This news outlet has expended significant bandwidth in the hopes of uncovering the truth about the murder of Stephen Smith – a homicide many believe is linked to the ‘Murdaugh Murders‘ crime and corruption saga. An openly gay teenager from Hampton, South Carolina, Smith was a star student at Wade Hampton High School and a friend of Buster Murdaugh.
Buster is the oldest, surviving son of convicted killer Alex Murdaugh – who was sentenced to life in prison last week for murdering his wife and younger son on the family’s hunting property near Islandton, S.C. on June 7, 2021.
Smith’s body was found in the middle of Sandy Run Road near Crocketville, S.C. where it was discovered by a passing motorist at approximately 4:00 a.m. EST on the morning of July 8, 2015.
Who killed him? And why?
These questions have haunted Smith’s family for the past eight years … while simultaneously captivating journalists and documentarians who have been investigating the Murdaugh family.
Smith’s death was initially classified as a vehicular hit-and-run by Erin Presnell, a forensic pathologist at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). Presnell reached this conclusion even though Smith’s injuries – which included a 7.25-inch laceration on the right side of his forehead – were inconsistent with a vehicular strike.
There was also zero evidence of a vehicular strike on the roadway where Smith’s body was found.
“I saw no vehicle debris, skid marks or injuries consistent with someone being struck by a vehicle,” trooper D.B. Rowell of the S.C. Highway Patrol (SCHP) wrote in his report describing the crime scene. “We see no evidence to suggest the victim was struck by a vehicle.”
Another SCHP investigator who walked the scene found “no evidence of car parts or pieces” on the scene, and the location of Smith’s body in the middle of the roadway was inconsistent with a vehicular strike.
Smith’s head wound produced so much blood it was initially confused for a gunshot blast.
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As I have previously reported, SCHP troopers and investigators weren’t the only ones to express doubts regarding the “official narrative” of a vehicular strike. Following Smith’s autopsy, Hampton county coroner Ernie Washington told SCHP investigator Todd Proctor he “(did) not agree with the pathologist stating that the victim was struck by a motor vehicle.”
Still, Presnell stuck to her story – yet she offered nothing to support her claim other than the fact Smith’s body “was found in the road.”
Given the questions surrounding Smith’s death, I called for an independent forensic review of Presnell’s autopsy findings – including the exhumation of Smith’s body from its resting place in Gooding Cemetery in Crocketville, S.C.
Smith’s mother – Sandy Smith – supported these efforts.
The investigation into Smith’s death is now back on the radar in a big way after it was prominently featured in the recently released Netflix documentary ‘Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal.’
Were the Murdaughs involved, though?
Speculation about potential Murdaugh connections to Smith’s death was certainly well-founded. For starters, the “Murdaugh” family name was mentioned more than forty times during the investigation into Smith’s death – and Alex Murdaugh’s brother and former law partner, Randy Murdaugh, was linked to at least three purported attempts to manipulate the course of the original investigation.
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On December 18, 2015 – five months after Smith’s murder – SCHP investigators received a tip from Darrell Williams of Varnville, S.C. According to Williams, Patrick Wilson told him Shawn Connelly – another Hampton County teenager – was driving a vehicle which “struck and killed Stephen Smith” on the night in question.
Both Wilson and Connelly both lived in the area near where Stephen Smith’s body was found …
At the time of Wilson’s “confession,” he was facing attempted murder charges which were later dropped by the office of S.C. fourteenth circuit solicitor Duffie Stone. As regular readers are well aware, Stone’s office employed Alex Murdaugh as a badge-carrying attorney. Stone also followed Murdaugh’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather in office.
Additionally, on August 7, 2015 – one month after Smith’s death – Randy Murdaugh filed a motor vehicle accident lawsuit against Connelly on behalf of his client, Christopher Still. Less than a year later – on May 17, 2016 – another Murdaugh attorney filed another motor vehicle accident lawsuit against Connelly.
Both actions were later dismissed by Murdaugh-friendly judges in the fourteenth judicial circuit.
While those filings can certainly be explained away, the Murdaugh rumors exploded when agents of the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) opened a homicide investigation into Smith’s death just two weeks after the savage slayings of 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh and 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh on June 7, 2021 at Moselle – the Murdaugh family’s 1,700-acre hunting property straddling the Salkehatchie River on the border of Colleton and Hampton counties.
In announcing that inquiry, SLED specifically stated it was opening the Smith case “based on information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh.”
Maddeningly, that statement has yet to be expounded upon …
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SLED has reportedly made “significant progress” in its investigation of Smith’s murder, but it does not appear as though their investigation has any members of the Murdaugh family in its crosshairs.
Furthermore, sources familiar with the status of the inquiry are debunking rumors that any “evidence” – or any other information – related to Smith’s murder was obtained from Moselle in the aftermath of the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh. Those rumors are false.
The information which led SLED to open its homicide investigation into Smith’s death was contained in the original 2015 SCHP report – not anything related to the Moselle murders.
“SLED reviewed the file and agreed it was unlikely Stephen Smith’s death was attributable to a vehicular strike,” a source close to the case confirmed.
In November of 2021, Charleston, S.C. attorney Andy Savage – who at the time was representing Smith’s family – gave an interview to WCIV TV-4 in which he indicated the Murdaughs were “unconnected” to Smith’s murder and any speculation that they were involved was “unfounded.”
Sandy Smith recoiled at that revelation – and parted ways with Savage shortly thereafter.
However, sources close to the investigation did not dispute Savage’s characterization. In fact, they hinted strongly that his assessment may have been accurate.
“What if he’s right?” one well-placed law enforcement source told me at the time.
“Everyone assumed it was the Murdaughs,” one Hampton, S.C. source told me last fall. “But there were a lot of people in (Stephen Smith’s) little black book.”
Speaking of that "little black book," this news outlet recently reviewed files extracted from at least one personal electronic device purportedly used by Smith (and in his possession) at or around the time of his death. That review strongly suggested Smith was engaged in what could charitably be described as high-risk behavior at the time he was killed.
According to my sources, investigators have been digging through these files in the hopes of identifying who is responsible for his unsolved murder.
To be clear: All this news outlet wants (and has ever wanted) is for the family and friends of Stephen Smith to receive justice - and for the individual(s) responsible for his murder to be held accountable for their actions.
Smith's death was clearly no accident, and his family deserves to know who killed him ... and why.
Are we closer to achieving those objectives today than we were when SLED opened this case nearly two years ago? Yes. Will people invested in certain outcomes like where the case ultimately winds up? Probably not ...
But the job of a journalist is to follow the the truth ... wherever it leads and however uncomfortable that journey may become. Anything less than that is a disservice to the truth and to the memory of all victims of violent crimes.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR ...
Will Folks is the founding editor of the news outlet you are currently reading. Prior to founding FITSNews, he served as press secretary to the governor of South Carolina. He lives in the Midlands region of the state with his wife and seven children.
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