The fresh knowledge of homicide fed us for a little while as we managed through chaos and one phone line in that little house in North Little Rock. In the beginning, that’s all we knew. We knew Jeff got in the house and found daddy, age 45, dead. At some point, the word murder cut through the noise. But first, we had no idea how he had been murdered. Our minds, in a state of shock, just could not go there to envision him stabbed, bludgeoned, poisoned…. Then we learned he had been shot. Even then, I didn’t think about where or how many times. Not initially, anyway. Although it did cross my mind that I hoped it wasn’t in the head. I hoped I could still see daddy again, and yet I had no idea what that meant. I wanted there to be a “one last time” meeting. We didn’t have a rulebook. Friends showed up with food and hugs and fielded phone calls on the yellow kitchen phone while others did the things you just figure out how to do in a time like this.
Richard, the manager in charge of the pool store on Tuesday, July 21, 1992, answered the phone call just before 6 p.m. Mom followed him to his office and stuck her foot in the door as he tried to close it. Richard turned pale.
“He’s dead,” Richard told her. That’s all she heard.
Mom ran into the next office to call her sister, Linda, who lived two and a half hours away. Crying hard, she barely got out the words.
“There are four Johnny Burnetts in Little Rock,” Aunt Linda said. “How do you know it’s him?”
There was no way mom could explain this to her in her current state of mind. She just cried and screamed he’s dead. My Uncle Ed took over the call to help calm her down.
“He’s dead. Johnny’s dead! You have to come! I can’t handle this alone,” mom pleaded to him. “I don’t know how to tell the children. I can’t be strong enough. Please, please come!”
“Uncle Ed” was the code word Jason and I used as little latch-key kids. He never questioned what mom said. Linda arrived within minutes it seemed, and Ed came the next day and stayed until the funeral. Mom attempted to get a handle on her rapidly declining control of her emotions and retreated to an office in the back of the store so my 14-year-old brother couldn’t see her. With the help of daddy’s devoted employees, mom gathered enough strength to tell Jason, who was now standing down the hall just outside daddy’s office, waiting. She looked into his eyes. He knew. He broke, and together they fell into an unforgettable, haunting moment. Mom would later write the overwhelming grief of her children felt like it raked her core the way a tornado clears a path of destruction.
“The pieces would take years to return to place and never be normal again,” mom wrote.
Meanwhile, I’d left the pool store probably minutes before Richard got the phone call. I’d grown impatient and afraid of what we’d learn when Jeff got into the house with a locksmith. My high school boyfriend, Tim, lived only ten minutes away, and I decided to drive to his house to wait it out. At 18, on the precipice of starting my adult life, here was my first real crisis. What does one do in this situation? I fled. During the drive to Tim’s house in Maumelle, a feeling came over me that felt very, very wrong. I felt like maybe I should turn my car around, but I was not ready to face my fear.
Panicked and in tears when I got to Tim’s house, his twin brother, Jay, answered the door. I could barely get the words out when I asked for Tim, who was upstairs in the shower. Suddenly, their kitchen phone rang. Jay picked up. It was mom, and she wanted to speak to Tim. Jay told her he was in the shower.
“Go get him out!” mom told Jay. “I have to talk to him now!” I grabbed the phone from his hand as he left the room to find Tim.
“Mother, what’s happened? Is it daddy?” I asked. I knew. She began to cry and wouldn’t answer any more questions until she talked to Tim.
Tim came downstairs and found me crying in the kitchen on the phone with mom. I handed him the phone as he stood there dripping, wearing a the T-shirt and shorts he threw on in lieu of drying off with a towel. Mom told him to drive me home and advised him to not watch any television or listen to the radio.
What the actual fuck had happened? How bad was this to not turn on the radio?
Mom didn’t know if the news media had picked up anything on a police scanner, and she did not want me to hear about daddy’s death that way.
