“We know that someone in the community is sitting on information that would materially advance this investigation.” — Atty. Ronnie Richter
The unsolved murder of Stephen Smith is taking center stage eight years after the 19-year-old was found dead in the middle of rural South Carolina road. And the Smith family attorney is asking those involved to come forward with information.
Now that Alex Murdaugh has been convicted of killing his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul, and the Mallory Beach wrongful death case is set for trial this summer, Stephen’s case is finally getting its due.
For many years, Stephen’s mother Sandy Smith felt like “she kind of kept getting pushed to the end of the line,” Attorney Ronnie Richter told The Interview Room. Ronnie and his law partner Eric Bland are representing Stephen’s mother, Sandy Smith.
On July 8, 2015, at 4 a.m., Stephen’s body was found on a rural dark country road. His car was found about three miles away. His cell phone was still in his back pocket, his car key in his front pocket. He left his wallet in the car. The gas cap on his car was left open.
“He is literally [lying] on the yellow line in the center of the road. The only injuries apparent at the time were head trauma,” Richter said. “So, no injuries from the torso down. No long bone injuries. No fractures of any kind.”
Despite that, authorities ruled his death a vehicular hit-and-run.
Sandy Smith’s turn
“For eight years, Sandy Smith, a mother blessed with common sense, blessed with maternal instincts, knows this is not true. There’s no way that a car could have struck Stephen and he wound land in the way he did with the injuries he had,” Richter said. “And yet for eight years, she’s been forced to accept that answer while other high-profile cases fall in line ahead of hers…Sandy is finally getting her turn.”
Highway Patrol vs. SLED
In South Carolina, the highway patrol has jurisdiction in vehicular incidents with serious injury or death. If it’s a homicide, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) has jurisdiction.
“Early on in this investigation, there was a disconnect there and for whatever reason this was viewed as a vehicular accident and not as a murder. For that reason, the investigation in 2015, it was SLED that was contacted. But they seemed to defer to the highway patrol” which led the investigation, Richter said. From there, things spiraled downward quickly.
Stephen’s autopsy was performed by Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC) forensic pathologist Dr. S. Erin Presnell, who determined the cause of death was vehicular hit-and-run. However, things got heated between her and the highway patrol investigators, who saw no evidence anywhere that Stephen’s death was caused by a vehicle.
Richter describes a “very tense exchange” in the investigative file between the two sides.
“The pathologist comes off, at least in the investigator’s notes, as being hostile and advancing a narrative about a motor vehicle accident. And it culminates with, if you believe the notes to be accurate, the pathologist basically saying to the highway patrol, ‘It’s your job to find out what happened to him. I’m just here to tell you cause of death.’ That’s a very odd exchange when you expect a spirit of partnership to exist between those agencies, not a spirit of acrimony.
“I don’t know if it was a disconnect between the two agencies…or whether something happened in that connection with MUSC that drove it off the rails…It feels like it got stuck between agencies somewhere, then got cold,” Richter said.
On June 22, 2021, SLED opened an investigation into Stephen’s death. Now that Alex Murdaugh is in prison for life for killing Maggie and Paul, SLED agents hope people who know what happened to Stephen will be more willing to speak freely.
Stephen grew up in the tight-knit rural Hampton County with a population of 3,500. He was a straight A student and a 2014 graduate of Wade Hampton High School. He was generally well liked. Stephen was attending Orangeburg Technical College in a nursing program and had a dream to become a doctor. And he was openly gay, which is something not widely accepted in this tiny Southern town.
From the beginning of Stephen’s case, it has long been rumored that allegedly Buster Murdaugh was possibly involved. Buster, through his attorney, has denied any involvement in the case.
Addressing those rumors, Richter said, “I’m aware of no credible evidence today to suggest that Buster Murdaugh had anything to do with Stephen Smith’s death. We heard directly from SLED Chief Mark Keel …during the investigation of the Murdaugh murders in 2021, something happened that they came across some thread, some evidence, we have no idea what, that caused them to take a fresh look at the Stephen Smith case.”
It was another Murdaugh — Alex Murdaugh’s older brother Randy, who is a partner in the Murdaugh law firm now called Parker Law Group – who showed up at the crime scene on July 8, 2015. Randy later called Sandy Smith offering his legal services for free with Stephen’s death case. Sandy wondered why she would need legal representation and declined the offer.
Exhumation & Independent Autopsy
Meanwhile, as the SLED investigation continues, Sandy Smith’s attorneys are leading the way to have his body exhumed for a new autopsy to be done. Sandy has raised more than $112,000 to date on GoFundMe to pay for the private exhumation and autopsy.
A judge must grant a permit to disinter his body, then transport it for a new forensic autopsy, before reintering it. SLED agents will be present for the exhumation and autopsy.
Sandy’s lawyers have assembled a team of local and national forensic pathologists to perform the autopsy, the results of which they will make public.
After the autopsy, it will be up to SLED to determine who was responsible for Stephen’s death. “We will liaison as best we can,” Richter said. “We have the resources to put our private boots on the ground, which we intend to do. We don’t want to do anything to impede or interfere with their efforts.”
A Public Plea
While we don’t know what evidence SLED uncovered while investigating the Murdaugh murders that led them to reopen Stephen’s case, Richter and Bland are committed to keeping Stephen’s case in the public spotlight. They hope it will prompt those involved to come forward and provide law enforcement with key information.
“We believe in these cases that sunlight is the great antiseptic,” Richter said. “If we’re out there constantly pushing the narrative. . . maybe we’re pushing people who should be talking into talking.
“If there is more than one participant in Stephen death…the first guy in gets the best deal [with the prosecution],” he said. “If these appeals ultimately break that person, if that person is listening to your podcast, don’t be the last guy in. Be the first guy in. The hope through a public appeal like this is it’s going to create that intensity…It may also publicly cause someone to share information that they’ve been sitting on.
“Sandy Smith lost her son eight years ago. It’s immoral to sit on this information,” Richter said. “If you have information that might be beneficial to get to the bottom of what happened to Stephen, talk to somebody. Talk to SLED. Call the state Attorney General’s Office. Call us. But don’t sit on that information. Please help Sandy Smith finally put this matter to rest.”
Anyone with information in this case is asked to call SLED at 803.737.9000 and ask for Investigative Services. Tips can also be emailed to email@example.com.
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