There was a time when you could call a person on their land line phone, and it would just ring and ring and ring all day as long as there wasn’t an answering machine or person to pick up the call on the other end. And as long as the caller had patience. It was in the before times: before iPhone, before caller ID, before digital voicemail. Dialing *69 felt revolutionary.
Daddy gave a voice pager to his 16-year-old daughter, and he liked to dial it and say his messages twice when he called me so everyone could hear it was my dad, Johnny Burnett.
“Heather. This is your dad, Johnny Burnett. Call your dad,” he’d say, and then he’d repeat it, his voice scratching through the speaker of the brick pager I kept clipped to my waistband. Guys at the mall would ask me if I sold drugs.
“No. Just my dad stalking me,” I’d tell them. Before Find My iPhone, this was how my parent tracked me. Daddy gave me a limited amount of time to find a pay phone to call back after he paged me.
Communicating via phone took effort back then. I kept an updated list of all my approved friends’ phone numbers on the refrigerator door and memorized them or wrote them down in a little address book for reference. There was nowhere to login and see a green dot indicating your friend was there, too. You still had the privacy of anonymously calling your crush just to hear their voice and hanging up without saying a word. Hiding behind these hang up calls, I knew the procedure all too well.
Heading east on Arkansas Highway 70, daddy’s Cadillac wound through the Ouachita mountains as the sun set behind him. At 8:04 p.m., he connected with his former girlfriend, Diane, via his cell phone in a bag in the passenger seat.
Diane worked on her rental house in west Little Rock on Sunday, July 19. When she arrived home to her residence at Quapaw Tower in downtown Little Rock at around 7:30 p.m., she had a message waiting for her from Johnny Burnett. (Remember, he’d tried to call her at 7:01 p.m. and must have left a message on her answering machine.)
“I could tell he was just polluted. I mean, just out of his mind,” Diane said, referring to daddy’s level of sobriety. She had to listen to the message a couple of times because it was hard to understand him through his drunken lisp.
“He said, ‘I’m single and my phone number is 680-2542’ or whatever it is,” Diane recalled to police during a statement on Sept. 3, 1992. Around 8:00 p.m., daddy’s car neared the on-ramp to Interstate 30 east and dialed Diane again. He was laughing and sounded really happy.
“Did you get my message?” Johnny asked Diane.
“Yes,” Diane answered. “What does that mean?”
“Well, Scharmel moved out this morning, and I’m on my way to the house, and the divorce will be final on Thursday,” daddy said.
“Well, I’m proud for you if that’s what you wanted,” Diane responded. And that’s when he dove into the story about Scharmel’s divorce party, the invitation, finding her in bed with another man and taking pictures. Let’s get that story in his words….
“You’re not gonna believe this,” daddy said. He told her a friend of his had faxed the invitation to him on Friday morning. “You wouldn’t believe this invitation.” He told her about sending his friend and pool store manager, Jim, to take down the car descriptions and license plate numbers while the party carried on inside his house, hosted by his estranged wife.
“I just had a feeling, knowing Scharmel, that she would have someone staying over,” he told her. “So, I go to the houseboat at the Yacht Club, and I get a shower and get all dressed up, put on my tie and everything.”
“Uh huh,” Diane utters, listening to her ex-boyfriend intently and trying to follow his ramblings.
“I go over there, looking good you know, and of course I just go right in and go upstairs, and the bedroom door is locked,” daddy continued with his story. “I know where there is a key to the bedroom door, so I go and get the key, and I’m sneaking in the bedroom, and I’m gently opening the door, and I can tell that someone’s leaning against it,” daddy said, eager to deliver the salacious details.
“Understand, I took my camera with me. I was ready to get these pictures because I want the divorce to be over with. I finally got the door open, and it was Scharmel. She was up, pushed against the door, and she had on no clothes and there was this guy in the bed, and he had nothing on and I started taking pictures,” daddy said, laughing and laughing the entire time.
“Of course, Scharmel kept putting her hands over the lens, you know, trying to keep me from getting the pictures, but I got some good ones anyway. One real good one,” he said. He was referring to the nude man in bed. He told Diane the man’s name was John (Mertz or March, she said – but we now know his name was John Merck.)
“Diane, it’s the guy Scharmel was with the last time that you and I were at Cajun’s [Wharf],” daddy told Diane. “This guy jumps out of bed and is grabbing his clothes…just some redneck.” Daddy saw a roll of 35mm film on the dresser – pictures from the divorce party – and put it in his pocket to be developed later. He told Diane he gave the photos to his friend and divorce attorney, Sam Anderson, Jr.
