Lesia Melendez sat down on her couch on August 11, 2018 after an outing with her husband and turned on his police scanner. Her husband, Eric Melendez, was an investigator with the South Carolina first circuit solicitor’s office and they often listened to the scanner in the evenings as they relaxed.
As they listened, Lesia recalled hearing officers being summoned to the scene of a body found on the railroad tracks near Jedburg, S.C. – at which point she said she knew. She doesn’t know how or why, but Lesia knew the body was that of her son, Daniel Reed Smith.
Lesia and Eric called everyone they knew in the law enforcement community to get more information, but they were told detectives were still processing the scene. No one was able to tell them what they knew in their hearts. So they waited. They waited for the knock on the door. Her stomach was in knots the entire time because she already knew that knock was inevitable.
It wasn’t long before officials from the coroner’s office arrived. Eric met them in the driveway and they confirmed what Lesia’s intuition had been telling her for hours.
Lesia doesn’t remember anything from the moment she saw them walking up the drive until the moment Eric pulled her shattered body off the bathroom floor. When she was finally able to speak, she asked if he was shot and authorities told her they wouldn’t know until after the autopsy. She does recall being told it looked like he was killed and placed on the train tracks.
Daniel Reed Smith was known by his friends and family as “DJ.” Lesia remembers his great sense of humor – recalling how he “always wanted to make people laugh.” His bond with his two sisters was especially strong.
“They always had each other’s back because they were all just two years apart,” Lesia said.
Lesia describes her son as the life of the party and remembers how he gave the best hugs – the kind of hugs that embrace your soul. She sighs when she recalls them, saying “no hug can replace his.”
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When he wasn’t working at his construction job, DJ could be found helping friends and family with projects around their homes. But his most cherished role was being a father. He took his young son Reed fishing and for rides down country roads sharing stories about when he grew up. He attended every school function and was proud of the young man he was raising. Lesia smiles as she recalls their relationship, “I couldn’t say enough of how much he loved Reed.”
Her smile fades and tears come to her eyes as she continues, “I’m sure Reed was the last person he thought about as they were beating him.”
When DJ’s body was found on August 11, 2018 on the railroad tracks between Campbell Thickett Road and Orangeburg Road in Dorchester County, the entire family was shattered. Authorities investigating his tragic death came to a swift conclusion that it was either an accident or suicide.
But Lesia knew something was off because, well, a mother knows…
The Dorchester County sheriff’s office handled the initial investigation, but called in assistance from the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) shortly after beginning. They also conflicted the case to the S.C. fourteenth circuit solicitor’s office due to Eric’s role as an investigator with the local solicitor, David Pascoe. But as a seasoned law enforcement professional trained in complex investigations, Eric was tracking the case closely – and growing increasingly concerned.
THE NIGHT DJ DIED …
Lesia explained to me that while DJ had issues with drugs in the past, he was more of a recreational user. She knows he certainly wasn’t perfect – but she also realizes glossing over this part of his life will not help them find the truth about how he died.
DJ spent his last night alive at a bonfire with a couple of friends at their home in Ridgeville, S.C. The investigation into his death began by interviewing the individuals at this party. These were people DJ considered his friends. The home was rented by Katherine Boyd and Ashley Adams. Dorchester County detectives began their investigation on August 20, 2018 by interviewing Adams about the events of that night.
Both Boyd and Adams reported that DJ didn’t seem like himself that night and claimed that he was “distant” that day and was on his phone a great deal. Police review of DJ’s cell phone records confirmed this, but many of the other details of that evening provided to law enforcement were varied.
The individuals at the party were all interviewed. The one consistent statement was that DJ arrived with a friend named Trevor McGhee between 9:00 and 10:00 p.m. EDT. Beyond that, though, the statements of the party-goers were wholly inconsistent.
Depending on who was asked, DJ left the party with Trevor – or with someone in a blue car – for a short time. Or, he didn’t leave at all. Depending on who was asked, there was a fight at the party between Katheryn Boyd and her boyfriend, Steve Creel. Or, there wasn’t a fight. Some said DJ was involved in the fight. Others said he wasn’t involved.
