A 4” x 4” headshot in a wooden frame sits on a bookshelf in my office. The photo of me at 18 years old stares back, grinning with excitement about the future and eager to matriculate to higher education at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. Joining a sorority was just something my peer group did back then in 1992, and the headshot would accompany my application to the UA Panhellenic Council. I placed a copy of this photo on daddy’s desk the day before we found his body. On that Monday, July 20, I looked forward to catching up and getting daddy’s first-hand account of the weekend when he got into the office. After returning early Sunday morning from a road trip with my high school boyfriend and his family, mom filled me in on some of the details about Scharmel’s divorce party.
But months earlier in front of a hunter green background, I sat there and turned my head, tucked my chin and smiled for Tim Schultz’s camera. The studio lighting cast a blinding white glow across my bangs. A bottle color had never touched that virgin blonde hair, not yet. That sheltered, daddy’s girl used hot rollers to style her hair that morning and borrowed a taupe blazer from her mom’s closet. She wore the gold herringbone necklace purchased with graduation gift money. That girl had a sense of what kind of life she wanted to build and who she wanted to be. From across the room behind my desk, I catch a glimpse of her trying to look so grown up wearing that L’Oreal ColourRiche lipstick in #560 Saucy Mauve, which has unfortunately been discontinued. And when I see her in that photo, I think, you have no idea how your life is about to change.
Daddy loved taking pictures. He kept photos of my brother and me under a glass top on his wooden desk. When my parents were married, he set up his old 35mm camera on a tri-pod to take amateur family photos of us all in suits and dresses, so proud. I imagined daddy would slip one of the headshots in between the glass and put one in his wallet, but we now know he didn’t do that.
In “Tape,” we got John Merck’s first-hand accounting to the police in the first six hours after daddy was found dead. In “Photos,” we’ll get Sam Anderson, Jr.’s accounting of what daddy told him in real-time as the events of Saturday, July 18, 1992, played out. Daddy and Sam’s friendship spanned decades, despite their nine-year age gap. As part of the law firm handling daddy’s divorce from Scharmel, Sam’s story serves as one of the few voices of daddy, and both men have now passed away. What’s left are their words and photos and my audacity to piece together what happened based on these artifacts.
Sam: “Friday, July 17, around 1730 hours, Johnny called me on my car phone telling me about a party that Scharmel was going to have at his residence at 2014 Canal Pointe in Little Rock. Johnny was upset, and he wanted to go down there himself, but I talked him into sending someone else.”
It sounds like after Sam talked daddy off a ledge, he enlisted another pal, Jim, to document the list of vehicles and what he saw at the Canal Pointe home. Jim would later give Sam this list of vehicles, which he provided Det. Watson of the Little Rock Police Department.
Sam: “Johnny told me that he worked at the liquor store until around 1:00 a.m. Saturday. He then drove by his residence and noticed the party. He then went to his houseboat, which is at the Yacht Club.”
We know from other testimony and witness statements that daddy drove by his house again to check out the party around 3:16 a.m. on Saturday, July 18. Rather than returning to the liquor store, he retreated to the houseboat to clean up and get dressed in his standard attire: dress pants, starched button-down shirt and a tie. Two hours later shortly after 5:15 a.m., daddy entered his home.
Sam: “He called me Saturday (July 18) morning at approximately 0530 hours. It sounded like he was on his car phone, but he was very excited. He said that he went into the house through the garage door. He then began to enter the bedroom and had to unlock the door first. He said that Scharmel told him not to come in there, and he pushed her back to get in the room. He pulled the sheets back on the bed and noticed a white male laying in the bed naked.”
Reading this part triggered memories of early 1991 and made me chuckle. I remembered how the mornings were when I lived with my dad, just the two of us back then. An early riser, he always spoke to his dad in the morning just before he’d come into my room and yank the sheets off my bed to wake me up so I could swim laps with him. Of course, I slept in pajamas! He thought it was funny; me, not so much. But it was effectively motivating, and since I had to get up and make the bed anyway, I figured I might as well switch out pajamas for a bathing suit and meet him outside.
Sam: “He said that he had taken some pictures, but that Scharmel’s hands were in front of the lens. He said that he stayed there for a short time when he started to leave. He said that he and the unknown white male had an altercation and had exchanged blows. Johnny said that he had received a split lip, but that he had scratched the other guy’s nose up because it did bleed.”
This is the way John Merck described it in his first statement to the police (see Tape). Jim told police in his initial statement that “Johnny said he did hit John after he was struck.” The lawyers and news media would later define this as a struggle. What went on between the Burnetts for hours that morning must have been wild with raging tempers!
Jim also described to the police: “Johnny left work Saturday, then he came back. I believe he went over to his house because he said Scharmel denied what had happened.”
This part about denial struck me as I’ve read through the police files, and I will later tell you in future blog posts how other people reported Scharmel’s denial or her request that people, including John Merck, deny what happened that weekend at Canal Pointe.
Who was this guy in daddy’s bed with his estranged wife? According to police files, John told police he dated Scharmel for a couple of months in January and February 1992 when daddy and Scharmel “were broken up.” Merck told Det. Yeager at the LRPD he knew Scharmel because they used to date “before they got married” and “dated for a couple of months.” He knew she’d been living at the home alone on Canal Pointe, and Scharmel told him “a couple of times” that daddy was living in Hot Springs.
This all tracks because a few months earlier in February, my mom, dad, and I were at Cajun’s Wharf to celebrate my 18th birthday. I believe it was by my request that Diane join us. I liked seeing my dad happy, and I liked Diane. Also by my request, we attended a concert that night with Jason D. Williams, an Arkansas-born piano player with the charisma and musical stylings of Jerry Lee Lewis. Daddy loved JD, and even thirty years ago before he died, I wanted to understand daddy and what his grown-up life was like. This was my first attempt as a newly minted adult. Somehow, daddy coordinated four seats for us on stage right. At one point during the show, someone in our group pointed out Scharmel sitting in the crowd in front of the stage. I watched as she clapped her hands and bounced on another man’s lap, the lap of John Merck.
Now here stood daddy in his own home, facing this couple again. Scharmel and John were both nude, exactly what daddy hoped for when seeking photos of his wife caught in a compromising situation. He had no idea how everything was about to change.