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.
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.
“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)
“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.”
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 email@example.com.
The more stories we share, the more hope we can spread …
THE LAWSUIT …
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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