Stephen Smith was 19 years old in 2015 when he was found dead on a rural South Carolina road in what was officially ruled a hit-and-run, despite the incident report stating there was "no evidence to suggest the victim was struck by a vehicle."
Then state investigators reopened the case earlier this year after they found new information while looking into a double homicide that left a mother and son dead.
Now court documents have revealed Smith’s death appears to have been briefly mentioned last year in an unrelated lawsuit involving one of the murder victims – a member of a well-connected legal family in South Carolina’s coastal Lowcountry region.
The 2020 deposition of Connor Cook was publicly unveiled this week as part of court proceedings against state and local investigators involved in the 2019 boat crash that killed Mallory Beach in a river near Parris Island.
Paul Murdaugh, 22, was awaiting trial on drunken boating charges in connection with the crash when he and his mother, Maggie Murdaugh, 52, were found shot to death on family property in Colleton County.
Cook’s lawyers had filed a petition in July seeking to depose officers who responded to the crash, alleging they may have conspired with "unknown others" to set him up as the fall guy in the deadly boating accident – although he was never charged.
SCDNR lawyers filed a response Wednesday, asking the judge to reject Cook’s request as "potentially frivolous" and arguing that investigators couldn’t have caused him any damages since they never charged him in connection with the incident. The only person charged in the crash was Murdaugh, with three felonies, on April 19, 2019.
Anything they get in, they get out of. I've always been told that.
In the filing, the SCDNR asked the court to dismiss the matter.
"As Connor Cook’s testimony reveals, he lied early and often to investigators, refusing, even to this day, to provide a statement to SCDNR indicating he knew Paul Murdaugh was driving," a filing from the SCDNR’s attorneys reads. "For these reasons and as described more fully herein, the Petition should be denied."
But Cook, in the newly unveiled deposition, said that he didn’t cooperate with investigators at the urging of Murdaugh’s father, Alex Murdaugh, a high-powered attorney with longstanding familial ties to the local prosecutor’s office.
"I hardly expected either police agency to send us a thank you note for willingness to evaluate their performance in the investigation," Joe McCulloch, an attorney for Cook, told Fox News Friday. "We are reviewing their position and will respond in court."
Beach died in the crash, and the other passengers were injured, including Cook, who broke his jaw. While he was in the hospital that night, he alleged that the elder Murdaugh approached him and told him not to tell investigators who was driving the boat, according to the deposition, which was recorded as part of a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Beach’s family.
"Why were you not upfront with the officers?" attorney E. Mitchell Griffith asked Cook during the deposition.
"Well, I was told for one by Alex Murdaugh that I didn’t need to tell anyone who was driving," Cook replied.
Later in the deposition, he claimed that the elder Murdaugh pulled him aside in the hospital hallway and told him "that everything was going to be all right. I just needed to keep my mouth shut and tell them I didn't know who was driving, and that he's got me."
Alex Murdaugh did not immediately respond to Fox News’ request for comment.
At another point in the deposition, Griffith asked again: "Why are you -- why were you scared to tell the truth?"
"Well, I was told not to, and being who they are, I was doing what I was told," Cook replied.
The Murdaugh family has a prominent law firm in the area and long ties to the local prosecutor’s office – controlling it for three generations before being succeeded in 2006 by a family friend and colleague, Duffie Stone, who still holds the job.
"Anything they get in, they get out of," Cook said in the deposition. "I've always been told that."
But when asked again why he was afraid of the family, Cook brought up two unsubstantiated rumors.
"One was said that Paul had pushed his housemate down the stairs, and she died, and nothing ever happened," Cook said. "And another one, there was something that Paul was supposedly involved with a guy, got found beat up in the middle of the road, that they got out of."
The deposition was recorded on Jan. 13, 2020. Paul Murdaugh and his mother were shot to death on June 7, 2021.
During the murder investigation, state authorities said that they found information that led them to reopen the probe into the 2015 death of Stephen Smith, 19. He was found with severe head trauma in the middle of a rural road near a Murdaugh property – and his death was officially ruled a hit-and-run accident even though state troopers at the scene wrote they found "no evidence to suggest the victim was struck by a vehicle" in the incident report.
The felony boating while intoxicated charges against Paul Murdaugh were dropped earlier this month as a formality following his death.
The family is offering a $100,000 reward for information leading to an arrest and conviction in the double murder.