WARNING: This post contains graphic details.
Among the friends looking for Johnny Burnett, Diane loyally persisted in her search. My brother and I called her Miss Diane. She dated daddy off and on for five years before finally ending things in 1991. Daddy and Diane remained friends even though he began a new relationship with Scharmel. By July 1992, Diane was falling in love with someone new. She had been honest with her new love about her friendship with Johnny, and he was mature about it. So when she contacted daddy earlier in the summer to help coordinate repairs for the pool at her rental property, there was no animosity.
On Monday, July 20, Diane called daddy at the office at 9 a.m. to follow up about the repairs but also to touch base with him since he never called her back the night before. One of the pool store sales managers, Richard, answered the phone and told her Johnny wasn’t at work. She thought it was unusual to not reach him at his office at this time, but she didn’t panic. She called back that afternoon to ask Richard to do her a favor and to send someone over to the house to see if he’s there.
“I already did,” Richard told her. “He wasn’t there.”
She assumed someone had a key and went inside and found nothing. She then envisioned Johnny and Scharmel reuniting and flying off somewhere tropical. That night, Diane put it further out of her mind as she spent the evening dancing with her new boyfriend at the Flaming Arrow bar, located downstairs at Quapaw Tower condominiums in downtown Little Rock where she lived.
The search party forms
Tuesday morning required more urgency. It called for some old school tactics we had at our disposal in the old days before text messaging and caller ID, when trolling people involved hang up calls and driving by someone’s house in a friend’s car. Diane called the pool store that morning at 8 a.m. and still received no word on Johnny. Around 9 a.m., she phoned her friend Mary, who dropped by Diane’s condo that morning to contemplate Johnny’s whereabouts when literally going to someone’s house to interact with them was still a thing. According to her statement to the police, Diane and Mary decided to drive around the Little Rock Regional Airport (before it was renamed to Clinton National) to look for daddy’s black Cadillac Fleetwood, testing their theory involving a tropical rendezvous. They eliminated the possibility when they didn’t find his car.
Let’s try one more thing, their hive mind decided, to really put their theory to rest. Mary called the North Little Rock School District and asked to speak to Scharmel, who was their director of communications at the time. She answered, and Mary hung up the phone. Scharmel was at work and not off on a tropical vacation with Johnny.
Later that afternoon (around the same time mom and I were convening with Jeff at his office), Diane’s friend Bobbie called her at Quapaw Tower.
“Heather didn’t get in the house because she didn’t have a key,” Bobbie said. This bombshell stopped Diane in her tracks. She assumed someone had actually entered the home.
“I gotta go,” Diane said and hung up the phone. She dialed Sonny Burnett, whom she’d grown to know over the years. The older, greyer version of Johnny said he would get in his car right then and drive to Little Rock. Diane assured him it wasn’t necessary just yet because she would find out if someone could get in the house first before he drove four hours for a false alarm, which we were all still holding out hope for this to be the case. Diane followed up that call with one to Jeff to discuss next steps about getting into dad’s house. They both agreed: something was wrong.
Diane took the elevator up to the top floor of Quapaw Tower to visit her friends, Kaye and Emmit, in their penthouse overlooking downtown Little Rock. The couple were friends with daddy and some of the last people to see daddy alive the previous weekend in Hot Springs. They’d already heard the news and compared notes about what everyone had learned by calling daddy’s house and the pool store in the last couple of days. But none of them had driven to his house to see for themselves.
Waiting on the locksmith
Around 5 p.m., Emmit, Kaye and Kaye’s son Brandon, who was visiting from the University of Arkansas, decided to head to the house anyway and report back. Diane wasn’t ready to go and stayed home.
Driving into the gates at Canal Pointe, Emmit noticed Jeff’s car parked at daddy’s house as he approached. Jeff told them he called a locksmith, who should arrive any minute. About twenty minutes passed, and Diane was the next person to arrive. She couldn’t wait any longer at home. The five of them sat outside in the summer heat, waiting to see what would be found.
When the locksmith arrived around 5:45 p.m., he wasted no time popping open the front door. One by one, the search party entered the bright white foyer of the home. Jeff walked the few paces to the door entering the garage and did a quick open/shut. He didn’t have to say anything. They knew his car was there, and that meant Johnny Burnett was somewhere in his house.
Diane took a seat on one of the white couches (ones she helped daddy select a few years earlier), and Kaye practically sat on top of her to prevent her from going anywhere else in the house.
Jeff, Emmit and Brandon walked up the staircase overlooking the living room, up to the top where Scharmel and daddy had stood together at their wedding reception a few months earlier on April 11. For the reception, Scharmel wrote a limerick poem about their relationship and read it aloud as they overlooked the crowd of guests below. Deferring the poem performance until after her family left the party, her verses mentioned material things, like how they’d been to Cancun “but not on a honeymoon.”
“She forgot to mention the tits,” one of his friends whispered under the stairs below, meaning she forgot to mention the boob job my dad bought her. I’m pretty sure I drove her in the “Banana Boat” to the doctor to have the bandages removed. I believe she’d been to Chicago, and daddy asked me to pick her up at the airport and take her to a doctor’s appointment.
Most of daddy’s friends were stumped about his decision to marry Scharmel. Before and after their wedding, friends commented regularly on how she was so cold to them. She told one of them that after the wedding, “Johnny’s getting new friends.” Now, here in that same home were some of his oldest and dearest friends going above and beyond looking for their mate, while Scharmel continued to fax a paper trail of ridiculous messages to the pool store.
The three men entered the primary bedroom, and there he was. Daddy. Found. In bed upstairs on his back, nude and with the bedsheet pulled up to his waist. A pinkish foam had dried down the side of his cheek while escaping his mouth. Blood had pooled around him on the bed. One thing they all noticed on that hot July day was how cold the house felt, including the bedroom upstairs. The ceiling fan spun on full blast, and the thermostat dial had been pushed to the lowest setting. He was all alone and had been for almost two days.
The living room below erupted in wailing cries, like a deleted scene from The Big Chill. Cries of sad tears and disbelief, learning about the dead man upstairs — their friend was gone forever.