South Carolina police are investigating Stephen Smith's death as a homicide | Here's what we know

ByDakin Andone, CNN, CNNWire
Thursday, March 23, 2023
New details on investigation after family of Buster Murdaugh's killed classmate speak out
State authorities reopening the investigation into Stephen Smith's death after saying they found new evidence while looking into the Murdaugh murders.

Nearly eight years after his body was found in the middle of a South Carolina road, state authorities confirmed they are investigating the death of 19-year-old Stephen Smith as a homicide, putting his case back in the spotlight.

South Carolina Law Enforcement Division said it was opening an investigation into Smith's July 2015 death based on information gleaned in 2021 during its investigation into the deaths of Margaret "Maggie" Murdaugh and her son Paul Murdaugh.

The video featured is from a previous report.

The agency did not say what that information was, and there has been no connection announced between Smith's death and the Murdaugh family. But on Tuesday a SLED spokesperson confirmed Smith's death was being investigated as a homicide, saying there was no indication his death was the result of a hit-and-run, as it was originally deemed.

Alex Murdaugh, the now-disbarred attorney and scion of a family of prominent lawyers, was found guilty this month of murdering his wife and grown son at the family's rural estate in early June 2021.

Alex Murdaugh murders trial (1 of 56)

In the State Highway Patrol case file, the Murdaugh name, including that of Buster Murdaugh, Alex's surviving son, is mentioned several times, both by tipsters and in investigators' questioning of witnesses during the original investigation of Smith's death. Buster Murdaugh this week denied any involvement in Smith's death. Neither he nor anyone else has been charged.

SLED opened its investigation into Smith's death in June 2021, about two weeks after the Murdaugh killings. The agency explained that decision in a statement Wednesday, saying it did so after agents received information about Smith's death, reviewed the South Carolina Highway Patrol investigative file and found the highway patrol didn't believe Smith died in a hit-and-run.

Here's what we know about Stephen Smith's death, and the SCHP's original investigation.

Smith was found dead in the middle of the road

Smith was a nursing student described by his mother to CNN's Randi Kaye as "very vibrant."

"I'm sorry y'all missed the opportunity to meet him," Sandy Smith said, adding, "You can have a bad day and all he had to do was walk in the room and say something, and it was like your mood's gone."

Early in the morning of July 8, 2015, a motorist discovered Smith's body in the middle of Sandy Run Road in Hampton County and reported it to authorities, according to the case file from the South Carolina Highway Patrol's Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation Team, or MAIT.

RELATED: 'He was murdered': Former highway patrol Lt. recalls finding Stephen Smith's body in middle of road

Smith had suffered blunt force trauma to the head, an officer noted in the initial incident report. But, while his body was in the road -- lying on the center line of the roadway, diagrams of the scene show -- the officer saw no evidence of a vehicle accident.

"I saw no vehicle debris, skid marks, or injuries consistent with someone being struck by a vehicle," the officer noted, adding Smith's loosely tied shoes were still on his feet -- a fact suspicious to attorneys for his family, who believe they would have been knocked off. "After consulting with MAIT, we see no evidence to suggest the victim was struck by a vehicle," the officer wrote.

Smith's car was found about three miles away, according to a description of the scene by SLED agents. The door to the gas tank was open and the gas cap was hanging out, it said. The battery was functional, but the car would not start.

Smith's wallet was found inside, investigators said, calling it the "only item of interest" found with the car.

Law enforcement appeared to believe Smith's death was a homicide

The case file reveals a working theory among first responders at the scene that Smith's death was a homicide -- and not the result of being struck by a car.

One State Highway Patrol trooper, Thomas Moore, wrote in his notes that when he arrived on scene, the county coroner "immediately advised me it was a homicide," and pointed to a wound on Smith's head the coroner believed to be a gunshot wound.

A separate report by a SLED special agent similarly noted an EMS worker believed they found a projectile wound on the victim's head. Another incident report by a Hampton County Sheriff's Office deputy also wrote that, upon checking the body, it appeared the victim had been shot.

Notably, the report indicates SLED agents disagreed the head injury was a bullet wound, and no bullet casings were found. A SLED lab later found several metallic blue paint chips on Smith's clothes but couldn't determine what type of vehicle they might have come from. A SLED agent also told a MAIT investigator the paint could be from an industrial tool, dumpster or signpost.

At the time, Smith's family was given several different theories, his mother told CNN. First, she said, they were told it was a gunshot. Then a beating. Then, she said, a hit-and-run.

