HAMPTON COUNTY, S.C. (WCBD) – The body of a teenager found dead along a rural Hampton County road in the summer of 2015 may be exhumed as part of an independent investigation into his death.
Sandy Smith, the mother of 19-year-old Stephen Smith, launched a GoFundMe with a goal of reaching $15,000 in hopes of conducting a second autopsy as she searches for answers into her son’s death.
Smith’s body was found along Sandy Run Road in the early morning hours of July 8, 2015. Investigators initially deemed it a hit-and-run. But the South Carolina Law Enforcement Agency (SLED) later announced it was reopening the case not long after the shooting deaths of Paul and Margaret Murdaugh based on the information it obtained through that separate investigation.
Details about those discoveries remain unknown and there are no known connections between the Murdaugh family and Smith’s death; however, it is known that Stephen Smith and Buster Murdaugh were one-time classmates.
Meanwhile, the GoFundMe far surpassed its goal, earning more than $65,000 in donations that would go towards his body being exhumed, the independent autopsy, and paying for a medical examiner that must be present throughout the process.
“I want to thank everyone who has donated and supported us from the beginning,” said Sandy Smith during a Monday morning press conference.
Now, she and attorneys Ronnie Richter and Eric Bland, who are representing the family, said they must petition a judge for approval before Smith’s body can be exhumed – something they hope to do in the next 10 days.
Smith’s car was found miles away with the gas cap opened – something often done to signal a vehicle has run out of gas. The problem, however, is that attorneys said Smith’s wallet was left inside the car – and he never made any phone calls to his family at the time.
“If you look at all the circumstances – leaving the wallet in the car, nobody would leave their wallet in the car unlocked … especially if you run out of gas,” said attorney Eric Bland. “Stephen would have made a phone call, or two, or tried.”
They also believe Smith would have made efforts to safely walk home.
“All these things lead us to believe, in addition to Stephen’s careful nature that he took in his everyday life, we don’t think he would be walking on a country road when there was a quicker way for him to get home, and he knows the area. He would have done it in a way that he wouldn’t have been seen,” Bland said.
Sandy agreed – Stephen would not have left his wallet behind and said he would have at least called his sister. “If he did have to walk home, he would have walked through the woods – and there was a corn field right there he would have walked through. He would make sure that he was not seen by anyone,” she said.
As for the crime scene, attorneys said there were no skid marks or vehicle debris that would have been consistent with a hit-and-run crash. These are details also documented in a report from the South Carolina Highway Patrol which initially investigated Smith’s death.
“Stephen had loose shoes on. If you are hit by a vehicle that is going fast enough, it’s going to project you. Your shoes are just going to fall off under the best of circumstances. His were lose and untied,” said Bland.
It’s now hope from the attorneys that a judge will approve their request to launch an independent investigation and exhume Smith’s body in a search for answers. The judge who will examine the petition to exhume Smith’s body must see appropriate cause to do so.
The attorneys are confident that the judge will side with them.
“I think the fact that there is so much public interest in supporting Sandy’s cause of trying to fund out really what happened, I would find it hard to believe that a judge would take the position, ‘no, we don’t want to give a grieving mother the answers that she’s looking for,’” said Bland.
For Smith, she simply wants to find the real reason for her son’s death “and the real ‘why,’” she said.