Daddy’s murder investigation continued to uncover new clues to the last moments of his life. Even as I tried to watch a VHS copy of Oliver Stone’s JFK, I couldn’t sit through it without my mind flashing to dad’s last minutes alive. Someone must have thought this was a good movie to pick up from Blockbuster to be a distraction that week. I realized I now shared a strange bond with John F. Kennedy, Jr. because now I had a dad who’d been shot and killed, too.
But seriously, someone dropped off that video like it was another sympathy casserole! Then again, no one knew what to do. And now that movie is just one of those things tied to the immediate days after daddy’s body was found.
“We were in shock,” mom wrote in her memoir stories. That’s one way to put it.
Using the word “shock” feels inadequate. It felt like a massive boulder had been thrust upon us and we couldn’t move but had to somehow stand up, carry it and survive. At least Atlas had purpose, focus, a sense of what he was there to do – to carry the world on his shoulders. We were all lost or, at best, frozen in time. Going through whatever uneasy and delicate motions that made sense to us and indicated a forward motion, my mom, brother and I ventured into new territory of what a director like Oliver Stone might call the “special world” of the hero’s journey. Our “ordinary world” no longer existed, and we had been in blind denial to not see the destruction coming.
The night daddy’s body was found, we all learned he’d been discovered lying on his back, nude, and with the bedsheets pulled up like he had been tucked in. He had one bullet hole in his back from a small caliber gun. If you’re keeping score, there are several clues here about his last moments:
- On his back: The autopsy would show evidence he didn’t necessarily die on his back.
- Tucked in: A psychopath? A disgruntled ex-con former employee? A nervous killer who was trying to rearrange the crime scene (for whatever reason)?
- Bullet hole in his back: The killer got close – close enough that daddy didn’t expect it and didn’t try to fight off his killer.
- Small caliber gun: A gun that is easier to handle for small hands.
- Found in the nude: Based on statements from two women who slept in the same bed as dad for many years, he would only be nude during sex.
The police asked mom on Sunday, July 26, 1992, at 8:15 p.m., the day after the funeral. Police were always calling the house to ask us questions.
“Johnny would never sleep in the nude,” she told the detective. “The only time he would be nude was while making love. Then he would put his underwear on. He never slept in the nude.”
“When they told me he was nude, I had no doubt he had sex with his killer,” mom would later write in her own memoirs. “First of all, he never slept in the nude. No doubt. Never did he sleep in the nude. After sex, he would always put his underwear back on before he went to sleep. He knew his killer. Johnny Burnett was not the type of man who would allow someone to threaten him with a gun or turn his back on someone with a gun.
“If he had opened the door to his killer, or if his killer had been waiting for him, Johnny would have never taken all his clothes off and turn his back for them to shoot him,” mom continued in her writing. “Most people would only take their clothes off for someone they knew. He felt confident enough to turn his back to his killer.”
The police asked Diane about whether daddy slept in the nude on Tuesday, July 21, 1992 at 7:30 p.m., shortly after his body was found.
“I have known Johnny for a long time, and we did have a sexual relationship,” Diane told police in the initial hand-written statement they took at the crime scene. “Johnny would never sleep nude. He was very adamant about putting his underwear back on. The only time he would be in the bed nude was when he was having sex. Then he would immediately put his underwear back on.”
Then again on Sept. 3, 1992, during an hour and 12-minute recorded statement, police questioned her again.
Sgt. Harrison (LRPD): Do you know anything about – I’m sure they told you his condition in the bed…
Harrison: Have you…is….
Diane: I have some thoughts on that. Uh, they said that he was what, lying on his back, and covered up but nude. Johnny always slept in his underwear, okay? He would not be caught without them. The only way he would have underwear off is to be having sex, and then the underwear would be right back on.”
And then Diane goes on to tell her theory about Scharmel:
“I thought that she [Scharmel] seduced him, got him to bed…My thinking was that they were in bed, and probably she had asked for those pictures. And he wouldn’t give them to her. And they probably had sex, and she thought she could get those pictures and he probably just flat ass unloaded on her.”
She continued with additional background: “After sex, the first thing he always did, I mean immediately, was roll over and pull out that night stand drawer and get that Halls cough drop. Johnny had a throat problem, and he said that it stemmed from his drug use years and years ago, and he had Halls in his mouth just about all the time. So, I thought, you know, he probably, you know said (inaud) to her, and he turns his back and she knows he’s gonna get that Halls, as he always does, and he just rolls over to get the Halls, and she’s got the gun under the bed and she shoots him.”
The police questioning continued, asking Diane about my dad’s sexual pre-game, like did he walk around nude for a while before sex, stuff like that. Diane responded that “he would have dropped his underwear right before he got in bed.”
They discussed the pictures again, the ones developed from the divorce party Scharmel threw just days before the murder in the same house. Diane could tell it bothered him based on the conversation with daddy when he told her about investigating the party, showing up and punching a guy.
Harrison: Probably hurt his ego?
Diane: Oh, big time! And I could tell – I know him, and I could tell he was – oh he’s – someone had got him, you know, and listen, you didn’t get Johnny Burnett.
Harrison: And he probably jumped in the bed with her to pay her back.
Diane: Honey, I know he would. I know he would.
The police asked Scharmel on… wait, I can’t find where the police asked her this. Maybe they had their reasons in the beginning or asked her in another file I don’t have access to (yet), or maybe their line of questioning was incomplete, but I can’t locate in police files where Scharmel weighed in on her dead husband’s sleeping preferences.
However, she did go into detail about her own theory about Diane. In her trial notes recovered by forensic investigators, Scharmel wrote: “Maybe Diane was angry because Johnny did not call her that Sunday night or because she thought I was there, and she killed him in a fit of rage or jealousy. Maybe she was mad because he spent the weekend in Hot Springs without her. Maybe Diane King went to the house Sunday after she couldn’t reach him by phone and Johnny let her in. Maybe she found him with another woman. Or maybe he refused to give her the attention she wanted or refused to have sex with her. Maybe she killed him in a fit of rage.”
There is one thing no one is disputing in the investigation: Johnny Burnett knew his killer.