Sandy Smith remembers every detail about her son Stephen’s birth.
Stephen Nicolas Smith was born 2 pounds, 12 oz at 7:05 a.m. on January 29, 1996.
Unlike his twin sister who was born healthy, Stephen was given a 50 percent chance of survival.
“He overcame the odds, and he survived thanks to milkmaid who provided extra breast milk,” Sandy Smith previously told FITSNews. “He always (joked) his brain came from her.”
Stephen was always a bright kid.
“His room was a library…. Every dollar he got from chores, he’d be buying books,” Sandy Smith previously told FITSNews. “He was so smart and he always had a dream of being a doctor.”
Stephen was always studious and had plans on becoming a nurse before he could afford medical school. In fact, Stephen was in class at Orangeburg Technical College on the night before he died on July 8, 2015.
Now, more than six years after Stephen Smith was found dead in the middle of a rural Hampton County, South Carolina road, Sandy Smith still wants to know details about her son’s death — any piece of information that could help get her son justice.
But this year, when the anniversary of Stephen’s death passed, his family finally has some some hope for answers.
On June 22, 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.
“The media just wants a story,” Sandy Smith told FITSNews, referring to invasive national news outlets. “I just want justice.”
Like the probe of the 2019 boat crash that killed Mallory Beach, the 2015 investigation into Smith’s death was chaotic from the beginning — derailed by jurisdictional obscurity and suspicions of investigative interference.
As SLED begins its probe into Stephen’s death, it’s important to look back on the 2015 investigation to see what went awry.
In part one of this series, we revealed several important points of the investigation. Here’s a recap:
Evidence from the scene
- Smith was found dead just before 4:00 a.m. on July 8, 2015 in the middle of Sandy Run Road in Hampton County, South Carolina.
- No tire marks or no debris from a vehicle found on scene after several searches.
- Stephen’s loosely tied shoes were on his feet when he was found dead in the middle of the road.
- His car was found three miles away on Bamberg Highway with the gas cap off
- Chain of custody apparently was broken when Stephen’s clothes were left unattended at the funeral home.
- Stephen’s head was bruised and misshapen by blunt force. His shoulder was partially dislocated, and had no other major injuries.
Dispute about the hit-and-run theory
- Investigators on scene July 8, 2015 went back and forth between a gunshot homicide and hit and run accident
- South Carolina Highway Patrol (SCHP) officers were told it wasn’t a vehicular accident they didn’t have to be at the autopsy
- At the autopsy, MUSC pathologist Dr. Erin Presnell ruled that Stephen was killed in a hit-and-run crash.
- Two SCHP investigators who spoke with Presnell described hostile experiences with the pathologist and couldn’t get a direct answer for why she ruled Stephen’s death a vehicle accident.
- The coroner said he didn’t believe Stephen’s death was a hit and run.
- The case was given to SCHP (until 2021, when SLED opened an investigation)
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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 2
- SCHP: Investigator Cpl. Michael E. Duncan speaks with Cpl. David Rowell about the man at Bi-Lo who Sandy mentioned.
- Rowell apparently did not record this interview, like all of the other interviews
- He noted that the man at Bi-Lo said “him and Stephen had a relationship for a while but has not seen him in a while.”
- Duncan noted “there is no video from the store,” but didn’t say what he was looking for on video.
- This is the last mention of the man from Bi-Lo in the investigation files.
- SCHP: Duncan notes he is reviewing iPad download.
SLED: Letter to J.D. James of SCHP from forensic scientist Michael Moskal of SLED regarding trace evidence results:
- One black Nike short sleeve shirt: No automotive paint found
- One pair of khaki Unionbay cargo shorts: No automotive paint found
- Cutting taken from item 3: No automotive paint found
- One pair of blue Airspeed Footwear shoes: No automotive paint found
- Debris collected from items 2-4: “Several single-layer metallic blue paint chips were found. Due to the condition of the sample, no make, model and year information was able to be obtained.
- These paint chips are suitable for comparison should a standard become available.” the note says.
- SCHP: Duncan contacts Johnson. Arranges to pick up the iPhone “on Tuesday”
- SCHP: Duncan contacts Sandy Smith to get help unlocking the phone. Sandy tells him she was the secondary fingerprint. She tells him she can meet with him Tuesday in Orangeburg
- SCHP: James receives a message to call Moskal in reference to discussing trace evidence located on the deceased clothes in this case. Moskal tells him that he found around 10 1mm single-layer blue paint chips and advised that he needed more paint layer evidence to pinpoint a particular vehicle. Moskal tells James that the PDQ database tells him that the paint could be from an industrial tool, dumpster or sign post. Moskal notes that Toyota used this paint on its vehicles from 1982-1988.
