Days after the shocking double homicide of Paul Murdaugh and his mother Maggie Murdaugh, FITSNews published an exclusive report about three other deaths that have connections to the powerful South Carolina family.
One of those deaths? The case of Stephen Smith — a 19-year-old man from Hampton, S.C. who was found dead in the middle of Sandy Run Road on July 8, 2015. Investigators with the S.C. Highway Patrol (SCHP) received multiple tips in the aftermath of Smith’s death linking his untimely demise to the Murdaugh family.
Officially, Smith’s death was classified as a hit and run.
Six years later, Sandy Smith — Stephen’s mother — is still grappling with the pain of not knowing what happened to her son.
On Thursday, Sandy Smith said she received a call from an official with the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED). She was hoping to hear that they had opened a case in her son’s unsolved death.
“They called me back and said they were looking into Stephen’s case because they have to see if my family is involved in the shooting of Paul and Maggie (Murdaugh),” Sandy Smith said. “What a slap in the face.”
Sandy has been begging law enforcement officials for years to open an investigation into her son’s unsolved death. She was devastated to hear the news that she and her family were now being viewed as possible persons of interest in the savage slayings last Monday at Moselle — the Murdaugh family hunting lodge in Colleton county.
In the aftermath of her son’s death, Sandy said she’s learned that there are two different justice systems in the Palmetto State — one for people like the Murdaughs and another for everyone else.
“They just don’t care about the poor people who can’t afford to hire a big-time attorney or private investigators, Sandy said. “They just throw their cases on a shelf to collect dust.”
The Murdaugh family has loomed large in the Lowcountry for nearly a century — with three generations of its members serving as solicitor (South Carolina’s version of a district attorney) over a five-county region between 1920 and 2007. Two Murdaughs also work for the prominent Hampton, S.C. law firm of Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth and Detrick (PMPED).
SLED is continuing to cast a wide net as it looks to exclude individuals in connection with the double homicide that took place at the Murdaugh’s 1,700-acre hunting property located near Islandton, S.C. on the evening of June 7, 2021. Earlier this week, the agency opened up a tip line exclusively for the high-profile case.
Of course, the fact SLED is interviewing Sandy Smith means it is taking seriously the suggestion that the Murdaugh family may have had something to do with the death of her son.
SLED’s inquiry into the Smith family does not mean its agents believe they had anything to do with the deaths of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh. SLED is simply looking at anyone who may have had a possible motive in the case — including the survivors of a high-profile February 2019 boat crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach.
Beach died when a 17-foot center console fishing boat allegedly driven by an inebriated Paul Murdaugh slammed into a pylon near the Archer’s Creek bridge on February 24, 2019 around 2:25 a.m. Murdaugh was charged with three felony counts of boating under the influence (BUI) in the aftermath of that crash.
According to our sources, all of the boat crash survivors — and Beach’s family members — voluntarily submitted to questioning and volunteered to provide their DNA as a part of the double homicide investigation. A source close to the family also told FITSNews that the Beaches have not been questioned again since providing their statements and DNA.
SLED is investigating every angle in the Murdaugh case — something that Sandy wishes they would have done with Stephen’s death six years ago.
In fairness, SLED didn’t investigate Stephen’s case because it was dubiously ruled a hit and run. No homicide investigation was ever opened, and no referral was ever made to the agency in the case.
Sandy Smith was told that if she wanted her son’s case to be looked at by SLED, she would have to write a letter.
What Happened to Stephen Smith?
Like the probe of the 2019 boat crash that killed Mallory Beach, the 2015 investigation into Smith’s death was chaotic from the beginning — clouded by jurisdictional confusion and suspicions of investigative interference.
Smith was found dead just before 4:00 a.m. EDT on July 8, 2015.
Crime scene photos obtained by FITSNews are horrific — Stephen’s entire face was covered in blood that cascaded from a 7.25-inch gaping hole on the right side of his forehead. His head was misshapen by blunt force.
Someone just left him in the middle of the road to die …
Stephen’s massive head wound — along with the lack of other significant injuries on his body — stumped investigators on scene. His right shoulder was partially dislocated. Cuts and bruises dotted his right hand. His loosely tied shoes were still on and his clothes appeared untouched. His phone and keys were still in his pocket.
Investigators found Smith’s car three miles away on the side of Bamberg Highway. His wallet was inside the car. SCHP detectives noted the car’s gas cap was unscrewed and hanging outside of the gas cap door. Law enforcement officers believed Smith ran out of gas and started walking home before he was killed.
Officials couldn’t nail down a cause or manner of death. At first, they thought it was a hit and run. Then, the coroner ruled the death a shooting homicide — forcing investigators to search the rural road carved between a tree line and a corn field.
In their search, investigators from SCHP, the Hampton County sheriff’s office, and SLED found virtually no evidence — no bullets, no gunshot residue, no tire marks, no debris from a vehicle.
Hours later, a pathologist at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) — Dr. Erin Presnell — ruled that Stephen was killed in a hit-and-run accident, a decision which was met with confusion and skepticism by investigators and those who knew Stephen.
Investigators theorized that the mirror of a semi-truck hit Stephen’s head.
This decision to rule his death a hit-and-run appeared to skew the investigation by SCHP’s Multi-disciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT) – who typically investigate accidents, not murders.
In a report (below) by Todd Proctor, a MAIT detective for SCHP, it was clear that investigators didn’t agree with the pathologist’s conclusion to rule the death a hit and run.AUTOPSYSMITH
It was also clear from the report that there was tension between Presnell and SCHP. He said another investigator “had already had, from (his) understanding a heated conversation with her about this issue.”
On July 22, 2015, Proctor visited Presnell at MUSC to “get some sort of clarification” on the Smith case.