Writing this thirty years later, I realize it was Tim who picked me up off the brown living carpet and got me to my bedroom and helped me start to try to make sense of anything. He also held my mom and my brother and witnessed that scene. I wonder if he still thinks about it. I realized that feeling I had in the car on my drive to see Tim in Maumelle was real. Considering the timing of it, it must have been about the same time my mother and daddy’s friends received the news that he was dead.
At Canal Pointe, Jeff walked out of the primary bedroom to the landing to address the women sitting on the white couch below.
“He’s gone,” Jeff said.
At 5:49 p.m. on July 21, 1992, Jeff placed a call to 9-1-1 to report the death. Then he called the pool store. The arriving officer, Ofc. Lee, noted the following in his report that night:
“When I arrived, I went upstairs and found Burnett dead. Burnett was laying [sic] face up, naked, half covered with a sheet. There was also blood on the bed around him.” Ofc. Lee contacted the Metropolitan Emergency Medical Services (MEMS) ambulance and his commanding officer, Sgt. Wilson.
Daddy, a 45-year-old white male was found in his bed, nude, on his back with the bed sheet pulled up over him. Ofc. Lee continued:
“At approximately 1900 hours, the coroner arrived on the scene. The D.O. and Crime Scene took control of the scene. Burnett died apparently from a gunshot wound in his back.”
The summer day was still a few hours away from sunset, and the crime scene team had already roped yellow crime scene tape around dad’s barely new dream house.
The police wanted to know: did he sleep in the nude?
“No, he’d never sleep in the nude. He would put on his underwear right after sex,” my mom who was married to him for 13 years, told the police in her initial statement. Miss Diane agreed. His commitment to the “tighty whitey” never wavered, and he never slept in the nude.
Det. Joe Oberle of the Little Rock Police Department led the investigation. After taking statements at the crime scene and learning Johnny Burnett had an estranged wife and they were in the middle of a divorce, where was she? Who was she? Did she know if he slept in the nude?
That evening at 8:45 p.m., Det. Oberle and his partner Det. Yeager drove to Scharmel’s parents’ home on Charterhouse Road to notify the wife of her husband’s death. She had moved out of the Canal Pointe house over the weekend. According to Det. Oberle’s report that night, he wrote:
“I told her that her husband has been found dead in his house. I saw no reaction. She showed no emotion. She said ‘he was.’ She didn’t ask how he died. I finally said ‘yes, he has been shot.’ Mrs. Burnett just stood there and looked at me. I asked her if we could ask her a few questions, and she said yes. We all sat down. Mrs. Burnett never appeared to be upset.”
Just two words. “He was.” WHO WAS THIS FUCKING MONSTER?
Ok, here is something that has bothered me for thirty years. Police come to your door to tell you your husband has been found dead in his house. I get that they are getting a divorce, but it is also clear she did not love him, which I never thought either one of them loved each other. I think back to when I was going through a divorce in late 2001. During the separation, I chose to move out of the house I shared with my ex-husband in south Texas so I could live closer to my office and reduce my two-hour daily commute. We were married for five years and together for eight total. But if police had come to my little apartment in December 2001 and told me he’d been found dead in his home, there would have been a considerable amount of emotion. I would have been eternally crushed, knowing we could have never been able to work out or even to just see the divorce through to the end. I would have been sad for his family, his coworkers and the kids he coached. Being dead would be sad, but being murdered would have made me angry. Angry that someone would do that to him. Even though we were divorcing, I still had human feelings. I also wasn’t a huge piece of shit murderer. I’d be beside myself, thinking about everything we said the last time we spoke or saw each other. I would definitely ask the police questions. I would want to know.
The detectives asked Scharmel four questions, but she only answered the first three.
- When was the last time she talked to Johnny Burnett?
- Was anyone with her on Sunday night?
- Did she talk to anyone on the phone who could prove she was home that night?
- What time did she go to bed on Sunday night?
Her response to the fourth question was recorded in Det. Oberle’s report.
“I don’t want to answer your questions anymore,” Scharmel said.
“Why?” Oberle asked.
“Because I think you think I killed him.”