On July 8, 2015, the badly injured body of 19-year-old Stephen Smith was found dead in the middle of a rural road in South Carolina, just 24 kilometres from the home of the now-infamous Murdaugh family.
The death of the openly gay nursing student was initially ruled a hit and run — but his family, and others, had doubts. Seven years later, Smith’s family is getting another chance at justice.
Family lawyer Eric Bland announced late Sunday night that Smith’s body was exhumed for a second, independent autopsy, then transported back to his final resting place over the weekend. The news of Smith’s exhumation comes on the heels of a successful GoFundMe effort by his family to raise money for the autopsy.
Bland said he believes that Smith can now “rest easy” knowing that “everything possible” is being done to find out how he died. The results of the autopsy have yet to be released.
Two weeks ago, South Carolina law enforcement announced that they were looking into Smith’s death as a homicide. The announcement was seen as a major development by Smith’s family, after the case into his death was reopened in 2021 when police were investigating the deaths of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh, members of a prominent local family.
Alex Murdaugh, the family patriarch, was found guilty of their deaths, his own wife and son, on March 2. Prosecutors said the disgraced lawyer killed the two family members to evoke sympathy to buy time to cover up alleged financial crimes that were about to be discovered.
The Murdaugh family murders have captured international attention — thanks in part to a Netflix documentary — and have been the subject of intense speculation, especially with regard to a series of other mysterious deaths in the family’s orbit.
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) said it reopened the case of Smith’s death in 2021 due to information it gleaned during the Murdaugh investigations, though authorities have so far made no official connection between Smith’s death and the infamous family.
Buster Murdaugh, the surviving Murdaugh son, made his first public statement after his father was sentenced to life in prison for killing 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 in late March. “I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death, and my heart goes out to the Smith family.”
Buster and Smith were high school classmates who reportedly graduated together in 2014. When the 19-year-old’s body was found near the Murdaugh home in 2015, investigators with South Carolina’s highway patrol said they received tips that Buster may have been connected.
Sources in the Netflix documentary Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal alleged that people in the local Hampton County community believed Smith and Buster were in a romantic relationship, and that the Murdaugh family wanted to cover it up.
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When the teen’s body was found on a rural Hampton County road, he was about three to five kilometres from his car, which had run out of gas.
There was no broken glass or debris around Smith’s body to indicate a car crash or hit and run, and Smith was found still wearing loose-fitting sneakers, which would have likely fallen off his feet if he had been run down.
Smith’s family didn’t believe the hit-and-run theory posited by authorities at the time, and never stopped looking for answers about his death.
This year on March 9, in the midst of Alex Murdaugh’s murder trial, Smith’s family launched a GoFundMe campaign to cover the costs of exhuming him and conducting an independent autopsy. The campaign quickly surpassed its goal of US$15,000 and has raised over US$120,000 as of press time.
In a March 16 update posted to the GoFundMe page, Smith’s mother wrote that the campaign had surpassed its fundraising goal and the family was going to move forward with the exhumation and autopsy.
“Thank you for not allowing Stephen’s story to be swept under a rug,” she wrote. “You have made this possible, and it means the world to us. This is Stephen’s year.”
Family attorney Bland on Sunday thanked the funeral home, coroner, excavators, doctors and SLED officers who assisted in Smith’s exhumation and autopsy.
Investigators are also looking into other deaths that surrounded the Murdaugh family, including the deaths of family housekeeper Gloria Satterfield and 19-year-old Mallory Beach, who died in a 2019 boating accident that stirred allegations against slain Murdaugh son Paul.
State investigators said they will also exhume Satterfield’s body as part of their investigation.