South Carolina police announced Wednesday that they are treating the inquiry into the death of 19-year-old Stephen Smith as a homicide investigation. The teen’s body was found in the middle of a rural road in 2015, about 15 miles (24 km) away from the home of the now-infamous Murdaugh family.
Smith’s death was initially ruled a hit-and-run but police reopened the investigation into his death in 2021 while they were looking into the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh. Earlier this month, Alex Murdaugh, the family patriarch, was convicted of murdering them — his own wife and son — in a case that chronicled the unravelling of the prominent South Carolina family.
Buster Murdaugh, the surviving Murdaugh son and one of Smith’s former classmates, earlier this week denied any involvement in the 19-year-old’s death.
The Murdaugh family murders have captured international attention — thanks in part to a Netflix documentary — and have been the subject of intense speculation, especially in regard to a series of other mysterious deaths in the family’s orbit.
On Wednesday, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) confirmed to multiple news outlets that it is investigating Smith’s death as a homicide.
A SLED spokesperson told CNN that there is no indication that Smith’s death was caused by a hit-and-run.
Lawyers for Smith’s family said the announcement of a homicide investigation was a major development.
Earlier this month, state investigators said they had “made progress” in its investigation into Smith’s death, which “remains active and ongoing,” though didn’t specify any details.
So far, no one has been arrested or charged for Smith’s death.
On July 8, 2015, Smith’s badly injured body was found in the middle of Sandy Run Road in Hampton County. When his family was told that Smith had been killed in a hit-and-run, they had doubts.
The body of the openly gay nursing student was found about two to three miles (three to five km) from his car, which had run out of gas, and there was no broken glass or debris around him that may have indicated a car crash. Smith was found still wearing loose-fitting sneakers, which would have likely fallen off his feet if he had been run down. These details fuelled speculation that foul play was involved.
Investigators with South Carolina’s highway patrol said they received tips that Buster may have been connected to Smith’s death. Sources in the Netflix documentary Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal alleged that people in Hampton County believed Smith and Buster were in a romantic relationship that the Murdaugh family wanted to cover up. The two reportedly graduated from high school together in 2014.
On Monday, Buster made his first public statement since his father Alex Murdaugh was found guilty of murdering his mother and brother to deny allegations that he was involved in Smith’s death.
“I have tried my best to ignore the vicious rumours about my involvement in Stephen Smith’s tragic death that continue to be published in the media as I grieve over the brutal murders of my mother and brother,” Buster said Monday. “I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death, and my heart goes out to the Smith family.
“I am requesting that the media immediately stop publishing these defamatory comments and rumours about me.”
Last week, Smith’s mother announced that a GoFundMe for her son had raised enough money to exhume his body and conduct an independent autopsy.
“Thank you for not allowing Stephen’s story to be swept under a rug. We will pursue the exhumation immediately and provide updates along the way,” the organizer wrote on the campaign page. “You have made this possible, and it means the world to us. This is Stephen’s year.”
The campaign has raised almost US$90,000 as of press time, far exceeding the initial goal of US$15,000.