“I bloodied his nose, and he kinda busted my lip, but he got out of there,” daddy explained to Diane. The police asked if daddy told her exactly where that scuffle took place, but he didn’t say.
“Scharmel called this morning and said, ‘hey, I’m not gonna fight you anymore,” and told me she would get out of the house. She told me she’d already talked to her attorney and would meet with him tomorrow,” daddy said, referencing the meeting for Monday, July 20. He looked forward to finalizing his divorce by Thursday, July 23. He asked Diane to visit her at Quapaw Tower.
“You know you cannot come to my place. You know better,” Diane snapped back.
“Well, you know I’ve never seen your place,” daddy negotiated.
“You cannot come over,” Diane said.
“I just, you know, want to talk to you,” daddy said. (Ladies, haven’t we ALL heard this line before?)
“You are talking to me,” Diane replied.
“Well, I want to see you,” he said.
“Johnny, you and I are going to be the very best of friends,” Diane told him. “All you have to do is get your divorce.”
“I’ve gotta go. I’m going to have to charge my phone,” daddy told her as he ended the call. “I’ve got to run by the liquor store, but then I’m going home. And the first thing I’m going to do when I get there is change my garage opener frequency,” daddy said. The cell phone reception started to fail in spots.
“I can’t hear you very well, but as soon as I get home, I’ll give you a call,” daddy told Diane.
“Well, that’ll be just fine,” Diane told him.
Det. Ronnie Smith of the LRPD had more questions for Diane regarding the call.
SMITH: But he said as soon as he got home, he would call you back?
DIANE: Yes, and he – listen, he would have. He – I know him. He would have.
SMITH: So, you think Johnny would have called you back once he got home?
DIANE: Oh, I know so. For one reason, he was drinking. Another reason is he would not have given up that easily as far as coming to my house. He would still think he could have gotten home, called me again. He really thought he could have talked me into letting him come over. I believe that.
SMITH: He was wanting you – for him to come over?
DIANE: Yes. Come to my house.
SMITH: He wasn’t trying to get you to his house?
DIANE: Oh, no, no, no, no, no, no, no. He probably would have been afraid for me to do that, I’m sure.
DIANE: Well because he would have been afraid Scharmel would have come over there.
SMITH: Why do you think he didn’t call you back? Do you think someone was…
DIANE: I think she was there, that’s why.
Diane hung up the phone after the call with daddy and took a shower. An hour went by, and she hadn’t heard from him. By 10:00 p.m., the day’s fatigue from working and cleaning her rental home began to feel heavier by the minute, but she couldn’t stop thinking about how Johnny hadn’t called her back.
“I decided to call him because I didn’t want him to call me later and wake me up, so I tried to call him at home, and I couldn’t get him,” Diane said. She thought maybe he’d come home and gone for a swim or was checking out the house and the pool, since he hadn’t spent a night in his home in weeks.
“I let the phone ring and ring, but I got no answer,” Diane told police on July 21, soon after police arrived at the crime scene developing at 2014 Canal Pointe on the Arkansas River. “I called every 15 minutes. Then at 11:00p.m., I called, and Scharmel answered.
Just like that. Diane said she sounded panicky.
“I recognized her voice. Then I hung up the phone. I was very disturbed about they way she answered the phone,” Diane remembered. At approximately 11:30 p.m., she called once more but got no answer. She began calling his car phone and called until 12:30 a.m. early Monday, July 20 without an answer. When daddy answered the phone, it was usually an upbeat version of, “This is Johnny.”
“I am 100 percent sure it was her,” Diane said about Scharmel answering the phone. “I know Scharmel’s voice. It is very distinctive. I used to call his house to see if he would answer the phone, and she would answer and I would hang up.”
In a file called “trial points,” Scharmel wrote pages about her side of the story with headings such as “was not at Canal Pointe that night,” “missing keys,” “garage door openers,” “security gate openers,” “guns,” “fingerprints,” “car,” and “bedsheets.” According to the forensic investigators who uncovered the material, Scharmel last modified the file on Friday, Aug. 21, 1992, one month after daddy’s body was found. On one page she wrote, “Johnny told me Heather (his daughter) had a key to the house.”
I never had a key to his house and for very specific reasons, and daddy knew it. Somebody’s lying, y’all.