According to most attendees, a man named Steve Creel left the party with two friends – Michael Arana and Dalton Riley – around 11:00 p.m. EDT. But why he left also depends on who is asked. Creel either left because of the fight, or because he left to relieve a babysitter he hired for his son. Depending on who was asked, the three returned to the house later in the evening – or, they stayed at Creel’s home in Ridgeville.
There was zero consensus … and it was about to get even more confusing.
Trevor McGhee left the party at some point to pick up his girlfriend, whose shift at the Waffle House in Summerville, S.C. ended at 4:00 a.m. EDT. Depending on who is asked, Trevor left at midnight – or, he left at 1:30 a.m. EDT.
Trevor told authorities DJ was asleep in a chair and he shook him awake to let him know he was leaving.
What is known is at some point after midnight, DJ moved to sleep in Ashley Adams’ single bed. According to Adams, when she decided to go to bed, she woke him up and asked him to move to the couch. DJ thought he was being asked to leave the house and became upset with Adams – leaving shortly after the argument on foot.
Both Adams and Katherine Boyd’s accounts verified the argument between the two – but reports of the actual time of the argument (and DJ’s departure) vary. Depending on who is asked, DJ left at some point between 1:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. EDT. What is known is that when DJ left the party, he had a backpack and a cell phone with just three percent battery life remaining.
THE LONG WALK …
All of these varying accounts do end consistently. At some point between 1:00 a.m. and 3:00 a.m. on August 11, 2018, DJ Smith walked away from the home on Ridge Road heading towards Ridgeville with his backpack on his shoulders.
DJ’s body was found approximately 4.2 miles from the party on the railroad tracks – a short distance away from Norfolk Southern’s 28 Mile sign marker. A video captured by one train at 4:05 a.m. EDT on August 11, 2018 shows what appears to be a person between the railroad tracks. Viewing the video, one is unable to determine the position of his body, but it appears to be located between the rails and not outside them. His injuries are not indicative of the train hitting him while standing — but rather it running over him while he lay on the tracks.
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It would have taken DJ some time to arrive at the location where his body was found.
DJ’s stepfather, Eric Melendez, recently videoed his walk of this route to document how long it would have taken him to get there. The total time? One hour and 41 minutes.
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Between 11:00 p.m. EDT on August 10, 2018 and 6:30 p.m. EDT on August 11, 2018, it was determined five trains had traversed this stretch of track. However, only one of these trains was equipped with an operable video camera. That train traveled through the area at 4:05 a.m. EDT. Three photos taken from its footage showed an unidentifiable mass laying between the tracks. That train’s crew was interviewed and did not recall seeing anything on the tracks when the train traveled through the area. Through a search warrant, investigators received the schedule of trains that passed through the area during the timeframe DJ’s body would have been there.
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If DJ left the home around 1:40 a.m. EDT, it is possible he could have been at the location where his body was found, but if the time varied at all it would have been almost impossible. However, his family noted some strange inconsistencies with how his body was found including his hat – which was found in the opposite direction as he was said to be traveling.
RUMORS AND THE ABANDONED HOUSE …
As often happens in small communities, soon after DJ’s body was found the family started to hear rumors about the night he died. Then, on August 21, 2018 – a little over a week after DJ was found – a family member received a call at work from an unknown number.
The person on the other end of the line asked if she was related to Daniel Smith. After she confirmed she was, they told her they wanted to let her know they had overheard some of DJ’s coworkers discussing murdering him. They said the people alleged to be responsible drove a truck that said “Pleasant Places Landscaping.”
Eric and Lesia began receiving information from others in the community – information they shared with investigators. Much of the information they received revolved Steve Creel and the two individuals who left the party with him – Michael Arana and Dalton Riley. Creel told investigators the three returned to his residence in Ridgeville where they remained the rest of the evening.
