Crime & Courts

Stephen Smith’s Homicide Investigation: Confusion By Numbers

Proximity, perception and prevalence …

What if two things were true at once? What if a vehicular hit-and-run was also a homicide?

And what if that hit-and-run happened in such a way as to leave little-to-no-evidence a vehicle had actually been involved? Could these anomalies have sent investigators on an eight-year wild goose chase?

What if the answers which seemed so elusive all along were, in the end, right in front of us … frustratingly obvious? And what if all the conspiracy theories wrapped around the notion of deeper, more sinister forces being at work were all just figments of overly fertile imaginations?

Eight years after the body of Stephen Smith was found in the middle of Sandy Run Road in rural Hampton County, South Carolina, sources say the statewide grand jury investigating his death is focusing on causes and suspects that have been tied to the narrative from the beginning. The latest developments – which our founding editor Will Folks exclusively reported on last week – seem to bring this story full circle, leaving many to wonder why it took investigators so long to ultimately arrive back at the start of the case file.

While there has been much speculation about the alleged involvement of the powerful Murdaugh family in Smith’s death, it now appears as though most of those theories were baseless. However, the small town gossip about the Murdaughs, the involvement of high powered attorneys, one of the suspect’s familial ties to law enforcement – and the rarity of the crime – have all contributed to the complications clouding this investigation.

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PREVAILING BAD INFO …

It is an undeniable fact Buster Murdaugh‘s name appeared multiple times in the investigative report into Smith’s death which was prepared by the S.C. Highway Patrol (SCHP). But the origins of this story, the reasons for its prevalence and the certainty with which it sustained itself over the years may never be fully understood.

We do know there was another Murdaugh who had business with individuals on both sides of the investigation. Perhaps his involvement in the inquiry – which could wind up being decisive – created a cloud of suspicion?

Randolph Murdaugh IV was representing Stephen’s father, Joel Smith, in a worker’s compensation case when the tragedy occurred. Within a month, the Hampton attorney was also representing Shawn Connelly, one of the two primary suspects in the Smith case – who at the time was a defendant in a civil suit over a motor vehicle accident. At the same time, attorney Cory Fleming – one of convicted killer Alex Murdaugh‘s top co-conspirators on his litany of admitted financial crimes – represented Patrick Wilson, the other primary suspect, who was facing three assault and battery charges.

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Those charges were filed against Wilson on April 27, 2015. By February 28, 2018, the solicitor’s office had decided not to prosecute him.

While Connelly and Wilson both lived near the site where Stephen’s body was found, Wilson also lived on property owned by the Gibson family located near Moselle – the Murdaugh family compound. Those who watched trial earlier this year no doubt recall Rogan Gibson. He was one of Paul Murdaugh‘s closest friends – as well as the intended recipient of the famous kennel video. That clip placed Alex Murdaugh at the scene of the murders of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh mere minutes before they were killed – shredding his alibi and forcing him into the “tangled web” of lies that was his ultimate undoing.

The biggest connection to the family? The fact that agents of the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) reopened the investigation into Smith’s death just two weeks after the Moselle homicides in June 2021. In announcing that decision, the agency specifically stated it was “based on information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh.”

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PROXIMITY AND PERCEPTION …

There was certainly real proximity – but never any real evidence – tying Buster Murdaugh to Smith’s death. And while the confusion surrounding the unsolved crime was certainly understandable, it became profoundly twisted as Alex Murdaugh’s empire began to crumble – and as doubt and suspicion began to be cast on anyone and everyone in his circle.

This was particularly true of the blame placed on Buster Murdaugh – who finally spoke out on the allegations back in March.

“I have tried my best to ignore the vicious rumors about my involvement in Stephen Smith’s tragic death that continue to be published in the media as I grieve over the brutal murders of my mother and brother,” Murdaugh said two-and-a-half weeks following his father’s conviction. “Before, during and since my father’s trial, I have been targeted and harassed by the media and followers of this story. This has gone on far too long. These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false.”

