“Are we having fun yet?” daddy used to ask his boat passengers as they raced across Lake Hamilton, balancing a mixed drink in one hand to avoid a spill as the boat hopped the wakes. I heard this question a lot growing up because it could help diffuse a conflict and redirect the conversation to focus on something fun and happy. (You know, let’s not really get down to the bottom of the moment’s dysfunction.) Happy was usually an order or a wish. Instead of “Say Cheese!” when taking a photo, he’d say “Get Happy!” It was an order because according to him, it takes more muscles to frown than to smile, “And you don’t want to have wrinkles, do you, Heather?” I can still hear him telling me, grinning like a pageant mom off stage and telling me to get happy through his teeth.
Daddy followed the Dale Carnegie principles from How to Win Friends and Influence People, and in the little Golden Book you receive as a Dale Carnegie Course student, number 25 under the section “Be a Leader” says this: Ask questions instead of giving direct orders. I know this because daddy posthumously ordered me to take the Dale Carnegie Course and had been teaching me the book since I was 12 years old.
Well, I have lots of questions.
“Hello.” It was all she said. Diane swears it was Scharmel’s voice she heard when she called daddy’s house looking for him late in the evening of July 19, 1992. And with that, the story begins to divert. This is where the police and everyone else examine the evidence to piece together what happened next and how the fatal evening unfolded.
I’ve spent thirty years writing about daddy’s murder, and it’s never been published (unless you count my second master’s thesis). When I began my original master’s thesis in the late 1990s, my topic focused on writing as a therapy. At that time, virtually no academic research existed around this area, and one of the most relevant articles I read was in Cosmopolitan and about why it’s healthy to keep a journal. And apparently you can’t really cite a fashion magazine in academic research without at least having academic research to support the Cosmopolitan article. But I continued to write and research because I knew this mattered somewhere to someone. I knew it would have mattered to me on July 21, 1992, when I found out my dad was not only dead but had been murdered. I just had the Elizabeth Kübler-Ross model on death and dying to rely on because it would be years before the world welcomed Brené Brown’s influence to get us all talking about feelings.
In researching this blog, I remembered a grad school assignment where I wrote a one act play. In my File Explorer, I searched on the key word “act” and sorted by date. And there it was: a file titled ACT ONE and dated April 10, 1999, which would have been daddy’s 52nd birthday. In 3,214 words, I’d imagined the night my dad was murdered, what he said, and who he saw in two scenes with two characters, Johnny Burnett and his estranged wife Scharmel. There are many things I got wrong, but there are some things I got right in the details. In that file stored memories I’d forgotten, but it now served as a reliable record. I wrote everything down back then (and still do) when thoughts were fresh in my mind. I put this file and others through pioneering language analysis software (from James Pennebaker at the University of Texas at Austin) to tell me where I stood on my feelings about my dad’s death. In other words, how far had I come in seven years of grief, misery, anguish, and trying to move on and grow up. According to the analysis, the needle hadn’t really moved in the most forward-progressing direction. It’s hard to move forward when you have so many unresolved questions.
Several years ago, after several months of dating a man, I didn’t really know where I stood with him. One day, I talked to our mutual friend at a group happy hour, and he gave me eye-opening advice.
“You’re just not asking the right question,” he said.
Sitting out there on the patio facing Barton Springs Road in Austin, Texas, I asked him what that meant, and he just repeated his statement. I thought, I shouldn’t have to ask this question. I should know where I stand with this man I’ve been dating for several months. In reality, I knew in my gut where I stood and that this relationship wasn’t going to work out. However, I needed to hear the answer to my face, so there were no questions about how anyone felt when we walked away from each other. But my friend was right: if you ask a different question, you’ll get a different answer.
I have so many questions. If you are so inclined, there are articles and training available about how to ask questions – the right questions – in any situation. Naturally, I’ve given a lot of thought to my father’s demise over the last thirty years. Aside from my own questions and theories, I’ve considered other opinions and ideas. One fact we do know is this: someone got away with murder. But right now, for this blog post, I’m staying with my initial gut instinct that Scharmel killed him. But why and how did she pull it off?
When daddy arrived home to 2014 Canal Pointe that evening, was he alone or was the killer already at the house? Maybe he assumed Scharmel would be out of the house because he trusted her word when she told him she was out. He always said that when you assume, you make an ass out of you and me. But let’s assume what Scharmel said is truthful and accurate.
- Scharmel told police several times that after the divorce, she and Johnny Burnett planned to continue a relationship. “I mean, we were still going to have a relationship,” she told police, and then she doubled down saying their counselor can verify this.
- Scharmel made this claim about continuing a relationship, even though she was just caught in bed with another man and by both of their own admissions, they had sex.
- Did she know Sandra was at the Beacon Manor condo that Sunday morning when she called to tell daddy she wouldn’t fight the divorce?
- If she thought a woman was there, would that make her mad enough to ambush daddy and shoot him if she really thought they were getting back together?
- How enraged was she over the divorce?
Now, let’s assume Diane has told the truth from the very beginning, before she and daddy’s friends found his body. She said she called the Canal Pointe home at 11:30 p.m. on Sunday, July 19, and Scharmel answered the phone with one word, “hello.”
- Was daddy home yet? Was she there alone?
- Like Scharmel said, why would she pick up the phone in the middle of a murder?
- Was Scharmel’s garage door opener and security gate opener on the kitchen table like she said?
- Later in the evening, after her brother visited her at their parents’ house (where Scharmel moved), did she drive back to Canal Pointe with the idea of trying to meet daddy at his house to pick out the CDs and look for her keys just once more?
As for the police work by the Little Rock Police Department, I have so many questions. The LRPD classifies the Johnny Burnett murder as a closed case.
- What did he do and where did he go during that missing hour between dropping off Sandra Locke and making it all the way to I-30 and calling Diane on his cell phone? Why didn’t police fill in that gap?
- Did daddy stop at the liquor store that Sunday night to pick up the deposit on his way home?
- Why didn’t the police question Sam on a recorded statement? Why didn’t they question every single person who engaged with Johnny Burnett that weekend in a recorded statement?
- Why didn’t they question the gambling games in the Beacon Manor condo or potential gambling parties that went sideways?
- Why the police didn’t question Francis or Steuart or many of daddy’s other friends? There could be people who could’ve provided clues about what happened.
- According to Sandra Locke, she did not have sex with my dad. Besides the murderer, she was the last one to see him alive. Did he get out of the car and hug her or just let her get out and drop her off? What did they eat?
- How can I get access to the redacted FBI and all police files if this is a closed case?
And then there are questions for which we may never have the luxury of answers:
- What did he ever see in her?
- Was the divorce party just a disguise for what she really had been planning?
- What has Johnny done? ~said a friend at his wedding to Scharmel
What questions do you have? Tell me in the comments!