Earlier this week, FITSNews exclusively reported that South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) opened an investigation into the death of Stephen Smith — a Hampton County teenager whose death has been unsolved since 2015.
“I’ve been waiting on this day for 2,174 days,” Sandy told FITSNews. “Thank you, God!”
Sandy Smith told FITSNews that SLED is investigating her son’s death as a homicide — which is something she wishes they did six years ago.
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.
On July 8, 2015 Stephen Smith was found dead in the middle of Sandy Run Road with a 7.25-inch gaping hole on the right side of his forehead and no other major injuries.
Todd Proctor, former South Carolina Highway Patrol investigator, told Fox News this week that it looked like Stephen’s body was placed in the middle of the road.
As SLED begins its probe into Stephen’s death, it’s important to look back on the 2015 investigation to see what went awry.
The timeline (below) shows a sketch of how officials came to the decision to rule the death a hit and run — and how that decision appeared to confuse nearly everyone involved.
Even Dr. Erin Presnell, a pathologist at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC), didn’t give much information to police about what led her to decide a motor vehicle killed Stephen.
So why didn’t they investigate Stephen’s death as a homicide?
Editor’s Note: The timeline below is an outline of an investigation shared for the purpose of full disclosure as the case is getting attention from sleuths across the country. The grammar, spelling, etc. is not perfect, but the information is straight from the 100+ page case file.
This will be a 3-part series revealing the case file.
TIMELINE — Part 1
3:57:43 a.m. Hampton County Communications: A man called 911 to report seeing a white male lying in the middle of Sandy Run Road.
4:07 a.m. HCSO: Michael Bridges, of the Hampton County Sheriff’s Office, responds to scene first (although there are conflicting reports about what time he arrived).
5:15 a.m. SCHP: J.L.Booker, of SCHP, was notified by Lt. Bruce Brock, also of SCHP, of the incident.
5:18 a.m. SCHP: Booker notifies Cpl. Michael E. Duncan of the incident.
5:37 a.m. SCHP: Sgt. Moore, of SCHP, gets a call from Cpl. M.D. Allen, of the SCHP, telling him about a possible hit and run on Sandy Run Road. Allen tells Duncan that “the only injuries to the victim were around the head area.”
6:00 a.m. SCHP: Duncan, on the way to the scene, calls Booker said he was “told it appeared to be a homicide and SLED was taking it over.” Booker says he was “advised there was a possible gunshot wound to the victim’s head.
6:08 a.m. SCHP: Moore is advised by Allen that MAIT is en route and that Allen is almost at the scene. Moore leaves his home and heads to Sandy Run Road. Allen informs Moore that it is a homicide, not a hit and run. Moore tells him to make sure that the coroner and HCSO are also ruling it a homicide.
6:12 a.m. SLED: SLED Crime Scene was requested by Chief Deputy Billy Jarrell, HCSO, to assist in the investigation of a possible homicide in Hampton County.”
- James B. Tallon III and Brittany Burke, both of SLED, respond to the scene.
- The note said that “Chief Jarrell, Inv. Perry Singleton and several other personnel from HCSO were on scene.”
6:25 a.m. SCHP: Moore arrives at the scene and speaks with Hampton County Coroner Ernie Washington, who tells him it is a homicide.
- Washington points to wound on Smith’s head and calls it a gunshot wound, showing Moore the “entry point.”
- Hampton County deputy coroner Kelly Greene showed Moore photos of the body and pointed to an “entry point” on Smith’s head and also to a defensive wound on Smith’s hand.
- Moore asked Greene “if they were sure it was a homicide and their response was yes.”
- Moore advises MAIT they’re no longer needed. Moore then Walked the scene and saw no evidence of any car parts or pieces and then had all units clear the scene.”
8:25 a.m. SLED: Tallon and Burke arrive at the scene. Tallon notes that “an EMS worker stated that a projectile wound was located on the victim’s head … the HCCO moved the victim prior to SLED Crime Scene arrival.”
Tallon and Burke take photos and notes and make a sketch with measurements (see below).
“Upon entering the scene, agents observed that the scene was secured by HCSO personnel and yellow barrier tape,” the SLED agent wrote. “The victim was covered with a sheet.”
