Overview of Stephen Smith
As an openly gay teenager from Hampton, South Carolina, Stephen Smith was always cautious of the target that was put on his back.
But, that didn't stop him from living the authentic and happy life he dreamed of. Before his untimely death, Stephen was a Wade Hampton High School star-student. After graduating, he started studying at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College, looking to become a nurse with a bigger dream of becoming a doctor.
In the early morning hours of July 8, 2015, a man called 911 to report seeing a white teenager laying in the middle of Sandy Run Road — not moving.
When investigators first arrived on the scene, many of them, including EMS, noted that Stephen had a head wound on his right side that looked so severe that it resembled a gunshot wound. He was dead.
There was no evidence of a vehicular strike on the roadway where Stephen's body was found — no skid marks, glass, or vehicle debris that would be seen when someone gets struck by a vehicle. Also, investigators note that Stephen still had his shoes on when he was discovered, which is unusual for victims of hit-and-run crimes because the physics of that type of accident usually takes the shoes off of a person.
And yet, the hit-and-run theory has been re-told for years, further perpetuated after the original pathologist, Dr. Erin Presnell, said the 7.25-inch laceration on Stephen's forehead came from the side mirror of a vehicle.
Even as investigators on the scene openly disagreed with the cause of death, Dr. Presnell offered nothing to support her claim. Detectives were truly baffled, knowing Stephen's body was found in the middle of the road and not on the side where victims of that type of accident are often found.
Even more confusing to investigators is why Stephen's yellow Chevy was found 3 miles away on a different country road.
Investigators discovered the Chevy within hours of finding Stephen's body on July 8, 2015. The car's gas tank door was open, and the gas cap was hanging on the side of the vehicle. The battery was functional, however, the car wouldn't start. Furthermore, they found Stephen's wallet still in the car, which the family says is unusual.
Detectives still don't understand why Stephen ended up 3 miles from his car.
They dispute the theory that he would've walked that far from his vehicle looking for help when he still had his iPhone with him. His mother also said he was "skittish" and wouldn't be flagging down passers-by unless he knew them.
Now, investigators know at least that the initial classification of a hit-and-run is false, but they're still trying to figure out what caused Stephen's suspicious and gruesome death.
Almost immediately, the Murdaugh family name became intertwined with Stephen's case.
South Carolina Highway Patrol (SCHP) investigators note that while investigators were just getting their boots on the ground, both Alex Murdaugh and Randy Murdaugh came up to the initial accident investigation and got behind the yellow crime scene tape, let in by Hampton County Sheriff Office (HCSO) personnel.
It's still unclear why the Murdaugh brothers were there or how they heard of the death.
What's even more startling is that the Murduagh brothers were on the scene of Stephen's death before the Smith family even knew their son was dead.
After news about Stephen's death traveled around town in the weeks after, rumors about Stephen having a possible romantic relationship with Buster Murdaugh began to swirl. Many tips are called in, and a handful of other teenagers in the area who knew either Buster or Stephen are interviewed, but the case isn't taken much further.
By 2016, roughly a year after Stephen's untimely death, the case goes cold, and investigative efforts slow.
Stephen's case is getting national attention following the viral trial of Alex Murduagh, who was found guilty of killing his wife, Maggie, and other son Paul. Thanks to the newfound interest, the Smith family raised over $40,000 to exhume Stephen's body and get an "unbiased" autopsy.
Speaking in a press conference on the morning of March 20, 2023, attorneys for the Smith family revealed that they believe the 19-year-old died in a different location to where his body was discovered.
“We think he did not die on that road that night,” said attorney Eric Bland, adding that they “don’t expect it to be vehicular manslaughter." Bland added that they expect a new autopsy could “heed a different conclusion that maybe he was killed somewhere else."
On the same day, Buster Murdaugh put out a statement through his family's attorney, Jim Griffin, on Twitter, saying: "These baseless rumors of my involvement in Stephen's death are false." He said he has tried his best to "ignore the vicious rumors" but that the noise has become too loud.
"I haven't spoken up until now because I want to live in private while I cope with [Maggie and Paul's] deaths and my father's incarceration," he wrote, adding that he has been "targeted and harassed" by members of the media and the public.
Buster concluded: "I unequivocally deny any involvement in [Stephen's] death and my heart goes out to the Smith family."
Stephen Smith's Body is Exhumed
On March 31, 2023, Stephen's body was exhumed for a second autopsy as part of the murder investigation, considering the original autopsy ruled his death as a hit-and-run. His remains were put back to rest on Sunday, April 2, 2023. Many are anxiously awaiting the results.