Crime & Courts

Unsolved Carolinas: Lawsuit Brings Renewed Hope To Family of Daniel Reed Smith

The search for answers moves to civil court …

Lesia and Eric Melendez have been searching for answers and more importantly – for justice – ever since the body of their son, Daniel Reed “DJ” Smith, was discovered on a remote stretch of railroad tracks near Ridgeville, South Carolina on August 11, 2018. For six long years they have pursued the truth – finding some answers along the way but never obtaining the truth about what happened to DJ or the accountability they desperately need.

For Lesia Melendez, DJ’s mother, the heartbreak began when she heard a few words on a police scanner six years ago about a body being found on the tracks. Even though no other details were mentioned, she knew in that moment her son was gone. Her husband, Eric Melendez – an investigator in the local solicitor’s office – was unable to obtain any information about the incident. When limited information finally began to become available, things still didn’t add up.

After Smith’s body was discovered on a remote stretch of railroad tracks, initial statements from the local coroner’s office indicated he was murdered and placed at that location … yet investigators never arrived at that conclusion. Instead, they seemed more inclined to blame the victim for the horrific end he met.

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Our team spent months reviewing this voluminous case file – along with files shared by Smith’s stepfather – covering it in depth in our podcast ‘FITSFiles.’ In addition to reviewing conflicting statements provided by the people who were with DJ on the night he died, we located key evidence provided by the railroad company – Norfolk Southern – that was both incomplete and misleading.

In late September of 2023, we revealed the findings of an independent, expert analysis of Smith’s autopsy which confirmed the family’s suspicions that foul play was involved in his death. While this report provided answers to some questions, it left us contemplating the existence of multiple crime scenes as we searched for more information. At that point, we realized that to truly understand what happened to Smith we needed to go to the exact spot on the train tracks where his body was found.

As our news team visited this remote, desolate location, one thing became immediately and abundantly clear – this was not some random spot. Whoever left Smith at this location planned to do so.

That realization raised a host of other questions:

  • Why choose this place to leave his body?
  • How was his body moved to this location?
  • Where was it moved from?

And the most important question of all, what happened to Smith prior to his body being moved?

Our team was joined on the tracks by Smith’s parents as well as Columbia, S.C.-based attorney Tucker Player – who has been retained by Smith’s family. After the trek to the tracks, Player spoke with us in detail about his involvement in this case as he works with Smith’s family in the hopes of achieving justice for their son.

He also shared his perspectives on the crime scene.

“Somebody went through an awful lot of trouble to get him there,” he said.

Player also pointed out what the independent forensic analysis confirmed – that Smith was not killed by a train but that his body was moved from another location and dumped on the tracks.

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“There is no way he (DJ) did not see a train coming for at least, you know, three quarters of a mile,” Player said. “It’s a straight shot, there are no lights anywhere, the only light would have been the gigantic one on the front of the train.”

On February 5, 2024, Player filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Daniel Reed Smith’s family hoping to finally help the Melendez family find answers.

According to the lawsuit, the investigation into Smith’s death – which began with the Dorchester County Sheriff’s Office before being transferred to the S.C. Law Enforcement Division (SLED) – uncovered substantial evidence which suggested Smith could have been killed by multiple individuals on the night of August 11, 2018.

Six people – Michael Bunch Sr., Trenton Hogg, Brandon Reynolds, Corey Dunn, Michael Arana (a.k.a. Michael Muckenfuss), and Steve Creel – were named as defendants in the wrongful death action given their status as being among the last known individuals to see Smith alive the night before his body was found, according to the filing.

The lawsuit stated that upon reviewing the entire case file from both Dorchester and SLED, it appeared Bunch was dating Constance Wimberly – and believed Smith to be involved with her, as well. After an alleged altercation between Smith and three others – Hogg, Dunn and Reynolds – at the location of the party Smith was attending, Smith is believed to have fled the house. The lawsuit then claimed the men chased Smith down in a vehicle – running him over and killing him.

Next, the filing alleged some of these men enlisted the assistance of Creel and Arana to assist in the cover up and disposal of Smith’s body — on the train tracks where he was found the afternoon of August 11, 2018. 

Three other anonymous individuals – listed as John Does in the complaint – are alleged to have made “false statements to the police,” fabricating a story about Smith purportedly deciding to “walk home.”

When asked about the lawsuit, Player told us the standard of proof necessary to win a civil judgment is much lower than to secure a conviction on criminal charges.

(Click to view)

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“Law enforcement investigates with the goal of presenting evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to a jury,” he said. “In the civil case, we need only demonstrate a preponderance of the evidence to a jury.  We clearly have that in this case.”

“The (Melendez) family retained me to conduct an investigation and bring a civil suit against those we believe were involved in Daniel’s death,” he said. “The SLED file is full of inconsistent statements and damaging admissions that the family believes should have been investigated.  The family believes the criminal investigation was deficient, but that is not the focus of this lawsuit.”

