Exactly 2,335 days have passed since 19-year-old Stephen Smith was found dead in the middle of Sandy Run Road in Hampton County, South Carolina.
And more than five months after South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) opened its investigation into Smith‘s death based on information gathered during the double murder investigation of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh, we still don’t know who killed Stephen Smith.
While we wait for SLED to release more information on the investigation, FITSNews has taken a deep dive into the 2015 investigation files over the last few months.
Here’s quick recap about what we learned in part 1, part 2, and part 3 of the investigation:
Evidence from the scene
- Police were called to the scene on Sandy Run Road in Hampton County, South Carolina, just before 4:00 a.m. Stephen was found dead in the middle of the road.
- No tire marks nor debris from a vehicle were 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.
- Evidence chain of custody was apparently 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, but he had no other major injuries.
Dispute about the hit-and-run theory
- Investigators on scene July 8, 2015 went back and forth between believing Stephen’s death to be the result of a gunshot wound and from a vehicular hit and run.
- South Carolina Highway Patrol (SCHP) officers were told it wasn’t a vehicular accident and 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 had ruled Stephen’s death the result of 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)
- The Murdaugh name was mentioned more than 40 times during the investigation.
- More than half of the people interviewed mentioned a rumor that the Murdaughs were involved.
- SCHP seemed skeptical of a man who identified himself as Stephen’s boyfriend at first, but they only interviewed him once.
- SCHP made only one attempt to contact Buster Murdaugh — whose name came up more than two dozen times in the investigation. On Oct. 20, 2015, Sgt. Todd Proctor with the SCHP called Buster, who didn’t answer. Proctor then emailed him after his voicemail was full.
- Two weeks after the Hampton County Guardian published an explosive story in which Sandy Smith said she believed powerful people were involved in Stephen’s death, the SCHP received a tip (on Dec. 7, 2015) that said “Dontereo Aiken along with another black male and a white male (Murdaugh) are the ones involved in death.”
- On Dec. 15, the SCHP received a tip from Darrell Williams, who says his stepson Patrick Wilson told him that Shawn Connelly “struck and killed Stephen Smith.”
- At the time, Patrick Wilson was being represented by attorney Cory Fleming, who was Alex Murdaugh’s best friend, for multiple attempted murder charges. Those charges were later dropped by the solicitor’s office, where Alex worked as a volunteer solicitor and Randolph Murdaugh, Alex’s father, worked as a part-time prosecutor.
- “Mr. Williams stated that the reason that he was passing this information on was because Randy Murdaugh told him to call,” Proctor wrote in his report.
- On December 21, 2015, Duncan interviewed Nick Ginn of the Hampton Police department about what Darrell Williams had told Ginn regarding Patrick Wilson. According to Ginn, Wilson told Williams that Shawn Connelly was drunk and had hit something that night. Ginn said Connelly came back the next day, saw cops and learned through the media somebody had been killed. He said Shawn called Patrick crying and told him what happened.
- Soon after Stephen’s death, two lawsuits were filed against Shawn Connelly (who was a teenager at the time) by the Murdaugh law firm.
- On Aug. 7, 2015, Randy Murdaugh filed a motor vehicle accident lawsuit against Connelly on behalf of his client Christopher Still. The lawsuit was dismissed in November 2016. Perry Buckner, a well-known friend of the Murdaughs, was the judge.
- On May 17, 2016, Neil Alger (PMPED attorney) filed a motor vehicle accident lawsuit against Shawn Connelly. That lawsuit was dismissed in September 2016.
- According to the case files, the South Carolina Highway Patrol never attempted to contact Patrick Wilson or Shawn Connelly.
In part four, we will take you through the last few actions made by the South Carolina Highway Patrol, the lead investigating agency, before the case apparently went cold in 2016, according to the investigation file.
Like almost everything else in the Stephen Smith investigation, the case appeared to end abruptly and mysteriously.
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SCHP: Video Tape Chain of Custody and Disposal
A video related to this case that was taken by trooper G.N. Hoffman was disposed of.
Why would SCHP destroy any evidence related to this case in December 2015 — when the case was obviously running out of leads and nowhere close to being solved?
- 3:38 p.m. SCHP: Proctor gets search warrant for Cellco Partnership/Verizon Wireless, Custodian of Records, 180 Washington Valley Road, Bedminster, NJ 07921
- “Description of property sought: The target phone is to be identified as having the number of (843) 605-**** and is further known as ‘target phone.’ Any and all incoming and outgoing historical call data to include cell sites, text messages to include content, identify cell site information, subscriber and phone toll information to include, but not limited to, target number, main number, account status, type of phone, subscriber name, published status, service address, billing address, other numbers, former service number, UFMI and IMSI numbers for each call from June 09, 2015 to July 09, 2015. Any and all information submitted pursuant to this search warrant shall be in electronic format unless otherwise requested.”
- “Reason for affiant’s belief that the property sought is on the subject premises: The owner of the above described cell phone was fatally wounded in an incident on or about July 08, 2015, on Sandy Run Road, within the county of Hampton, South Carolina. The uses of the phone before the incident are pertinent to the ongoing investigation. The individual was found deceased in the middle of the roadway with severe head trauma. The investigation has led to this individual not being struck by a vehicle and possible foul play. The information on the phone would help determine who the victim had contact with prior to the events that led to his death”
This is the last mention of Stephen’s phone in the case files.
- 2:04 p.m. SCHP: J.D. James and Hoffman of SCHP interview Donterrio Aiken in Varnville, South Carolina.
