Family of Stephen Smith launches new investigation of SC man’s death after Murdaugh trial

In the aftermath of the high-profile murder trial of Alex Murdaugh, the family of another young man who died in the South Carolina Lowcountry is launching its own investigation into how he died.

New attorneys for the family of Stephen Smith announced Monday a new effort to reexamine his death on a rural Lowcountry road in 2015, including hiring private investigators and pushing to exhume Smith’s body for a new autopsy.

Smith was 19 when his body was found in July 2015 in the middle of a rural road in Hampton County. The death was ruled a hit-and-run, but his family believes the real story is more complicated.

“There were no skid marks, no vehicular debris, and his loosely-tied shoes were still around his feet,” attorney Ronnie Richter with the Bland Richter Law Firm said in a press conference Monday. “While his vehicle was located 3 miles away with the gas cap off, suggesting his car broke down, he never called for help from the cellphone found on his body.”

Smith’s family has “never accepted the cursory investigation that his death was result of a hit-and-run,” Richter said.

Richter and law partner Eric Bland have been retained by Smith’s mother, Sandy Smith, to spearhead a renewed investigation into Smith’s death. They said Monday they believe the nursing student may have been killed elsewhere and his body dumped on Sandy Run Road, based on the only identifiable trauma to his body being to his head and upper body. The official explanation is that Smith was struck in the head by a car’s side mirror while walking along the road.

Smith’s case has received renewed attention because of the internationally watched trial of Alex Murdaugh, who was convicted March 2 of murdering his wife, Maggie, and youngest son, Paul, on the family’s rural estate in June 2021. Smith was a classmate of Murdaugh’s older son, Buster.

The S.C. Law Enforcement Division previously announced it was reopening its investigation of Smith’s death because of undisclosed information investigators uncovered during SLED’s investigation of Alex Murdaugh.

No member of the Murdaugh family has ever formally been implicated in Smith’s death, and Buster, Murdaugh’s sole surviving son, issued a statement ahead of Monday’s press conference “unequivocally” denying any involvement in the case.

“I have tried my best to ignore the vicious rumors about my involvement in Stephen Smith’s tragic death that continue to be published in the media as I grieve over the brutal murders of my mother and brother,” Buster said in the statement, released through attorneys Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin. “I haven’t spoken up until now because I want to live in private while I cope with their deaths and my father’s incarceration.

“Before, during and since my father’s trial, I have been targeted and harassed by the media and followers of this story. This has gone on far too long. These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false. I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death, and my heart goes out to the Smith family. I am requesting that the media immediately stop publishing these defamatory comments and rumors about me.”

The Smith family’s attorneys said Monday they have no indication that the Murdaughs were involved in Smith’s death. A planned investigation into his death will look into any available information about what happened to him, the attorneys said.

“We’re going to have a fresh set of eyes,” Bland said.

Sandy Smith holds a photo of her late son, 19-year-old Stephen Smith, on June 24, 2021. “There will never be another one like him,” she said. 
Sandy Smith holds a photo of her late son, 19-year-old Stephen Smith, on June 24, 2021. “There will never be another one like him,” she said.

Was Smith killed somewhere else?

Based partly on the notoriety around Murdaugh’s six-week murder trial, the Smith family has raised almost $66,000 online, which will partly go toward a legal petition for the family to exhume Smith’s body for a new autopsy.

“Dead people have rights in South Carolina that don’t end when their heart stops, including the right not to be disturbed,” Bland said. “We’ll petition the court and show facts that a fresh set of eyes will prove Stephen was not killed on Sandy Run Road, and maybe was killed somewhere else.”

Smith’s mother said she still wants answers to her questions about her son’s death.

“I lost my son, and since I couldn’t protect him I’m going to fight for him,” Sandy Smith said. “I hope to find the real reason for Stephen’s death.”

Bland said the money will also go toward private investigators who will use other techniques like mapping Smith’s phone data to better track his movements at the time of his death, evidence that Bland noted was used to great effect in Murdaugh’s murder trial.

Smith lived a “cautious” and at times “secretive” life as a gay man in Hampton County, the attorney said, and investigators will work to reconstruct Smith’s activities and conversations in the 90 days leading up to his death.

Any information the investigators uncover will be made available to law enforcement, the attorneys said. Bland noted that a grand jury was impaneled to look into Smith’s death, but the jury has since concluded its work and no apparent indictment has been forthcoming.

The most immediate effort will be convincing a judge the family has sound legal reasons to perform a new autopsy on Smith’s body, Bland said.

“Like Eminem, you get one shot, and we want to make that shot count,” Bland said, adding it’s “hard to believe a judge would take the position we don’t want to give a mother the answers she’s looking for.”