HAMPTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCBD) – The mother of Stephen Smith, who was found dead along a South Carolina roadway in 2015, has raised more than $60,000 in an effort to have her son’s body exhumed for an independent autopsy.
Sandy Smith launched a GoFundMe campaign with a goal to reach $15,000 in donations that would go toward exhuming his body, the autopsy, and a private medical examiner that she said would be required to be present through the entire process.
The family has hired the Bland Richter Law Firm and has an online news conference scheduled for Monday morning.
After her son’s death, rumors surfaced linking him to the Murdaugh family. Now, Smith said the family simply wants a new and unbiased look at his body to determine the true cause of death so that they can move forward and bring to justice those responsible for her son’s killing.
“We feel it’s critical to seek a new goal — an independent exhumation and autopsy — and we’re launching Justice for Stephen N. Smith with that immediate goal in mind. While the state can elect and fund an exhumation and new autopsy, it is our understanding that it would be carried out at MUSC, where his death was initially classified as hit-and-run despite no evidence to support it,” Smith said in the post.
Smith, 19, was found dead with a head injury along Sandy Run Road in Hampton County in July 2015. At the time, investigators said that it appeared Smith was hit by a vehicle while standing outside his vehicle that had run out of gas.
Despite multiple agencies being part of the investigation into Smith’s death – South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, Hampton County Sheriff’s Office, and South Carolina Highway Patrol – no suspect was ever identified.
The State Law Enforcement Division announced in June 2021 that it was reopening its death investigation based on information that was gathered during a separate investigation into the shooting deaths of Paul and Margaret Murdaugh just weeks prior, of which Alex Murdaugh was convicted in March 2023.
SLED at the time did not elaborate on what exact findings caused the agency to open the new investigation nor provide any insight into a possible relationship between Smith’s death and the Murdaughs.
Shortly after SLED announced it was looking further into Smith’s death, News 2 obtained notes that revealed a trooper with the South Carolina Highway Patrol did not find any evidence that Smith’s death was by a hit-and-run.
“I saw no vehicle debris, skid marks, or injuries consistent with someone being struck by a vehicle,” wrote one investigator. “After consulting with MAIT, we see no evidence to suggest the victim was struck by a vehicle.”
Through a Freedom of Information Act request, News 2 also obtained 20 audio interviews between investigators and people familiar with the victim and the case. The consensus within the community seemed to be that a freak hit-and-run was not a valid explanation for Smith’s death.
“I know it kind of went back and forth and there were different rumors about it and him possibly getting hit by a car and this and that. Uh, he didn’t get hit by no car,” one investigator said during an interview.
The interviews reveal complicated web rumors, none of which could be fully proven or disproven by family members and classmates.
Case notes detail that within a month of Smith’s death, investigators began receiving tips linking him to Buster Murdaugh — the son and brother of the two Murdaugh family members who were shot dead in June.
“We didn’t know who did it, but we just heard that Buster did it,” said one man to investigators. “Everybody knows who Buster is and like his family and all that, so it’s kind of shocking,” he added.
Investigators spoke with several people trying to backtrack to where the rumor originated.
“Did he say where he heard that from or how he was backing that up?” “No sir.” “He just said, Oh, I heard Buster did it?” “Yes, sir,” said one woman being questioned by an investigator.
Early Monday morning, Buster Murdaugh’s attorney released the following statement on his behalf:
“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. I love them so much and miss them terribly. 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.”
Then, the Murdaugh name came up again — this time in connection to a different alleged suspect.
According to notes, investigators received a tip purporting to know the identity of Smith’s killer. When investigators spoke to the tipster, he confessed that “the reason he was passing this information on was because Randy Murdaugh [Buster’s uncle] told him to call.”
There are no reports or documents that show Buster was investigated or questioned; the case went cold in 2016 until SLED and Highway Patrol reopened its investigation shortly after the Murdaugh family murders.
News 2 reached out to the State Law Enforcement Division on Thursday morning requesting a comment on the investigation. We are waiting to hear back.