In May 1971 on my parents’ one-year anniversary, daddy brought home the traditional gift: paper. They lived in a small, rented apartment in Hot Springs, daddy’s hometown, and dad gave his wife loan papers to co-sign for their first boat. Surprise! Before buying a house, daddy intended on owning a boat. While mom grew up in a rural county about an hour southwest of Hot Springs and was a rodeo queen, my dad rode his motorcycle up and down the mountains of Hot Springs National Park before they met in college. He grew up water skiing on man-made Lake Hamilton with his brothers, his cousins and his friends, spraying water on unsuspecting passengers on the amphibian duck tours. For Johnny Burnett, the small former gambling town and mob vacation destination, this was home and Lake Hamilton his briar patch, his real stomping grounds.
Named affectionately Miss Carol, mom and dad spent the early seventies hauling that first little powder blue and white vessel in and out of Lake Hamilton. Mom would back in the trailer and dad would back out the boat and swing by a dock to pick her up after she parked. Despite his technical boat-operating skills, the Burnetts let as many friends pile on beyond the legal weight limits. They weren’t wrong. Piling on a boat with your best friends, some beer, good tunes and cooling off in a cove is a pretty damn good day. Johnny Burnett knew his way around the lake, and he liked being a big fish.
The first boat I remember, the next Miss Carol, gleamed in glittery brown with a cuddy cabin that always smelled like Coppertone and baby oil. My brother, Jason, and I learned to swim before we were each a year old, but the cabin served as our own little house to hide out from the grownups when it got too hot. And then one day we had a place to park the boat, and Jason and I got to sleep on a pullout sofa in our little Lakeland Lodge condominium on Lake Hamilton. But you guys, the most impressive thing to us was we had a Hungry Hungry Hippos game and Play-Doh kept there just for the lake! In second grade, I took water ski school with other kids at Lakeland Lodge, and we floated under the dock in lifejackets gossiping about who we thought was cuter on Silver Spoons: Ricky or Derek. These early landmark experiences sucked me into lake life.
So many of my Saturdays began at the lake, especially in the summertime. As we got older, the condos got more sophisticated, from Klein Shore to Beacon Manor, where I understand the last one daddy owned still prominently features some of its retro style and winning Oaklawn thoroughbreds framed to the front of the kitchen cabinets. A jukebox sat against a mirrored wall, and Jason and I would wake up to the sound of music coming from the living room. Sometimes breakfast was cereal and sometimes chopped beef and tamales dad picked up from McClard’s BBQ, which his grandmother Alice opened in 1928.
On Saturday, July 18, 1992, daddy had a lot on his mind as he drove west toward his lake life. Taking I-30 exit 111 to Hot Springs, his black Cadillac rolled through the Ouachita Mountains on Arkansas Highway 70, burning gas with wild abandon just to get to his happy place. In the interim until his divorce from Scharmel became final, daddy commuted between the pool store and liquor store in Little Rock and his eighth-floor southwest corner unit at Beacon Manor on Lake Hamilton when he wasn’t staying on the boat at the Little Rock Yacht Club. Dad’s condo overlooked the Highway 70 bridge heading toward mom’s hometown. This all sounds very fancy for a small town boy raised by a single mother.
At 2:30 p.m. that Saturday, daddy called his friend and divorce attorney Sam on his cell phone from his 32-foot Excalibur as he pulled up to Sam’s house on Lake Hamilton.
“Saturday afternoon at approximately 1430 hours, Johnny came by my residence, and I met him at the lake on his boat,” Sam said in his statement to police. “He gave me a copy of his wife’s party invitation and the photos that he had gotten from her camera earlier that morning. On one of the pictures, Johnny identified one of the white males in a picture as the white male that he had found naked in his bed. He said that his wife kept calling the unknown male ‘John.’ I turned the pictures over to Det. Watson [of the Little Rock Police Department]. Johnny marked the photo identity of the male.”
Daddy also ran into other friends on his beloved lake that day, including Emmit, who would find daddy’s body three days later.
“Saturday, Johnny was pretty down,” Emmit explained in a statement to the Little Rock Police Department. “He was telling me that he had caught Scharmel in bed with someone early Saturday morning at the house in Little Rock. He was telling me about the party that Scharmel had on Friday night at the house.” Daddy didn’t miss an opportunity to tell everyone he ran into on the lake how he saw a pickup truck near his house and decided to see if anyone was there after the divorce party.
“Johnny said he went to open the door, and he felt pressure against it,” Emmit said. “Johnny told me that he then heard Scharmel say, ‘Johnny you don’t want to come in here.’ Johnny said when he got inside, he saw Scharmel naked and a white man naked. Johnny said this is when he started taking photos of the two. Johnny said he hit the guy on the nose, and he got hit in the lip. He pointed to a small spot on his upper lip. Johnny said he made the guy’s nose bleed.”
Bobbie and Phillip, another couple of friends of Johnny, were on the boat with Emmit and his wife, Kaye. Bobbie snapped a photo of daddy showing off his fat lip. This crew met daddy about five years earlier, and the story goes that while daddy may have had the fastest boat on Lake Hamilton, Emmit’s Double E mint green and black IMP was the longest by an inch. I’ve seen my life flash before me sitting in the back of dad’s cigarette boat, my sunburned fingers turning white, gripping the side of anything stable as he hopped waves down the middle of the channel.
Throughout the day, daddy picked up friends on his boat, and this time he had plenty of room on the Act ‘N Up, Ag’n. ￼His guests included Sam and his wife Kristi plus old friends and Hot Springs locals Frances and Stueart Pennington. Daddy must have been drifting toward delirium as the afternoon sun sank into a summer sunset and he continued to drink to nurse his wounded ego, functioning on barely any sleep.
At 9:30 p.m., the Act ‘N Up, Ag’n crew met up with Sandra Locke at Margarita Bay, a popular Lake Hamilton hangout.
“Pretty much a group of people from Little Rock are always there, and you know, I was going down actually to just meet several people,” Sandra told police.
“When I first walked in, Johnny and Sam Anderson and his wife called me over there, and there was Stueart and Frances Pennington,” she said.
“I had become friends with Johnny over the summer,” Sandra continued in her statement. It was just a few weeks before when she talked to him at Margarita Bay. He mentioned he had only been married 72 days and had filed for divorce that week. He told her about the IRS audit and “just a multitude of things that happened.”
“The minute I walked up at Margarita Bay, he began to tell me about finding Scharmel after the party at the house,” Sandra said.
“You’re not going to believe what’s happened,” daddy began.