- Editor’s Note on the paint chips: 1mm is very small — the width of a pencil tip. And keep in mind, chain of custody appeared to be broken on the clothes when they were left alone at the funeral home in a bag. So it’s hard to say where those paint chips came from
SCHP: Duncan picks up iPhone from SLED. Notes: “No chain of custody with the phone”
Note: this is odd, because in another SLED report it says that Duncan signed a chain of custody form on August 4 and and transferred the phone with J. Conelly of the SCHP on I-95 on August 5.
SCHP: Meets with Sandy Smith and Stephen’s relative in Orangeburg. “Unable to unlock the phone.”
SCHP: Duncan contacts one of Stephen’s friends.
- Said she talked to him around 7 or 8 p.m. the night he died
- Just talking about school. He didn’t say where he was at or what he was doing
- “He was very likeable. Not to my knowledge did anyone not like him.”
- ” I heard it was a hit and run and that it wasn’t.”
- She didn’t hear of any other rumors as to what happened
8:30 a.m. SCHP: Duncan meets with Lance Cpl. Conley and is given the iPad
9:42 a.m. SCHP: Duncan interviews Cpl. David Rowell
- SCHP put a billboard up on Sandy Run Road asking for tips in Stephen Smith’s case.
- “We haven’t really found anything that would indicate to us that it’s vehicle involved,” Rowell said
SCHP: Duncan notes he returned iPad to Stephen’s sister.
11:15 a.m. SCHP: Duncan calls Stephen’s friend — who we will call “Britney.”
Duncan says Stephen’s relative called him to say that she saw Britney at church and Britney had information about Stephen’s death. Duncan asked her to email him this information.
- Britney tells him that “another friend of mine” had texted her and asked her “Were Buster and Stephen together?”
- She told the friend “No. Not that I knew of. Why?”
- He responded that he had heard it.
- She asked the friend from whom and he said he didn’t know, just that he’d heard it.
- Duncan responds, “OK so he didn’t have anything to base that upon except for more or less a rumor, is that correct?”
- Duncan asks Britney whether she had ever heard of Stephen and Buster being together before this.
- She says she had not.
- Duncan asks to make sure that this was the first she had heard the rumor and Britney says yes
- Duncan asks Britney whether she knew Stephen was gay. She says “I did”
- Duncan asks her whether she had heard any rumors about Stephen’s death that she “just knew wasn’t true other than what we’ve been talking about.” She says no. “That’s the only thing that I heard”
- Duncan asks her if anything curious happened at his funeral or afterward that stuck out as unusual to her. She says not that she’s aware of.
- She says a boy named (we will called him “Jack“) told her about the rumor, and then
DUNCAN’S NOTES: “Contacted (“Britney”) in reference to Stephen Smith death…. States a boy named (” Jack”) ask if Stephen and Buster Murdaugh ever had any type of relationship.”
SCHP: Duncan calls Jack and leaves a message
- SCHP: Duncan notes Jack’s father has called him and wants to know what is going on. Says Jack will call him later.
Aug. 11, 2015
10:35 a.m. SCHP: Jack calls Duncan.
- Duncan tells Jack that he knows he sent a text to Britney.
- Jack knows Stephen (he confirms)
- Duncan asked if Buster Murdaugh had any relationship with Stephen. Said he had heard it.
- Jack said “I’ve heard the rumor.”
- Do you know any info if that’s true or not? “Not at all.
- When asked if he knows anything about about Stephen’s death, Jack says “No sir, not at all.”
- Jack said that’s the only rumor he’s heard in relation to Stephen’s death.
Editor’s note: While doing a basic background search on Jack, we noticed that he was facing two different lawsuits from the Murdaugh’s law firm. Attorney John E. Parker — a powerful, well-known firm partner — filed two car accident lawsuits against Jack in late July 2015. They were both dismissed in 2016.
SCHP: Duncan notes that he continues to look through information downloaded from Smith’s iPad. “Still trying to get a timeline. No new information.” The iPad “was at Orangeburg Tech the night before his death according to breadcrumbs file.”
SCHP: According to the chain of custody report, investigator Todd Proctor transferred the rape kit to another person (see below) at a location that says “TR 6a” on August 11 ,2015.
The rape kit is never mentioned again.
- 10:54 a.m. SCHP: Duncan calls the man who says he’s Stephen’s boyfriend (we will call him Mike). It goes straight to voicemail. Leaves message
- 1:10 p.m. SCHP: Duncan calls Mike. Leaves message.
- 12:05 p.m. SCHP: Duncan calls Mike. It goes straight to voicemail. Leaves message
- SCHP: Duncan calls Mike. It goes straight to voicemail. Leaves message
- SCHP: Duncan speaks to Sandy Smith. She gives him the phone number of “a person that may know some information.”
