The death of Stephen Smith, whose body was found in the middle of a road in 2015, is being investigated as a homicide, a spokesperson for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division told CNN on Tuesday.
The development comes almost two years after the murders of Margaret “Maggie” Murdaugh and Paul Murdaugh brought renewed scrutiny to the fate of the 19-year-old nursing student.
Smith’s body was discovered lying on a Hampton County road on July 8, 2015 and his death was deemed a hit-and-run in an initial incident report and by a medical examiner’s report. The report cited the cause of death as blunt head trauma sustained from being hit by a vehicle.
But the SLED spokesperson on Tuesday confirmed there was no indication in the investigation that was actually the case.
Attorneys for Smith’s family welcomed the news, which follows SLED’s announcement in June 2021 it was opening the investigation into Smith’s death based on information learned while probing the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh earlier that month.
The agency has not provided details about what was found in that investigation, and authorities have not announced a connection between Smith’s death and the Murdaugh family, whose patriarch, Alex Murdaugh, was found guilty earlier this month and sentenced to life in prison for killing Maggie and Paul, on the night of June 7, 2021. Murdaugh has appealed his convictions.
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, then-Trooper Todd Proctor is 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 – his first on the matter – denying any involvement in Smith’s death and “requesting that the media immediately stop publishing these defamatory comments and rumors about me.”
“This has gone on far too long,” his statement said. “These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false.”
What initial reports said
An incident report from the state highway patrol indicated Smith had suffered blunt force trauma to the head.
While a pathologist cited in a SLED report said Smith appeared to have been hit by a vehicle, the responding officer referenced in a report by the highway patrol’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team noted there was “no vehicle debris, skid marks, or injuries consistent with someone being struck by a vehicle.”
Smith’s shoes were also both on and loosely tied, the report added, and investigators saw no evidence suggesting he was struck by a vehicle.
Notes from investigators in the case file say that “according to family, Stephen would never have been walking in the middle of the roadway” and that he was “very skittish.”
Smith had injuries to his left arm, hand and head, according to notes taken by a SLED investigator at the scene.
His vehicle was found about three miles away, that report said, with the gas tank door open and the gas cap hanging out on the side of the car. The vehicle’s battery was functional but the car wouldn’t start, the report added.
A mother looking for answers
Attorneys for Smith’s family praised the decision to classify Smith’s death as a homicide, which came on the heels of an announcement by Smith’s mother and her legal team that they would seek to exhume her son’s body and pursue a private autopsy.
“We have a chance to right eight years of wrongs, and we intend to do just that,” attorney Eric Bland said in a news release Tuesday.
Smith’s family has raised more than $86,000 through a GoFundMe page for what Sandy Smith hopes will be “a new, unbiased look at his body and an accurate determination of his cause of death based on facts.”
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.
“Our job is not to find out who did it,” Bland told reporters in a virtual news conference Monday. “That’s not what we do, we’re not law enforcement, we’re not doing a criminal case … What we’re really trying to do is give a mother answers.”
The investigation will also involve looking at Smith’s life, Bland added, and what kind of communication the teen had and who he was associating with in the days before his death. Anything learned, Bland said, would be shared with law enforcement.
CNN’s Dianne Gallagher and Dakin Andone contributed to this report.