The Friday night of the divorce party, daddy drove all over Little Rock in his black 1990 Cadillac Fleetwood, as if “In the Air Tonight” played on a looped soundtrack in the distance. Review of witness statements put dad working at his liquor store in south Little Rock and met Jim there with the list of divorce party guests. Diane said he left a message on her answering machine saying he was filling the pool at her rental property in west Little Rock and would turn off the water around midnight. Daddy told her he would fix the leak in her pool, but she wondered why he was there so late. He was also driving by his house at 2014 Canal Pointe to observe the party. And according to Scharmel, he told her he sat in his car watching them from across the canal.
Rise and shine
Some people say they want to die watching a sunrise or a sunset. Looking at that huge, blinding glow “out there” can mesmerize you with its warmth and connect you to everything. On July 18, 1992, as the sun inched above the horizon like a dot matrix printer reveals one line at a time, daddy was dealing with mountainous drama. Johnny Burnett had a lot going on that summer: a daughter leaving for college, an IRS audit, problems with a former employee, a fallout with his older brother, a broke-down boat (again), moved out of his dream house, kicked a man out of that house, going through his second divorce, and probably more we don’t know about.
And now he’s missing this sunrise, having no idea it would be one of the last.
It breaks my heart to think of him spending his last days struggling with this overwhelming turmoil, even if most of it was his own doing. It’s a lot. I want to know more and understand him, what he was going through as if he were here to share his story with me today. Back then, I wouldn’t have understood the gravity of the stress he must have been under, but I understand today. I want to know what happened to the victim, Johnny Burnett, and where I’m looking takes me to cell phone records and Scharmel’s personal notes recovered by a forensic investigator.
Based on cell phone calls, long-distance calls and witness statements, I can begin to piece together the morning of July 18 and what happened after daddy entered his home and found another man in bed with his estranged wife, Scharmel. We know a struggle ensued between the two men and a camera was involved.
I bet you’re wondering about Scharmel’s side of the story. I can only refer to what I received in the police files, which contain her statements made to police as well as her personal notes recovered from her computer by a forensic technologist.
After telling party guests at around 1:00 a.m. that the party was over, Scharmel said she went upstairs to take off her hat and remove her contact lenses.
“John Merck came upstairs a few minutes later. (I had previously dated John Merck the previous winter. The reason Johnny asked me to marry him was to keep me from dating John Merck. While Johnny and I were separated, John had been to the house to see me, and we had talked on the phone several times.),” Scharmel wrote in her notes recovered from her computer.
“John Merck and I had sex in the bed,” Scharmel wrote.
“About 5:00 a.m., I heard someone in the house. I went to open the bedroom door, and Johnny burst in taking pictures. I was not in the bed,” Scharmel wrote. “He took a picture of John Merck in the bed. I’m not sure if he ever got a picture of me or not. He said later that he did, but it may have been a threat.”
And then she gave her color commentary of the fight between the two men.
“Johnny grabbed John Merck as he was leaving, tore his shirt, and hit his nose. John Merck gave Johnny a fat lip. Johnny was pushing John Merck out the door. John was challenging Johnny to fight some more. They were calling each other ‘mother fucker,'” Scharmel wrote.
The following is an excerpt of her statement from July 21, 1992 at 9:43 p.m. at the Little Rock Police Department Detective Division.
Det. Oberle: Did your husband come home early that morning and find John Merck at the house?
Oberle: Was there a fight between him and John Merck?
Scharmel: A little bit. Not a big fight.
Oberle: Okay, did someone get a bloody nose or a busted lip over it?
Scharmel: I don’t know.
Oberle: Torn shirt?
Scharmel: I don’t know.
Oberle: Well, did you see it?
Oberle: Okay, how bad was the fight?
Scharmel: Not bad.
Oberle: Did anyone have a gun at that point?
Scharmel: Johnny told me he was so mad, he told me that he thought about bringing a gun in because he didn’t know what he’d run into, but he said he decided not to, and he left it in his car, but left the car door, I can’t remember if he said open or unlocked. But I did not see either one of them with a gun.
Oberle: Did your husband come in with a camera?
Oberle: Is John Merck married?
Oberle: Okay, did your husband take pictures?
Sometimes when I’m writing about my dad and Scharmel as a couple, I think why couldn’t they just break up and be a future cautionary tale to share over drinks with friends when commiserating about relationships? I read about the stuff they did and said to each other, and I witnessed their behaviors on my own, and both have their faults. Again, my adult perspective wants to take over and imagine daddy there, seeing this play out in his house, functioning on no sleep from the night before. Rather than imagine, I’ll let the witness statements tell the story.
The night daddy’s body was found, police questioned the estranged wife, and they questioned her brother and sister-in-law that same night, July 21, at 9:36 p.m. and 10:47 pm respectively. Cell phone records indicate daddy placed a call to Scharmel’s brother at 6:11 a.m. shortly after sunrise after he’d kicked out the stranger in his bed. Her sister-in-law answered the phone, and daddy asked to speak to the brother.
“Awakened by call from Johnny Burnett stating that he had caught Scharmel and a man (he named) naked in bed and took pictures. He recommended that I come to the house to comfort her,” the brother told police. His wife also mentioned the cell phone.
“He told J— [brother] he needed to come check on Scharmel because he was afraid of what she might do. He said he had taken photos of her in bed with a man and had thrown him out of the house,” Scharmel’s sister-in-law said in her statement to police. “J— got ready to go then decided to phone Scharmel first.”
“After hanging up, I called Scharmel and Johnny answered the phone and asked Scharmel if she wanted to take the call and she agreed. She indicated that I did not need to come down and she would call me when Johnny left,” brother said.
“She told him that Johnny was still there and not to come,” sister-in-law said.
“About 30 mins later, I called again,” brother said.
“J— called later and there was no answer,” sister-in-law said.
“He was still there, and Scharmel said not to come down. I did anyway and found his car out front, so I did not go in but returned home,” brother said.
“He decided to go in the meantime. Scharmel called and said she didn’t want us to worry. I told her J— was on his way, but if Johnny was still there, he would not stop. She said Johnny was still there. J— returned home. He didn’t stop at Scharmel’s,” sister-in-law said.
“After getting home, Scharmel called and said he had left,” brother said. “Johnny called immediately later and said he had just left and said she seemed ok and I should make my own decision about going to see her.”
“Later Saturday, J— spoke to Scharmel. He questioned her about her events. She said to J—, ‘they were lies.’ She said that she had a party at her house on Friday night. She said Johnny was there discussing the divorce on Saturday morning,” sister-in-law said.
Saturday was just beginning.