Stephen Smith was found d*ead on a rural road in Hampton County, South Carolina on July 8, 2015. The 19-year-old’s car had run out of gas on Highway 601 and he was walking on Sandy Run Road near Crocketville, South Carolina when he was ki*lled; investigators believed that he was most likely walking to his home on nearby Joe Miley Road. Authorities initially believed that Stephen had been the victim of a hit-and-run accident, and the South Carolina Highway Patrol was placed in charge of the investigation.

Stephen, who had graduated from Wade Hampton High School a year earlier, had been on his way home from an evening class at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College when he was k*illed. He had always been a straight-A student and loved helping people, so his decision to go to school to become a nurse hadn’t been a surprise to anyone. A quiet teenager who loved to read in his spare time, Stephen’s dreams of a bright future were shattered in an instant that evening.

Those who knew Stephen were devastated by his de*ath and hoped that the person responsible would soon be identified and arrested. Felicia Walling, one of Stephen’s classmates, said that he had always been easy to talk to and a lot of fun to be around. “Stephen was a great person…he was always energetic. Even on his worst days, he made everyone around him feel special.”

Investigators said that Stephen had most likely died instantly; family and friends hoped that this was the case as they couldn’t stand the thought that he had suffered. Friend Betty Ferguson admitted that she had first been angered when she learned that Stephen had been kil*led. “I was so shocked…but I guess things happen for better reasons, and at least he’s in a better place.”

When his body was found, Stephen had a large head wound and a dislocated right shoulder, as well as bruising to his right hand. His phone and keys were found in his pocket, and there were no tears in his clothing. His shoes, although only loosely tied, were still on his feet, unusual for someone hit by a car, as the force usually propels the person up and out of their shoes. There was also no debris in the road like one would expect if Stephen had been hit by a car. There were no tire tracks, no skid marks, and most importantly, no pieces of a vehicle.

Months went by and the investigation into Stephen’s de*ath stalled. Detectives were unable to find anyone who had seen anything unusual on Sandy Run Road the night that Stephen was ki*lled, and they admitted that they had been unable to identify any persons or vehicles of interest.

Stephen’s mother, Sandy Smith, didn’t believe her son had been the victim of an accidental hit-and-run. According to Stephen’s de*ath certificate, he had died due to blunt force trauma to his head. Investigators said that he had likely been struck by the side mirror of a passing truck, but Sandy wasn’t so sure. “It just doesn’t make sense to me. He was struck in the head by a truck mirror? I just don’t see that happening, he would have gotten out of the way…he would have seen headlights coming and got off the road.”

Detectives determined that Stephen had been walking in the middle of the road and was nearly three miles away from his vehicle when he was ki*lled. Sandy noted, “The way his body was laying the road, with his arm dislocated and bent behind back behind his body, I just don’t believe that he was struck by the mirror of a vehicle.” There were no pieces of broken glass found on or around Stephen’s body.

Sandy wasn’t the only person in Hampton County who questioned the official account of Stephen’s de*ath. There were rumors that it might have been related to Stephen’s personal life. “Stephen was in the process of discovering himself and his sexuality. 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.”

Although Sandy wasn’t willing to provide any names at the time, in November 2015 she told a reporter that she believed she knew who was responsible for her son’s de*ath. “One of the guys who supposedly did this, Stephen told his twin sister that he had a fling with the boy. He also told me that he and this boy had a deep sea fishing trip planned for July.” Sandy believed that this young man had something to do with Stephen’s de*ath, likely because he didn’t want people to find out that he was gay.

Sandy thought that Stephen had been targeted by a group of people who had likely seen him while he was driving home from school. “I guarantee you that Stephen was not [walking] in that road. They took him from his car…these boys were coming from a baseball game and I think they were right behind him, so when he had to pull over, they were right there…the worst part is that some of the individuals responsible were Stephen’s classmates.”

If Sandy’s instincts were correct, the young men involved in the cri*me came from prestigious families who would be willing to do anything to protect them. “I had to go to the Governor to take my case because I wasn’t getting anything done here…there are too many big names for it to come back to Hampton. It’s going to require a change of venue.”

Although Sandy was certain that she knew who had ki*lled her son, she didn’t have any concrete proof and no arrests were made. She remained adamant that Stephen had been targeted for mur*der. “I talked to a state trooper who was at the scene and he told me there were no signs of a hit-and-run accident.”

Investigators had heard all the rumors that were circulating through the area, but it’s unclear how well they followed up on them. Some people wondered if detectives had been lax in their investigation because of some kind of prejudice against homosexuals. Sandy noted, “It doesn’t matter what his sexual preferences were, he was still my son…he was not messing with anybody and was going to school to better himself.”

As Sandy prepared for the first Thanksgiving without Stephen, she made a public plea for information about her son’s mu*rder. “I know when Stephen was born, but I don’t know exactly when he died. I know what his first words were, but I need to know what his last words were. I want to know who took my son from me.”

Some detectives were extremely skeptical of the idea that Stephen had been ki*lled in a hit-and-run, but Dr. Erin Presnell, the pathologist who had examined Stephen’s body insisted that was what had happened. Less than two weeks after Stephen’s d*eath, Detective Todd Proctor with the South Carolina Highway Patrol attempted to speak with Dr. Presnell about Stephen’s case. “As soon as Dr. Presnell came into the room she began in a negative tone stating that I did not have a meeting scheduled and she was very busy.” The interaction only went downhill from there.

Dr. Presnell told Detective Proctor that she could only speak to him if she had the consent of Hampton County Coroner Ernie Washington and told the detective to talk to him first. “I advised her that I had spoken with Coroner Washington the day before and she basically called me a liar and said she would call him right then. When I asked if she wanted to call from my cell phone, she backed off.” It was unclear why Dr. Presnell was so hostile to the investigator, and she refused to consider that Stephen’s d*eath was anything other than a hit-and-run.

