The mother of an openly gay teenager found dead near the Murdaugh family home has issued a warning to her son’s killer, telling them: “I don’t care what your name is… you need to be punished.”
“I don’t care what your name is. That has no value to me,” Ms Smith told CNN’s Anderson Cooper.
“But who, whatever your name is, you need to be punished for what you did to my son.”
Ms Smith said that she is “open to the evidence” found during an investigation – but one thing she has always been certain of is that her son was murdered.
Back in 2016 she penned a letter to the FBI naming Buster Murdaugh – the son of a powerful legal dynasty – as the prime suspect in his murder.
The bombshell letter – which pointed to several witness accounts – resurfaced this week, just as Buster issued a statement denying any involvement in Smith’s death.
Investigators have never announced any connection between any member of the Murdaugh family and Smith’s death and no charges have ever been brought.
Smith, a nursing student and a classmate of Buster, was found dead on a road in Hampton County, South Carolina, in the early hours of 8 July 2015 – not far from the prominent Murdaugh family’s estate where Alex Murdaugh murdered his wife Maggie and son Paul six years later.
Smith, 19, had suffered blunt force trauma to the head and his car was found about three miles down the road.
At the time, his death was ruled a hit-and-run – a ruling that his mother, investigators on the original case and members of the local community disputed.
There were no skid marks around his body, no vehicular debris, and the victim’s loosely tied shoes were still on his feet. Police reports also revealed that some of Smith’s injuries were inconsistent with being struck by a car.
And yet the case was closed.
Then, in June 2021 – mere days after Alex Murdaugh gunned down his wife Maggie and son Paul on the family’s sprawling 1,700-acre estate on 7 June 2021 – the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) announced it was opening an investigation into Smith’s death.
This January, the agency said that “progress” had been made – but had provided no other details.
Then, on Tuesday, SLED made the bombshell announcement that the teenager’s death is now finally being investigated as a homicide.
Ms Smith said that she was “overwhelmed” by the development after she has spent almost eight years fighting for justice and answers about what happened to her son.
“I’m just overwhelmed. I have been fighting. This is what I have been fighting for. And I’m finally getting it. And I don’t know how to explain it, but I have a little bit of peace in my heart,” she told CNN.
Ms Smith reinforced her belief that her son – who was openly gay in the lowcountry – was targeted because of his sexuality.
“I’m open to the evidence. And the only dispute I had was that it was not a hit-and-run. And that’s what I have been saying from the beginning,” she said.
“And I felt my son was murdered, he was beaten to death, and I think it was a hate crime.”
Ms Smith’s attorney Eric Bland added that he believes the teenager’s murder was a hate crime.
“I think we had a courageous 19-year-old, openly gay young man who was a nursing student, who wanted to become a doctor, who had relationships that I think will come out with some very important people, some who were married. And I believe that he was killed for being gay,” he said.
“Remember, we’re in the Lowcountry of South Carolina, Anderson. We’re not in New York City or Philadelphia, where I grew up. And it wasn’t easy to be gay in Bamberg, South Carolina, not easy at all.
“And I just think that maybe a relationship that he had was going to be outed, or something happened in one of his friendships, or people just have such dark hearts that they just wanted to kill a gay boy. And I think it’s despicable. And I think that’s what’s going to come out.”
One day before SLED’s announcement, Ms Smith and her attorneys held a press conference announcing the launch of an independent investigation and Buster broke his silence to deny any involvement in his death.
The independent investigation came after Ms Smith managed to raise more than $70,000 through a GoFundMe campaign, spurred by an increased focus on the case following Murdaugh’s murder trial.
The funds will now be used for an exhumation of the 19-year-old’s body and a private autopsy.
Even after SLED’s announcement, Ms Smith said that she is still planning to get a new autopsy for her son.
“From the beginning, I have always said that the pathologist is a voice for the dead. And the one who finalised his death certificate, I do not believe that she gave justice to my son,” she said.
“She did not speak his voice – for his voice.”
For years, Ms Smith has accused officials of covering up what really happened to her son.
In a bombshell newly-surfaced letter, Ms Smith claimed that the investigation had been “derailed” by local investigators and the prominent Murdaugh family.
In the letter to the FBI, obtained by local outlet FITS News and released this week, Ms Smith reached out to the bureau in September 2016 asking it to investigate her 19-year-old son’s mysterious death.
The most damning revelation from the letter was that Ms Smith had named Buster as the prime suspect in her son’s murder 14 months on from his killing – but claimed that there was some sort of cover-up protecting the powerful family.
She wrote that an alleged witness had told a family member that Buster had murdered her son – by beating him to death with a baseball bat.
The unidentified witness – who claimed they were present during the murder – was then allegedly coerced into silence by Buster who threatened to kill them if they spoke up about what had happened.
The bombshell letter also claimed that Randy Murdaugh – Buster’s uncle and Alex Murdaugh’s brother – contacted Smith’s parents hours after his body was discovered and offered to represent them.
Ms Smith said that Randy then quickly stopped answering the family’s calls.
During the initial investigation, the Murdaugh name cropped up 40 times in official documents in the case and there has long been murmurs in the community that a “Murdaugh boy” may have been involved, Live5News reported.
Buster and Smith were classmates and there were rumours - albeit unsubstantiated - that the two had been in some sort of relationship around the time of his death.
Ms Smith’s attorney Ronnie Richter told The Independent on Tuesday that the letter was “written by a grieving mother who was starved for information and had only the rumour mill as a source so we’re trying to get better information this time”.
He added that the new independent investigation into Smith’s death will “not be influenced by the letter”, saying that the probe will take a fresh approach and start from scratch.
Buster’s attorney Jim Griffin acknowledged the receipt of The Independent’s email asking for comment about the letter and said he would be in contact if or when Buster decided to comment.
“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. I love them so much and miss them terribly,” he said in the statement.
“I haven’t spoken up until now because I want to live in private while I cope with their deaths and my father’s incarceration.
“Before, during and since my father’s trial, I have been targeted and harassed by the media and followers of this story.
“This has gone on far too long. 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. I am requesting that the media immediately stop publishing these defamatory comments and rumours about me.”
Ms Smith’s attorneys have insisted that the independent investigation into Smith’s death is not about any member of the prominent legal dynasty – but about taking a new look at the case from scratch.
“This is not an Alex Murdaugh 2.0 or any other Murdaugh 2.0. This is a Stephen Smith 2.0,” Mr Bland said at Monday’s press conference.
“This is about Stephen.”