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Who is Stephen Smith? Inside the teen's mysterious death and Murdaugh connection

Officials determined the 19-year-old had been struck by a vehicle in 2015. Now, his death on a dark South Carolina road is being investigated as a homicide.
/ Source: TODAY

After former South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh was convicted of murdering his wife and son, the spotlight has been on the Murdaugh family at large, including people who have died that had ties to the family. 

Stephen Smith, a high school classmate of Alex Murdaugh’s surviving son Buster Murdaugh, died in 2015 in what was deemed a likely, but not certain, hit-and-run. An autopsy filed by the Medical University of South Carolina posited Smith died of “blunt head trauma sustained in a motor vehicle crash,” but left the cause of death as “undetermined.”

The accident took place on Sandy Run Road in Hampton County, South Carolina, just 15 miles away from the Murdaugh family’s Moselle estate in Islandton, South Carolina. 

Stephen Smith died at age 19 in July 2015.
Stephen Smith died at age 19 in July 2015.NBC News

Weeks after the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh, Alex Murdaugh’s wife and younger son, in June 2021, South Carolina authorities announced they would be reopening Smith’s case, nearly six years after he was found dead. 

And on March 21, lawyers for Smith’s family announced the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) was investigating his death as a homicide, though the agency said it has been investigating his case as a homicide since 2021.

“SLED is investigating Stephen Smith’s 2015 death as a homicide and been investigating this since 2021,” agency spokesperson Renée Wunderlich said Tuesday. 

Here’s what to know about Stephen Smith and the status of his case.

What happened to Stephen Smith? The original cause of death was a hit-and-run

The body of 19-year-old Smith was found in the early morning hours of July 8, 2015, on a rural road in Hampton County, South Carolina, according to an autopsy report.

His body was found about 2 to 3 miles from his vehicle, which had run out of gas, per the autopsy report. The autopsy posited that Smith was walking home.

Pathologists at the University of South Carolina determined Smith had been struck by a vehicle and “died as the result of blunt head trauma,” according to the autopsy report.

But 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,” and that Smith’s shoes were loosely tied and still on his feet. 

The initial officers on the scene reported Smith’s body had a “defensive wound” on his hand, according to an investigator’s report obtained by The Island Packet

The report also noted there was no evidence of projectiles or bullet fragments in his body, ruling out gunfire.

Smith’s mother, Sandy Smith, expressed skepticism over the official cause of her son’s death. She said on TODAY she does not believe the hit-and-run narrative, and that she believes her son was beaten from the way his body was found in the road.

 “As a mother there’s questions that I need to ask and there’s questions I need answers to,” she said. “In my heart, this was not a hit and run. I think he was murdered and I just need the proof.”

Why was Stephen Smith's case reopened after the Murdaugh murders?

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division announced in June 2021 it would reopen Smith’s case after the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh “based upon information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation.” SLED has not revealed what the exact information was.

Prominent attorney Alex Murdaugh called 911 to report finding his wife and youngest son shot to death at one of his family properties on June 7, 2021. 

He was later charged with their murders in July 2022, and on March 2, was convicted of two counts of murder and two counts of using a firearm during a crime in connection with the shooting.

The next day, he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. His attorneys have said they plan to appeal his double murder conviction.

Alex Murdaugh still faces nearly 100 financial chargesrelated to allegedly stealing about $8.8 million from clients and his family’s law firm. 

Alex Murdaugh has not entered any plea for the financial crimes he has been charged with, South Carolina Attorney General’s Office Communications Director Robert Kittle told TODAY.com, citing the Clerk of Court of the State Grand Jury.

But when Murdaugh took the stand in his own defense in his murder trial, he admitted he had stolen money from his clients and his law firm.

“I took money that was not mine and I shouldn’t have done it,” he testified. “I hate the fact that I did it.”

How did Buster Murdaugh know Stephen Smith?

Buster Murdaugh, the surviving son of Alex Murdaugh, and Smith both attended Wade Hampton High School together, Jim Griffin, an attorney for the Murdaugh family, confirmed to NBC News.

In the Netflix documentary “Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal,” Sam Crews, a science teacher at the high school, said there was a rumor that Buster Murdaugh and Smith were friends, and that Smith was tutoring him.

Buster Murdaugh
Buster Murdaugh, the son of Alex Murdaugh, at his father's trial.Joshua Boucher / The State via AP

Friends and family of Smith’s said in the documentary Smith was openly gay and feared for his safety in the largely conservative area.

Morgan Doughty, a friend of Smith’s, said in the documentary there were “so many rumors swirling around that Buster and Stephen were intimate together,” and added that “being gay in the Murdaugh family would have been looked down upon.”

