Sandy Smith felt vindicated. Finally.
Last week, at her home on a dirt road in rural Barnwell, S.C., she watched a TV interview with Todd Proctor, the man who led the investigation into her 19-year-old son’s death.
The former S.C. Highway Patrol trooper had recently told several media outlets that Stephen Smith’s 2015 death was likely a murder staged to look like a hit-and-run.
“He’s on my side,” Sandy Smith told The Island Packet. “Now I know I have people behind me since Proctor came forward. Now everybody knows I was not lying. It wasn’t just me seeing this was staged.”
The body of Stephen Smith, Sandy’s youngest son, was found in the middle of a rural road on July 8, 2015, near Hampton. He had a large wound on the right side of his head, above his eyebrow, according to police documents.
But the documents from 2015 show investigators were at odds over how he died.
The Hampton County Sheriff’s Office and the county coroner thought it was a homicide, but a medical examiner wrote in a report that Smith was hit in the head by a car mirror.
Smith’s case eventually went cold, and investigators did not find any suspects related to his death, according to police notes.
Sandy Smith, living in a mobile home in a small town 90 minutes from Beaufort, felt abandoned. The people who were supposed to be investigating her son’s death treated him like a nobody, she said. For years she’s heard countless rumors about what happened to Stephen, but nothing confirmed.
It “destroyed” her life, she said.
But last week, nearly six years after her son’s death, two S.C. Law Enforcement Division agents visited Sandy Smith’s home. They told her that, based on information gathered while investigating the June 7 murders of Paul Murdaugh and his mother, Maggie, SLED had decided to open an investigation into her son’s death.
“That was like the best day of my life in six years,” Sandy Smith told The Island Packet. “I was just so ecstatic. It was shocking.”
SLED has not said what exactly prompted the agency to open the investigation. In the wake of the June 7 double homicide, rumors have swirled about the Murdaughs’ possible connections to Smith’s death. But law enforcement has never officially linked the prominent legal family to his unsolved case.
Who was Stephen Smith?
Born on Jan. 29, 1996, Stephen Smith graduated from Wade Hampton High School in 2014, according to his obituary.
He was attending Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College and was studying to become a registered nurse when he died.
On Thursday, on the back porch of her home in Barnwell, Sandy Smith spoke glowingly about Stephen. He wanted to become a doctor, she said.
“He was intelligent,” she said. “He was an avid reader. Loved school. He was funny. He was the life of the party everywhere he went.”
Her son was also a gentle person who loved animals and “wouldn’t hurt a fly,” she said.
When a stray dog got hit on the side of the road, Stephen took it home and nursed it back to health, she said. She once saw him crawl into a culvert by her house one night to try to save two puppies.
“There will never be another one like him,” she said.
July 8, 2015
On the morning of July 8, 2015, Sandy Smith heard on the radio that a body had been thrown out of a car on Sandy Run Road near Crocketville.
She called her daughter, Stephen’s twin, Stephanie, and asked if she was OK. They were the youngest of her five children. That’s when she learned that Stephen had not come home the night before.
Hampton County Sheriff Thomas “TC” Smalls later informed Joel Fred Smith, Stephen’s father (who died less than three months later), that Stephen had been killed, Sandy Smith said. Police said his body was found between 3 and 4 a.m., she said.
They initially thought he had been shot to death, according to police files.
“It was devastating to hear that news,” she said.
Although police said it could have been a hit-and-run, Smith is adamant that Stephen would not have been walking in the middle of the road.
She thinks he was beaten somewhere and placed in the road.
“They laid him in that road like a piece of trash,” she said.
The afternoon after Stephen’s body was found, Sandy said she started hearing rumors that the Murdaugh family was involved in her son’s death. But neither she nor investigators have ever confirmed that.
The Murdaugh family name appears at least nine times in S.C. Highway Patrol notes during the investigation into Smith’s death, according to the agency’s investigative report, obtained by The Island Packet.
‘I’m still fighting’
For almost six years, Sandy Smith has been fighting to get justice for her son.
She’s written letters to lawyers, reporters, the U.S. Department of Justice and then-Gov. Nikki Haley’s office.
“Anybody we could think of, we wrote to,” she said. “I’m still fighting. Never gave up. Six years, still fighting. We still write letters every day.”
In 2017, two agents from the Federal Bureau of Investigation visited her home and spoke with her about Stephen’s death, she said. An agent took Stephen’s phone to Quantico to be unlocked and look for evidence, she said.
But for years she heard nothing.
“I want peace,” she said. “It’s just a struggle to think there’s people out here that’s supposed to be a voice for the dead, but they’re not a voice.”
And then, last Tuesday, Smith got the news she’d been waiting for. SLED was opening an investigation into her son’s death.
“I could deal with it better if I knew what happened and why it happened,” she said.
Asked if she thinks there will ever be justice for her son, Smith smiled.
“God’s got it. God’s working now,” she said. “Stephen was a human just like everybody else, and he deserves respect just like anybody else. He might not have been rich, but he was loved.”
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