Those were probably three interesting hours daddy and his estranged wife, Scharmel, spent together “discussing the divorce” on early Saturday, July 18, 1992. It appears daddy called her brother just after the sunrise to inform him about his sister being in bed with another man and he had photos of them. Daddy recommended he drive across town to his Canal Pointe home to check on her because he was “afraid of what she might do.” Was he making a call to her brother to infuriate and embarrass her or was he in danger? Was Scharmel threatening suicide? I don’t know. These are just some questions I have about my dad as I try to work my way through his last hours of life.
We know he definitely took photos. We know there was definitely a man (John Merck) in the king-size bed in the primary bedroom. We know Scharmel played down the situation with her family, telling them daddy’s remarks were “lies.” The night daddy’s friends found his body in the same bedroom, her sister-in-law said in a statement to police that Scharmel explained, “Johnny was there discussing the divorce on Saturday morning.”
I mean, that’s one way to put it. Meanwhile, Scharmel, Merck, and through dad’s words to them: Diane and Sam (plus others not yet mentioned) – all reported the same story to police about the fight between the two men, Johnny Burnett and John Merck.
A few days later on July 24 during a taped statement with the police and in the presence of her defense attorney, Det. Oberle of the Little Rock Police Department asked Scharmel if she and Merck had sex, and she said, “I don’t want to answer that.”
I wonder what my father’s last Saturday was like. While I napped in the backseat of a car somewhere in Mississippi on the way back from a family road trip with my high school boyfriend, daddy’s day began with him believing he could taste the imminent divorce. To better understand what happened to the victim, I learned Scharmel wrote in her file of trial points recovered by a forensic investigator that she and daddy had sex on Saturday. A portion of her trial points about Saturday morning stated the following:
“Johnny called lawyers and police from Canal Pointe while I was cleaning up. He was trying to track down John Merck’s license plate number. Johnny said Jim had taken down the license plate numbers of everybody at the party. Johnny was going through drawers. Johnny took the sheets off the bed. I put clean sheets on the bed. Johnny and I took a shower and had sex in the bed.”
And then in another portion entitled “bedsheets,” she wrote:
“While I was cleaning up glasses, etc., Saturday morning, Johnny was going through drawers and calling lawyers and police on the phone. Then he ordered me upstairs. Said ‘Get your skinny ass upstairs.’ Was furious about John Merck being there. Said he knew that the minute he left, my old boyfriend would be there. I reminded him that he had been gone more than a ‘minute’ – like a month. Johnny was taking the sheets off the bed and cussing about finding another man in his bed with his wife. Then he said, ‘If nobody else wanted you, I wouldn’t want you either.’ He ordered me to put clean sheets on the bed while he made more phone calls. Then he ordered me to take a shower. He came and got in the shower with me. We had sex in the bed.”
And then Scharmel continued with this:
“Johnny said we would make love again Wednesday night when the divorce was final if I would just let the paperwork go through and not contest the divorce. He said we would still go on the cruise in December. He said we would drink the bottle of D.Per. champagne (wedding gift) the next weekend in Hot Springs. He did not take a shower when he left.”
Hi, friends. I’m not trying to be weird, but I am breaking this down to understand the victim’s perspective. In her words, Scharmel had sex with two guys in one day: daddy and John Merck. This means my dad had sex with her knowing she’d just had sex with another man. No judgment; I just want to know how my dad spent his last Saturday morning alive. Did she write this elaborate narrative because it’s the truth or because this was the narrative she wanted to remember? I feel like there is more to the story, more that was said and yelled, but daddy didn’t keep a journal.
At 9:30 a.m., daddy dropped off the film from Scharmel’s camera with photos from her divorce party as well as the photos he took of the unknown man. The police recovered the receipt to the 30-minute photo shop, which is now a Mexican restaurant where my brother and I have enjoyed many margaritas. I imagine daddy sitting in his car in the tiny parking lot, thumbing through each set of photos with the air conditioner cranked on high because the July morning sunshine wasn’t messing around.
I’m not blind. I saw messed up shit going on in their relationship on both sides, and it almost jumps off the page in the police files. If there is one thing I’ve learned from relationships, it is this: only those two people know. As I approach 50, I get it a little better now, although I wish I had all those years to commiserate with my dad about whatever “NG” drama I faced. Instead of sitting in my car looking through printed photos in duplicate like he did, I’ve lost hours scrolling through social media feeds. I know what it feels like to be betrayed, to feel humiliated and to be tormented by the perception that everyone will judge you because you failed again.
Back at the pool store, Jim, the sales manager who captured all the license plate information at Scharmel’s divorce party the night before, said daddy called everyone on the license plate list and told them to basically fuck off.
At 11:30 a.m., Daddy called Diane using his cell phone. He left a message on her answering machine telling her the swimming pool at her rental house looked good. I don’t know if he ever turned the water off the night before or if he was doing one final check before heading out of town to Lake Hamilton in Hot Springs. Coincidentally, Diane and her boyfriend, Bill, spotted daddy at the house. They figured they were driving by at around 12 noon because Diane wanted to drop off supplies to continue her renovations.
“Bill and I were going for a drive, and I had some paint I was gonna drop off there,” Diane told the Little Rock Police Department. “And Johnny, I guess, had gone by to check on the pool to make sure it wasn’t leaking. And Bill and I were gonna drop the paint off and when I saw his car was there, I said don’t, you know, don’t stop. Johnny is there checking the pool and so we drive on past, and we can see him up there by the pool.”
Bill knew about Johnny. Diane told him. In the approximately two and a half months of dating, it seems they’d grown close and shared a lot. And this is another thing I’ve grown to understand about relationships, especially new ones. If I was going to drop off some things at my little rental house, maybe even show it to my new boyfriend, I wouldn’t stop if I saw my ex-boyfriend out there working. There’s no need to interrupt the flow of the day, and you know that boyfriend would be thinking about it the rest of the day. Trust me, it’s not worth the drama, and men aren’t toys so don’t “test” them. Also, boundaries.
“She and I drove by the house to see if the water was turned on or off and his car was in the driveway,” Bill also told police. “This was Saturday before he was killed on Sunday, and we saw him standing out in the backyard by the pool. We chose not to stop and engage him in conversation. We drove on past, and he was standing out there by the pool looking at it,” Bill said.
I think about Diane having that last memory of him, seeing him from the street, standing under the trees and the shade of the mid-century modern home. I wonder how many times he’d worked on that pool and if they have memories there that are only for them. Like me, our last memories of seeing him are from a distance, the way a hard goodbye feels better when it can just fade away.