Mother of murdered teen linked to Murdaugh family reveals key to solving case

Stephen Smith’s 2015 death was treated as a hit-and-run for nearly six years until former attorney Alex Murdaugh was charged in the murders of his wife and son

Andrea Cavallier
Friday 24 November 2023 22:41 GMT
New information in Stephen Smith case revealed by independent investigation

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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When 19-year-old Stephen Smith was found dead on the side of a rural South Carolina road, his mother never believed it was a hit-and-run.

But that’s how investigators treated it for six years. Until 2021, when former legal scion Alex Murdaugh murdered his wife Maggie and son Paul at their sprawling 1,800-acre hunting estate.

Days after the murders, state police reopened the investigation into Stephen’s death after the Murdaugh name had cropped up dozens of times in the original case file, and there had been murmurings in the community that Murdaugh’s surviving son Buster, the teen’s classmate, was allegedly involved.

Stephen’s mother, Sandy Smith, who has been fighting for justice for years, says crucial evidence to solving the case may be on her son’s phone, according to a new episode of CBS’ 48 Hours set to air on Saturday.

“What I heard from the FBI agent is that there was a lot of interesting information in the phone that needed to be looked at,” she said.

Sandy Smith said she had asked for investigators to crack Stephen’s phone back in 2016, but says neither local nor state authorities pursued the case further.

“There’s something in that phone that nobody wants out there,” she added.

Stephen Smith was found dead in mysterious circumstances in 2015
Stephen Smith was found dead in mysterious circumstances in 2015 (Family handout)

Ronnie Richter and Eric Bland, who are representing Ms Smith pro bono, also told 48 hours that it’s possible evidence from Stephen’s tablet or his phone, which was found in his front pocket, may play a key role in this case.

South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) now has all of the evidence in the case, including the phone and tablet, the attorneys have confirmed, as an investigative grand jury is zeroing in on potential suspects.

A team of investigators led by Dr. Kenny Kinsey, the recently retired chief deputy of the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office, is also working to help Ms Smith find answers, along with Dr. Michelle DuPre, a retired forensic pathologist who oversaw the new autopsy.

Dr Kinsey and Ms DuPre will reveal their findings on 48 Hours Saturday with Dr Kinsey saying that whatever hit Smith on that road “was fast and it was large.”

He added that he is “as close to a degree of scientific certainty as I’ve ever felt” about the team’s findings.

The new autopsy was conducted after Ms Smith raised money to exhume her son’s body. It was confirmed by Dr Kinsey that Stephen’s death was caused by a single blow to the head and he died on the road where he was found.

Buster, Maggie, Paul and Alex Murdaugh (left to right)
Buster, Maggie, Paul and Alex Murdaugh (left to right) (Maggie Murdaugh/Facebook)

Stephen, a nursing student and a classmate of Murdaugh’s only surviving son Buster, was found dead on a road in Hampton County, South Carolina, in the early hours of 8 July 2015 – not far from the prominent family’s estate.

The openly gay teenager had suffered blunt force trauma to the head and his car was found around three miles down the road.

There were no skid marks around his body, no vehicular debris, and the victim’s loosely tied shoes were still on his feet. Police reports also revealed that some of Smith’s injuries were inconsistent with being struck by a car.

Despite the evidence, his death was ruled a hit and run – a ruling that his mother, investigators on the original case and members of the local community disputed.

Following the teen’s death, rumors swirled about Murdaugh involvement.

Buster Murdaugh denied the rumors during a televised interview on Fox Nation, stating that he was with his mother and brother at their beach house at the time Stephen Smith was killed.

“I never had anything to do with his murder and I never had anything to do with him on a physical level of any regard,” he said.

Buster Murdaugh gives first TV interview denying involvement in Smith homicide

In September, Dr Kinsey spoke at CrimeCon in Orlando and had hinted to attendees that new information about the case was coming, The Independent previously reported.

When asked whether the Murdaughs had anything to do with Stephen Smith’s murder, Dr Kinsey responded, “I know the answer to that, but I can’t tell you.”

Ms Smith’s attorneys now tell 48 Hours that there is no evidence to suggest that any Murdaugh played a role in Stephen’s death, but that his case and the Murdaugh case remain inextricably linked by SLED’s findings.

“We are aware of no evidence today that would suggest that any Murdaugh played any role in Stephen Smith’s death or played any role in trying to cover up the investigation into his death,” he said

“Somehow, some way in the Murdaugh murder investigation, a new thread was opened up into Stephen Smith,” he added.

Alex Murdaugh was found guilty earlier this year of the June 2021 murders of his wife Maggie and son Paul. He received two life sentences for those murders.

In September, in a bid for a new murder trial, Murdaugh’s attorneys filed a motion accusing Colleton County Clerk of Court Becky Hill of breaking her oath by tampering with the jury and pressuring them into returning a guilty verdict against him.

They claim that she advised the panel not to be “fooled by” Murdaugh’s testimony on the stand or “misled” by the defence’s evidence, pushed them to reach a quick guilty verdict and misrepresented “critical and material information to the trial judge in her campaign to remove a juror she believed to be favorable to the defense”.

Ms Hill has denied the allegations.

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