The death of Stephen Smith is now being investigated as a homicide, a spokesperson for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division told CNN. The development comes almost two years after the killing of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh brought about new speculation about the 19-year-old nursing student’s death.
Smith’s body was found lying in the middle of the road in Hampton County on July 8, 2015. His death was ruled as a hit-and-run in the initial incident report and by the medical examiner’s report. The report said the cause of death was blunt head trauma sustained from being hit by a vehicle.
However, the SLED spokesperson confirmed that the investigation gave no indication that this was the case but didn’t provide further details.
SLED reopened the investigation into Smith’s death based on information learned from the murder trial of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh. Authorities have not announced a connection between Smith’s death and the Murdaugh family, whose patriarch Alex Murdaugh, was found guilty this month and sentenced to life in prison for the murder of Maggie and Paul.
However, South Carolina Highway Patrol’s initial investigation into Smith’s death shows the Murdaugh name mentioned dozens of times by witnesses and investigators, including Alex Murdaugh’s surviving son, Buster.
An audio recording of then-Trooper Todd Proctor said, “Buster was on our radar…The Murdaughs know that.”
Buster Murdaugh was a former classmate of Smith and released his first statement addressing the incident on Monday, “requesting that the media immediately stop publishing these defamatory comments and rumors about me.”
“These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false,” he said.
Initial reports say that Smith was walking along the road after running out of gas and then appeared to have been hit by a vehicle. However, a report by the highway patrol’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team noted there was “no vehicle debris, skid marks, or injuries consistent with someone being struck by a vehicle.”
According to investigators, Smith’s family said that Stephen was “very skittish” and “would never have been walking in the middle of the roadway.”
Smith’s mother and legal team have announced that they will exhume her son’s body and pursue a private autopsy. The family has raised more than $86,000 through a GoFundMe page for what Sandy Smith hopes will be “a new unbiased look at his body and an accurate determination of his cause of death based on facts.”
“What we’re really trying to do is give a mother answers,” Smith family attorney Eric Bland said to reporters at a news conference on Monday.
The investigation will also look into any communication the teen had and who he associated with in the days leading up to his death. Any information, Bland said, would be shared with law enforcement.