Even though Arkansas experienced a 2.3% drop in the murder rate in 1992, the number of stolen lives and set-free souls exceeded 100 by July 1. By the end of the year, Arkansas logged 258 murders with 53.5% committed using a handgun. For perspective, Austin, Texas, had 32 murders in 2019 at a pre-pandemic time when violent crime was said to be on the rise in the city. Invisible on the page of the major crime statistics report, daddy represented one of those who died by a bullet and how a little ball of lead can change someone’s entire world forever. In addition to daddy, eight other husbands were murdered in Arkansas that year.
If it bleeds, it leads
Later in 1994, the Gang Wars: Bangin’ in Little Rock documentary would debut on HBO the summer I lived with four college roommates (or five or eight, depending on which roommate you ask). We piled into the small, pre-furnished living area to watch the documentary with our friends and some of the Arkansas Razorback football players who often hung out at our unit facing the pool in the College Park Apartments complex. Crime statistics in Arkansas reveal most murders in 1992 were caused by young Black men killing even younger Black men, but gang-related murder only accounted for 5% of “murder circumstances.” Daddy wasn’t killed by a gang member, but I remember the rumors and theories about his murder began fast and accelerated as I began my freshman year at the University of Arkansas as no arrest had been made, and the news loved to ask the question: Who killed Johnny Burnett?
According to statistics for murder circumstances, “Other” equaled 6%, “Romantic Triangle” equated to 9%, “Arguments” led to 21% of the murders and a whopping “Unknown” represented 26%. I’m not sure which circumstance applies to daddy’s murder, but on that hot Tuesday, July 21 evening, the news media couldn’t wait to run the story about a local businessman being found dead in his home. While the adage “no news is good news” really speaks to me, daddy thought there was no such thing as bad publicity. It’s too bad the “#1 Not Yet World Famous” pool salesman wasn’t around to watch his name get a little more famous. Some might say he was watching with me in spirit, but I hope he haunted and tormented his killer in whatever way he was able. Daddy’s murder led the news that night and for many nights after.
You might also remember the summer of 1992 saw Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton’s presidential race heat up and revived Fleetwood Mac’s 1977 hit “Don’t Stop (Thinking About Tomorrow).” Hot off his appearance playing tenor saxophone on The Arsenio Hall Show in June, Clinton’s campaign headquarters buzzed in downtown Little Rock. Daddy and Clinton attended the same high school, Hot Springs High School, although Clinton graduated a year earlier. Daddy used to joked about how they sat next to each other in band class.
“I was last chair alto sax, and he was first chair tenor sax,” daddy delighted in telling people.
Clinton shared the campaign headquarters office with the Ragin’ Cajun James Carville, media strategist Dee Dee Myers and communications director/spokesperson George Stephanopoulos. During the week before daddy’s murder, Ross Perot (“Can I finish?”) dropped out of the race during the Democratic Convention, so it looked like Clinton and George H. W. Bush would battle for the presidency in a traditional Republican/Democrat race (until October when Perot re-entered the race as an Independent). Clinton announced his running mate, Al Gore, during the convention. So you know his campaign staff were feverishly and most definitely combing the newspapers, including the local rags. I can just see their interns having to flip past the front-page news featuring the murder of Johnny Burnett so they could clip campaign news coverage. And let me tell you, having an Arkansas governor run for president was a big deal in the state, so to push his story aside to make room to sensationalize the murder of a local businessman is saying something.
The first time I met Bill Clinton happened 10 years before in 1982 on my eighth birthday. Daddy had to visit Clinton at an office in the Little Rock Capitol. I didn’t know the purpose of the meeting, but Clinton told me he had a little girl, too, who was about to celebrate her second birthday. At this time, Frank White governed Arkansas after having beaten Clinton in the 1980 election, but Clinton ran again in 1982 and stayed in the office until December 1992 after winning his first presidential election. To this day, I don’t know what that visit entailed because daddy was also friends with Clinton’s little brother, Roger. And that’s another story….
However, on July 20, 1992, somehow my mom expected daddy’s murder to be covered by the media, and she specifically told my high school boyfriend Tim to not let me listen to the radio or turn on the television before he drove me home (refer to Roses). She was right. Seeing dad’s murder case played out night after night for weeks and covered in the newspapers introduced a sad, new hobby for me: clipping my own news stories to keep for posterity and record televised news coverage about his death on VHS tapes. From my college dorm room, I obsessively recorded everything I could from the Little Rock news stations. A few years ago, I bought a Groupon to convert the VHS tapes to DVD to preserve the televised media coverage. White static intermittently interrupts each newscast, indicating I changed channels to follow each network affiliate. I kept a scrapbook of the news stories covering daddy’s murder. I meticulously cut out every article I could find and placed them in a floral photo album, the extent of my actual scrapbooking skills. Among other things, a child shouldn’t have this hobby. No one should. Grieving and accepting death meant one thing, but processing and trying to solve a murder produced a new level of mourning. The sad part is I am not alone, and there are far worse scenarios other people endure.
Hard to forget
I recently listened to a true crime podcast (Hell and Gone Season 2) about a murder taking place in Marshall, Ark., in 1989, 30 years before the podcast’s Season 2 launched in 2019. The original theory alleged a 16-year-old girl was murdered at a cabin in the woods, and (spoiler alert!) after 30 years of investigating a homicide, questioning people, reopening the case, and three autopsies (her parents had to suffer through burying, exhuming and re-burying their daughter three times), it turns out she had alcohol poisoning – rubbing alcohol poisoning to be specific. For 30 years, her parents looked for a murderer and somebody to blame for this travesty. They lost a child who had everything ahead of her. They lost sleep for years. They lost tears cried in sadness, anger and rage. They lost time sitting in misery, looking for blame. They lost money spent on their own investigations. Their daughter’s death completely consumed their lives for 30 years because they were looking for someone for a crime that never happened.
What would have allowed them to solve this crime and get to this ultimate ending back in 1989? When looking at the murder with fresh eyes and a new perspective 30 years later, it was like trying to re-connect the dots to figure out what happened. And that’s what led to the determination of an accidental death. In this case, the victim’s cousin could potentially be blamed for soaking the cotton balls in rubbing alcohol and providing the booze if they wanted to point fingers at anyone. And yet, like this girls’ parents, we were lucky to even have a body. If the parents had known all this time, their lives would have been so different. While they may resent and even hate their nephew for contributing to an accidental death, they would not have had to endure 30 years of looking for a murderer and thinking of murder. They would know what really happened.
But I have spent 30 years doing just that: wondering what happened. My dad was shot once in the back and left to die in his bed. No gun was ever found, so it wasn’t suicide. Despite reports of dad being hammered drunk all day on Sunday, alcohol poisoning did not kill him. I now think, what can we learn from the facts of daddy’s murder after 30 years? The case for this 16-year-old was a cold case, and the police information wasn’t freely available the way my dad‘s case is because it’s considered to be closed. For the case in 1989, it was a matter of just asking the right questions and looking at the information in front of them. They asked what those facts meant, what critical role each fact played.
Obsessing over daddy’s news coverage (and the mourning, the grieving, etc.) robbed me of time to venture out to be who Heather was going to be in the world. It robbed me of learning about me, from taking chances, from building confidence. And whether it happens to you as a kid whose brother is gunned down by gangs or if it happens to any parent who loses a child, it turns your life upside down. You never escape the grief. And you never stop asking what happened.