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Stephen Smith died 8 years ago. More people than ever want to know why

A Google Maps image shows the stretch of road where Stephen Smith's body was discovered in Hampton County, S.C. Investigators say they believe his death was a homicide, not a hit-and-run as initially reported.
Google Maps/Screenshot by NPR
A Google Maps image shows the stretch of road where Stephen Smith's body was discovered in Hampton County, S.C. Investigators say they believe his death was a homicide, not a hit-and-run as initially reported.

Stephen Smith was 19 years old when his body was discovered on a rural two-lane road in South Carolina in 2015. His family has never accepted a medical examiner's ruling that Smith died from a hit-and-run. They think foul play was involved — and state agents agree.

"The Stephen Smith case is being investigated as a homicide," Renée Wunderlich, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division's public information director, told NPR on Wednesday.

"We do believe it was a murder," as South Carolina Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel told The State newspaper. "We don't believe it was a hit-and-run."

Interest in Smith's case has spiked because of where he died: in Hampton County, not far from Moselle, the hunting estate where Maggie and Paul Murdaugh were shot to death, in a case that became an international sensation. SLED agents opened their inquiry into Smith's death in June of 2021 — the same month the pair died.

Smith's family is exhuming his body

SLED issued its update as Smith's mother, Sandy, is taking new actions to learn more about his death in July of 2015. That includes arranging for an exhumation and private autopsy. She has raised about $90,000 to fund her effort.

"Stephen was in the process of discovering himself and his sexuality," Sandy Smith told local news outlet Bluffton Today months after her son died. "He was gay. One rumor is that he may have had a man stalking him, the authorities asked me about that, but I've heard other stories I believe more."

Smith went on to say her son would have been wary of any approaching cars on a dark road — and that she thought some of Stephen's former classmates were involved in his death.

"One of the guys that supposedly did this, Stephen told his twin sister that he had 'a fling' with the boy," Smith said. "He also told me that he and the boy had a deep sea fishing trip planned for July. Stephen died on the eighth of July."

No signs of hit-and-run, early reports noted

When he died, Smith was returning home from night classes at a tech college in Orangeburg, where he was studying to be a nurse.

A 911 caller alerted police after seeing Smith's body in the early morning of July 8, near the center of Sandy Run Road. His car was later found not far from that spot, with its fuel cap off, suggesting he might have run out of gas.

Smith had a head injury but no other immediately apparent injuries. Initial reports mentioned the possibility that Smith's head jury might have been a gunshot wound, according to police documents posted online by the FITSNews site.

Both Smith's family and officers at the scene have cited a lack of a hit-and-run's telltale signs at the spot where he was found, particularly the absence of vehicular debris. Police noted Smith's shoes had stayed on his feet, despite being loosely tied. They also saw no skid marks near where Smith's body was found in the middle of the road.

So, why was homicide initially ruled out?

In her preliminary autopsy report, Dr. Erin Presnell, a medical examiner, concluded that Smith died from being hit by a motor vehicle — possibly by a side mirror.

"Due to the medical examiner's determination, the Hampton County Sheriff's Office requested the South Carolina Highway Patrol (SCHP) to investigate Mr. Smith's death" rather than SLED, the agency said on Wednesday.

The cause-of-death determination was crucial, as Smith's death became a matter for the highway patrol, which investigates vehicular deaths, instead of SLED, which helps local agencies investigate homicides.

"We don't believe it ever elevated to invoke the full investigatory authority of SLED," Ronnie Richter, an attorney for Smith's family, told NPR on Wednesday. "It has now."

The Murdaugh case boosted interest in Smith

This phase of the Smith case is playing out against the backdrop of the Murdaugh murders, which took place about 8 miles from where Smith's body was found.

The glaring spotlight on those killings placed new attention on Stephen Smith's death, in part because police reports mentioned the Murdaugh family name several times, including their citing of local rumors that Buster Murdaugh, Alex's surviving son, might somehow have been involved.

Smith knew the Murdaughs; he went to Wade Hampton High School with Buster. Just weeks ago, Alex Murdaugh was found guilty of killing his wife and youngest son at their property in the area.

With Murdaugh's murder trial now over, Smith's attorneys say, SLED is able to focus more resources on solving the 2015 case. The agency is also asking anyone with relevant information to call 803-737-9000 and ask for Investigative Services.

Rumors are unfounded, Buster Murdaugh says

This week, Buster Murdaugh released a statement through his lawyer, Jim Griffin, saying he had nothing to do with Smith's death. He also said he's been "targeted and harassed by the media and followers of this story."

"This has gone on far too long," Murdaugh said. "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."

Murdaugh said he had not spoken out earlier about Smith's "tragic death" because he was trying to maintain his privacy while grieving his mother and brother, and following his father's criminal trial.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Bill Chappell is a writer and editor on the News Desk in the heart of NPR's newsroom in Washington, D.C.