- SCHP: Duncan calls “Ben”. Leaves message
- SCHP: Duncan calls a woman because Sandy Smith said she might have information about Smith’s death. Phone rings four times. No voicemail. He never calls back
- SCHP: Stephen’s relative told Duncan that a man told her there was a green Jeep following Stephen on the he died or the day before. There is no note of Duncan ever trying to contact this man.
12:42 p.m. SCHP: Duncan interviews a man — “Ben” — over the phone. Sandy Smith told Duncan the previous day that he had information on Stephen’s death.
- Ben worked at Hardee’s in Hampton
- He went to school with Stephen, but never hung out with him outside of school
- He said a white man in his 30s and 40s came looking for him and Ben called the police and told them about it. And then his coworker said he was looking for him again. He said he knew Ben from hanging out with Stephen and him before.
- When asked if he’s heard any rumors about Stephen’s death, he said he heard that “he was running in the woods from somebody.”
- He then said he thought he was running from an older guy. (“Maybe it was some guy he was messing with and nobody knew and Stephen was going to bring him out”).
SCHP: Lance Cpl.Conley interviews a man — who we will call Joe — on Hilton Head after Sandy Smith found a day pass for a Hilton Head gated community with Joe’s name on it.
- Joe was older and recently divorced.
- He met Stephen online, but said “no money exchanged.”
- Joe said he deson’t do “this kind of thing very often.
- He said they hooked up on June 28, but it was a one-night stand.
- Joe said he texted him a few times after that and didn’t realize he passed away until he was contacted by Sandy.
Editor’s note: This is the last time SCHP contacted Joe in the investigation. They never asked this man his whereabouts on the July 8.
5:02 p.m. SCHP: Proctor interviews a man — we’ll call him “Kevin” — on the phone.
- Proctor mentions a “he-said, she-said” rumor and asks for a rundown.
- Kevin says he heard this past weekend that “certain young men” were riding down 601, saw Stephen broken down on the road, passed Stephen and turned around and “stuck something out the window,” that ended up hitting Stephen.
- He tells Proctor “I want to help you in anyway possible.”
- He said he’s heard three names.
- “I don’t want to say it over the phone,” he said about the names he’s been told
- Kevin asks to meet in person, saying he’s willing to help with anything
- Kevin says that he’s sort of “torn” because he hates going by the “he-said, she-said” situation, but that when he thinks about the situation, it “would make sense.” He says it would be worth looking into
- Proctor says he understands Kevin’s reservations about saying the name.
- Proctor tells him his office is out of Charleston and “there’s no big name in Hampton that worries me and I want you to feel at ease about this as well.”
- Proctor says that he heard “that people associated with this name” have been around “kind of not, well, kind of threatening, putting the heat on people” to keep their mouths shut.
- Kevin says he knew “this person” and went to school with him and says “it kind of all makes sense,” and that he hates being the kind of person to throw accusations out there.
- Kevin tells him he understands what he’s saying about being from Charleston but he’d feel more comfortable talking to Proctor in person.
- They make arrangements to meet in the morning.
SLED: The crime scene investigation summary from James B. Tallon III is issued.
SLED mailed crime scene photos to Inv. Perry Singleton of HCSO and Coroner Ernie Washington.
9:21 a.m. SCHP: Proctor meets up with Kevin.
- Kevin says he first heard Stephen was shot but then heard it was a hit and run.
- He says recently, in the past week, week and a half, he heard that two or three people were riding around 601 and saw Stephen on the side of the road and were messing around with him, “stuck something out the window”
- Kevin says he heard it was Buster Murdaugh. “Kind of out of character to who I knew.”
- He says the person who told him this, though, said that Buster was on drugs
- Kevin says “I hate to only be able to give you hearsay. I hate it because the main thing is whether that is the case or not the case, there is still somebody who lost a child, lost a brother, lost a family member and that’s just not right.”
- Proctor asks him who Kevin heard this from. “A fellow named (Jack’s real name).”
- Kevin says that Jack told him that Buster and (a man who we will call “Trevor”) tried to sell him cocaine at a party at Moselle
- Kevin says that Trevor just moved to Oklahoma, which he says is weird.
- “It’s just weird to me,” Kevin says. “All this, it could be a very strange coincidence but it’s just weird to me”
- Trevor was “bad on drugs,” according to Kevin.
- Proctor asks Kevin whether he thinks Trevor was in the car. Kevin says it “fits the mold”
- “There’s some part inside me that says there’s a possibility,” he says of Kevin being in the car.
- Proctor asks about Trevor moving. Kevin says he found this out through Facebook.
- Kevin gives Proctor the run-down of where he got the heard the rumor from.
