Sonny Burnett wore a white hat when he dressed up, and people in the Venetian Dining Room at the Arlington Hotel took notice. A white hat in Hot Springs didn’t necessarily mean the “good guy.” Years ago when Hot Springs found itself dripping in corruption and mob ties to Chicago gangsters, the white hat symbolized something else. My grandfather wanted people to know he held connections with a particular crowd.
At nearly 100 years old, the hotel’s website even says the Venetian Dining Room “is the place to see and be seen at The Arlington in Hot Springs.” With views of the national park through the east-facing windows, we dined under the historic chandeliers set against the creamy botanical wallcoverings. For me, a little Arkansas girl, The Arlington set the standard for white linen brunches. In its heyday, the Arlington brunch was as good, if not better, than some of the best brunches I’ve had from around the world. Or maybe it’s just sentimentality that makes it so delicious.
My introduction to what I would one day refer to as “my favorite meal” – brunch – happened in this very same room. Part of my childhood memories live in the once glamorous dining room of that landmark resort and spa where they host Sunday brunch and have done so for more than 40 years at least. My lifelong friend Anna and I still talk about it and their famous donut machine. My short stature at five-years-old prevented me from looking into the buffet’s chafing dishes, so daddy walked around with me to each station to serve my plate with a little bit of each brunch item I selected.
But the donut station was child level. My parents allowed me to order at the donut station by myself, and the autonomy was intoxicating. I stood and waited my turn, watching people in front of me choose their icing and toppings or fillings. My mind tilted between chocolate or vanilla glaze. Oh, what would I choose when it was finally my turn to pick? Chocolate. It was always chocolate. I watched the donut maker pour batter into the contraption that looked like a modified black cast-iron waffle maker. We stood there in awkward silence, both watching the machine smoke and then give way to the smell of cooked, sugary dough. We knew the donut’s debut was now mere seconds away. Like an artisanal version of Krispy Kreme, it felt like watching a musician play the strings of an instrument to invent music right there in front of me on stage, where a donut shop selling pre-made donuts (albeit fresh) was more like a Deadmau5 show. I couldn’t wait to get back to the table to take a bite of the melting donut, and my messy chocolate fingers busted me every time. The grownups drank their desserts, but donuts were all kids.
As I’m piecing this together week by week and one post at a time, sometimes I come across new-to-me information. The more I read about daddy’s last day, the more I’m like this is so 100% Johnny Burnett. On Sunday, July 19, 1992, daddy and his guest, the 37-year-old single mom and advertising account executive for KARN, Sandra Locke, awoke around 7:00 a.m. They made coffee, and that’s when daddy and Sandra sat and talked.
“He got this bottle of Gold Nugget, this old bottle of some kind of liqueur or whatever out of the cabinet, just a real old bottle,” Sandra remembered.
“This needs to be finished,” daddy said as he poured the last of the liqueur into his coffee.
They sat, I imagine, on the mint green velvet sofa or maybe they stood with their coffees and looked out on the lake with the screen door open. Det. Ronnie Smith asked Sandra during her statement what exactly they talked about.
“Gosh, uh, really just everything, you know, his family, Scharmel,” Sandra said. That’s when he showed the divorce party invitation to her for the first time.
“Johnny, this just doesn’t look normal for a person,” Sandra told him.
“Well, Scharmel likes to write, and she’s real intelligent and she just likes to write,” daddy replied. He told her she had a computer at home and how she had, at one point, written a list of the pros and cons of being married to Johnny Burnett, and she taped it to the bathroom mirror.
They talked about his dad, my grandfather, Sonny Burnett. Daddy and Sonny talked every morning, usually first thing.
“He talked about his daddy, had a great relationship with his dad, talked about how he called his dad every morning,” Sandra told police in her recorded statement. Sandra confirmed Sonny had called that morning and they had talked. It would be the last time.
“He had a great relationship with his son’s mother,” Sandra offered to police. “We didn’t really talk about his daughter. I don’t think we really mentioned his daughter.” She’s talking about me.
“We talked about his son a little bit because I have a daughter, his son’s age,” Sandra said. “I probably tried to talk to him about his son. He did tell me that his son was working for him, and yeah, how well he was doing,” Sandra said.
But he didn’t talk about me. Part of me thinks he was avoiding talking about kids with an NG (daddy’s term for “new girl”), but part of me still feels the shame from 30+ years ago and dad’s overbearing demand about my looks. I didn’t feel “approved.” I wasn’t a size 4, and I didn’t wear a bikini. But he was so proud of his son. Speaking of the kids, he needed to find out if they were coming to the lake that day.
