As the investigation into the still-unsolved murder of Stephen Smith continues, this news outlet has been releasing case files and other information obtained over the course of our extensive inquiries into this ongoing mystery.
Today, we are publishing an update on the case which includes several important files … audio interviews conducted with four individuals in the immediate aftermath of Smith’s brutal murder on July 8, 2015. These clips document several of the early leads investigators were pursuing in the hopes of finding out what happened to this 19-year-old teenager from Hampton, South Carolina.
As fictitious New York City cop Max McLaughlin said in Netflix’s The Defeated, “a crime scene is like a stove with the heat turned off.”
“It gets colder by the minute,” he added.
That makes Stephen Smith’s murder a definitional cold case … which is why we have endeavored to go back to the beginning of the investigation in the hopes of cutting through the recent sensationalism which has dominated discussion of this story.
For those of you just catching up on this saga, Smith’s body was dumped in the middle of Sandy Run Road near Crocketville, South Carolina 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 classified 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 – a 1,700-acre hunting property straddling the Salkehatichie River which until recently belonged to the Murdaugh family.
Smith’s case has attracted international attention after it was prominently featured in the hit Netflix documentary, ‘Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal.’
What was the Murdaugh family’s connection to Smith’s death? It’s not immediately clear. According to 26-year-old Buster Murdaugh – who has been accused by many on social media of being involved in the crime – there is no connection.
“These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false,” Murdaugh said in a statement released earlier this month. “I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death.”
Others close to this story – including Smith’s mother, Sandy Smith – believe otherwise. In fact, Smith wrote a letter to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in the fall of 2016 detailing the Murdaugh family’s alleged involvement.
STEPHEN SMITH CASE FILES
“The Murdaughs are probably the most prominent family in Hampton County,” Smith wrote. “Stephen had on more than one occasion mentioned to friends and his twin sister that he was involved romantically with someone from a prominent family in the county who was hiding his sexuality. He said it would shock people to know this person was gay. We suspect this could be the young man Stephen was referring to, though he never named him.”
Sandy Smith’s letter was one of the first documents we published last week in our release of case files related to her son’s murder.
Speculation surrounding the Murdaugh family’s potential connection to Smith’s murder was certainly not occurring in a vacuum. The Murdaugh name was referenced on dozens of occasions in the original 2015 S.C. Highway Patrol (SCHP) “Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation Team” (MAIT) report into Smith’s death – another document we published last week.
Indeed, it was a review of this MAIT report in June of 2021 which prompted SLED to formally open an investigation into Smith’s murder. No new evidence or information was uncovered at the time, SLED agents simply concluded upon reading this report (.pdf) that Smith’s death was a homicide.
Subsequent investigations – by SLED and various private parties – have pivoted the focus of the investigation away from immediate members of the Murdaugh family and toward other potential suspects. That does not mean, however, that the Murdaugh name is out of the mix.
Far from it …
(Click to view)
Two individuals currently viewed by SLED as persons of interest in connection with Smith’s death – Patrick Wilson and Shawn Connelly – were embroiled in various legal actions tied to the Murdaugh family in the months following the murder.
As previously reported by this news outlet, on December 18, 2015 – five months after Smith’s murder – SCHP investigators received a tip from Wilson’s self-described step-father, Darrell Williams of Varnville, S.C. According to Williams, Wilson informed him that Connelly – another Hampton County teenager – was driving a vehicle which “struck and killed Stephen Smith.”
Who told him to share this information? Randy Murdaugh – Alex Murdaugh’s older brother.
According to case notes contained in the MAIT report, Williams “stated that the reason he was passing this information on was because Randy Murdaugh told him to call.”
Both Wilson and Connelly lived in the area near where Stephen Smith’s body was found … and there is information obtained by SLED investigators which has reportedly drawn a sharper focus on them as potential suspects.
Several of these same leads were followed by producers and investigators associated with the Netflix documentary – as well as the initial legal team retained by Sandy Smith. 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.”
(Click to view)
Sandy Smith recoiled at that revelation – and parted ways with Savage shortly thereafter.
Sources close to the investigation did not dispute Savage’s characterization, however. In fact, they hinted strongly that his assessment may have been accurate. Either way, the Murdaugh name still looms large over the case.
At the time of Wilson’s “confession,” he was facing attempted murder charges. Those charges were later dropped by the office of S.C. fourteenth circuit solicitor Duffie Stone – which employed Alex Murdaugh as a badge-carrying assistant solicitor at the time. Stone followed Murdaugh’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather into office – and “served at the pleasure of the Murdaughs,” according to one Hampton historian.