“A hole in the skull was located above the victim’s right eye,” SLED agents wrote. “It was still unclear at this time if this hole was caused by a projectile. The victim’s right arm was covered in blood and agents were unable to see any injuries.”
- SLED agents noted minor injuries to victim’s left arm, left hand and head.
- They search the area for cartridge cases. The victim’s hands were bagged.
- The coroner searches through the victim’s clothing and located a vehicle key in the victim’s front left pocket.
- The key is turned over to HCSO personnel.
- “No other evidence was located at the scene,” the SLED agent wrote.
- “Prior to leaving the scene, agents discussed their findings and completed a walkthrough with Inv. Perry Singleton and Chief Billy Jarrell,” the SLED report said.
9:18 a.m. SLED: Agents release the scene to HCSO personnel and leave.
DON’T MISS A STORY …
9:20 a.m. SLED: Agents then responded approximately 3 miles to the victim’s vehicle on the side of Bamberg Highway.
“After receiving a search warrant, agents searched the area and the vehicle,” the SLED report said. “The gas tank door was open and the gas cap was hanging on the side of the vehicle. The vehicle doors were locked. The key located in the victim’s pocket was used to open the vehicle. The vehicle was in park. The battery was functional, however the vehicle would not start.”
- They found Smith’s wallet in the car
- Singleton took the wallet, according to the report.
- “No other items were taken from the vehicle,” the report says.
9:40 a.m. SLED: Agents leave the scene of the car after doing a walk-through with Singleton and Jarrell
SCHP: Allen tells Duncan and SCHP that they are not needed at the autopsy, according to SLED and HCSO.
10:30 a.m. SCHP: Moore notes that Washington told him that this is when Joel and Sandy Smith were notified of their son’s death.
11:29 a.m. SLED: Tallon and Burke attend autopsy at MUSC. Tallon notes the weather was cloudy and 92 degrees.
- “It was determined that the wound in the victim’s head was not caused by a fired projectile.”
- “The pathologist stated that it appeared the victim was struck by a vehicle.”
- Tallon contacted Singleton to tell him SCHP would need to be contacted to investigate
- They collect the Gun Shot Residue (GSR) kit from MUSC
12:30 p.m. MUSC autopsy report: Dr. Erin Presnell begins the autopsy on Stephen.
- Cause of death: Blunt head trauma due to “motor vehicle crash”
- 7.25-inch laceration on the right side of Stephen’s forehead along with bruises on both sides of his forehead
- Right side of skull has multiple fractures, bruising and contusions
- His right eyebrow is cut
- His right shoulder is dislocated
- He has smalls cuts on the inside of his left arm
- He has cuts and bruises on his right hand
- He has cuts on his right arm, including a 6-inch irregular cut on inside of right arm
- He has cuts on his right fingers
- 12 3-inch “aggregate” of irregular to angulated abrasions on right arm
- Blood in airways
“In light of historical information and the autopsy findings, it is the opinion of the pathologist that the decedent died as the result of blunt head trauma sustained in a motor vehicle crash in which the decedent was a pedestrian struck by a vehicle,” the autopsy report says.
1:43 p.m. SLED: Agents leave MUSC and take evidence to their forensic laboratory
4:15 p.m. SCHP: Sgt. Moore is called by Cpl. David Rowell, of the SCHP, who tells him that Hampton County Sheriff T.C. Smalls called him and told him that the autopsy showed Smith’s death a result of a hit and run.
- Moore calls Smalls.
- Smalls tells him that “the doctor was ruling it a motor vehicle accident and they were turning it over to us.”
- Moore then calls Singleton and asks for “any notes or information he had.”
- Singleton tells Moore he wasn’t at his desk and would call him back in 30 minutes.
4:40 p.m. SCHP: Moore calls Washington and asks him if the hit-and-run was his ruling as well.
“He stated he would have to go with the doctor’s ruling,” Moore wrote. “I then reminded him that earlier that morning they were certain it was a gunshot wound and he told me he had to go by the opinion of the doctor.” Moore asks where Smith’s body is. Washington tells him it’s been taken to the funeral home per the family’s wishes at the time of the death notification.”
