“This is Jim Blanscet. It’s Friday, July 17,” Jim’s recording began on the cassette.
Earlier that evening, Jim played investigator and scoped out the cars parked at a party at dad’s house on Canal Pointe. He then met daddy at his liquor store at 1500 Roosevelt Road to drop off the cassette tape containing his detective work. Target Package Store patrons seemed to think daddy was a police officer. Daddy always parked his car in front of the drive-through window so he could watch out for it. He once locked up late at night and noticed a person lurking in the corner near the front door with the ringing threshold.
That night, daddy opened the car door, slid into the black leather seating, plugged the GM key into the ignition and tilted his right wrist forward. It didn’t turn over. Stolen battery. Only thing to do that late at night in that part of town was to get it back.
“Listen,” daddy said as he walked over to address the lurker, “I know you didn’t steal my battery, but I know you know who did.” Daddy recognized the man as someone who sometimes “slept it off” in that poorly lit corner.
“Here’s what’s going to happen: I’m going to go back inside and work in my office, and when I come out in an hour, my car is going to start.” And with that, he yanked open the glass door and shut it behind him, still ringing out the tune of “Home! Sweet Home” as he locked the deadbolt.
Fuck around and find out, he thought as he brushed his teeth before bed, seventy-five minutes later.
Observe and report
“I’m getting ready to enter Canal Pointe in Little Rock. Gate’s open. I can see the back of Johnny Burnett’s house. There’s…uh…three or four people standing around by the pool,” Jim spoke into his recording device. I can imagine my own 46-year-old male friends doing something like this for me.
Let’s talk about Mr. Jim. What a great guy. Everyone loved Jim. I knew Jim my whole life until he passed away in 2019. When I spoke at his funeral, I tried to remember the childhood memories. But I wish I had been able to tell this story in more detail and about his loyalty as a friend to my dad.
On the cassette tape, Jim rattled off car makes, colors and license plate numbers, which the Little Rock Police Department later transcribed and investigated. He noted the comings and goings of guests.
“As I drove by, I saw four, no six, people entering Johnny Burnett’s house. Every light is on,” he said. “All of these cars are either parked in front of the Burnett home or the home next door, which is under construction. I count ten cars. It’s now 8:45 p.m.”
Jim’s ex-wife, Pat, is still one of my mother’s ride-or-die friends, and their son and I were born an hour apart. I knew Jim and can still hear his raspy voice dictating in a serious tone, which was really just the most serious filter he could apply to his otherwise humorous dad-joke demeanor. He found the serious approach that night because he cared about his friend.
“It’s now 9:45 p.m., July 17,” Jim continued. “I don’t see much going on outside as I’m pulling up. A few more cars have come. There’s a Chevy pickup. A new model pickup…uh, looks like a…Buick… and a little Olds,” Jim described in detail.
“I can see in the window. They seem to be congregated in the back. Open the garage door [sic], only one car in there. It’s Scharmel’s,” he confirmed based on the cassette transcription. “The new car’s the little Olds; looked to be a Cutlass like 88/89, in that era, 90 maybe. Kind of a light gray/green color. Dark, hard to tell the color.” Jim provided in his commentary. This car belonged to Scharmel’s co-host listed on her divorce party’s invitation, John Balkman, who later went home with friends and left his two-door beige 1982 Oldsmobile Toranado parked out front.
“The white Buick was, uh, white obviously,” he goofed. And there it was, the silliness we loved about him. “Looks to be an older model, mid 80s.”
And then he came upon this detail before 10:00 p.m.
“The Chevy pickup was a, uh, bright, looked like a brand-new truck. Kind of a red/orange looking color, two-toned custom model,” Jim reported.
When John Merck arrived that night, Scharmel’s divorce party was in full swing, he later reported to police. He parked the red and tan 1992 Chevrolet pickup truck he was driving on loan from a bass fishing club. John told police he arrived at 10:30 / 11:00 p.m.
For a murder case, so many details rely on credible human memory and recall. For most of my life, I’ve gone along thinking that everyone remembers like me on a basic functional level. It wasn’t until I participated in a study of photographic memory at University of Texas at Austin in December 2008 that it was confirmed I have some version of a photographic memory. I’m no Marilu Henner, but I have looked through the police files enough that I can tell you who had taped statements that were typed up and statements that were handwritten. I thought that’s how everyone remembered, like my brain was using the basic default memory program.
In the police files, I’ve come across handwritten notes Scharmel wrote and my subsequent written recollection of what she had written based on seeing those notes taped on a bathroom mirror in daddy’s house. Also in the files is a letter she wrote where she referenced these notes she taped to the mirror. My point is I remember differently from the average person. However, I wonder how far off some people can be with their memory within a week or a few weeks of a somewhat memorable event.
Daddy had a memory. He remembered how Scharmel used a ball-peen hammer to destroy a glass dining room table, an Imari vase and a breakfast table. And I’ve seen the accompanying police report and her written apology. Haven’t you ever been in a shitty relationship, and you knew you both needed to move on and you just wanted it to be over but the other person was always being a huge piece of shit about it? That’s what all this makes me think of at this point of the story. They were both wrong for each other, but shame on daddy for going back to her after he broke up with her over the damaged property and filing a police report on her. He had other loyal friends and family who attempted to steer him in a different direction, but sometimes friends are just not persuasive enough. Johnny Burnett was going to do what he wanted to do, and yet here he was again, déjà vu and all that, trying to recover his fortress of solitude.
Two hours later when he returned to his home (around 5:15 a.m.), he found just what he wanted to secure his divorce: Scharmel was in bed with another man.
I wonder how many times daddy listened to that tape, playing it over and over to capture notes. His brain fuming behind his hazel eyes, still simmering when he drove by his house one more time at around 3:16 a.m. and still saw cars. The last guests had actually departed around 3:00 a.m., according to statements party guests made to police. Daddy must have just missed them. Except for one.
They didn’t know he knew
The police learned about John Merck during the evening of July 21 when Scharmel gave a recorded statement to the police at the station. Det. Yeager recorded a statement with John Merck at 12:20 a.m. on Wednesday, July 22, 1992, just hours after daddy’s body was found.
Yeager: Okay, did you stay over there at the house with Scharmel?
Merck: Yes, sir.
Yeager: Tell me what happened to…you were in bed with Scharmel, what happened? Did someone come in the house?
Merck: Uh, Johnny Burnett came in the house about whatever time it was in the morning, real early.
Yeager: Uh huh.
Merck: Knocked the door down or came in, I don’t know how he got in, just walked in the door and we were in bed. And I jumped up, put my clothes on and left immediately. We pushed and shoved a little bit, and then I, I mean it didn’t last two minutes, and then I’s [sic] gone.
Yeager: Okay, did….
Merck: Drove off.
Yeager: Did he hit you, or did you hit him?
Merck: Uh, I got a scratch on my nose, but I don’t know how it happened. I don’t know if I hit him ‘cause I don’t remember to be honest with you. I don’t remember, but I, I probably was trying.”
Yeager: Okay, what did he do? Do you know if he left after that or you just left and he, she, he and she were there?
Merck: Right. I left, and she was there with him.
Me: How do you not remember fisticuffs from four days ago when the husband of the woman you are in bed with came home and found you? Asking for a friend.
Yeager: Okay, uh, did you know if, when y’all, you and Mr. Burnett got into it at the house, did he threaten you or anything like that, or, or threaten her, or, or…
Merck: No, not really. It happened so fast. I mean, it’s just, I know it didn’t last two minutes I bet, and I’s [sic] gone. I mean I got up and took off. Wasn’t much said at all but “get out.”