COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — A mother whose son was found dead in the middle of a South Carolina road eight years ago is opening a private investigation into his death after raising almost $90,000 amid the publicity surrounding the murder trial of Alex Murdaugh.
There is no current evidence linking Stephen Smith's death to the Murdaugh family, the lawyers for the mother say. State investigators, who are also looking into Smith's death, have remained tight-lipped about taking over the case around the same time police said Murdaugh killed his wife and son. He is serving a life sentence for those killings.
But the lack of evidence hasn't stopped speculation. And that attention in turn helped Sandy Smith raise in less than two weeks more than $87,000 through Go Fund Me. Her goal was $15,000 — enough to pay to exhume her son's body and have a private autopsy.
“It's important to me because I love my son and since I couldn’t protect him, I’m going to fight for him,” Sandy Smith told reporters Monday as her lawyers announced the private investigation.
Stephen Smith was found dead in the middle of a two-lane Hampton County road on July 8, 2015. His car with the gas cap removed and his wallet still inside was found a short distance away
The trooper who responded didn't think it was a hit and run, but the pathologist who did the autopsy theorized Smith was hit in the head by the side mirror of a passing truck that did not stop.
Police said it appeared he ran out of gas and was walking for help, but attorney Eric Bland, who is representing the Smith family, said Smith didn't make any calls on his cellphone and his shoes, which were tied loosely, were still on his feet. People hit by cars are often found without their shoes from the force of the wreck.
Smith's family thinks his injuries, including head injuries and a dislocated arm bent behind him, indicate he was beaten to death and dropped on the highway. There were no skid marks on the road or debris like broken glass or mirror parts found nearby, said Ronnie Richter, another lawyer for the Smiths.
State agents took over the case in 2021, though they have never said why they decided to do that or whether it is linked to information found during the investigation into the death of Alex Murdaugh's wife and son. Troopers typically investigate traffic deaths in South Carolina, where state agents typically investigate other crimes.
State Law Enforcement Division Chief Mark Keel reached out to Smith’s new lawyers to ask if they will share any new information they find through the autopsy or any other investigation, agency spokesperson Renée Wunderlich said.
“We do believe it was a murder,” Keel told The State newspaper on Tuesday night. “We don’t believe it was a hit-and-run.”
Investigators think people might be more willing to talk now that the murder trial is finished, said the Smith family attorney Bland.
The first step for the private investigation will be getting permission from a judge to exhume Stephen Smith's body. The backing of state agents would likely help that request.
Bland also hopes the private investigators can gather and analyze cellphone data from Smith and the people he was communicating with to reconstruct who he was hanging out with and what he was doing not just right before his body was found but also in the weeks before his death.
“Stephen had to live a secret life. Being young and gay in the Lowcountry was not an easy thing to do," Bland said.
Smith and Alex Murdaugh's surviving son, Buster, went to the same high school, leading to rumors that the Murdaugh family was involved in his death. Richter went out of his way this week to say they have no evidence Buster Murdaugh was involved in anything with Smith.
The talk has gotten so loud, Buster Murdaugh issued a statement Monday, saying he could no longer ignore the “vicious rumors” as he grieves “over the brutal murders of my mother and brother. I love them so much and miss them terribly. ”
He said he is being harassed and targeted by defamatory comments.
"These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false," Buster Murdaugh wrote in his statement. “I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death, and my heart goes out to the Smith family."