On May 29, the burned body of Chase Hardin, 31, was found in some woods along a bike trail in south Kansas City. He had been shot, dragged to the location and set on fire, police said.
The man who told detectives that he shot Hardin, 34-year-old Steven D. Stuart, is charged with two crimes in connection with Hardin’s death: abandoning a corpse and unlawful possession of a firearm. Both are relatively low-level felonies.
Hardin’s family is frustrated at the lack of more serious charges. But prosecutors say Stuart is claiming self-defense and they are hard-pressed to prove otherwise. Meanwhile, Stuart is in jail, also charged with shooting three people in a separate incident.
After being arrested in July and questioned by detectives, Stuart told police that he and Hardin had been riding in a truck together and had a dispute. Stuart said he shot Hardin after Hardin pulled a gun on him and threatened him. Then, Stuart said, he allowed two “unknown” men to dispose of Hardin’s body and threw the gun in a river, according to court records.
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Hardin’s uncle, Buster Hower, said he and other family members don’t believe the killing was self-defense. Hower said he didn’t know Hardin’s body had been burned until a Star reporter read him a police report on Tuesday.
“I’m not satisfied with that police work,” Hower said. “That just doesn’t add up. Why would they dump his body if it was self-defense?”
The Jackson County Prosecutor’s Office homicide committee discussed the prospect of more serious charges but didn’t feel they could overcome the self-defense argument at trial, said Michael Mansur, a spokesman for the prosecutor’s office.
“His story was that they were driving around doing drugs and they got in some sort of argument, and he claimed Hardin pulled out a gun and asked for the keys and the defendant pulled out a gun and shot him,” Mansur said. Some witnesses told police Hardin had been known to be armed.
The only known eyewitness to the shooting did not cooperate with police, Mansur said. “That’s all we had.”
Stuart, who in court records has listed home addresses in St. Joseph and Columbia, is also facing numerous charges in connection with another shooting on May 25. In that case, Stuart is accused of breaking into a house near Blue Valley Park and shooting three people.
According to court documents, the shooting on May 25 began in the early afternoon when Stuart arrived at a home in the 2300 block of Lawndale Avenue and began pounding on the front door. He was trying to retrieve some property that belonged to a friend, he later told police.
One of the people in the house, who knew Stuart only as “Fam,” said he was shot through the front door as he approached it.
Two other people in the house said that Stuart then broke in through the basement and shot at them. One of them returned fire and they barricaded the basement door, but Stuart returned to the front entrance and shot them, the victims said. All three survived.
A witness saw Stuart at the Lawndale Avenue home in a pickup truck with Hardin and a woman who was driving, according to police. Hardin had been arranging to buy the truck from Stuart. It was the last time Hardin was seen alive.
According to Stuart’s version of events, the three drove around as Stuart and Hardin smoked methamphetamine and had an argument. Stuart said Hardin pulled out a gun and demanded the keys to the truck, threatening to shoot him.
Stuart pulled his own gun and shot Hardin once, apparently killing him, he told police. Stuart and the woman drove around with Hardin’s body for some time before the woman stopped to make some phone calls in an effort to get rid of it, he said.
They left Hardin’s body in the truck overnight, Stuart told police. He said “two unknown males” arrived the next day and took the truck. Days later, they returned it, apparently clean with no sign of the body, he said.
Stuart said he threw the gun in a river — he did not know which one — and he and the woman later sold the truck.
Hardin’s body was found four days after the Lawndale Avenue shooting, in a wooded area along a bike trail near 86th Street and Woodland Avenue. The discovery came on the heels of news that four other homicides along trail systems in the area appeared to be connected to each other. But a Kansas City man was charged in those killings and Hardin’s death appears to be unrelated.
Hardin had had a few run-ins with the law, with convictions for burglary and marijuana possession.
His uncle, Buster Hower, said Hardin, the father of four children, had struggled with mental illness during his life. He had harbored dreams of following in the footsteps of his car racing champion grandfather but never managed to achieve a racing career.
Hardin instead became a tow truck driver, but a “terrific” one, Hower said.
Hower said he couldn’t believe Hardin would hurt anyone intentionally.
“He was one of the nicest kids I’ve known,” he said. “He had an infectious laugh. He was not a bad person.”
In June, the truck Hardin had been shot in, and that Stuart had sold, became involved in police pursuit and wrecked. Forensic testing revealed “large amounts of blood” in the front and rear passenger compartments.
Police arrested Stuart in July. Jackson County prosecutors charged him in the Lawndale Avenue shooting with three counts of assault, three counts of armed criminal action, and one count each of burglary and unlawful possession of a firearm.
As a convicted felon in a 2005 drug case in Randolph County, it would have been illegal for Stuart to possess firearms in any of these incidents.
In September, prosecutors filed the two charges against Stuart in Hardin’s death. Stuart is in custody at the Jackson County jail on a $100,000 bond.
The woman identified by police as having been in the truck with Stuart and Hardin — the only eyewitness to the shooting of Hardin — was arrested but requested a lawyer and did not cooperate with police, according to court documents.
In Missouri, the penalty for being a felon in possession of a firearm ranges from two to seven years in prison. The penalty for abandoning a corpse ranges from two to four years.