The morning continued with conversation and phone calls. Daddy called mom at our home in North Little Rock that Sunday morning at 9:04 a.m. After that call, he hopped downstairs to the children’s condo (#708) to get something or maybe it was to turn on the AC to prepare for mom and Jason later that day.
“When he got back, the phone was ringing [in the condo at #802] but he didn’t answer it in time,” Sandra recalled in her statement. He thought it was Scharmel trying to call the first time.
According to long distance phone records between Canal Pointe in Little Rock and Beacon Manor in Hot Springs, Scharmel called twice. She’d spent Saturday night at the Canal Pointe home.
“I got up Sunday, and I started getting my things together,” Scharmel told police in a statement on July 21, 1992. “I tried to call him several times that morning, and I finally got him there.”
It was 9:34 a.m. when Scharmel reached daddy at Beacon Manor. She called that morning to inform him that she’d vacated his house after the divorce party.
“I was not going to contest the divorce, which we had discussed many, many times, that possibility,” Scharmel told Det. Joe Oberle of the Little Rock Police Department. “I called Johnny and told him that I decided not to contest the divorce and he said that that was good news.”
- OBERLE: Did you tell him that you were going to be out of the house that day on Sunday?
- SCHARMEL: Nope, I told him that I was moving things.
- OBERLE: You didn’t, did you tell him that he could have the house tonight?
- SCHARMEL: No, I didn’t. He usually stays in Hot springs through Sunday night and comes back to work on Monday mornings, especially you know, since he claimed he had been living there for a month.
She can’t help the snark.
“He told me Sunday morning that he would come to the counseling session Tuesday night, unless he got tied up with work,” Scharmel told the LRPD. She said they discussed how their relationship wasn’t over just because they were getting a divorce. I bet he thought he was going to get “tied up with work” and the divorce would be final that Thursday, July 23.
The conversations with Scharmel were brief. Sandra said they were short, no screaming, no yelling or arguing. And according to Scharmel, “he was very nice.” Sandra explained the details to Det. Ronnie Smith of the LRPD.
- SMITH: Could you hear the conversation?
- LOCKE: Yeah, it was just short. I heard that he got off, he was, just you know, “That was Scharmel.”
- SMITH: So there were no hostilities?
- LOCKE: No hostilities on the phone.
- SMITH: But she called him the first time?
- LOCKE: Yeah, she called him.
“When he got off [the phone], he said, ‘that was Scharmel, she’s rolled over,’” was the way daddy put it to Sandra.
“She said I can have my house back today, that she’s moving out and I can have my house back today!” daddy told her with joy.
“Then he did a little dance and told me she said he could have the house tonight,” Sandra mentioned again. He then got on the phone and called what felt like about ten people, Sandra recalled.
One of the people dad called was my mom to tell her the revelation about Scharmel not contesting the divorce. He asked again if I would talk to him on the phone or come to the lake. I declined both requests.
At 9:43 a.m., Scharmel called back to ask about dividing up their CDs, and she particularly wanted one by Jason D. Williams. Daddy told her he’d “bring them by.”
“Okay, at that point, I mean, he was just ecstatic about it, you know,” Sandra told police. “It was looking like it wasn’t going to be a long, drawn-out thing. He was kind of in a, you know, a real winning feeling type mood.” She said she took a shower while daddy “was on the phone the whole time.” As a matter of fact, she said he told her he’d been on the phone telling everybody.
Daddy and Sandra got dressed and ready for a day on the lake. Bobbie and Phillip Rushing had invited them to brunch at their lakeside condo at The Moorings on Lake Hamilton. At around 10:30 a.m., daddy opened the refrigerator to grab a couple of bottles of champagne to take to the Rushings.
“No, I’m going to save this for Thursday,” daddy said as he started to pull out a bottle of Dom Perignon.
They headed down to the boat dock and made their way south during the roughly 20-minute boat ride to The Moorings. It was the weekend of their youngest son’s 16th birthday, and Phillip’s daughter Niki and her boyfriend were also visiting the lake that weekend.
“What stands out to me is how your dad and my boyfriend were rasslin’ on the floor,” Niki recalls. And while no one remembers what they ate, if Bobbie laid out a spread for brunch, it was most likely epic. Maybe no homemade donuts, but something delicious no less.
The friends sipped mimosas and talked about all kinds of things. Sandra remembers them eating brunch and daddy “talking about flying airplanes.” My dad was a private pilot and instrument rated. He hadn’t flown or had a medical for years, but I found it interesting that the subject came up on his last day alive. Maybe their youngest son (who became a pilot) heard my dad talking about flying, but it’s doubtful. At around 12:30 pm, daddy and Sandra got back on the Excalibur to kill time before picking up the Penningtons.
- SMITH: He was pretty happy at that point?
- LOCKE: Very happy, very happy, extremely happy, just very happy.