In reviewing the massive law enforcement case file, Player criticized what he referred to as “the apparent reluctance of the Dorchester County authorities to make any attempt to find Daniel’s killer.”

“The obstruction and misrepresentations of government employees continue to this very day,” he said.

Player expounded by describing the roadblocks faced by his clients in attempting to file their lawsuit.

“Upon attempting to reopen Daniel’s probate case, my clients were directed to file in Dorchester County,” he said. “However, despite the signs and disclaimers in every clerk of court’s office, the Dorchester County Probate Office refused to open the Estate for the stated reason that ‘It has been more than three years so you can’t bring a lawsuit.’ This is legal advice and it is absolutely incorrect.  South Carolina is a ‘notice state’ which means the statute of limitations does not run until a plaintiff obtains notice of the claim.  This is yet another example of how the probate courts in this state must be reformed immediately.”

For Lesia Melendez, this lawsuit isn’t about money. Her only goal has always been to know what happened the night her son died and for those responsible to be held accountable. As she and her husband raise Daniel’s son, their hearts break more every year as they watch him navigate life without his dad. Lesia said every milestone he reaches is a reminder of their loss.

“He misses his dad,” she said “He should be here to watch him grow up.”

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ABOUT THIS SERIES …

Unsolved Carolinas – sponsored by our friends at Bamberg Legal – is a series by FITSNews devoted to shining a spotlight on cases which have fallen off the front page. We hope to tell the stories of those individuals who are seeking answers and justice on behalf of their lost loved ones. We will dive deeper into their stories, get to know them through their families and friends and hopefully help find answers for those they have left behind.

In every unsolved case, someone out there could know something that provides a missing link – a critical clue that could bring peace to a family in pain and help them write the next chapter of their stories (even if it is the final chapter). If you know someone who is missing – or has been a victim of an unsolved homicide – email their story to research@fitsnews.com.

The more stories we share, the more hope we can spread …

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THE LAWSUIT …

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Jenn Wood (Provided)

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 jenn@fitsnews.com.

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5 comments

Justice Always Top fan February 9, 2024 at 2:07 am

We can’t wait to see justice! Sadly there are so many others. Thank you all at FITSNews for everything you all do to help get the truth out. Y’all are the best!

Reply
SubZeroIQ February 9, 2024 at 3:08 pm

Here are three unsolved deaths for you, all related to one man, Larry Wayne Mason (“LWM”) of Elgin, SC, and his lawyer, William Tetterton, of Camden, SC.
FITSNews should be specially interested in Tetterton because he is the PERMANENT chair of the Midlands “Citizens” Committee which advises South Carolina’s (“SC”) Judicial Merit Selection Commission (“JMSC”) on judicial candidates.
LWM was born in 1945 and joined the U.S. Army without a high school diploma. Depending on the day, LWM will pretend he studied law, studied business at the University of Maryland, is a car mechanic, is a golf champion, is a DEA agent, is a chief warrant officer, is a decorated war hero, is an army CID, is a SLED-licensed private investigator, is one who “three times” “turned down” offers to be county magistrate, etc., etc., etc.
What is certain from public records is that LWM was prosecuted in the early 1990s for embezzling from the U.S. Army and for impersonating a chief warrant officer and had at least one felony conviction which carries ten years but was reversed on a technicality and not retried again.
Sometime in the 1960s, LWM married Mary Ann Loop (“MAL”) who already had a daughter, Angela, whom LWM adopted. LWM and MAP in 1968 had a son, Richard Wayne Mason (“RWM”), then divorced.
After dating some army women then retiring EXACTLY 20 years after enlisting, LWM married an Ella Faye Kizer and in 1986 had with her one son, Christopher James (“CJM”).
LWM made Ella Faye borrow money for him; then, when she was sued by at least three different creditors, Ella Faye died in May 1993 by a gunshot wound to the head fired from LWM’s gun, in LWM’s sole presence in the couple’s Richland County (“RC”) home.
Though the ballistics and GSR tests indicated the fatal shot was fired from over 18 inches, LWM insisted Ella Faye committed suicide in his presence; and SLED bought that strange story.
RWM, too, apparently never went beyond high school and never held down a job for long but, in April 2016, died like his stepmother from a single gunshot wound to the head fired from LWM’s gun in LWM’s residence in the sole presence of LWM’s concubine, Dinah Gail Steele, the owner of the home in Elgin, SC.
RWM death was again ruled a suicide without an autopsy, without ballistics, without anything and quickly cremated.
Why? Because Tetterton represented LWM in a wrongful death suit against RWM’s psychiatrist who, according to the suit, should have kept RWM as an in-patient indefinitely instead of discharging him after two weeks of inpatient treatment.
LWM and Tetterton got $250K from that psychiatrist but apparently gave none of that money to MAL who is one of RWM’s heirs.
Christopher James Mason (“CJM”) has no better history than his father or half-brother in eduction, employment, or fatherhood. CJM fathered three children out of wedlock, had several traffic and drug and alcohol arrests and at least one cocaine conviction, and hit the vehicle of a driver whose driving record was excellent.
In the middle of the motor vehicle accident lawsuit against him, CJM, like his mother Ella Faye, was said to have died.
So, two people killed by the same owner’s gun, two people dying in the middle of lawsuits against them, and no investigation, no anything, and no one (apparently other than the author of this comment) thinks all of that is strange.
For the nth time, the real power behind the throne of SC JMSC is, not lawyer legislators, but the lawyers PERMANENTLY on the “citizens” screening committees, of which William Tetterton is chair.
Will FITSNews finally look at those three deaths around one man and his lawyer?

