The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division is investigating the death of Stephen Smith, a 19-year-old nursing student whose body was found in the middle of a South Carolina road in 2015, as a homicide, an agency spokesperson told CNN.
A SLED spokesperson also confirmed there were no indications in the investigation that Smith’s death was a hit-and-run – which is what an initial incident report deemed the death to be.
Smith’s body was discovered in Hampton County on July 8, 2015.
SLED announced in June 2021 it was opening the investigation into Smith’s death based on information learned while probing the murders of Margaret “Maggie” Murdaugh and her son Paul Murdaugh earlier that month. It has not given any details into what was found.
Authorities have not announced a connection between Smith’s death and the Murdaugh family, whose patriarch, Alex Murdaugh, was found guilty earlier this month and sentenced to life in prison for killing Maggie and Paul, on the night of June 7, 2021. Murdaugh has appealed his convictions.
During interviews in the case file from the initial South Carolina Highway Patrol investigation – released by the patrol to CNN – the Murdaugh name is mentioned dozens of times by both witnesses and investigators, including the name of Alex Murdaugh’s surviving son, Buster.
During one audio interview of a witness, then-Trooper Todd Proctor says, “Buster was on our radar. … The Murdaughs know that.” But why he was on their radar is unclear. Neither he nor anyone else has been charged in the case.
Buster Murdaugh, a former classmate of Smith’s, released a statement Monday – his first on the matter – denying any involvement in Smith’s death and “requesting that the media immediately stop publishing these defamatory comments and rumors about me.”
“This has gone on far too long,” his statement said. “These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false.”
An incident report from the state highway patrol indicated Smith had suffered blunt force trauma to the head.
While a pathologist cited in a SLED report said Smith appeared to have been hit by a vehicle, the responding officer referenced in a report by the highway patrol’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team noted there was “no vehicle debris, skid marks, or injuries consistent with someone being struck by a vehicle.”
Smith’s shoes were also both on and loosely tied, the report added, and investigators saw no evidence suggesting he was struck by a vehicle.
Notes from investigators in the case file say that “according to family, Stephen would never have been walking in the middle of the roadway” and that he was “very skittish.”
According to notes taken by a SLED investigator at the scene, Smith had injuries to his left arm, hand and head.
His vehicle was found about three miles away, that report said, with the gas tank door open and the gas cap hanging out on the side of the car. The vehicle’s battery was functional but the car wouldn’t start, the report added.
In a news release Tuesday, attorneys for Smith’s family praised the decision to classify Smith’s death as a homicide.
“We have a chance to right eight years of wrongs, and we intend to do just that,” attorney Eric Bland said in the release.
Smith’s family has raised more than $84,000 through a GoFundMe page for an exhumation and a private autopsy that Smith’s mother says will seek “a new, unbiased look at his body and an accurate determination of his cause of death based on facts.”
Smith’s mother and her attorneys said they will petition a court to proceed with exhuming Smith’s body, which requires a judge’s permission.
“Our job is not to find out who did it,” Bland told reporters in a virtual news conference Monday. “That’s not what we do, we’re not law enforcement, we’re not doing a criminal case … What we’re really trying to do is give a mother answers.”
The investigation will also involve looking at Smith’s life, Bland added, and what kind of communication the teen had and who he was associating with in the days before his death. Anything learned, Bland said, would be shared with law enforcement.
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