Words matter. Classifications matter. In reporting on criminal investigations, they really matter. Especially as it relates to the leveling of serious allegations against individuals entitled to a presumption of innocence.
At this media outlet, we choose our words very carefully.
For example, on June 9, 2021 – less than 48 hours after the graphic double homicide at the heart of the ‘Murdaugh Murders‘ crime and corruption saga – I reported Alex Murdaugh was a “person of interest” in connection with the murder investigation into the deaths of his wife and younger son.
I took a lot of heat for that article … which was published at a point in time when Murdaugh was still viewed by many (if not most) as a grieving husband and father.
Today? Murdaugh is viewed quite differently …
Today, he is considered a textbook family annihilator.
The disgraced former attorney was convicted on March 2, 2023 of murdering his wife, 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh, and younger son, 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh, on the family’s former hunting property, known locally as Moselle. The following day – March 3, 2023 – Murdaugh was sentenced to consecutive life terms for those crimes by circuit court judge Clifton Newman.
Based on recent jury tampering allegations, Murdaugh may wind up getting a new trial – or he may not – but there has been very little doubt from the very beginning about his underlying guilt.
In the case of Stephen Smith, though, there has been nothing but doubt … especially as it relates to whether his unsolved murder had a connection to the now-infamous Lowcountry family, whose legal dynasty ruled a five-county region of the Palmetto State like a fiefdom for more than a century.
To recap: Smith’s body was discovered by a passing motorist (a tow truck driver) at approximately 4:00 a.m. EDT on July 8, 2015 in the middle of Sandy Run Road near Crocketville, S.C. Visible on Smith’s head was a significant laceration – 7.25 inches in length – which extended “across the superior mid-to-right lateral forehead, involving the right eyebrow,” according to the initial autopsy. Thought to be a gunshot wound – and later the result of a vehicular hit-and-run – the subsequent investigation failed to reach a specific conclusion, fueling a barrage of wild tales.
The investigation stalled for years over inconsistencies as to whether Smith was killed by a hit-and-run or by other more nefarious means. One theory suggested he was struck with a baseball bat from the back of a moving truck. Smith’s case attracted international attention after it was prominently featured in the hit Netflix documentary, ‘Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal.’
At the conclusion of the Murdaugh trial, agents of the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) began focusing on the Smith case in earnest. As that investigation ramped up, our news outlet filed a lengthy series of detailed reports refocusing on the case and providing relevant documents related to it.
STEPHEN SMITH CASE FILES
FILE 1: SANDY SMITH’S LETTER IMPLICATING BUSTER MURDAUGH
FILE 2: THE FIRST AUTOPSY
FILE 3: THE HIGHWAY PATROL REPORT
FILE 4: THE INITIAL INTERVIEWS
FILE 5: EXHUMATION, PERSONS OF INTEREST UPDATE
FILE 6: THE PRIVATE EYE
Our goal in releasing these “case files?” To look at everything from a clear, unbiased perspective … and more importantly, to put all of the materials we were using in front of our audience so they could see everything that we were seeing.
Meanwhile, Smith’s body was exhumed in April from its resting place at Gooding Cemetery in Crocketville, S.C. and a second autopsy was performed on it in search of new evidence. According to our sources, this second autopsy has confirmed many of the same injuries described in the first autopsy – including the massive gash on Smith’s head, the damage to the back of his skull and the presence of road rash on his arms.
This news outlet has not been provided with a copy of the second autopsy, nor has it been released by Smith’s family. However, according to our sources it confirmed previous assessments of Smith’s injuries and has led those reviewing the materials to reach several definitive conclusions.
Among them? On the night he died, Smith was struck by a fast moving object on the front right side of his head – at an angle – a devastating blow which caused an almost instantaneous subsequent impact of the back of his head on the roadway. Either impact would have been fatal. Both impacts together in the span of less than a second were catastrophic.
Smith was walking northwest – toward his home – at the moment of impact. The object that struck him was moving southeast (rapidly) in the opposite direction on Sandy Run Road.
Smith died where he fell. Immediately. He was not murdered at another location and transported to the crime scene. As noted, some road rash was visible as his body briefly slid approximately one to two meters across the pavement in the middle of Sandy Run Road following the impact.
What struck Smith? The crime scene remains a study in contradictions. The location of Smith’s body in the middle of the road was totally inconsistent with a vehicular strike – but the massive blood loss observed on the asphalt was totally inconsistent with him being murdered at another location. Also, all of the blood visible in the crime scene photos is flowing in one direction, toward the ground.
But how could a vehicle have killed Smith? There were no skid marks. No vehicle debris. No physical evidence of any kind indicating a vehicular strike. And again, the location of Smith’s body in the roadway – and the lack of other injuries consistent with a vehicle strike – made zero sense.
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In the aftermath of the latest autopsy – and subsequent forensic analyses – experts are reportedly coalescing around the original theory of the case. That theory? That Smith’s head was struck by a large, extended side mirror of a pickup truck.
