The death of a South Carolina man who was found on a rural road around 15 miles from the home of convicted killer Alex Murdaugh has been investigated as a homicide, a state law enforcement agency said Tuesday.
Lawyers of the family of Stephen Smith, 19, said the homicide investigation was a major development. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, or SLED, said it has been investigating it since 2021.
“SLED is investigating Stephen Smith’s 2015 death as a homicide and been investigating this since 2021,” agency spokesperson Renée Wunderlich said Tuesday.
The confirmation, which family attorneys said occurred in a phone call with SLED Chief Mark Keel, came almost three weeks after Murdaugh was convicted of killing his wife and adult son in a highly publicized case.
No one has been arrested or charged in Smith's death. His body was found around 4 a.m. on July 8, 2015, on a rural road in Hampton County, around 15 miles from the Murdaugh home.
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An autopsy report at the time listed the cause of death as being struck by a vehicle as Smith was a pedestrian, apparently walking after he ran out of gas.
Members of Smith's family do not believe it was a hit-and-run.
SLED said in a statement Wednesday that from the outset of its investigation, "the goal has been to find out how Mr. Smith died and find the person(s) responsible for his death. To that end, SLED Chief Mark Keel has assigned additional SLED Low Country Regional Agents to work this case in the hopes that those who may know what happened to Mr. Smith are more willing to speak freely now than they may have been in 2015 or 2021.”
An incident report and other investigative materials provided to NBC News indicate state investigators were wary early on that he was involved in a hit-and-run.
"The victim was found in the middle of Sandy Run Road deceased from some sort of blunt force trauma to the head," a reporting officer named D. B. Rowell wrote, adding, "I saw no vehicle debris, skid marks, or injuries consistent with someone being struck by a vehicle. The victim's shoes were loosely tied and both were still on. After consulting with [the Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team], we see no evidence to suggest the victim was struck by a vehicle."
However, a medical examiner later wrote in a report that Smith's cause of death was the result of being struck in the head by a car mirror, suggesting he may have been involved in a hit-and-run, The Island Packet had previously reported.
When a South Carolina Highway Patrol trooper went to interview the pathologist about a hit-and-run scenario, he wrote in his investigation that she was combative.
"I asked her why she stated that in the report and her answer was 'because he was found in the road,'" Trooper Todd Proctor wrote in 2015. "She had no evidence other than that for the statement being put in the report. She asked why we did not think it was a vehicle strike and I explained to her that we had no evidence of this individual being struck by a vehicle."
Smith's death got renewed attention in 2021 when SLED said it was opening an investigation into it "based upon information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh."
The agency did not say what that information was.
Alex Murdaugh, an attorney from a prominent South Carolina family, was convicted on March 2 of murder and other counts in the killings of his wife, Maggie, and their youngest son, Paul, 22.
Murdaugh was sentenced to life in prison without parole. He also has been accused of financial crimes.
The investigatory records involving Smith's death do include mentions of "rumors" and tips that investigators were chasing, including one involving Paul Murdaugh's older brother, Buster.
But no member of the Murdaugh family has been directly named as being involved in Smith's death, which garnered renewed attention after his case was included in media coverage and recent docuseries on HBO Max and Netflix surrounding the Murdaugh saga.
In a statement Monday, Buster Murdaugh sought to distance himself.
"These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false," he said. "I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death, and my heart goes out to the Smith family."
His statement came after Smith's mother, Sandy Smith, said she had raised enough money through online donations to pay for the exhumation of her son's body and an independent autopsy.
At a news conference Monday, lawyers helping Sandy Smith reiterated that it was about getting justice for her son and that "we have no knowledge at all about Buster or the Murdaughs having anything to do with this right now. We're starting with a fresh set of eyes."
Wunderlich, the SLED spokesperson, said Tuesday the investigation into Smith's death continues.