Stephen Smith’s mother says she’s been fighting for justice since the day her 19-year-old son was found dead in the middle of a rural South Carolina road.
His 2015 death was initially deemed a hit-and-run, but Sandy Smith never believed that was the case. Then, in June 2021, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) announced it was opening an investigation into his killing based on information learned while probing the murders of Maggie Murdaugh and her son Paul Murdaugh earlier that month. (Disgraced attorney Alex Murdaugh was sentenced to life in prison earlier this month for killing his wife and son.)
On Tuesday – nearly eight years after Stephen’s body was found – SLED said it was investigating the case as a homicide.
The news felt like a “little bit of peace,” Sandy Smith said.
“This is what I’ve been fighting for, and I’m finally getting it,” she told CNN’s Anderson Cooper Wednesday night.
She said she told investigators back in 2015 she did not believe her son was fatally hit by a vehicle, because she knew Stephen would not have walked down the road he was found on.
“I’m open to the evidence and the only dispute I had was that it was not a hit-and-run. That’s what I’ve been saying from the beginning,” Sandy Smith said.
“I felt my son was murdered.”
A case file mentioned the Murdaughs dozens of times
Investigators have not said what was found in the probe of the Murdaugh killings that led to a fresh look at Smith’s case, and authorities have not announced a connection between Smith’s death and the Murdaugh family.
The case file from the initial South Carolina Highway Patrol investigation into Smith’s death – released by the patrol to CNN – shows the Murdaugh name was mentioned dozens of times by both witnesses and investigators, including the name of Alex Murdaugh’s surviving son, Buster.
In one audio recording of a witness interview, a trooper was heard saying, “Buster was on our radar. … The Murdaughs know that.” But why he was on investigators’ radar is unclear. Neither Buster Murdaugh nor anyone else has been charged in the case.
Buster Murdaugh, a former classmate of Smith’s, released a statement Monday denying any involvement in Smith’s death and requested the media “immediately stop publishing these defamatory comments and rumors about me.”
A timeline of investigations into the death
In a Wednesday news release, SLED offered details on how the investigations unfolded since Smith’s death.
SLED Crime Scene agents responded to the scene after a request from the Hampton County Sheriff’s Office and also attended Smith’s autopsy, where a medical examiner concluded Smith died after getting hit by a vehicle, the release said.
“The involvement of SLED’s Crime Scene Unit at a scene does not automatically indicate a SLED investigation,” the release noted.
Because of the medical examiner’s conclusion, the sheriff’s office asked the state highway patrol to investigate the death, SLED said.
On June 23, 2021, SLED opened an investigation into Smith’s death after agents “received information about his death” and reviewed the highway patrol’s case file, the release said.
From that file, “it was apparent that the (South Carolina Highway Patrol) did not believe Mr. Smith’s death was a hit and run by a motor vehicle,” the release added.
Since then, SLED’s investigation was never closed and remains an “active and ongoing” homicide probe, the agency said, adding “progress has been made.”
“SLED Chief Mark Keel has assigned additional SLED Low Country Regional Agents to work this case in the hopes that those who may know what happened to Mr. Smith are more willing to speak freely now than they may have been in 2015 or 2021,” the release noted.
‘He was my baby’
Through the years, Sandy Smith never gave up the fight of searching for answers.
Smith’s family has now raised more than $97,000 through a GoFundMe page for what his mother hopes will be “a new, unbiased look at his body and an accurate determination of his cause of death based on facts.”
Prior to SLED’s announcement this week, Smith’s mother and her attorneys said they will petition a court to proceed with exhuming Smith’s body, which requires a judge’s permission.
“He was my life, he was my world,” Smith told CNN Wednesday. “He was my baby.”