TODAY could not independently verify Crews’ and Doughty’s allegations.

No member of the Murdaugh family has been named as being involved in Smith’s death.

Buster Murdaugh made his first public statement on Smith’s death on March 20, denying the “vicious rumors” he had any involvement in his classmate’s death in a statement to NBC News.

“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 Murdaugh said. “I love them so much and miss them terribly.”

Buster Murdaugh said he hadn’t spoken up about the case because he wants to live in private while he copes with the deaths of his mother and brother, along with his father’s incarceration.

He added he has been “targeted and harassed” by the media and followers of his family’s story, both before and since his father’s trial. 

“This has gone on far too long. These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false,” he said. “I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death, and my heart goes out to the Smith family.”

Will Stephen Smith's body be exhumed?

Sandy Smith said she doesn’t know who is responsible for her son’s death, but she said on March 17 she plans to petition the court to exhume his body so an independent autopsy can be performed.

“We need a new, unbiased look at his body and an accurate determination of his cause of death based on facts,” she wrote on her GoFundMe page, which has raised over $80,000 to help pay for the exhumation.

Sandy Smith and Stephen Smith.
Sandy Smith and her son, Stephen Smith.Courtesy Sandy Smith

She told NBC News on March 17 that she last spoke with SLED investigators in late February and will be getting help with her son’s exhumation from attorney Eric Bland, who is also representing the family of Gloria Satterfield.

Satterfield was the Murdaugh’s former housekeeper who died in February 2018 at the Murdaugh family’s home in what was described during a 911 call as a fall.

South Carolina authorities announced a criminal investigation into her death on Sept. 15, 2021, based on a request from Hampton County coroner Angela Topperbecause no autopsy had been performed.

Bland said during a press conference on March 20 his firm will not be charging legal fees to help with Smith’s case, and that he and others working on the case plan to “start over” in their approach to the investigation.

“We think that there was other reasons and other causes that caused this death,” Bland said. “Our job is not to find out who did it, that’s not what we do, we’re not law enforcement, we’re not doing a criminal case — we’re helping an investigation, and what we’re really trying to do is give a mother answers.” 

Bland announced on April 2 that Smith's body had been exhumed and a second autopsy had been performed. He did not specify who performed the autopsy.

"I now believe that Stephen can really rest at ease because SLED and our team are going to do everything possible to find out just how he died," Bland said in a statement on Twitter.

"I cannot thank SLED enough for making Sandy’s dream of exhuming Stephen and having a second autopsy be done become a reality and her pleas regarding Stephen for the last eight years to finally be heard," he added. "The state of South Carolina spent a significant amount of money this past weekend, ensuring a smooth and orderly exhumation."

Sandy Smith said in an interview with TODAY she hopes for peace, not closure in her son’s death: “It’ll never be closed because he’s forever gone.”

Is Stephen Smith’s death being investigated as a homicide?

On March 21, the law firm Bland Richter said in a press release that after eight years of Smith’s case being called vehicular manslaughter, SLED Chief Mark Keel said in a phone call that the agency was investigating Smith’s death as a homicide.

SLED spokesperson Renée Wunderlich confirmed the agency was investigating the case as a homicide, but added it has been investigating it as such since the case was reopened in 2021.

“SLED officials have revealed that they did not need to exhume Stephen Smith’s body to convince them that his death was a homicide,” Bland Richter wrote in a statement. “However, they will be present and participate in any exhumation of Stephen’s body to gather more evidence. We are committed to finding out what really happened, and getting the peace and justice the Smith family deserves.”

SLED previously said in a statement to NBC News on March 17 it had “made progress” in its investigation into Smith’s death and that it “remains active and ongoing.”

Ronnie Richter, Bland’s legal partner at the Bland Richter law firm, said during the March 20 press conference the legal team had nothing to say in response to Buster Murdaugh’s statement.

“We’ve not mentioned Buster’s name one time. This is not about Buster Murdaugh, so, this is about Stephen Smith,” Richter said. “There’s no reason to discuss Buster Murdaugh and there’s no comment to make back to Buster Murdaugh.”

Bland added: “As we sit here today, Buster is a victim — he lost a mother, a brother and now his father’s in jail. Buster, as we know, has nothing to do with this, and whatever is mentioned in the records, that’s what investigators are going to look at, but we have no knowledge at all about Buster or the Murdaughs having anything to do with this right now. We’re starting with a fresh set of eyes.” 

On April 3, Bland announced his law firm and Sandy Smith were offering a $35,000 reward for information that leads to an arrest in Smith's case. Bland said the funds are being allocated from the money raised from her GoFundMe page.

"The paramount issue here is to find answers for the Smith family," Bland said in a statement. "We won't stop until we do."