But a cousin of Steve Creel – Matthew Creel – told investigators he was leaving his home with a friend to drive to Carter’s Store in Ridgeville when Michael Arana pulled up in Steve Creel’s blue Chevy Blazer at 12:30 a.m. EDT. Matthew Creel stated Arana and another individual he did not know then drove to an abandoned residence owned by his uncle, Marvin Creel. Matthew also said another white van was driving in the area with two additional males inside. On the way home from the store, the white van followed them and went to Marvin’s residence. Shortly after he heard a gunshot. When Matthew checked on his uncle’s home, he did not see blood, but did notice a brown stain on a mattress.
On February 7, 2019 – seven months after the discovery of DJ’s body – SLED agents David Owen and Jomar Albayade went to Marvin’s home on Indigo Road in Ridgeville. They obtained verbal permission to enter the home from Marvin’s sister and found no visual indication of blood within the residence.
Investigators interviewed another source who said one of the residents at the home – a woman who was there the night of the party – indicated she believed Michael Arana and Dalton Riley returned to the house where the party occurred after DJ left. The source indicated the same resident believed the two left to find DJ to rob him and kill him.
The rumors came to Eric and Lesia in droves. Individuals at the party were telling friends that DJ had been killed after being robbed and placed on the tracks. Being an investigator, Eric knew he had to trust the process and share what they were hearing with those tasked with the investigation – but he saw many things that concerned him and was taking copious notes.
FROM THE PERSPECTIVE OF AN INVESTIGATOR …
When investigators closed DJ’s case – concluding no foul play was involved – Eric Melendez went to work. Going through the entire case files provided to him by Dorchester County, the fourteenth circuit solicitor’s office and SLED, he began trying to determine how they had reached this conclusion. Some of his notes were provided to me – along with investigative files obtained by this news outlet through FOIA requests to the same agencies.
Eric noted that when investigators searched the abandoned home, only a visual search was done. He said no testing was completed to check for evidence of blood – and that documentation of the search was “minimal.” He further noted no search warrant was obtained prior to entering the home and – to his knowledge – no investigator ever attempted to question Michael Arana about being seen at the abandoned home. Melendez found this especially concerning seeing as that conflicted with his statement that he was at Steve Creel’s house the entire night after leaving the party.
According to Melendez, no cell phone records were obtained from any of the individuals at the party in an attempt to confirm the many conflicting stories investigators were provided.
While gunshot residue testing was done and came back negative, Eric noted DJ’s hat was never tested. Also, many aspects of how DJ was found on the train tracks don’t align with him being hit by a train. They’ve asked us not to release those specific aspects to protect the integrity of their investigation … but reviewing them they left me with questions as well.
The Melendez family has repeatedly requested copies of DJ’s phone records – as well as his actual phone – to be returned to them, to no avail. They want to know where he went – and to whom he was speaking – on the night he died.
A representative from the railroad told the Melendez family in a private meeting that DJ’s body did not have the injuries consistent with being struck or run over by a train traveling at 45 miles per hour. The representative who had been with Norfolk Southern multiple years stated he has reviewed multiple cases involving death by train and in his opinion, DJ’s death was not caused by a train.
DJ’s family wants to know how their son ended up on the train tracks that night. The rumors aligned with the conflicting stories given by those involved and the alleged holes in the investigation leave them with very few answers. DJ’s son is now old enough to ask what happened to his dad – and not being able to give him a definitive answer is difficult. They hope that one day someone will be brave enough to speak up and tell the truth about the night he died.
As the years pass by, this becomes increasingly important. On June 19, 2023, Dalton Riley – one of the individuals at the party – was killed in a car accident. Investigators will no longer have the opportunity to re-interview him about the conflicting stories provided.
None of the individuals named in this story have been accused or charged with any crimes related to DJ’s death. If anyone has any information they are willing to share regarding what happened the night DJ died, please email me at email@example.com.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Jenn Wood is FITSNews’ incomparable research director. She’s also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she’s married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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