Lake Hamilton’s choppy waves slapped across the sides of the Act’n Up Ag’n as it hustled its way from Margarita Bay a little after 5:00 p.m. on Sunday, July 19, 1992. At 5:22 p.m., dad’s guest, Sandra Locke, borrowed his brick cell phone in a bag to call her other ex-husband, the father of her four-year-old son. She told him she’d be late picking him up in west Little Rock as she was still on the boat in Hot Springs.

“Then the engine went down in the boat,” Sandra told Det. Ronnie Smith at the Little Rock Police Department. “So, it took us forever to get back across.” After the Excalibur lost an engine, they poked along the main channel toward the north side of the lake to drop off Sam at his house. Daddy thought he’d see him again that week to finalize his divorce from Scharmel and crack open that bottle of Dom he left in the condo fridge. Even as the boat engine sputtered, this was a day he got to spend with his friends, a day he got to live the life he took such boundless joy in building. 

Last goodbyes

By the time they returned the Penningtons to their house in the cove around the corner from Beacon Manor, Scharmel had moved out of the house on Canal Pointe. According to her statement to the Little Rock Police Department, she borrowed her brother’s small red pickup truck to move the final things from the home and was out by 6:00 p.m. Sunday. On her phone call with dad earlier on Sunday morning, she told him she was moving out of the house for good that day. Scharmel claims she did not tell him he could have the house that night. But it was his home, mortgaged in his name, and built from a floorplan he’d found on a trip to Florida with his former girlfriend, Diane. Who would dare stop him?

Pulling into the private cove near the Beacon Manor boat ramp, Johnny Burnett ran into his son, Jason, and his friend, Robbie, on the Burnett kids’ jet boat. A divine coincidence brought both boats home at the same time to return to their respective boat slips. The Excalibur sounded rough and still suffering from the recent breakdown. Johnny Burnett’s last boat race against his friend Emmit on Lake Hamilton earlier that day didn’t do the engine any favors.

“Well, Johnny has to lift the boat or has a device that lifts the boat and his son kind of helped him get the boat put up,” Sandra told police. “We met them on the lake as we were going back to Beacon Manor, and they pulled in at the same time we did.”

SMITH: So, after y’all docked the boat, did his son go in the condo with y’all?

LOCKE: Uh, no. And you know, I thought that was a little strange. I thought their relationship was a little, you know, strange, to run into your kid on the lake and you not even…”

SMITH: He wasn’t a father type, was he?

LOCKE: Well, I really didn’t see him around his children, so I really can’t say. But there was, you know, just a brief encounter with his son down at the dock. He had the condo there for his son and daughter and mother, I guess.

Daddy asked if Jason and Robbie planned on spending the night at Beacon Manor in the condo with him.

“If so, I’ll pull you skiing before the sun goes down,” daddy said to appeal to the two young teenage boys. Jason told him no. The boys headed back to their condo to meet mom and never saw daddy again.

Not far behind them, daddy and Sandra made their way up the long staircase climbing the hill to Beacon Manor. While Sandra took a bath in the guest bathroom, daddy showered and made another call to Canal Pointe and received no answer. He donned purple shorts and a white shirt, which Sandra later identified laying on the floor between the dresser and the king-size bed in the primary bedroom at 2014 Canal Pointe. His shoes and clothes lay tossed aside on the floor mere feet away from where daddy’s body was found. (Click to see the purple shorts.)

On their way out of the condo around 6:45 p.m., Sandra asked daddy if he was all packed. Daddy kept “lake clothes” at Beacon Manor, so the only bags he carried out with him was the black cell phone bag on one shoulder and the black CD case on the other one. Sandra had been sure to grab it from the boat as they packed up in the boat slip. He carried Sandra’s bag like a gentleman.

“I mean, there’s no doubt in my mind he was heading straight back to Little Rock,” Sandra said. Scharmel had asked to split the CDs, and daddy told her he would bring them by, assuming her parents’ house in the Colony West area of Little Rock where she’d moved over the weekend.

Mystery hour

In 1992 before the Martin Luther King Jr. Expressway was completed to loop around Hot Springs, the drive from Beacon Manor to The Landing clocked about 15 minutes. Daddy dropped off Sandra at her black BMW 325 around 7:00 p.m. At 7:01 p.m., daddy placed a cell phone call to an unknown Hot Springs number. A security gate requiring an entry code now surrounds the lakeside condominiums at The Landing, but in 1992, I’m not sure how it was set up. Was the phone number to open the gate to enter the parking lot? Thirty years later makes figuring it out an elusive effort.

Sandra hopped in her car, got situated and headed out to stop for gas and coffee on her way back to Little Rock. The drive to her ex-husband’s house would have been 55 minutes, and he and Sandra both confirmed with police that she arrived around 8:20 p.m. to pick up their son. At around 8:45 p.m. after swinging through Backyard Burgers to get dinner for her son, she made it home to her apartment, which happened to be located on Riverfront Drive, a main throughway with the only road access to Canal Pointe. Strangely, daddy wasn’t even near his house at 8:45 p.m., even though Sandra’s perception as he drove away ahead of her was that he probably would have made it home a little after 8:00 p.m. if he had just driven straight home from The Landing. But he didn’t.

At 7:10 p.m., daddy placed a cell phone call from his Cadillac to Diane and left a message for her on her answering machine. Based on the timing information and cell phone records available to me, there is a missing hour he spent in Hot Springs. We know he finally did get in touch with Diane at 8:04 p.m. from his cell phone, which pinged the Hot Springs cellular tower. Here’s my burning question: What did he do for an hour in Hot Springs between dropping off Sandra and talking to Diane on the phone?

Drive home

That morning when dad talked to my mom on the phone he told her, “It’s over. The nightmare is finally over.” If he could just hold out until Thursday when the divorce from Scharmel would have been final, then he could put all this behind him. What delight he must have felt driving back to town that night as daddy probably contemplated his future as a bachelor. I want to tell him: Dad, I know that feeling. It’s that moment you move beyond a sour relationship and embrace something new. It’s that little victory of having an a-ha moment and realizing things are going to be okay and maybe even a little exciting. If it’s scary and exciting, you’re going in the right direction. Then you can breathe easier again, put it behind you and change the radio station to your favorite song.

Daddy drove Highway 70 heading east and then entered onto I-30 to head north to Little Rock. Benton sits halfway between Little Rock and Hot Springs. As he headed toward Little Rock later that evening of July 19, daddy made phone calls and stopped to get gas at the Pulaski/Saline County line (just north of Benton). But the thing is, the county line pings Benton towers and up until that stop, we know he made calls from the Hot Springs area. Let’s take a look at those calls:

  • 8:04 p.m.: called Diane from his cell phone; pinged Hot Springs cell phone tower
  • 8:23 p.m.: daddy called directory assistance from his cell phone, possibly for Roy Rainey
  • 8:25 p.m.: called Roy Rainey, Sr. from his cell phone about getting locks changed “on this house”
  • 8:34 p.m.: called Richard Yielding (a sales manager at the pool store) from his cell phone
  • 8:38 p.m.: daddy made a cell phone call to directory assistance and didn’t make any more cell phone calls after that; pinged Benton cell phone tower

At 8:47 p.m., daddy stopped to pay cash for gas at the Delta gas station on the Pulaski/Saline County line (it takes 48 minutes to get to gas station from The Landing). Every time I get gas, I think about how people would trace my last steps if something nefarious happened. Would they trace my debit card activity, cell phone tower pings or surveillance cameras? Would someone be able to piece together the last moments of my life based on concrete and circumstantial evidence? Would someone get away with murdering me?

Click to see the gas receipt.

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