NORTHWEST ARKANSAS- Rain pitter-patters on the roof of a pawn and bait shop in Gateway, Arkansas where the population barely rises above 400.
“Maybe five businesses here,” Sharon Barnett says, peering out the window of her shop.
From the front porch, she keeps an eye on the small town she’s grown to love.
“Small town, small people, you know?” Barnett says with a laugh.
Gateway sits in the northeast corner of Benton County. It’s winding, two-lane roads creep near the Missouri border. Neighboring communities get even more desolate. Cows seem to outnumber people.
It was along one of those rural roads in early 2017, Sharon’s comfortable corner of the world was shattered.
Her brother, James Appleton, was found shot dead in his Gateway town work truck. The water employee had been shot in the face.
He was an awesome brother,” Barnett says. “I mean he’s just that type of a brother that would bend over to help anybody.”
Moments after the deadly shot, deputies at the scene needed help finding a suspect.
A name surfaced at the scene: Grant Hardin.
The name carried weight in the town. After all, he was the town’s former police chief with a polka-dotted career in law enforcement all across northwest Arkansas.
Hours after the first call went out, Grant Hardin was later seen being placed in handcuffs on dash camera footage.
“He’s certainly a very manipulative person,” Nathan Smith says.
Smith is the prosecuting attorney for Benton County who worked the case.
As evidence piled up, Hardin pleaded guilty to the murder of James Appleton in exchange for a 30-year prison sentence.
As Hardin was booked into a state prison, the Arkansas Department of Correction submitted his DNA sample into a database, which then unlocked a key to a cold case: a teacher’s rape in Rogers in 1997. It sent shockwaves through the community.
“It was proven to be Mr. Hardin beyond all scientific certainty,” Smith says.
Hardin’s DNA matched the DNA linked to the rape suspect who sexually assaulted Amy Harrison at Frank Tillery Elementary as she prepared a lesson plan for the week on a Sunday while a church service was held in the cafeteria. The case had been cold for the better part of two decades.
Hardin ended up pleading guilty to the rape in 2019.
The man who worked as a police officer, a police chief, a county constable and a corrections officer had found himself on the wrong side of the law.
“Grant Hardin, in my view and in my personal experience, is one of the most dangerous people that I ever seen for the reason that he does not at first appear that way,” Smith says. “He is a man capable of a seemingly random, horrific murder as well as a random horrific rape.”
The teacher from 1997, Amy Harrison spoke to a crowd of media members the day it was announced Hardin’s DNA was a match.
“I’m not sure that forgiveness is the word that I could use,” Harrison said at a podium. “I guess just…settled. He’s where he needs to be. I’m where I need to be, and I will move on.”
But, just 15 miles away, rain falls outside that familiar pawn and bait shop in Gateway.
“The first thought that came to my mind, I thought: It took a dead man to get a DNA.” Sharon Barnett says of her murdered brother, James Appleton.
Like the rain, tears still fall across the street from the Gateway city park where Appleton’s face is seen smiling on a plaque.
The park has been named in his honor.
“You’ve got to move on because life goes on,” Barnett says. “And, you know, the Lord is going to get us through it. He will. He’s done a good job so far.”
Watch Part 1 and 2 on KARK 4 News at 10 April 30 and May 1.