Det. Joe Oberle of the Little Rock Police Department arrived at 2014 Canal Pointe at around 6:10 p.m. on Tuesday, July 21, 1992. The patrol officers had secured the scene of the stucco house with the red tile roof, keeping everyone out of the upstairs area. Oberle would later tell prosecuting attorney Melody LaRue under oath during the trial in December 1993:
“When I entered the master bedroom upstairs, I observed Mr. Burnett lying in the bed. He was face up. He was nude. He was half-covered with the bed clothing. I observed some blood on the bed, some blood on the floor. I found some clothing lying [sic] beside the bed on the floor, some underwear were in the dressing room, which leads to the bathroom, the master bath,” Oberle testified.
Oberle noted the purple shorts and shirt daddy wore on his way home from Hot Springs. They were photographed at the crime scene along with a pair of boat shoes tossed off next to the clothes laying in the floor near a dresser with half of its drawers missing.
Cause of death
“When you arrived at the scene, were you given any information as to the cause of death?” LaRue asked.
“Yes. We later determined the cause of death there,” Oberle answered.
When Oberle arrived at the house, he named five other officers and reported that “several friends of Mr. Burnett’s were already at the scene.”
“Were you aware of what they thought the cause of death was?” LaRue asked.
“I remember talking to Diane,” Oberle said. “She thought he had a heart attack.”
This is what we all thought, that it was from natural causes. None of us at my mom’s house that afternoon were thinking murder. The thought of murder never even popped into my mind until someone told me. Like I said in “Roses,” we first learned he was dead, and that was all we knew for the first minutes, maybe even hours. I will never forget how I cried in denial, with my long blonde hair stuck to my face with tears and snot and pounded my fists into the floor demanding a surgeon put a new heart into my dad right now, goddammit!! Doctors are still at work! They work 24/7, and I did not care if it was past 5 o’clock on a Tuesday. But the scene was unfolding differently in dad’s house across town.
My understanding is none of the three men who found daddy’s body stayed in the master bedroom to investigate, especially with dad’s attorney, Jeff, being there, who knew what to do in this abnormal situation and immediately called 9-1-1. But no one knew he had been shot until the police arrived. This is why my family and I were only receiving information intermittently, as it was still being determined in real time by the police.
“After you arrived at the scene and determined that the victim had been shot in the back, what did you do? What did you begin to do?” LaRue continued with the direct examination.
“Well, we determined that he’d been shot in the back just during the course of looking at the scene and looking for evidence and what have you,” Oberle testified.
More crime scene details
One of the first things Oberle did was check the house for any forced entry. The doors to the balcony were locked with a deadbolt and were not opened until the police found the keys. Oberle, a 15-year LRPD veteran, searched the house, the windows, the doors and found no forced entry or pry marks. There was no forced entry into the home.
“Detective, did you find any lights on in the home at the time you arrived there?” LaRue asked.
“I remember there was a light downstairs in the living room that was on. I believe there was a light upstairs. It might have been the dressing room light, I believe,” Oberle answered.
LaRue continued her questioning about the crime scene, and Oberle testified he found dad’s car in the garage and a gas receipt on the dresser in the master bedroom. The gas receipt showed daddy had stopped on Sunday evening (July 19) to fill up his tank at a gas station on the county line between Pulaski and Saline counties. Later that evening in the early morning hours of July 22, Oberle testified that he went to the Little Rock Yacht Club, found daddy’s boat and found a gun with shells inside the boat.
The direct examination then focused on a series of phone calls made from the Canal Pointe residence. Oberle testified there were two long distance phone calls made to daddy’s divorce attorney, Sam, on July 18 at 5:37 a.m. and later at 9:04 a.m. And on Sunday, July 19, there were two long distance calls made to daddy at his condo in Hot Springs at 9:34 a.m. and 9:43 a.m.
Oberle testified he had requested and received the cell phone records of daddy’s mobile phone.
“And in looking at those records, can you tell us if there were any phone calls made form that cell phone in the early morning hours of July 18, 1992?” LaRue questioned.
“Let’s see,” Oberle began. “Yes, there were.” One was made at 3:16 a.m. to open the gate to Canal Pointe. The second call was to the same number at 5:15 a.m.
I believe during this portion of testimony, the prosecution was attempting to establish a timeline, since daddy was found two days later and of course, no one had come forward to say they had shot him at such and such time. So, we’ve got two long distance calls made from Johnny Burnett to his attorney, Sam, in the early hours of Saturday, July 18, and cell phone calls showing him entering the neighborhood twice.
What we knew then and what the jury didn’t know yet is this: Scharmel had a “divorce party” at the Canal Pointe residence on Friday, July 17. Scharmel, the communications director for the North Little Rock School District, crafted an invitation to look as though it was the front page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, the local newspaper. And what we also knew was daddy knew about the party because someone faxed him a copy of the invitation. Little Rock is a small town, after all.
What we know now is the 3:16 a.m. call to enter the gate was daddy trolling his own home to see what cars were still parked there after the party. He saw one. We found out from friends he told later that day that he saw the car and then drove to the houseboat, took a shower, got dressed, and headed back over to the house at 5:15 a.m. He thought if he could catch Scharmel in bed with another man, then the divorce would be a breeze.
What daddy didn’t know then is he would be wrong. Dead wrong.