Family wants to exhume body of Stephen Smith, conduct independent autopsy

HAMPTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCBD) – The mother of Stephen Smith, who was found dead along a South Carolina roadway in 2015, is working to raise funds to exhume her son’s body for an independent autopsy.

Sandy Smith launched a GoFundMe campaign with a goal to reach $15,000 in donations that would go towards exhuming his body, the autopsy, and a private medical examiner that she said would be required to be present through the entire process.

Smith said the family simply wants a new and unbiased look at his body to determine the true cause of death so that they can move forward and bring to justice those responsible for her son’s killing.

“We feel it’s critical to seek a new goal – an independent exhumation and autopsy – and we’re launching Justice for Stephen N. Smith with that immediate goal in mind. While the state can elect and fund an exhumation and new autopsy, it is our understanding that it would be carried out at MUSC, where his death was initially classified as hit-and-run despite no evidence to support it,” Smith said in the post.

Donations have since surpassed that goal. It currently sits at more than $30,000 in online donations.

Smith, 19, was found dead with a head injury along Sandy Run Road in Hampton County in July 2015. At the time, investigators said that it appeared Smith was hit by a vehicle while standing outside his vehicle that had run out of gas.

Despite multiple agencies being part of the investigation into Smith’s death – South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, Hampton County Sheriff’s Office, and South Carolina Highway Patrol – no suspect was ever identified.

Stephen Smith’s car found along Sandy Run Road after death, File, South Carolina Highway Patrol

The State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) later announced it was reopening its death investigation in June 2021 based on information that was gathered during a separate investigation into the shooting deaths of Paul and Margaret Murdaugh just weeks prior, of which Alex Murdaugh was convicted in March 2023.

SLED at the time did not elaborate on what exact findings caused the agency to open the new investigation nor provided any insight into a possible relationship between Smith’s death and the Murdaughs.

Shortly after SLED announced it was looking further into Smith’s death, News 2 obtained notes that revealed a trooper with the South Carolina Highway Patrol did not find any evidence that Smith’s death was by a hit-and-run.

“I saw no vehicle debris, skid marks, or injuries consistent with someone being struck by a vehicle,” wrote one investigator. “After consulting with MAIT, we see no evidence to suggest the victim was struck by a vehicle.”

Through a Freedom of Information Act request, News 2 also obtained 20 audio interviews between investigators and people familiar with the victim and the case. The consensus within the community seemed to be that a freak hit-and-run was not a valid explanation for Smith’s death.

“I know it kind of went back and forth and there were different rumors about it and him possibly getting hit by a car and this and that. Uh, he didn’t get hit by no car,” said one investigator during an interview.

The interviews reveal complicated web rumors, none of which could be fully proven or disproven by family members and classmates.

Case notes detail that within a month of Smith’s death, investigators began receiving tips linking him to Buster Murdaugh — the son and brother of the two Murdaugh family members who were shot dead in June.

“We didn’t know who did it, but we just heard that Buster did it,” said one man to investigators. “Everybody knows who Buster is and like his family and all that so it’s kind of shocking,” he added.

Investigators spoke with several people trying to backtrack to where the rumor originated.

“Did he say where he heard that from or how he was backing that up?” “No sir.” “He just said oh, I heard Buster did it?” “Yes, sir,” said one woman being questioned by an investigator.

Then, the Murdaugh name came up again — this time in connection to a different alleged suspect.

According to notes, investigators received a tip purporting to know the identity of Smith’s killer. When investigators spoke to the tipster, he confessed that “the reason he was passing this information on was because Randy Murdaugh [Buster’s uncle] told him to call.”

There are no reports or documents that show Buster investigated or questioned; the case went cold in 2016 until SLED and Highway Patrol reopened its investigation shortly after the Murdaugh family murders.

News 2 reached out to the State Law Enforcement Division on Thursday morning requesting a comment on the investigation. We are waiting to hear back.

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Author: Tim Renaud