CHARLESTON, S.C. (WCBD) – In 2015, Stephen Smith was found dead with a head injury on a rural Hampton County road.
His death was investigated by the South Carolina Department of Public Safety but never solved.
On June 22, 2021, three weeks after the homicide of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh — members of a prominent Hampton County family — the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) announced it was opening a separate investigation into Smith’s death, “based upon information gathered during the course of the [Murdaugh] double-murder investigation.”
SLED agents did not elaborate on what exact findings caused the agency to open a new investigation.
The initial South Carolina Highway Patrol (SCHP) reports released on the 19-year-old’s death referenced a hit-and-run, but notes obtained by WCBD reveal SCHP troopers found no evidence to support the idea.
“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,” it reads.
Through a Freedom of Information Act, WCBD also obtained 20 audio interviews between investigators and people familiar with the victim and the case. The consensus within the community seemed also 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 a complicated web of 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 Murdaughs 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 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.”
The Murdaugh family has long reigned over Hampton County, with generations serving as Solicitors and others heading up a major law firm. Investigators struggled to extract information from members of the small, rural community, who had grown up under the watchful eye of the Murdaughs.
“You know a lot of people seem afraid to say the name Murdaugh and I understand that they are pretty big down there in Hampton… [But] my office is out of Charleston. I don’t work around Hampton. And I know that the Murdaughs are highfalutin around Hampton and some people would say have a lot of power, but that name doesn’t mean anything to me.”Investigator
In 2016, the case went cold. With no new leads, investigators struggled to move forward, despite their once-apparent resolve to get to the bottom of the case, no matter who was involved.
“Regardless of whether you liked Stephen or agreed with his lifestyle somebody killed him and his story deserves to be told and I am trying to get to the bottom of it and I don’t care where that leads or what your last name is,”
Five years later, the case has been picked up once again by SLED and the SCHP.