SCHP: Moore calls Peeples-Rhoden Funeral Home and speaks with a funeral home director.
- He asks the funeral home director if he has the clothing Smith was wearing and is told it was in a paper bag with the body.
- Moore instructs him to immediately stop their preparations on the body and “cover him up.” Moore tells Rowell to go get the clothing.
5:57 p.m. SCHP: Moore calls King “to advise him what was occurring.”
SCHP: Moore calls Presnell “to try and understand” what made her decide Stephen was killed in a hit and run.
“She said that it was not a gunshot wound and no bullet or fragments were found during the X-ray and that it didn’t look like a bullet wound in her opinion and that since the body was found in the roadway, she could only theorize that it had to be a motor vehicle that caused the death,” Moore’s note said.
Moore asks about any other injuries on Smith, and Presnell tells him “only a partial dislocated right shoulder.”
He asks Presnell if she found any glass fragments or any other evidence of a motor vehicle and “she stated no.”
“I then asked her why she was ruling it as a motor vehicle accident and what she thought caused the head injury,” he wrote. “She told me it was not her job to figure that out, it was mine.”
6:14 p.m. SCHP: Brock notifies Booker that “the victim did not have a gunshot wound according to the autopsy.” Booker contacts Burns and Moore “to gather further information”
SCHP: Moore calls Singleton again when Singleton doesn’t call him back. He gets voicemail. He instead calls Smalls to see if he can get the information. Smalls said he’ll call right back but doesn’t. So Moore calls Smalls again and gets voicemail.
SCHP: Moore instructs Rowell to go back to the scene and make sure the body had been marked and to start looking for debris in both directions.
- Rowell calls later and tells him “he could find no debris at all.”
SCHP: Moore calls Mitch Altman and tells him to go to the scene and see if he can find any debris.
- Altman goes to the scene and calls him back “stating he could find nothing.”
- Moore tells him to go to the scene and sit there between 3 and 5 a.m. to document what type of traffic was moving at that time in the morning.
6:30 p.m. SCHP: Booker and Duncan consult to “formulate a plan of action.”
- A SCHP flyer is made asking for tips in the case.
7:28 p.m. SCHP: King calls Moore and tells him that Brock with MAIT would be calling and tells Moore to get in touch with someone from SLED to get them to come out the next day.
8:02 p.m. SCHP: Moore talks to Booker and “explained the scenario to him.” They decide to meet at the funeral home at 9 a.m. the next day and to ask SLED to meet them there.
- Moore calls Croft to ask which agents were at the scene that morning.
8:22 p.m. SCHP: Moore calls Burke. She tells him that she and Tallon were called at 6:10 a.m. by HCSO and that they arrived on scene at 9 a.m.
Burke said she didn’t think Stephen’s injury looked like a gunshot wound. She stated they told the Sheriff and Coroner and that they didn’t believe it to be a gunshot wound. She said “they were adamant it was a gunshot wound, so they mapped the scene and began to gather evidence as they would normally do.”
She tells him they located Smith’s car on US 601 and that the gas cap was off. They found engine oil in the vehicle but could not get the car to start.
“They believed he was walking home when the incident occurred,” the report said. “Moore asks Burke if she can come to the funeral home the next morning.”
5:50 a.m. SCHP: Moore calls Rowell and Payne and tells them to go back to the scene to locate and debris or “anything out of the ordinary.”
They call him back to tell him they didn’t find anything. He tells them to meet him at the funeral home.
8:53 a.m. SLED: Burke meets with Moore at Peeples Rhoden Funeral Home in Hampton to provide documentation from the original crime scene and to transfer evidence.
9 a.m. SCHP: Booker meets at Peeples Rhoden Funeral Home with Moore, Duncan, Rowell and Burke to examine the body.
- MAIT takes photos of the body and Smith’s clothes.
- They talk to Burke about her findings.
- Moore describes Smith as “there were no visible injuries to the deceased, other than his head wound and a small amount of road rash on both arms”
SCHP: Duncan talks to Stephen’s family and they reject the ruling that Stephen would have been hit by a car.
SCHP: Moore writes “I turned the clothing over to Duncan and after a discussion by all parties as to why this did not appear to be related to a motor vehicle.”
