The mother of Stephen Smith, whose unsolved death six years ago on a South Carolina rural roadside was reopened somehow in connection to the June double murders of Alex Murdaugh’s wife and younger son, is speaking out in new on-camera interviews this week.
The interviews come amid a new movement seeking justice for the openly gay teenager whose family still hasn’t been able to afford him a proper headstone.
"It’s the hardest thing you’ll ever have to do in your life. When people talk about heartbreak. It’s literally [heartbreak]," Sandy Smith told FOX Carolina standing at Gooding Cemetery in Hampton County.
Rumors and speculation have surrounded Stephen Smith’s death on July 8, 2015, when the 19-year-old’s body was found on Sandy Run Road in Hampton County with deep gashes to the head just before 4 a.m. His car was found on the side of the road just a couple miles away.
"The phone call was the hardest," Sandy Smith said. "As they were talking, I just couldn’t listen anymore. Then it was shock. And then the tears just wouldn’t stop. That’s what made it so strange that he would be out that late because he had class the next morning. Something was not right."
Authorities initially thought he had been shot, but days later a medical examiner ruled that he had been killed in a hit-and-run, attributing the head wounds to the force of being struck by a mirror on the side of a car or truck. The coroner also cited that there was no bullet found in the X-ray.
His mother has long believed it was a hate crime and her son was killed for being gay.
"I do think it was because he was gay," she said. "I said that from the beginning it was a hate crime."
It wasn’t until June 23 that South Carolina’s State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) opened an investigation into Smith’s death "based upon information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh." The agency has not disclosed the connection.
"It made me feel like they thought Stephen was nobody," Sandy Smith said of the delayed investigation. "And that we didn’t matter. But I wasn’t giving up and somebody was going to listen. I was trusting in God to make something happen. I knew He was going to make something happen, just didn’t know when. I just had to wait on His timing."
Smith, a 2014 graduate of Wade Hampton High School, had been classmates with Alex Murdaugh’s older son, Buster. The Smith family previously told police that Alex Murdaugh’s brother, a partner at PMPED law firm, which was founded by their great-grandfather, had reached out after Smith’s death and offered to represent the family for free – but they had declined, the New York Times reported.
"Sometimes there are secrets that mothers don’t know," Sandy Smith said. "Justice for Stephen… that’s what I’ve been looking for – for six years."
Susanne Andrews, founder of the new charity organization "Standing For Stephen Smith," told FOX Carolina she felt compelled to act after stumbling upon a Facebook post a few weeks ago showing Stephen’s gravesite with just a small cat sculpture and plastic placard with his name and dates of birth and death.
"I felt led to do something to help memorialize Stephen," she said. "This started out with just a posting of a picture of a gravesite and I have a 16-year-old, almost 17, and as a mom it just broke my heart."
"It’s surreal being here," she said in an on-camera interview at the cemetery. "He and his family deserve much more than they’ve been given and a better chance than what they’ve had."
Andrews’ father is the owner of Capital Courtland, the longest operating gay bar in the southeast and oldest in Columbia, South Carolina. He convinced the board members to host a fundraiser and silent auction on Oct. 30 to help raise money for a proper headstone for Stephen Smith. Proceeds will also help pay for a headstone for the slain teen’s father, Joel Fred Smith, who is buried next to him. Sandy Smith said her husband died just three months after Stephen from what she believes to be "a broken heart."
"This is to focus on Stephen, nothing else," Andrews said. "She’s a strong lady."
Alex Murdaugh dialed 911 to report coming home to find his wife, Maggie, and 22-year-old son, Paul, shot dead at the family’s hunting estate in Colleton County on June 7. No one has been named as suspects. Meanwhile, Alex Murdaugh has been charged with a botched suicide plot, allegedly hiring a hitman to shoot him in the head so that his surviving son could collect a $10 million life insurance policy.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, Curtis Eddie Smith denied knowing about the scheme beforehand.
A handyman and former logger, Smith said Murdaugh called the morning of Sept. 4 and told him to bring his truck over to Hampton County, never discussing the reason but assuming it was for yard word. Murdaugh, who is Smith’s distant cousin, soon drove by and honked for him to follow him, Smith told the Times in an interview at his home outside Walterboro, South Carolina.
They both parked alongside of the road outside of town and Murdaugh soon got out, produced a gun and told Smith, "I want you to shoot me in the back of the head," according to Smith’s account. He said he responded, "It ain’t going to happen." But when Murdaugh moved to shoot himself in the head, Smith grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his head before the gun suddenly went off.
Murdaugh fell to the ground with his hand over his head, and Smith, left holding the firearm, asked if he was alright before jumping back into his truck while swearing at the lawyer and fleeing the scene.
"I don’t know if betrayed is even the word for it," Smith said. "I thought of him as a brother, you know, and loved him like a brother. And I would’ve done almost anything for him. Almost."
Ten days would pass until Alex Murdaugh told state police that he hired Smith, whom he categorized as his former legal client and longtime drug dealer, to kill him. Murdaugh turned himself in on fraud charges and was released later that day, allowed by a judge to travel back to an out-of-state rehabilitation facility without GPS monitoring to treat a supposed opioid addiction
Stephen Smith and Curtis Smith are not related, Stephen Smith's family has said.