Proctor wrote that Presnell spoke in a “negative tone” and “basically called (him) a liar” when he said that he’d already spoken to Hampton County Coroner Ernie Washington.
“I asked her why she stated that in the report and her answer was ‘because he was found in the road,'” Proctor wrote. “She had no evidence other than that for the statement being put in the report.”
Proctor said that he explained to her that law enforcement officers “had no evidence of this individual being struck by a vehicle.”
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“As I was leaving she stated that the report was preliminary and it was my job to figure out what struck him, not hers,” Proctor wrote.
In August 2015, the coroner told Proctor that he did not agree with the final autopsy results in the Stephen Smith case.
The final autopsy report said that Stephen’s cause of death was blunt head trauma, motor vehicle crash, pedestrian vs. vehicle. It said the manner of death (which is either homicide, accident, natural, suicide, or undetermined) was still undetermined.COroner
“The pathologist also states in the report, that in light of historical information along with the autopsy, these conclusions were made,” Proctor wrote. “To what historical information she possessed, I am unaware.”
Proctor then spoke with Kelly Greene, Hampton County deputy coroner and a SLED agent — who both attended the autopsy — and said they didn’t make any reference to the pathologist about the victim being struck by a vehicle, only that he was found in the road.
Proctor also wrote in his report that Greene was fired sometime between July 22 – August 18 2019. According to the autopsy, Greene was responsible for evidence transfer in the case.
Stephen’s friends and family also disputed the autopsy report. Stephen was sharp and hyper-aware of his surroundings.A toxicology report showed that Stephen was completely sober at the time of his death.
“Stephen was not stupid,” Stephen’s friend told FITSNews. “There is no way that would happen to him. He would not let a car, let alone a truck, get close enough to hit him. That did not happen to my friend. He doesn’t deserve that. He doesn’t deserve people to think that.”
Stephen was beloved. He was an openly gay young man in the small town of Hampton, South Carolina, which wasn’t easy, but he made the best of it, his friends told FITSNews. He was bright and determined to make a better life for himself. He was in school for nursing at the time of his death.
The Murdaugh name was mentioned over 40 times throughout the course of the investigation – which went cold less than a year after Smith was killed.
To be fair, police appeared to be pursuing other persons of interest as well and never named anyone as a suspect.
According to the investigation file, Buster was rumored to have been linked to Stephen — intimately — but detectives never proved this connection. It’s also unclear if the MAIT team ever examined Stephen’s phone, which was tossed between agencies before it was finally unlocked by the FBI several years after his death.
After interviewing several sources who knew the Murdaugh brothers, SCHP detective Proctor made some significant assessments of the family. FITSNews obtained all audio from the investigation file.
“I think it’s a situation when you grow up and your family is kinda high-profile and you get away with some things because of your family name,” Proctor said in 2015. “You become invincible in a way and you get a little liquor and you think you’re untouchable.”
Keep in mind, this is years before Paul Murdaugh was charged with three felonies in the boat crash that killed Mallory Beach.
At another point in the investigation, Proctor appeared frustrated that local sources were hesitant and scared to speak of the Murdaughs to police.
“The Murdaughs, as big and powerful and rich as everyone thinks they are … they’re going to go on living their lives like nothing (happened),” Proctor said. “So they can play that card like they care about everyone else. No they don’t… they care about protecting themselves.”
Proctor made it clear in his reports that he didn’t believe Stephen’s death was a hit-and-run.
“We’re not classifying this as anything other than a murder,” Proctor said in an audio recording. “You go back to the Murdaugh name and their ties in that community, and that don’t matter to me… What we’ve done is take that investigation out of that and their reach… I don’t care what your name is and how much money you got.”
He then said “I’m not saying that the Murdaugh boy did it.”
“But if we’re going to be throwing out names, I’m not going to be withholding names,” Proctor wrote. “His name is going to be right there with everyone else’s name and I don’t care who knows it.”
Stephen’s Mother Begs for Help
In September 2016, Stephen’s mother — Sandy Smith — wrote a letter to lawmakers and police agencies pleading for help and claiming corruption in the investigation.
“It has been apparent from the first week of the investigation that authorities are covering up critical evidence and we no longer know who to trust,” Smith wrote.
In the letter, she said that they were told that the Murdaugh brothers were involved in her son’s death. She also said she believed that the Murdaughs’ influence extended to all realms of the investigation and was initially tainted when it was ruled a hit-and-run incident (see below for part of Sandy Smith’s letter).
She said there appeared to be missing evidence in the case — such as the DNA under Stephen’s fingernails, the clothes he was wearing, and the rape kit.
“The case was mysteriously bounced from investigator to investigator without reasons or notification,” Sandy Smith wrote in the letter. “It would repeatedly get to a certain point, then the assigned investigator would bow out, perhaps not wanting to take on Solicitor Murdaugh.”
Six years later, Stephen’s case is still unsolved. Sandy told FITSNews she’s still clinging to hope — even after Thursday’s heart-wrenching news. She is working writing an official letter to SLED. While reporters from all over the nation contacted her last week about her son’s story, she just wants the official call from law enforcement telling her they reopened the case.
“I’m tired of them putting Stephen on the back burner,” Sandy Smith told FITSNews. “Stephen’s life mattered, too.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR..
Mandy Matney is the news director at FITSNews. She’s an investigative journalist from Kansas who has worked for newspapers in Missouri, Illinois, and South Carolina before making the switch to FITS. She currently lives on Hilton Head Island where she enjoys beach life. Mandy also hosts the Murdaugh Murders podcast. Want to contact Mandy? Send your story ideas, comments, suggestions and tips to [email protected].
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