The theory that Smith's death was a homicide has persisted with at least one of those officers on scene: Moore told CNN affiliate WCIV he still disagrees with the hit-and-run finding.

"Before I could get out of the car good, the coroner said, 'No, no, it's not a wreck. It's a murder,'" Moore told the station. He left the scene but was later told it was a hit-and-run.

"I said no," Moore told the station. "It's not."

Investigators questioned hit-and-run finding

The determination Smith died of a hit-and-run appears to be one investigators questioned at the time. At least two challenged the pathologist who performed the autopsy about her determination, and their notes indicate the county coroner disagreed with the finding.

Moore contacted the pathologist the evening of July 8, his notes show, "to try and understand what brought her to that decision." He wrote that the pathologist told him the wound was not a gunshot wound, nor were a bullet or fragments found during the X-ray, "and since the body was found in the roadway, she could only theorize that it had to be a motor vehicle that caused the death."

When Moore pressed her about what caused Smith's head injury, he wrote, "She told me it was not her job to figure that out, it was mine."

"You're talking to a wall," Moore said in this week's WCIV interview. "They've already made their minds up."

Another MAIT investigator met with the pathologist to seek clarification later in July 2015. But when the investigator asked why the pathologist said Smith was hit by a car, the pathologist said, "because he was found in the road." She had no other evidence, the MAIT investigator wrote.

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"I could see that this conversation was not going to yield any positive results," the investigator said. "As I was leaving she stated that the report was preliminary and it was my job to figure out what it was struck him not hers."

On August 18, the same investigator spoke with the coroner, who said he did not agree with the finding that Smith was hit by a car.

Why Smith's family is suspicious

Sandy Smith has "never accepted" the theory her son was killed in a hit-and-run, Eric Bland, one of her attorneys, said in a virtual news conference this week.

Indeed, it's clear Smith's family was skeptical from the start. In an interview described in the case file, Smith's family said he would have never been walking in the middle of the roadway, where his body was found, adding he was "very skittish."

This week, Sandy Smith said her son would have walked through the woods or a nearby cornfield to get home. He also would have called a family member, like his twin sister, if he needed help, she said.

The family's attorneys also believe the lack of any debris at the scene is suspicious.

"If you strike an animal on a highway in South Carolina, vehicular debris is everywhere," Ronnie Richter said. "And the fact that Stephen's body is apparently placed in the middle of the roadway and there's no debris of any kind present really leads us to believe that that is not what caused his death."

Bland pointed to Smith's loosely tied shoes: "If you're hit by a vehicle that's going fast enough, that's going to project you, your shoes are just going to fall off under the best of circumstances," Bland said. "His were loosened, untied. So it's almost inconceivable that his shoes didn't come off" if he was hit by a car.

The attorneys also raised the possibility Smith was targeted because he was gay, telling reporters the young man "had to live a secret life."

"Being young and gay in the Lowcountry was not an easy thing to do. It's not easy today, certainly wasn't easy in 2015," Bland said. "He was proud of being gay. However, he had to be cautious. And people that have to be cautious have to be secretive."

Authorities have not commented on this theory.

The family has raised tens of thousands of dollars through GoFundMe in recent days -- money that will be used to pursue an exhumation of Smith's body and a private autopsy, the attorneys said. They plan to petition the court, as the exhumation will require a judge's permission.

The attorneys stressed their job is not to find out who killed Sandy Smith's son, but to get her answers.

"It may be that it was a vehicular manslaughter," Richter said. "That's still a crime."

Buster Murdaugh denies involvement

There's been no official link between Smith's death and the Murdaughs, aside from SLED's announcement it was opening the Smith investigation two weeks after the deaths of Maggie and Paul.

But the Murdaugh name, and the name of Murdaugh's surviving son, Buster, cropped up throughout the case. He had been a classmate of Smith's. In one witness interview, then-Trooper Todd Proctor said, "Buster was on our radar. ... The Murdaughs know that."

Why he was on investigators' radar is unclear. Neither Buster Murdaugh nor anyone else has been charged in the case.

Buster Murdaugh issued his first statement on the matter on Monday, forcefully denying any involvement in Smith's death.

"I have tried my best," he said, "to ignore the vicious rumors about my involvement in Stephen Smith's tragic death that continue to be published in the media as I grieve over the brutal murders of my mother and brother. I love them so much and miss them terribly."

"These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false," Buster Murdaugh said. "I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death, and my heart goes out to the Smith family."

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