (which was rare). Even in those cases, he at least called the business.
“Something has happened, and I feel we need to call the police,” Jeff told mom in his deep voice. She didn’t hesitate a moment longer.
“I’ll pick up Heather, and we’ll be at your office in one hour,” she said.
Mom’s coworker group expressed concern. She said the look on her face was horrible, but what came out of her mouth was even worse.
“She’s killed him. That bitch has killed him!” mom uttered vividly.
A coworker walked mom to her car to make sure she could drive, but she wouldn’t even remember pulling out of the parking lot. Mom pulled her little Hyundai into the asphalt parking lot at the pool store and saw Jason outside checking on the water in one of the inground pools on display out front. He looked at her as she got out of the car but did not smile.
“Oh my god,” mom said quietly. “Give me the strength to be normal. To act as if nothing is wrong.”
Jason followed her into the pool store where she told me to grab my purse. As mom and I walked out the same door where I’d last laid my eyes on my dad, Jason sat on the edge of one of the gurgling hot tubs in the showroom. He focused on the floor, wrapping his gangly arms around himself. This shattered mom’s heart as she knew she could not bring him with us for fear of not knowing what we would find.
At Jeff’s office, he decided we should make one last attempt to get into dad’s house because police would want to know his presence could not be confirmed there. Jeff drove the three of us back to Canal Pointe to check the doors once again. We drove through the gates, which were open freely for the neighbor’s construction crews to enter. The summer temperatures (~85 degrees) and humidity (72%) met our faces and saw Jeff remove his jacket. We set off around the house, twisting doorknobs and checking windows. Still no luck or signs of movement inside.
But there was a balcony above the garage and if we could just get a ladder, maybe we could get inside. We easily found help next door from the construction crew, but their ladder was too short. One of the workers backed up his truck, put the ladder in the truck bed and climbed to the balcony easily.
“Locked,” he said. “Let me break in! I’ve always wanted to break into a house!”
“NO!” Jeff yelled. If daddy was in the house, the grown ups had sensibly decided I should not be there. We thanked the workers and left. As we drove away, Jeff suggested hiring a locksmith. We stopped at a pay phone to call around, and Jeff finally located one who could meet at the house at 5 p.m. The plan was Jeff would meet the locksmith while mom and I went back to the pool store to wait for his call. If daddy was not inside his house, then we would meet Jeff at the police station.
So we waited until he could be found.