Two weeks after South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh was convicted in the brutal murders of his wife and son, the body of a teenager who was found dead on a country road near the murder scene six years earlier is now set to be exhumed.
Sandy Smith confirmed that the remains of her son Stephen, 19 at the time of his death, will undergo a private autopsy after a GoFundMe campaign raised $43,000 to pay for exhumation.
“It’s Stephen’s year,” Smith told NBC News and thanked donors for “not allowing Stephen’s story to be swept under a rug”.
Stephen Smith’s death has long puzzled South Carolina investigators, who reopened the case into what was originally ruled a hit-and-run accident last year after Murdaugh, 54, was charged in the murders of wife Maggie, 52, and son Paul, 22, last year.
The trial of Murdaugh on those killings captured the imagination of America – and the world – with its violence playing out against the corrupt politics of small town rural life in a dramatic slice of Deep South Gothic.
But the two killings were not the only deaths in the Murdaugh family circle as legions of online investigators attracted to the trial, along with numerous documentary makers, looked at other cases involving the clan.
An investigator’s report at the time of Smith’s death found he had “defensive wound” on his hand and a homicide investigation was opened. But a medical examiner wrote in a report that Smith’s cause of death was from being struck in the head by a car mirror.
After Murdaugh was arrested on murder charges, agents with the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, or Sled, said their investigation had triggered reviews into the other mysterious deaths with a connection to the Murdaugh family.
State investigators said it was opening an inquiry into Smith’s death “based upon information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation”. Last week, they said they had “made progress” in its investigation into Smith’s death and that it “remains active and ongoing”.
Smith’s body was found 15 miles from the Murdaugh property known as Moselle. Questions were raised after it was noted that he was found in the middle of the road, far from where his car had run out of gas, and he was still wearing loose-fitting sneakers, a detail inconsistent with being violently struck by a vehicle.
Separately, investigators with South Carolina’s highway patrol said they had received tips that son Buster Murdaugh may have been connected.
Buster and Smith reportedly graduated in 2014 from the same high school. According to reports, the highway patrol report in Smith’s death contains interviews suggesting that elder Murdaugh son should be questioned.
Some alleged that Smith, who was openly gay, and Buster were in a relationship, according to ABC 4. No member of the Murdaugh family has been directly named as being involved in Smith’s death.
“We feel it’s critical to seek a new goal – an independent exhumation and autopsy – and we’re launching Justice for Stephen N Smith with that immediate goal in mind,” Sandy Smith said on her n her fundraising page.
“We need a new, unbiased look at his body and an accurate determination of his cause of death based on facts. There was no debris in the road, and his injuries were not consistent with a hit-and-run,” she added.
Other deaths in the orbit of the once-powerful Murdaugh family that are now being more closely examined include that of family housekeeper Gloria Satterfield and 19-year-old Mallory Beach, who died in a boating accident in 2019 connected to slain Murdaugh son Paul.
State investigators have also said they would exhume Satterfield’s body as part of the investigation.
Last week, attorneys for convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh announced they plan to appeal his convictions and life sentences in the deaths of his wife and son in June 2021. The notice to appeal did not include arguments.