Dr. Presnell indicated that the reason she believed Stephen had been hit by a car was because he had been found in the road. Detective Proctor told her that they hadn’t found any evidence to support the theory that Stephen had been struck by a vehicle and asked her if she thought a baseball bat could have caused the fatal injuries. She conceded that Stephen could have been struck by a bat held by someone in a moving vehicle but pointed out that no such weapon had been found. Detective Proctor noted, “As I was leaving, she stated that the report was preliminary and it was my job to figure out what it was that struck him, not hers.”

The investigation into Stephen’s d*eath went cold within a few months. Although Stephen’s loved ones did everything they could to remind the public that his mur*der remained unsolved, the story was never picked up by local news media and it would be nearly six years before there was any real public interest in the case.

Everything changed in June 2021, when Margaret Murdaugh and her 22-year-old son, Paul, were murd*ered. Newspapers all over the country then reported that Buster Murdaugh, Margaret’s older son, had long been suspected of being one of the persons responsible for Stephen’s dea*th; many believed that the Murdaugh family’s prominence had played a role in the fact that charges had never been filed. In the days following Stephen’s d*eath, detectives had received multiple tips pointing the finger at Buster, but he was never publicly named a suspect and no charges were ever filed. Instead, Stephen’s d*eath remained classified as a simple hit-and-run.

Investigators admitted that they had received tips indicating that Buster had been involved in a romantic relationship with Stephen but said they had never been able to prove this. Detective Proctor noted that some people in the area seemed to fear saying anything bad about a member of the Murdaugh family, noting that the family had enough clout in the area that some referred to the Lowcountry region of South Carolina as “Murdaugh County.”

Just days following the Murdaugh mur*ders, Sandy received a phone call from an investigator with the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division. Since she had been begging them to take another look at her son’s case for years, she hoped that the investigator was calling to tell her that the case was being reopened. She was shocked by what she heard. “They said they were looking into Stephen’s case because they have to see if my family is involved in the shooting of Paul and Maggie. What a slap in the face!”

It didn’t take investigators long to determine that Sandy and her family had nothing to do with the dea*ths of Maggie and Paul. In July 2022, Richard Alexander Murdaugh — better known as Alex — was arrested and charged with kil*ling his wife and youngest son. Maggie had spoken to a divorce attorney about ending her marriage to Alex just six weeks before she was k*illed; when he asked to meet her on the night of the murd*er, she texted a friend to say she thought it was fishy and that Alex was “up to something.”

Alex went to trial and was convicted of both mu*rders in March 2023, though he continued to maintain his innocence even after the guilty verdicts. The trial had made headlines around the world, however, and brought to light several other questionable de*aths associated with the Murdaugh family. One of these, of course, was Stephen’s. Three weeks after Alex was convicted, authorities confirmed that they were taking another look at Stephen’s de*ath and were investigating it as a homicide.

Sandy had been begging authorities to reopen her son’s case for more than seven years, and she was thrilled to learn that detectives were finally going to do so. In March 2023, Sandy’s lawyers confirmed that the case was no longer considered one of vehicular manslaughter; the State Division of Law Enforcement believed Stephen had been targeted for mur*der. Sandy admitted, “It’s a day I’ve been waiting for…Stephen was an amazing kid and he didn’t deserve to die this way. And I know somebody did it, and whoever did it needs to come forward and bring peace to this family.”

Sandy did not believe that Stephen had been k*illed on the road where he was found; she thought it was more likely he was k*illed elsewhere and his body was later dumped in the middle of Sandy Run Road to make it look like a hit-and-run. She was raising money to have Stephen’s body exhumed so that an independent autopsy could be conducted, but her lawyers noted that SLED officials indicated they didn’t need to have the body exhumed to be convinced that Stephen had been mu*rdered.

Officials admitted that they had quietly reopened their investigation into Stephen’s de*ath in June 2021, but they wanted to wait until the mu*rder trial was over “out of concern that witnesses would not be as forthcoming under the Murdaugh sphere of influence.” Now that Alex had been convicted, they felt it would be easier to get witnesses to cooperate with them.

Buster Murdaugh is adamant that he had nothing to do with Stephen’s d*eath. “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 d*eath are false. I unequivocally deny any involvement in his de*ath and my heart goes out to the Smith family.”

It should be noted that detectives have never named any suspects or persons of interest in Stephen’s d*eath and have never indicated that Buster is under investigation. While there have long been rumors about his possible involvement with Stephen, none of them have ever been confirmed. In October 2021, Andy Savage, a lawyer for the Smith family, admitted, “There are suspects we have in sight that are unrelated to Murdaugh…the focus any in the media have on Murdaugh may be unfounded.”

The only thing known for sure is that Stephen Smith was mu*rdered on the night of July 8, 2015. Sadly, the focus of much of the media attention has been on the Murdaugh family, rather than on Stephen. He is the only victim in this case, and his family has been waiting for justice for nearly eight years.

Stephen Smith was just 19 years old when he was k*illed in Hampton County, South Carolina on July 8, 2015. Stephen was a smart and friendly teenager who was going to school to become a nurse; he loved to help people and would have been a wonderful addition to the medical field. Although officials initially ruled that his de*ath had been the result of a hit-and-run accident, in March 2023, detectives confirmed that it is now considered a ho*micide. It’s possible that Stephen was targeted because he was gay, but as of June 2023 no suspects have been named and the case remains unsolved. If you have any information about Stephen’s de*ath, please contact the South Carolina State Division of Law Enforcement at 803–737–9000.

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