SCHP: Moore, Rowell, Booker and Duncan go to Sandy Run Road to document the scene and “looked for any evidence at the scene for approximately 100 yards in both directions.
They find nothing.
July 10, 2015, SCHP: Stephen’s Clothes and iPhone sent to SLED
5 p.m.: Stephen’s wake is held at the Peeples-Rhoden Funeral Home chapel in Hampton on Mulberry Street East
The family keeps his casket open so that people could see what they did to him.
Hampton County Coroner’s Office: The first of 3 death certificates for Stephen Smith was issued by Washington to the family.
- Date of Injury: July 8, 2015
- Actual or presumed Date of Death: July 8, 2015
- Time of Injury: 0300
- Actual or presumed time of death: 0300
- Cause of death: Blunt force trauma (probably pedestrian in motor vehicle accident possibly struck by side mirror)
- Manner of death: Pending investigation
- How injury occurred: Subject was apparently hit by a motor vehicle possibly a truck.
SCHP: A man who describes himself as Stephen’s boyfriend (the family disputes this) was interviewed by Duncan and Rowell.
- The man says that Stephen was “harassed in his town” and said people screwed with Stephen’s car battery.
- He offers to give the officers his phone and take a lie detector test. “I’m telling you man to man I didn’t kill him.”
- The man says that he’s done a lot of drugs and had brain injuries.
- He said that Stephen was being harassed on the night of his death at Snider’s Crossroads on the way to Walterboro, South Carolina.
- He said Stephen was harassed by “Rednecks in a big truck with big mud tires.”
11:03 a.m. SCHP: Duncan travels to Hampton County and interviews a member of the Smith family at the DMV office (a substation for SCHP).
- The family member says that Stephen was recently acting secretive and started coming home late.
- Stephen’s relative didn’t believe the person who said they were dating Stephen and said the family was skeptical of him.
When asked if they’ve had been contacted by a lawyer, the family member tells police that Randy Murdaugh was the second person to call Stephen’s father after the coroner on the day of Stephen’s death. He said he would take Stephen’s case free of charge.
- The family was skeptical of Randy Murdaugh’s offer and thought it was weird.
- Duncan does not include this in his casenotes.
Stephen’s relative tells him that she just officially left the house for the first time since Stephen’s death the day before and went to the store and a bunch of people kept coming up to her saying “Did you know the Murdaugh Boys are behind it, saying Buster Murdaugh the, one we went to school with did it, and some of his friends.”
Stephen’s family member didn’t seem to believe this at the time.
“I’m just sitting here like ‘why?’ It makes no sense,” she said. “He’s never said anything bad about Stephen. He’s never been around Stephen.”
When asked who told her that she said Stephen’s friend, another kid who she named, and “a couple other people.”
Rowell did not make a note of the Murdaugh tip in his written notes.
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Shortly after 1 p.m. SCHP: Duncan calls Stephen Smith’s mother Sandy Smith.
- Sandy says she’s skeptical of the man claiming to be Stephen’s boyfriend.
- She tells police Stephen was going to school in Orangeburg and hung out at Bobcat Landing a lot recently.
- She said Stephen had been recently cutting school, which was unusual for him.
- Sandy says that Stephen was smart and a “study person” who was typically serious about school.
- Sandy mentions that a man at Bi-Lo was “giving Stephen trouble,” but they became friends
Sandy told Duncan that she heard rumors about the Murdaugh boys had something to do with Stephen’s death.
“The rumor that’s going around Hampton that everybody keeps coming up to me and saying it was Murdaugh boys,” she says.
Duncan responds “The Murdaugh boys?”
“Yes. Whoever they are,” she tells Duncan.
Duncan didn’t ask any follow-up questions and never mentioned this rumor in his notes.
July 22, 2015, SCHP: Proctor visits 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.AUTOPSYSMITH
“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.”
“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.
August 18, 2015, SCHP: The coroner tells 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 undeterminedCOroner
“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, 2015. According to the autopsy, Greene was responsible for evidence transfer in the case.
“The coroner stated that he had made contact with the pathologist, Dr. Presnell and she stated that she would be willing to change her report to read however he wanted it,” Proctor wrote.
Stay tuned for part two of the investigation file….
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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