As we previously reported, on December 21, 2015, SCHP corporal Michael Duncan conducted an interview with Nick Ginn – who at the time was an officer with the Hampton, S.C. police department. Ginn has since been elected to Varnville town council.
According to Ginn, he received a phone call in early December 2015 from an individual named Darrell Williams indicating Smith was struck by a vehicle – specifically, one of the side mirrors of a truck belonging to 26-year-old Shawn Connolly, of Brunson, S.C. Connelly was reportedly accompanied at the time of this incident by 26-year-old Patrick Austin Wilson, also of Brunson, S.C.
Wilson was eighteen years old at the time of Smith’s death. Connelly was seventeen.
“Basically, Darrell called me and he said, ‘Look … he said this is what I was told – he said Patrick (came) over here to the house … he told me that Shawn Connelly was drunk and hit something,’” Ginn said. “He said he went back the next day to see what it he had hit and he (saw) a lot of police out there. So he talked to one of the cops, and then he had left and then he learned – I guess by media – that somebody had been killed in that same area. That’s why the police were there.”
According to Ginn, Williams told him “Shawn called (Wilson) crying, saying that that’s what had happened.”
Wilson was reportedly so distraught after retelling the story he became nauseated.
“Patrick was crying telling him and after he got finished telling the story, he walked outside his house and threw up,” Ginn said, referring to his conversation with Williams.
This response convinced Williams that Wilson was telling the truth, according to Ginn.
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Ginn also told Duncan he believed Connelly had repaired damage to the mirror of his truck in the aftermath of Smith’s death.
“(Supposedly), he had fixed his mirror – he had patched one of the mirrors up on the truck,” Ginn told Duncan.
This news outlet has since confirmed the “truck mirror theory” of Smith’s death is at the heart of evidence presented to a statewide grand jury currently investigating the case – although our sources declined to elaborate on the nature of that evidence.
Readers will recall Marc Bickhardt – who claimed to have been Smith’s boyfriend at the time of his death – said Smith referenced a pair of “rednecks” in a pickup truck who allegedly harassed him at Snider’s Crossroads on Highway 63 between Walterboro and Varnville, S.C. on the night he was murdered.
According to Bickhardt, Smith claimed the two individuals who harassed him were riding 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,” Bickhardt said. “Big mud tires. 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.”
Attorney Eric Bland – who represents Stephen Smith’s mother, Sandy Smith – announced in June that a statewide grand jury was considering evidence in this case. Bland predicted there would be answers to some longstanding questions about Smith’s death before Labor Day. This news outlet independently confirmed the grand jury investigation – but as I noted last month, Labor Day came and went without a resolution.
“I thought there was going to be something by Labor Day but it appears obviously not,” Bland acknowledged on a recent episode of a podcast called Surviving the Survivor. “So (Sandy) is getting a little discouraged.”
Could that be changing soon, though?
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According to sources familiar with the status of the ongoing investigation, the grand jury is continuing to zero in on Connelly and Wilson as “primary suspects” in Smith’s death.
Please take note of the difference in those words … primary suspects, not persons of interest.
Our media outlet previously referred to these two individuals as “top suspects,” however there had been speculation as to whether others were involved. Bland has suggested SLED was zeroing in on as many as five potential suspects, however our sources have not confirmed that information.
The two have been in the crosshairs of this inquiry for some time now. Wilson was first named in a S.C. Highway Patrol (SCHP) “Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation Team” (MAIT) report on Smith’s death released 2015. Our media outlet exclusively published that document (.pdf) back in March. Shortly thereafter, we first reported on Wilson and Connelly’s shared status as persons of interest in connection with the Smith case.
Both Wilson and Connelly lived in the area near where Stephen Smith’s body was found, and as we noted back in March “information obtained by SLED investigators has reportedly drawn a sharper focus on them as potential suspects.”
The following month, we published another detailed report in which it was noted one of these two primary suspects “attempted to manufacture an alibi regarding their whereabouts on the evening Smith was murdered – which is obviously a major red flag.”
According to our sources, grand jurors have since been presented with evidence indicating additional deception on the part of one of the primary suspects regarding the “truck mirror theory.” Once again, our sources declined to discuss the specific evidence – or the alleged deception – however they indicated one of the suspects had been “caught in another lie.”
Does this mean we are moving closer to criminal charges in connection with Smith’s death? Not necessarily.
“Grand jury investigations take time,” one of our sources cautioned.
Also, it is important to remember that while this investigation appears to be moving in a very specific direction, there is still no guarantee criminal charges will be filed against any of the primary suspects. And assuming criminal charges are filed, anyone charged would be considered innocent until proven guilty by our criminal justice system – or until such time as they may wish to enter some form of allocution in connection with a plea agreement with prosecutors related to any of the charges that may be filed against them.
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 (soon to be eight) children.
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