Police documents in the newly reopened investigation of a Hampton teenager’s 2015 death show that investigators were at odds over how the 19-year-old was actually killed.
The unsolved case of Stephen Smith, who was found dead in the middle of a rural road on July 8, 2015 near Hampton, has come into renewed focus after the S.C. Law Enforcement Division reopened the case Tuesday.
SLED did so because of information gathered during the investigation into the double homicide of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh on June 7, a spokesperson confirmed.
Since the Murdaughs’ murders, speculation has grown about whether the family was involved in Smith’s death.
The same rumors have been around since 2015, but investigators never officially linked members of the family to his death, though the Murdaugh name appears nine times in the S.C. Highway Patrol case notes.
The death was originally thought to be a hit-and-run. But the Highway Patrol’s investigative notes show authorities argued with one another over whether Smith was the victim of homicide.
How did Stephen Smith die?
In the early morning hours of July 8, 2015, a 911 caller said he was driving on Sandy Run Road on his way to work when he spotted someone lying in the road.
The person was later identified as Hampton County teenager Stephen Smith.
To Hampton County Sheriff’s Office deputies and the county coroner, the cause of death was immediately apparent: homicide.
The teenager had a head wound consistent with being shot in the head, the coroner explained, according to one report. He also had a “defensive wound” on his hand.
The Highway Patrol investigator was cleared from the scene, and SLED came in to take over.
What began as a seemingly clear-cut homicide investigation became jumbled after Smith’s autopsy.
Two weeks after Smith was found dead, SCHP investigator Todd Proctor went to the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston to speak with a medical examiner about Smith.
The medical examiner, Dr. Erin Presnell, had written in a report that Smith’s cause of death was actually being struck in the head by a car mirror.
He said he came to speak with Presnell to “get some clarification.”
Proctor wrote in a report that Presnell stated first she was too busy to talk, then that he needed the coroner’s permission to speak to her about the Smith case.
Proctor told her he already had his permission and then asked about the change in Smith’s cause of death.
“I asked her why she stated that in the report and her answer was ‘because he was found in the road,’” Proctor wrote. “She had no evidence other than that for the statement being put in the report.”
Proctor writes there was no evidence of Smith being struck by a car.
“As I was leaving she stated that the report was preliminary,” according to Proctor. “And it was my job to figure out what it was [that] struck him, not hers.”
A few weeks later, Proctor detailed how he spoke with former Hampton County Coroner Ernie Washington. They both disagreed with the conclusions from Presnell’s report.
A different report states that Presnell said no evidence of a bullet was found in an X-ray of the body.
But no glass or debris from a car was found, either — not on the body or the area where Smith was found, the report states.
What’s next for Smith’s case?
The case went cold. Investigators did not find any suspects, according to the case notes.
Paul Murdaugh’s brother, Buster, was mentioned throughout the report, but no connection was ever established.
Other names were mentioned throughout, including a man who says he was in a relationship with Smith at the time of his death.
“There would never be justice for Stephen in Hampton County,” Sandy Smith, Stephen’s mother, told The State Media Co. in 2019.
Several attempts to reach Sandy Smith have been unsuccessful, but she told a Charleston-area TV station Tuesday:
“We’ve been waiting on this forever. … Stephen’s always been put on the backburner. … Stephen’s had no justice.”