Meanwhile on August 7, 2015 – a 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 – yet another Murdaugh attorney filed a separate motor vehicle accident lawsuit against Connelly.
Both actions were later dismissed by Murdaugh-friendly judges in the fourteenth judicial circuit.
Along with SLED and others, this news outlet has continued to investigate these leads – which our law enforcement sources have described as the “most promising” related to their current inquiries.
Over the course of the investigation, though, numerous rabbit holes were explored – as evidenced by the initial SCHP interviews we are publishing today.
The first file we are publishing is the SCHP interview with Stephen Smith’s twin sister – 26-year-old Stephanie Joyner. As noted in our prior coverage, Joyner was approached “multiple times by peers” who indicated the Murdaughs were somehow involved in her brother’s death.
Is that true? There is certainly a significant Murdaugh connection in her life today.
Joyner, readers will recall, has a child with Yemassee, S.C. police chief Greg Alexander – an alleged Murdaugh family “fixer” who is said to be the focus of an ongoing statewide grand jury investigation related to the family.
(Click to view)
In her interview with SCHP officers, Joyner said Stephen Smith “started coming home late” in the days before his murder.
“Just this recent Monday, he didn’t come home until two o’clock in the morning,” Joyner told SCHP corporal Michael Duncan on June 17, 2015, adding later on in the conversation that her brother had become “more secretive” in the weeks leading up to his death.
Joyner also told Duncan her brother had been involved in an “incident” at Bobcat Landing – a public boat access on the South Fork of the Edisto River just north of Bamberg, S.C.
“He got in an altercation there,” Joyner said. “Cops got called down and he was getting (in) an argument with somebody.”
That incident took place over the July 4 weekend – just days before Smith was murdered.
Joyner denied that her brother – who was openly gay – was involved as a homosexual male escort, which was alleged by Smith’s purported boyfriend, Marc Bickhardt, in an interview with Duncan.
(Stay tuned for much more on Bickhardt).
According to Joyner, Smith “joked” about becoming an escort but “never said he would actually do it.”
“I know for a fact Stephen wasn’t (in an escort service) because he never left the house like that,” Joyner insisted, seeming to contradict her earlier statements regarding her brother “coming home late” and not returning home “until two o’clock in the morning.”
Toward the end of her interview, Joyner admitted that during the last two weeks of her brother’s life she had no knowledge of where he was going or who he was seeing.
Readers will recall this news outlet reported weeks ago that Smith was engaged in what can charitably be described as “high-risk behavior” at the time of his death – 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.
Here is the full interview with Joyner …
(Click to view)
We are also publishing the audio file from Sandy Smith’s interview with Duncan.
As previously reported, Smith told the SCHP investigator her son 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.”
Sandy Smith echoed her daughters comments about Smith acting “strange” in the weeks leading up to his death – referring to him “not studying” and “playing hooky” from school. She also confirmed that Smith “joked” about “going to be a stripper” and going to “work at an escort service to make money to pay for his school.”
Here is the full interview with Sandy Smith …
(Click to view)
In addition to the interviews with his relatives, we are publishing an interview SCHP investigators conducted with David Uram of Hilton Head Island.
Uram connected with Stephen Smith after seeing an ad Smith had placed on the website Craigslist. Smith came to Uram’s residence on Hilton Head Island on the evening of June 28, 2015 – arriving at approximately 10:30 p.m. EST and leaving at around “one in the morning or something like that,” according to the divorced father of one.
“Was there any money exchanged?” investigators asked.
“No,” Uram responded.
“Okay, so it was just a … like a date?”
“Yes,” Uram said. “It was just a, how would you say it, consenting adult encounter. How’s that?”
Uram later described the encounter as a “one-night stand.”
“We had, you know, a positive experience,” he said. “We both mutually enjoyed each other’s company.”
According to Uram, he texted Smith the following morning to make sure he got home safe. Smith responded that he “had a good time” with Uram and would be interested in meeting him again “sometime in the future.”
“I had texted him a couple of times after that which he never responded to – but maybe that’s because he was already passed away,” Uram told the investigator.
Uram was contacted several weeks later by Sandy Smith, who told him she “had a feeling that there was foul play involved” in her son’s death. He told her about the Craigslist ads and advised her “there are some crazy people out there” who used the website. As for Smith’s murder, Uram told Sandy Smith he did not know what happened to her son but that it was a “remote possibility that it might be somehow related” to the ads he placed on Craigslist.