Reply
SubZeroIQ February 10, 2024 at 12:19 pm

I posted this comment on your Week-in-Review and I want to see if you let it through here.
FITS, what happened to innocent-until-and-unless-proven-guilty? The word “allegedly” is TOTALLY missing from YOUR reporting on what the Pate defendant did in your report on Judge Bentley Price.
What happened to the Eighth Amendment protection against excessive bail?
You also confused “surety bond” with 10% cash bond.
What you really want is a system where FALSE accusers, LYING police officers, and ROGUE prosecutors just point the finger at an innocent person and she finds herself PERMANENTLY behind bars, no speedy trial, no untainted jury, no right to confront one’s accuser, no right to compulsory process to get exculpatory evidence, no anything.
BTW, you SUDDENLY stopped reporting on Becky Hill as soon as Justin Bamberg, a lawyer legislator and one of Becky’s two lawyers, returned to advertizing on your blog and to sponsoring your unsolved crimes series.
We have seen that movie before, when you were pushing Buster as the cause of Stephen Smith’s death when Eric Bland was sponsoring you or talking about doing so.
Shame on you!
Better yet, do you have the guts to interview ME about the other side of this? How DENIAL of reasonable bond can be, and has been, used to pressure the innocent to plead guilty?
Zut alors!

Reply
SubZeroIQ February 10, 2024 at 12:33 pm

BTW, being the grammar police, I enthusiastically applaud the lady who constantly corrects your confusing “jail” with “prison.” Jail is short-term and typically pre-trial. Prison is longer term and typically punitive after trial.
Some jails are also used for punitive short-term mis-demeanor sentences.
I also want to correct the use of “double murder,” “triple murder,” etc., which is as physically impossible as two or more consecutive life sentences. “Double murder” means murdering the same person twice, which is physically impossible because murder is the taking of a human life, which you cannot do to a person already murdered once.
The correct English is to refer, for example, to Alex Murdaugh’s (“AM”) wrongful two-murder convictions, NOT “double murder” convictions.

Reply
SubZeroIQ February 14, 2024 at 12:29 pm

Making sure you read this: the Hampton County’s Public Index of Beach (and others) v Parker (and others) STILL shows the case assigned to Bentley Price and does NOT show South Carolina’s (“SC”) supreme court (“S Ct”) ORDER reassigning the case to Judge Morgan.
The claimed commitment to transparency should include insuring that ALL SC’s 46 counties’ Public Indicies (operated by SC S Ct itself) are accurate AND updated.
That is also part of SC S Ct’s duty to supervise SC’s clerks of courts’ administrative functions.
Or is everything clerk-related now being swept under the rug because Jean Toal BASICALLY said Becky Hill is a perjurer but that is Okay so long as she helped convict the most hated man in SC.
Also, FITS, I am NOT a lawyer, only a doctor who, thank God and WITHOUT A LAWYER, was able to achieve for myself in Judge Clifton Newman’s pro-prosecution court what Messers Harpootlian, Griffin, and Barber, and Maitresse Fox COMBINED could not achieve for Alex Murdaugh (“AM”): prevent a wrongful criminal conviction.
And in another case, again thank God and WITHOUT A LAWYER, I was able to reserve another wrongful criminal conviction by proving that the Prosecution used a fabricated Polaroid to initially falsely convict me.
So, without giving you, FITS, legal advice, don’t sleep on responding to that lawsuit even though Mark Tinsley did not YET formally serve you. He might never serve you then seek a default judgment against you by arguing you (and the world up to Australia) had constructive knowledge of the summons and complaint.
See how now-Senior U.S. District Judge Joe Anderson was half-correct in complimenting me as better than half the lawyers who practiced in his court! The judge was half-correct because I am better than all the lawyers who practiced in that court.
Don’t back down to Mark Tinsley or Eric Bland; but keep your eyes open to both of them. And if no lawyer wants to represent you, try representing yourself; but study first. Don’t go to court ignorant and make a fool of yourself. Study!

Reply

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