The death of a South Carolina teenager who was found on the side of a rural South Carolina road around 15 miles from the home of now-convicted killer Alex Murdaugh is being investigated as a homicide, a state law enforcement agency said Tuesday.
Lawyers of the family of Stephen Smith, 19, said the homicide investigation was a major development. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) said it has been investigating it since 2021.
The official confirmation of a homicide investigation came almost three weeks after Murdaugh was convicted of killing his wife Maggie and son Paul in a highly publicized case.
Smith's Death Listed as Hit-and-Run Despite Lack of Evidence
No one was arrested or charged in connection with Smith's death. The 19-year-old was found around 4 a.m. on July 8, 2015. An autopsy report at the time listed the cause of death as being struck by a vehicle as Smith was a pedestrian, apparently walking after running out of gas, despite highway cops stating that they found no evidence of the usual tell-tale signs, skid marks and debris on the road.
The report written by South Carolina Highway Patrol investigators on the scene and contained in the Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation (MAIT) case file added: "The shoes were loosely tied, and both were still on. After consulting with MAIT we see no evidence to suggest the victim was struck by a vehicle."
Smith's death received renewed attention in 2021 when SLED said it was opening an investigation into his death "based upon information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh." Members of Smith's family also did not believe it was a hit-and-run and have now raised $60,000 to have his body exhumed for a private autopsy.
Buster Murdaugh and Stephen Smith were Reportedly in a Gay Relationship
There were rumors linking Alex's older son, Buster Murdaugh,to the death of Smith, who was his classmate. Following Smith's death, cops were tipped off about an alleged gay relationship between the pair which was being gossiped about at the local high school.
The reports alleged Buster allegedly killed Smith. These claims were even documented in documentaries by HBO and Netflix. Smith's mother Sandra also believed that her son may have been the victim of a hate crime and killed by the Murdaugh clan.
Sandra sent a letter to the FBI back in September 2016 asking the federal agency to investigate her son's death as homicide. She wrote that an alleged witness had told a family member that Buster had murdered her son â by beating him to death with a baseball bat.
The unidentified witness â who claimed they were present during the murder â was then allegedly coerced into silence by Buster who threatened to kill them if they spoke up about what had happened.
Smith Alleged Son's Investigation 'Derailed,' by Murdaughs in Major Cover-Up
In the four-page letter, Ms Smith outlined several other alleged revelations detailing how the investigation appeared to have been "derailed" by local investigators and the prominent Murdaugh family â to cover up her son's murder.
She alleged that she and Smith's father were initially told that her son was shot. They were then told he was beaten to death but investigators told them to continue to say it was a hit-and-run as they didn't want to alert the killer, the letter states.
During the initial investigation, the Murdaugh name cropped up 40 times in official documents in the case and there has long been murmurings in the community that a "Murdaugh boy" may have been involved. Prior to his death, she said that her son had told friends he was "involved romantically with someone from a prominent family in the county who was hiding his sexuality".
Buster Denies 'Vicious Rumors'
Buster, denied the "vicious rumors" that he was involved in Smith's death and said he wanted privacy to "grieve over the brutal murders of my mother and brother."
"I have tried my best to ignore the vicious rumors 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," Murdaugh said in a statement. "I love them so much and miss them terribly."
Buster said in his statement that before, during and after his father's trial, he has "been targeted and harassed by the media and followers of this story."
"This has gone on far too long," he said. "These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false. I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death, and my heart goes out to the Smith family."