- Kevin says doesn’t understand why law enforcement hasn’t gone straight to (name of guy who appears to be source of the rumor).
- Proctor says he heard that Buster and the guys were coming back from a baseball game.
- Kevin says Buster and whoever was with him were coming from the Murdaughs’ house in Moselle on 601.
- Proctor asks whether Kevin knows if Buster was driving.
- “I would imagine so,” Kevin says, adding that Kevin usually was the one to drive when his friends were driving around.
- Kevin says Buster used to drive a Suburban, but would sometimes drive a black F-150 or an F-250.
- Kevin says he has no idea who else was in the car.
DON’T MISS A STORY …
On the Murdaughs
- He says the only name given to him was the Murdaugh name and he said everyone is “shy” to say anything because of “I don’t want to say power but the name brings a certain standard with it.”
- ” I think that’s why people are hush hush about it,” Kevin says.
- Proctor says he’s heard that “they have gone to certain people” and told them to keep their mouths closed. Kevin says three people were at a party talking about Stephen’s death and another guy said “I feel nothing with come of it” and that’s how the Murdaugh name got brought up
- “I feel like they wouldn’t want anything to happen to their reputation,” Kevin said.
- Kevin has even gone to South Carolina football games with them.
- “I hate to throw names out there but then again what’s right is right, what’s wrong is wrong,” Kevin says.
- Proctor: “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 and you’re given, given, and given things. You become invincible in a way and you get a little liquor and you think you’re untouchable.”
- “I think that it happened, they freaked out and maybe it’s just trying to get covered up at this point”
- Kevin says they Smiths “deserve the truth.” “I’d want to know the truth”
- Proctor says “Buster was on our radar long before you were… the Murdaughs know that. They know he’s on our radar. What you’re telling me is valuable information.”
- Proctor then tells Kevin a separate chain of people who told SCHP about the Murdaugh’s involvement.
- Kevin tells Proctor about how the Murdaughs have “big parties” at their houses “every weekend” or “every other weekend,” including kids from Varnville and Bamberg, “anywhere you could think of.”
- “That is where the party spot was in Hampton,” Kevin says of Moselle.
- Kevin says he’s gone to one party there
- He says it’s known for “a lot of fights, alcohol drugs kind of thrown in there at the same time.”
- Kevin says when he originally heard Stephen’s death, he thought it was Paul they were talking about because he’s more the “I don’t want to say troublemaker. He’s more the ‘my last name is Murdaugh, I can do whatever.’”
- Proctor asks about Paul. “Is he 15, 16?” Kevin says Paul is either a junior, possibly a senior, in high school
- Paul used to be called “Little Paul.”
- Kevin says he was hesitant to give the names out. “I’m not scared of those people but I definitely don’t want them knowing that I had anything to do with this. I just don’t want to get into all that because Hampton is a small town”
- “I really can’t say anything bad about them,” Kevin says. “They were nothing but nice. I hate it that I have to say anything towards them. I can’t help if it’s the truth. You name can’t carry you but so far.”
Accident or Murder?
- Proctor says the way he understands it is that they didn’t go out there to intentionally kill Stephen
- “I feel very strongly about that” Kevin says when asked whether he thinks it’s an accident. He says he doesn’t believe Stephen was killed on purpose
- Proctor: “And that’s the thing. That night. If they were playing around ….” (once you start hiding it and lying it makes it worse … “How do you expect me to take mercy on you when you left this family for months not knowing what happened to their loved one”)
- Proctor says “Typically you don’t see the Highway Patrol working a murder and that’s what this is. We’re not classifying this as anything other than a murder.”
- Proctor: “There’s a reason why Hampton County Sheriff’s Office is not handling this and I’ll leave it at that”
On the rumor
- Kevin says someone at work told him that Highway Patrol was looking for “the Murdaugh kid.”
- Proctor: “I’m not saying the Murdaugh boy did it because I don’t know yet but if we’re going to start throwing out names I’m not going to withhold his name because of who he is. His name’s going to be out there just like anybody else’s name that is on my radar and I don’t care who knows it”
- Kevin says he hopes Murdaugh didn’t do it. “But when you start throwing puzzle pieces in there … it makes more sense than not”
- Proctor says “there had to be more than one” (person involved)
- Proctor says if Buster was the one driving then someone else was responsible for hitting Stephen. “It’s not all on Buster Murdaugh. There’s more people involved here.”
To hear these interviews, check out the Murdaugh Murders Podcast.
Editor’s Note: To be fair, police appeared to be pursuing other persons of interest as well and never named anyone as a suspect. The accusations in the interviews above were never proven. We are just simply showing the inquires of the investigation.
Stay tuned for part 3…
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 tips to [email protected].
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