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The Murdaugh murders saga continues as Stephen Smith’s death is ruled a homicide

A former classmate of Buster Murdaugh died eight years ago in a hit-and-run. The suspicious death is now officially a homicide.

Sandy Smith holds a photo of her late son, 19-year-old Stephen Smith, on June 24, 2021.
Kacen Bayless/The State/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

South Carolina authorities now believe the death of Stephen Smith, part of the byzantine web surrounding the Murdaugh murders, is a homicide. This benchmark comes after years of mystery surrounding the circumstances in which the 19-year-old student ended up dead in the middle of a road on July 8, 2015. This development formally upgrades Smith’s death from an assumed hit-and-run accident, and arrives just one day after the primary suspect in the eyes of the public, Buster Murdaugh, denied any connection to the crime.

Authorities formally reopened the investigation into Smith’s death in June 2021, while investigating the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh, wife and eldest son to Alex Murdaugh, scion of the powerful Murdaugh family. The details of the new investigation were vague, with authorities stating only that the decision came “based upon information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh.” Alex Murdaugh was ultimately convicted in March 2023 and given a life sentence for both murders, after which a wave of new developments followed in the Stephen Smith case.

On March 9, a week after Murdaugh’s conviction, Smith’s family launched a GoFundMe to raise funds to have Smith’s body exhumed and independently autopsied. Within a matter of days, the fund had ballooned past its initial goal of $15,000 and currently stands at nearly $100,000.

As the campaign renewed attention in the case, Alex Murdaugh’s surviving son, Buster Murdaugh, spoke publicly for the first time regarding Smith’s death. “I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death and my heart goes out to the Smith family,” Buster said in a public statement released on March 20. For years, speculation that Buster and his father Alex were involved in Smith’s death swirled around the case, even appearing in high-profile documentaries about the case from Netflix and HBO. Buster, however, described the rumors as “baseless” and “defamatory.”

On March 21, however, attorneys for the Smith family announced that the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) had upgraded Smith’s death to a homicide. SLED also confirmed the new investigatory status to CNN, and noted that a previous medical examiner’s report indicating Smith had died from blunt force trauma to the head from a hit-and-run appeared to be inaccurate. On March 22, SLED further confirmed the status in a press release.

Exactly why the Murdaugh name is so closely connected to Smith’s death has never been clear. CNN reports, however, that in the South Carolina Highway Patrol’s initial case file of the investigation, “the Murdaugh name was mentioned dozens of times by both witnesses and investigators, including the name of Alex Murdaugh’s surviving son, Buster.”

The most commonly held popular belief is that Buster was dating Smith, who was openly gay, and that Smith was either the victim of a hate crime or a victim of the Murdaughs — Buster, Paul, and possibly their father.

In 2015, 19-year-old Smith was a nursing student at Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College. On July 8, he phoned his mother to tell her he’d run out of gas. Later that night he was found lying in the middle of the road, three miles away from his truck. His body had been “laid out in the middle of the road like a snow angel,” according to his mother, Sandy Smith.

Authorities with the South Carolina Highway Patrol (SCHP) initially reported that Smith was the victim of a hit-and-run after leaving his truck and walking to get gas, and closed the case accordingly. Initial reports showed he’d been struck in the head and arm, but other reports from police at the scene indicated that Smith might have been shot, and police also later noted that the scene looked “staged.” Smith’s family, meanwhile, was convinced Smith would never have been walking alone down the middle of the road at night.

Recent reports by SLED and highway patrol officers who attended the crime scene confirm that authorities on the scene immediately believed that Smith had been murdered.

“Before I could get out [of] the car, the coroner said, ‘No, no, this is not a wreck. It’s a murder,’” former SHP lieutenant Tommy Moore told ABC WCIV earlier this week.

“From SCHP case notes it was apparent that the SCHP did not believe Mr. Smith’s death was a hit and run by a motor vehicle,” the SLE press release stated.

According to SLED, medical examiner Erin Presnell determined Smith likely died from a hit-and-run, leading the SCHP investigation to spin its wheels, despite ongoing gossip that Smith’s death was no accident. It wasn’t until June 2021, when SLED was investigating the other murders related to the Murdaugh family, that authorities reopened the investigation into Smith’s death. Following the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh, the wildly popular Murdaugh Murders podcast delved into the tangled web of suspicious deaths surrounding the case; the show’s second episode explored the death of Stephen Smith.

So far, no charges or indictments have been issued, but the investigation is still open, and Smith’s mother has stated that the prosecution of Alex Murdaugh for the other murders gives her “hope that we will get justice.” Following the news that SLED was now treating her son’s death as a homicide, Sandy Smith told the Hampton County Guardian she’d been “waiting on this news for almost eight years.”

The news will likely make it easier for Smith’s family to receive court approval for the exhumation of Smith’s body. The family’s attorneys, Eric Bland and Ronnie Richter, stated in their press release that authorities “will be present and participate in any exhumation of Stephen’s body to gather more evidence.”

Bland and Richter further claimed that SLED chose to wait until after Alex Murdaugh’s conviction to announce the upgraded status of the investigation due to a belief that more witnesses might come forward after seeing the Murdaughs’ powerful, century-long political hold over South Carolina’s Low Country finally broken.

“SLED has also revealed on the phone call that they were waiting until the Murdaugh trial was over before making this announcement out of concern that witnesses would not be as forthcoming under the Murdaugh sphere of influence,” the statement read. “Since the conclusion of the Murdaugh trial, more resources have been devoted and will be devoted to Stephen Smith’s case.”