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Teen’s 2015 death a homicide inquiry after Murdaugh case, authorities say

Stephen Smith, who died in 2015 at age 19, was a classmate of Alex Murdaugh’s son, Buster, but lawyers for the Smith family say Buster “has nothing to do” with the investigation. (Credit: Sandy Smith/Facebook)
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The 2015 death of a South Carolina teen is being investigated as a homicide after the Murdaugh family murders led to his case being reopened, authorities and lawyers for the teen’s family announced Tuesday.

Stephen Smith, a 19-year-old nursing student, was found dead on a desolate road in Hampton County, S.C., in July 2015, in what was reported at the time to be a hit-and-run. His body was found about 15 miles from Moselle, the sprawling hunting estate in Islandton, S.C., owned by the Murdaugh family.

As the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) investigated the killings of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh, the agency said in 2021 that it was opening a probe into Smith’s death because of new information found during the Murdaugh inquiry.

Authorities have not shared details of what was found and have not said whether there is a connection between Smith’s death and the Murdaugh family. This month, Alex Murdaugh was convicted of murdering his wife, Maggie, 52, and son, Paul, 22, and was sentenced to life in prison.

Although Smith was a classmate to Buster Murdaugh, the family’s oldest son, lawyers for Smith’s family told reporters this week that Buster Murdaugh “has nothing to do” with the investigation. Murdaugh also vehemently denied this week what he described as “vicious rumors about my involvement in Stephen Smith’s tragic death.”

Buster, surviving son of Alex Murdaugh who was convicted of murdering his wife, Maggie, 52, and son, Paul, 22, testified on Feb. 21 in his father’s trial. (Video: AP)

SLED spokesman Ryan Alphin confirmed the status of the investigation to The Washington Post in a short statement Wednesday.

“The Stephen Smith case is being investigated as a homicide,” Alphin said.

The agency added that the investigation has shown there were no indications that Smith died in a hit-and-run.

Eric S. Bland and Ronnie Richter, the lawyers for Smith’s family, said in a news release Tuesday night that SLED Chief Mark Keel had called them to share the news as the state moves to exhume Smith’s body. Smith’s family believes he was murdered and has raised nearly $100,000 on GoFundMe to exhume his body.

“We have a chance to right eight years of wrongs, and we intend to do just that,” said Bland, who also represents the family of Gloria Satterfield, the housekeeper who died at Murdaugh’s property.

Family raises money to exhume body of S.C. teen found near Murdaugh home

The development in Smith’s death comes nearly three weeks after Alex Murdaugh was sentenced to life in prison in a story of money, power and politics that captured worldwide attention. Murdaugh, 54, who is expected to serve consecutive life sentences for four counts of murder without the possibility of parole, has appealed his convictions.

The case drew intense attention, aided not only by traditional local and national media but also by podcasts and docuseries from streaming giants including Netflix. Coverage of the Murdaugh murder trial also helped shed light on other fatalities that were directly or indirectly tied to the family.

The Alex Murdaugh murder trial, explained

In the early morning hours of July 8, 2015, investigators responded to a 911 call reporting that a body was lying in the middle of Sandy Run Road. Authorities observed a deep hole in Smith’s head and a “defensive wound” on his hand that led authorities to believe they were standing at the scene of a homicide, according to an investigator’s report obtained by the Island Packet. But that changed just hours into the investigation after an autopsy classified Smith’s cause of death as “blunt head trauma sustained in a motor vehicle crash.”

Smith’s family did not believe their son, a nursing student, was killed in a hit-and-run, and officials soon began to echo their concerns. Then, on June 23, 2021, SLED announced that it was opening an investigation into Smith’s death “based upon information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh.” The Murdaugh family name is allegedly mentioned several times in reports about the teen’s 2015 death.

As Alex Murdaugh’s murder trial prompted a wave of news coverage this year, Smith’s family launched a GoFundMe appeal for an independent exhumation and autopsy. The fundraiser, which set a goal of $15,000, had raised more than $87,000 as of early Wednesday.

On Monday, Buster Murdaugh spoke out for the first time about Smith’s death. A Netflix docuseries on the Murdaugh family speculated about the nature of the relationship between Smith and Buster Murdaugh. Alex Murdaugh’s eldest son denied the “baseless rumors” in a statement released through his attorney, Jim Griffin.

“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. He added, “I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death, and my heart goes out to the Smith family.”

Lawyers for the Smith family insisted this week that Buster Murdaugh is not involved in the homicide case.

“Our involvement in, our participation in this case, has nothing to do with Buster Murdaugh,” Richter told NewsNation on Tuesday night. “It does have everything to do with finding the ultimate truth and seeking the truth without regard to who’s involved.”

Sandy Smith, the teen’s mother, told the Hampton County Guardian in an email that she had “been waiting on this news for almost 8 years!”

“I’m in shock, I’m elated,” she said, “I’m waiting for the next chapter!”

Bland reiterated her excitement, saying it was time for the Smith family to get clarity, eight years after their son’s death.

“It is Sandy and Stephen’s turn for justice, and to finally get answers,” he said.

María Luisa Paúl contributed to this report.