Daddy throttled back his 32-foot Wellcraft Excalibur to a slow, wake-appropriate crawl as he and his guest, Sandra Locke, pulled into the cove around the corner from Beacon Manor where the Penningtons lived.
“Johnny would come in and honk the horn for us,” Frances Pennington told me. “We definitely always knew the sound of his boat.”
Daddy honked to get the newlyweds out of bed. Earlier that year, he hosted a wedding reception for Frances and Stueart Pennington at the poolside clubhouse at Beacon Manor. Daddy and Stueart shared a lifelong friendship going back to childhood, and my parents both knew Frances from friends at the lake. It was at their reception where Scharmel told some of daddy’s oldest friends that after she married him, daddy was “getting new friends.”
The foursome greeted each other on the boat and cracked open more cold drinks as they headed out to the main channel of Lake Hamilton to get their start on the afternoon around 1 p.m.
“We rode around on the lake, and at some point, I want to say about by 2:00 p.m., we were at the cold-water dam,” Sandra told Det. Ronnie Smith in her statement with the Little Rock Police Department. “And that’s when Johnny shot the water balloons with the slingshot up on that…” Sandra continued. She told Det. Smith about a “neurotic guy” who got upset.
“He was shooting at people on the bank?” Det. Smith asked.
“Yeah, and he accidentally shot a Corps. of Engineer,” Sandra said. “Do y’all not know about this?” she stopped to ask out of curiosity. Det. Smith nodded. “He went crazy. This guy was like berserk. I promise you he’s crazy. Bad, weird personality. He thought it was bombs.”
At the dam, daddy spotted some guys he’d shot water balloons with on the 4th of July, and they called him over to show him that they had a bunch of water balloons in their boat.
“They got on the boat and stood on Johnny’s hood of his boat,” Sandra explained. “They had a big slingshot, and they were shooting the water balloons. And the guy was going crazy and everybody was kind of cutting up with him, calling him Mr. Nerd. Anyway, that went on for about 10 minutes.”
“I was there looking through binoculars when Johnny and Stueart were shooting water balloons at the Corps. of Engineer man and his family,” Frances told me.
Daddy could tell the Corps. of Engineer guy was getting serious, so the Excalibur fled the scene and drove south to the little shallow area the locals call the “sandbar.”
“That’s when we high-tailed it up to the end of the lake, and [the sheriff] intercepted us,” Frances said.
Det. Smith continued to quiz Sandra about the water balloon fight.
“First, we were at that little place where we could see the sheriff. We knew somebody had called the sheriff, and you could see the sheriff was heading down toward the end of the cold-water dam,” Sandra recalled. At the police station, Det. Smith popped the cassette tape out of the recorder, flipped it and reinserted it to continue recording Locke’s statement on the next side of the tape.
“We were just kind of trying to hang around and act innocent, I guess,” Sandra said. As if the Excalibur could hide and blend in with the other boats at the sandbar. The sheriff pulled up to the sandbar and asked the crowd at large if anybody had seen someone come from the cold-water dam who was shooting water balloons.
As the sheriff continued his investigation from his boat, the Act’n’ Up Ag’n attempted to quietly sneak away from the crowd to head toward the general direction of the cold-water dam to pick up daddy’s friend and legal advisor, Sam Anderson.
“Johnny was on the phone with Sam,” Frances remembered.
“And that’s when the sheriff turned his light on us and said he had to hold us there for identification,” Sandra said. The sheriff wanted them to return to the dam with him so the water balloon victim could identify the suspect.
“Well, I don’t have enough gas to get back down there,” daddy told the sheriff from his boat.
“I need to get some gas anyway,” the sheriff said. He then radioed ahead to the gas station. But from there, daddy and the sheriff went back and forth with questions. Johnny called Sam on his cell phone.
“Sam, what do I do?” daddy asked.
“Ask the guy if you’re under arrest,” Sam told him.
“Am I under arrest?” daddy called out to the sheriff.
“No,” the sheriff said. “I’ve got to hold you for identification though.”
This back and forth continued for some time. Frances remembers the humor of the situation while dad talked to Sam on the phone.
“I can still see sheriff’s patrol beside us. Sam would tell him to ask a question. Johnny would repeat it,” Frances told me.
While they were waiting for the wronged “Mr. Nerd,” daddy’s friend Emmit Henderson reached him on his cell phone. He was curious about all the action with the boats and cops on the lake at the sandbar, and daddy’s Excalibur was in the middle of it.
“It looked like somebody had been killed out there,” Emmit told them later. They laughed.
The sheriff questioning went back and forth for about 45 minutes, and in that time about three other boats pulled up. They sat in the hot sun and waited, floating in the black boat and catching a breeze when it passed through. Lake Hamilton’s small acreage didn’t offer many places to hide out, so they were pretty much stuck until the situation played out.
“By the time they got the guy up there to identify him, and this guy was on the patrol boat, they pulled up and of course he identified him, and they had to write a report,” Sandra said. “It wasn’t a big deal. A $35 fine or something like that. But the guy was livid. He was mad.” The sheriff ticketed daddy at 2:15 p.m. and told him to show up in court or pay the fine.
The Excalibur then found Emmit in his green and black IMP. And in true, 100% Johnny Burnett fuckery, daddy and Emmit hit the gas for what would be one final race with each other. Between daddy and Emmit, and maybe a handful of other friends, they had the biggest, loudest, fastest and most obnoxious boats on the lake. But they were so much fun.
With sights on continuing north on Lake Hamilton, daddy, Sandra and the Penningtons picked up Sam Anderson for a spot on the day cruise.
“We’ve had enough trouble on one end of the lake,” daddy said. At 4:00 p.m., they headed south to Margarita Bay, which was located near the Highway 7 causeway near Sunbay Resort.
“After the sheriff stopped us, we did go into the bay there by the causeway and Margarita Bay, and Johnny and Stueart still continued to shoot water balloons at people,” Frances said.
“We went to Margarita Bay, docked the boat, got out, ordered something to eat,” Sandra recalled. This would be daddy’s last meal*. Frances can’t remember what he ordered, but I hope daddy made a drunk impulse decision to order a burger instead of a boring salad.
“You know, that will be all I’ll want to eat until tomorrow,” daddy said. His insecurities about his weight shone through his passive expression.
Johnny Burnett just couldn’t help himself and found at least one more opportunity to tell someone about Scharmel’s divorce party and the photos he captured. They ran into George Locke, Sandra’s ex-husband, at Margarita Bay who was kind to them and showed no animosity as he helped them tie up their boat to the dock. Daddy told George about how he’d found John Merck in bed with an erection (Locke’s word; daddy was probably crasser). The sun still had a few hours to shine as they pulled away from Margarita Bay at around 5:00 p.m. Daddy’s last night hadn’t even begun.
*Author Note: There is varying evidence over daddy’s last meal, which I’ll address later.