Here is the full SCHP interview with Uram …
(Click to view)
By far the most seismic of the interview files we are dropping today, though, is SCHP’s interview with Marc Bickhardt – who described himself to investigators as Smith’s boyfriend.
Conducted by corporal Duncan on July 14, 2015 – less than a week after Smith’s murder – it contains perhaps the most vivid description of Smith’s final moments alive.
According to Bickhardt, he spoke with Smith on the night of his murder and exchanged text messages with him as late as 3:37 a.m. EDT, less than half an hour before his body was found.
“The last call I heard I asked him on one of the calls, ‘hey, are you walking?’ Because he already told me he was out of gas (on) one of the calls before,” Bickhardt said. “And I (said) are you walking because I hear cars going by and his answer to me was ‘no.’ And then the call dropped.”
Bickhardt said Smith was supposed to see him that evening, but “from what I’m learning he was headed home.”
Smith never called Bickhardt back – and never responded to another text message.
Bickhardt told investigators Smith “sounded like he was drunk … he sounded like he was on something.”
Later, he added Smith said “he felt he was being followed.”
“To be honest with you the next day I was upset with him because I had later on that day – I had a deep gut feeling something happened for the simple reason the phone wouldn’t … wouldn’t even take … it would go right to voicemail,” Bickhardt told investigators.
According to Bickhardt, he and Smith were reportedly arguing over posts made to Craigslist using provocative photographs.
“He has a lot of pictures of me – and I have a lot of pictures of him,” Bickhardt said.
(Click to view)
The pictures were supposed to have been deleted due to the fact Smith and Bickhardt had gotten “serious” about their relationship.
“We were about to get … we were gonna get married,” Bickhardt said.
Midway through his interview, Bickhardt suggested “the escort agency has something to do with this” – referring to a Hilton Head Island-based service which reportedly employed Smith at the time of his death.
Evidence of Smith’s escort work was reportedly stored on an iPad.
“I’m telling you the shit’s that’s going on is off that tablet,” Bickhardt told investigators, adding later in the interview that Smith had an event planned with the agency that “was supposed to be the whole weekend … he was going to take off school and everything.”
Bickhardt further claimed Smith’s sister not only knew about his work as an escort – but helped him facilitate engagements.
“The sister has the tablet,” Bickhardt said. “(Stephen) told me the sister will do the calls and work a lot of it.”
As the interview progressed, though, Bickhardt’s inability to recall dates and times began frustrating investigators – leading to some incredibly contentious exchanges (including moments where he and Duncan were literally screaming at each other).
Bickhardt eventually told investigators that on the night he was murdered, Smith had mentioned “a couple guys in (a) pickup truck” – two “rednecks” who had allegedly harassed him at Snider’s Crossroads on Highway 63 between Walterboro and Varnville, S.C.
According to Bickhardt, Smith told him they were in a “big truck” with mud tires.
“The last time we talked that night – before the phone went down – and I said to him, ‘are you walking or not?’ … I know at one point I heard big mud tires, big mud tires,” Bickhardt said. “They’re like coming toward him or going past because they sounded loud – and they were getting louder. And that, I believe was the last time I talked to him.”
Here, in its entirety is the interview with Mark Bickhardt …
(Click to view)
So what is the current status of the Smith investigation? As I noted above, SLED appears to have zeroed in on Wilson and Connelly as the top suspects in the investigation – which was recently assigned additional resources.
As of this writing, investigators have declined to publicly exclude either Buster Murdaugh or the late Paul Murdaugh from their inquiries – despite multiple investigators telling this news outlet the agency has “proof” neither was involved in Smith’s murder.
“SLED has proof the Murdaughs were not there at the time Stephen Smith was killed,” a source close to the case told me.
Rather than publicly exclude the Murdaughs – especially Buster Murdaugh – SLED issued a statement last week pushing back against reports that it “cleared” his statement last week proclaiming his innocence.
“SLED did not approve or clear any statement made on behalf of Buster Murdaugh prior to its release,” a statement from the agency noted. “SLED was provided the statement five minutes prior to it being released to the media. As is our typical practice SLED has not released any information on potential suspects or persons of interest. The investigation into the death of Stephen Smith remains open and active.”
Count on this news outlet to continue releasing relevant investigatory files as we seek to get to the bottom of this nearly eight-year-old mystery …
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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