All week, my news outlet has been releasing documents and other materials tied to our ongoing investigation into the July 8, 2015 murder of Stephen Smith of Hampton, South Carolina.
Today’s document drop is perhaps the most significant as it comes at an incredibly important moment in the ongoing investigation into Smith’s murder – which was prominently featured in the hit Netflix documentary, ‘Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal.’
“Stephen Smith’s death has haunted a South Carolina community for years – but it was a Netflix documentary, released around the same time as the double murder trial involving a prominent family, that revived attention to the case,” reporter Andrea Cavallier noted for The (U.K.) Daily Mail.
To recap: Smith’s body was dumped in the middle of Sandy Run Road near Crocketville, S.C. in the early morning hours of July 8, 2015 – where it was discovered by a passing motorist (a tow truck driver) at approximately 4:00 a.m. EDT.
Initially misclassified as a vehicular hit-and-run, the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) opened a homicide investigation into Smith’s death shortly 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.
Disbarred attorney Alex Murdaugh was convicted of those killings and sentenced to life in prison earlier this month.
There has been a lot of discussion as to what prompted SLED to open that homicide probe. Today, the public will get to view the file that led them to do so … the original 2015 S.C. Highway Patrol (SCHP) “Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation Team” (MAIT) report into Smith’s death.
Contrary to popular perception, SLED’s investigation into Stephen Smith’s death was not based on any evidence or information obtained at Moselle – but rather the agency obtaining a copy of the MAIT report.
“Anyone who reads that file knows it was not a hit-and-run,” one law enforcement source told me this week. “But even if it was a hit-and-run, it’s still a vehicular homicide.”
As you will see, the Murdaugh name is ALL OVER this case file (.pdf) … and Smith’s mother, Sandy Smith of Barnwell, S.C., has made it abundantly clear she believes Murdaugh’s son, 26-year-old Buster Murdaugh, was somehow involved in the murder.
Buster Murdaugh issued a statement earlier this week denying any involvement in Smith’s killing, decrying any suggestion to the contrary as a “vicious rumor.”
As I mentioned, the release of these documents comes at a pivotal moment in the investigation. This week, SLED chief Mark Keel confirmed to Sandy Smith that his agency was treating her son’s death as a homicide. Keel also told Smith’s new attorney, Eric Bland, that SLED was devoting additional resources to solving his murder.
STEPHEN SMITH CASE FILES
FILE 1: SANDY SMITH’S LETTER IMPLICATING BUSTER MURDAUGH
FILE 2: THE FIRST AUTOPSY
FILE 3: THE HIGHWAY PATROL REPORT
Bland and his law partner, Ronnie Richter, are running their own investigation into Smith’s death. That inquiry includes the potential exhumation of Smith’s body for the purposes of conducting an independent review of the controversial autopsy performed on July 8, 2015 by Erin Presnell, a forensic pathologist at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC).
This news outlet published Presnell’s original autopsy report (.pdf) yesterday as part of our ongoing coverage of this case.
Presnell’s findings are what led to the official misclassification of Smith’s death as a hit-and-run – effectively shutting down law enforcement inquiries into other potential causes. Presnell reached her controversial conclusion even though there was 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,” SCHP trooper D.B. Rowell 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 noted the location of Smith’s body in the middle of the roadway was inconsistent with a vehicular strike.
In light of this controversy, I have consistently supported the exhumation of Smith’s body and the independent autopsy review now being advocated by Bland and Richter. In fact I penned a column over a year ago on this very subject.
“It is abundantly clear an independent review of Presnell’s autopsy of Stephen Smith must be conducted … up to and including the exhumation of Smith’s body from its resting place in Gooding Cemetery in Crocketville, S.C.,” I wrote last February. “Such a drastic step may be the only way to start uncovering the truth.”
Uncovering the truth could lead us down some dark paths, though …
As I have noted in previous reports, Smith was engaged in what can charitably be described as “high-risk behavior,” including numerous illicit liaisons detailed in files extracted from at least one personal electronic device purportedly used by Smith (and in his possession) around the time of his death.
Bland and Richter have indicated they plan on investigating Smith’s communications in the weeks and days leading up to his murder. Will they be examining all of those files as well?
“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.”
There were, indeed …
And while SLED does not believe any Murdaugh family members were directly involved in Smith’s murder, the specter of the family’s influence still hangs over the investigation – including two individuals currently believed to be the top suspects in Smith’s killing.
(Click to view)
Smith also spent much of the weekend before he died with an individual linked closely to Alex Murdaugh and convicted fraudster Russell Laffitte – a Hampton, S.C. convenience store owner by the name of Kash Patel.
“The only people he talked about was he was hanging around … the guy named Kash,” Sandy Smith told SCHP investigators during a July 17, 2015 interview. “That was really his only friends in Hampton.”
Smith added that Patel and her son had taken a trip to Hilton Head Island shortly before his death.
“The guy named Kash that owns the (gas station) right there in Varnville,” Smith continued. “Stephen used to talk about him, they … they were all friends. It was a group of them and they would go have parties or something.”
Patel was referenced by Laffitte in a February 24, 2022 deposition conducted by Amy Hill, a Columbia, S.C. attorney appointed to help oversee Murdaugh’s financial assets in connection with a pending civil case.
According to Laffitte, he and Murdaugh would cash checks at the gas station owned by Patel’s family.
“If I needed $1,000 to cash at 10:00 (p.m.) at night, I’d say, hey, Kash, I need you to cash a check for me for $1,000,” Laffitte said during the deposition. “He would do it.”
According to our sources, Keel called Bland on Tuesday to discuss progress made in the investigation – as well as to talk about the potential exhumation of Smith’s remains.
“SLED officials have revealed that they did not need to exhume Stephen Smith’s body to convince them that his death was a homicide,” Bland and Richter said in a statement. “However, they will be present and participate in any exhumation of Stephen’s body to gather more evidence. We are committed to finding out what really happened, and getting the peace and justice the Smith family deserves.”
This news outlet is also committed to finding out what really happened to Smith – which is more important now than ever given the factionalism that has been driving public discussion of this case.
“The job of a journalist is to follow the the truth … wherever it leads and however uncomfortable that journey may become,” I wrote earlier this month. “Anything less than that is a disservice to the truth and to the memory of all victims.”
THE REPORT …full-cl-062-15-case-notes-compressed-redacted-1
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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What changed that made the MAIT report available after 6 years had passed?
and who signs off on the destruction of evidence, no matter how insignificant or trivial it seems, on a death that has not been resolved?