Why hasn’t Murdaugh been formally excluded as a suspect by SLED, which has been investigating Smith’s death for more than two years? That’s a good question …

(Click to view)

Buster Murdaugh and his girlfriend Brooklynn White watch the double murder trial of his father Alex Murdaugh at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, SC, on Monday, February 6, 2023. (Pool)

It is also worth noting Patrick Wilson has ties to law enforcement at the state and local level. He is, in fact, related to some of the very individuals who were involved in the investigation. When Darrell Williams – who was dating Patrick’s mother at the time – first reported the involvement of Wilson and Connelly to the authorities (at Randy Murdaugh’s recommendation), he did so through a conversation with Hampton police officer Nick Ginn.

“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.”

Ginn went on to tell 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.

That mirror is now believed to be what killed Smith …

(Click to view)

FITSNews/ YouTube

Ginn described Williams as his step-father – a role very similar to the one he played in the life of Patrick Wilson.  In a recorded statement, Ginn said Williams was a father figure to Wilson. This information was communicated from Ginn to Mitch Altman of SCHP. Altman, incidentally, is related to Patrick Wilson’s mother, Sharon Altman Wilson.  

There is another, seldom-discussed element which likely added to the confusion surrounding this case: The nature of this homicide is so statistically rare investigators had little to no experience to guide their conclusions.

Consider the fatal, frontal head wound Smith sustained: This 7.25-inch gash was so devastating the coroner initially believed it was the result of a gunshot – specifically a shotgun. This illustrates a key anomaly of this crime scene – the rarity of a pedestrian’s head wound being caused by the side mirror of a truck. How much familiarity with such specific wounds would investigators have had at the time they were studying Smith’s body?

The hallmarks of an injury caused by a shotgun include entry and exit wounds and the residue left by ammunition – all of which were absent in this case. But none of that was apparent until the autopsy performed by Dr. Erin Presnell.

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STATISTICAL DATA …

In 2021, Dr. Presnell co-authored an academic paper entitled “Non-Firearm-related Homicides at the Medical University of South Carolina 2013-2018.” The data provided insight into the number and types of cases handled at MUSC – painting an unintentional picture of just how unusual the death of Stephen Smith was statistically. 

During this six-year study period, 5,452 forensic autopsies were performed at MUSC with 793 identified as homicides. Of those, 144 cases were found to be non-firearm related. Of those, only three victims were in Stephen’s age group – 15 to 20 years of age. Of those three, only one was white.

That, of course, was Stephen Smith.

Further complicating matters, research on hit-and-run fatalities remains limited, according to a traffic fatality report from AAA. There is no comprehensive profile to help identify suspects because of the very unpredictable nature of the crime. Also, from a practical standpoint, vehicular homicide is a risky means of trying to commit murder. It is messy and unpredictable – and death is not certain.

Finally, all manner of easily traceable clues are left behind … usually.

In 2015, there were 33 hit and run fatalities in South Carolina. According to the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), statistically only 18 percent of hit and run pedestrian fatalities occur in rural areas. That means in 2015, there were less than two rural hit and run pedestrian fatalities in the state.

Once again, Stephen was the only one.

Simply put, this almost never happens. And since the crime is so rare, it’s not hard to see law enforcement lacks the investigative experience necessary to solve it.

The chances of a young, white man between the ages of 15 and 20 being murdered on a rural road in South Carolina by vehicular hit-and-run are slim to nonexistent – yet this has become (once again) the prevailing theory of what happened to Stephen Smith. Such million-to-one odds create precisely the sort of situation leading to widespread community speculation, a search for answers in a void of information and – all too often – the assignment of misplaced blame.

Will blame ever be properly placed in this case, though?

That remains to be seen. While sources close to the grand jury process have made it clear Connelly and Wilson are the primary suspects in the investigation, there is no guarantee they – or anyone – will ever be charged criminally.

“I hope the grand jury is getting the right witnesses in front of them,” a source tracking the case told our media outlet over the weekend. “(The) question becomes whether they can either get someone to flip and tell the truth, or somehow find some corroborating evidence tying Connelly and Wilson to scene. That could be tough, nearly eight-and-a-half years later.”

It could actually be much more difficult than “tough” – it could be impossible. But at least investigators know where to look now … and where not to look.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Callie Lyons (Provided)

Callie Lyons is a journalist, researcher, and author whose investigative work can be found in media outlets, publications, and documentaries all over the world – most recently in the Parisian newspaper Le Monde and a German documentary for ProSieben. Lyons also appears in Citizen Sleuth – a 2023 documentary exploring the genre of true crime.

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