- Note: Other media have already reported Aiken’s name, so we didn’t change it.
- James mistakenly tells Donterrio that Stephen was killed on a Saturday night/Sunday morning. Stephen was killed on a Wednesday.
- James asks Donterrio how Stephen got killed and Donterrio misunderstands him and answers “social media pretty much”
- Donterrio tells him he found out Stephen died on Facebook because someone wrote RIP Stephen and then he saw the picture and said “oh that kid?”
- James asks whether the post said how he died.
- Donterrio says “hit by a car or something like that.” James responds “He didn’t get hit by a car.”
- Donterrio says “He didn’t?”
- James says “Someone murdered him.”
- Donterrio asks “For what?”
- James says “That’s what I’m saying. For what?” Donterrio says “That’s crazy.” James says “Why would somebody do that to him?” Donterrio says “I have no idea”
- Donterrio tells James that he never really talked to Stephen and that Stephen was their trainer on the football team. He said Stephen barely talked.
- Donterrio says he heard about Stephen’s death the Friday after it happened. James says “You know this happened on the weekend?” Donterrio says “Yeah. That’s what I’m saying” (editor’s note: Stephen was killed on a Wednesday almost a year before this interview.)
- James asks Aiken multiple times what he was doing “that weekend” (when Stephen’s death wasn’t on the weekend)
- James asks Aiken if he knows any Murdaughs, he said he went to school with a girl with the last name, and knew of a boy who graduated with Stephen.
- James: What rumors have you heard around town?
- Aiken said he minds his own business, and has just heard that Stephen was hit by a car.
- James asks about Aiken’s Hyundai Genesis and how he financed it.
- James asked Aiken if he had an attorney. He said no.
- “This is by no means a closed investigation,” James said. “So you know if something comes up in your future, you know, and we have leads that go on and we discover new information about case even if you didn’t do it, I mean if you were tied in with it and didn’t cooperate with us, you know, I don’t want to get in trouble. You know, I’m saying this is pretty bad.”
This is the last time SCHP interviewed anyone in Stephen Smith’s death, according to the case file.
Below are James’ notes on the interview from the case file.
Sandy Smith writes a letter to the FBI and other powerful leaders begging for help in the investigation.
“My family is in desperate need of your help,” she wrote. “My 19-year-old son, Stephen Nicholas Smith, was murdered on July 8, 2015 in Hampton County South Carolina. It has been apparent from the first week of this investigation that authorities are covering up critical evidence and we no longer know who to trust.”
She said that authorities flip-flopped between theories when they told the Smiths the news of Stephen’s death on July 8, 2015.
“Stephen’s father (my ex-husband who is now deceased) and I were first told that our son was shot to death after running out of gas in the early hours of the morning and exiting his vehicle,” she wrote. “Later that day, we were told it was a hit and run. Finally, investigators determined he was beaten to death.”
Stephen’s father, died suddenly in October 2015.
In the letter, Sandy described her son’s injuries in detail.
“He was attacked so violently that the entire side of his face was rebuilt with putty for his funeral,” she wrote.
In the letter, Sandy said that she was getting mixed messages from authorities in the immediate aftermath of Stephen’s death.
“Hampton investigators asked us at the time to continue to publicly say it was a hit and run,” she wrote. “They claimed they didn’t want the killer to know they were looking for him. There have been no named suspects.”
Sandy said that she told SCHP investigators about important leads “but nothing came of it.”
In the letter, Sandy pointed out several discrepancies in the 911 log, including:
- Michael Bridges of Hampton County Sheriff’s Office arrived on scene within one minute of 911 dispatch.
- The second officer, Jason Eubanks arrived within two minutes.
“This is suspicious to me because the area where my son was placed is extremely rural,” Sandy wrote.
In the letter, Sandy said investigators have failed to access Stephen’s phone — a piece of evidence that would likely shed light on a lot of the rumors in the investigation.
“At the beginning of the investigation, officers told us they would not have access to Stephen’s text messages for approximately a year,” she wrote. “They claimed they would have to send the phone to Apple to override the security features. We found out months later the phone had never been sent to Apple.”
According to the investigation file, SCHP last mentioned the phone in January 2016 when Proctor had sent a search warrant to Verizon.
Sandy said she knew her son — he wouldn’t be walking on a rural road at night like investigators theorized.
“Stephen was very skittish and would never have walked down the road in the dark, and it’s not likely he would have opened his car door to accept assistance from someone he did not know — especially alone on a dark country road,” she wrote. “His autopsy shows his toxicology reports were negative for drugs and alcohol, so I have no reason to believe he would have done something so completely out of character. “
In the letter, Sandy Smith disputed MUSC pathologist Dr. Erin Presnell’s theory that Stephen was hit by a car.
In the conclusion of Sandy’s letter — with multiple other documents from the case file attached — she pleads with the FBI to open an investigation into Stephen’s death.
“We desperately need your help,” she wrote. “This investigation is being deliberately derailed. We need someone to hold the investigators accountable and access Stephen’s phone.”
FITSNews will continue to dig into the Stephen Smith investigation. Stay tuned.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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You write “That review strongly suggested Smith was engaged in what could charitably be described as high-risk behavior at the time he was killed.”
High Risk? What does that mean? Are you suggesting Stephen was in some type of criminal activity? Drugs? Skydiving?
It’s irresponsible and borders on defamatory as it puts cloud over Stephen’s reputation and memory without any background except your opinion of alleged facts you do not share with your readers. In a story shrouded with cover ups, that is very unprofessional.