Investigative reports reveal search for clues in reopened 2015 hit-and-run case

The case file contains notes stating troopers did not see clues at the scene that would support a hit-and-run theory.
Published: Jun. 24, 2021 at 6:32 PM EDT
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HAMPTON, S.C. (WIS) - A look at the South Carolina Highway Patrol’s original report on a Hampton County hit and run shed new light on disagreement between investigators on what led to his death.

The body of 19-year-old Stephen Smith was found in the middle of Sandy Run Road early on the morning of July 8, 2015, according to the full report from the Highway Patrol’s Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team.

Troopers responded to Sandy Run Road early on the morning of July 8, 2015, where Smith’s body had been spotted by a driver.

That driver told troopers he saw something in the road which he initially assumed was an animal, then realized as he passed it that it was a man.

A report from the State Law Enforcement Division also included with documents obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request notes Smith had injuries to his left arm, left hand and head.

“A hole in the skull was located above the victim’s right eye,” the SLED report states. “It was still unclear at this time whether the hole as caused by a projectile.”

Troopers found Smith’s vehicle, a yellow 2013 Chevrolet Aveo, approximately three miles away from his body and noted in the report it was parked off of the roadway. Its gas tank door was open and the gas cap was hanging on the side of the vehicle, the report states.

The report stated the battery was functional but that the vehicle would not start.

Troopers, pathologist disagreed on circumstances of death

Stephen Smith was 19 when he died in what investigators called a hit-and-run in Hampton County...
Stephen Smith was 19 when he died in what investigators called a hit-and-run in Hampton County in 2015.(WTOC/Provided)

Initial reports indicated he died from blunt force trauma to the head and may have been struck by the mirror of a vehicle, which is what a pathologist would list as the likely cause of death.

The autopsy showed there was no gunshot wound.

But the case file contains notes stating troopers did not see clues at the scene that would support a hit and run theory.

“I saw no vehicle debris, skid marks, or injuries consistent with someone being struck by a vehicle,” reporting officer D. B. Rowell wrote in the original incident report dated July 8, 2015. “The victim’s shoes were loosely tied and both were still on. After consulting with MAIT, we see no evidence to suggest the victim was struck by a vehicle.”

In fact, handwritten notes in the case file state that one investigator was told the death appeared to be a homicide and SLED was taking over the case.

“I was advised there was a possible gun shot wound to the victim’s head,” the notes state.

An investigator who attempted to dig into the autopsy report indicated in notes that he got into a heated discussion with the pathologist who performed Smith’s autopsy.

The doctor said it was a hit and run based on his body being found in the middle of the road, the notes state.

“She had no evidence other than that for the statement being put in the report,” the investigator wrote.

The investigator asked the pathologist if someone with a baseball bat could have caused the injury and she said no, the notes state.

But when he asked if Smith could have suffered the head wound from being struck by a bat or other object held by someone in a moving vehicle, the pathologist answered, “Well, I guess it’s possible” and asked if a bat had been found as evidence.

The investigator notes that as he was leaving, the pathologist told him the report was “preliminary” and it was his job to figure out what struck Smith, not hers.

The investigator went on to say he discussed the autopsy report with the coroner on Aug. 18, 2015, and said the coroner stated he did not agree with the pathologist’s suggestion that Smith was struck by a motor vehicle.

The notes state the report listed the cause of death as “blunt head trauma, motor vehicle crash, pedestrian v. vehicle” but that the manner of death was “undetermined.”

“I would think that the blunt force head trauma would be the cause of death and the motor vehicle crash would be the manner the trauma was delivered to cause the death,” the investigator wrote. “The pathologist also states in the report, that in light of historical information along with the autopsy, these conclusions were made. To what historical information she possessed, I am unaware.”

SLED agent Michael Moscal told the investigator about trace evidence found on Smith’s clothing consisting of around 10 1mm single layer blue paint chips, the report states. Moscal said while he needed more paint chips to pinpoint a particular vehicle, a computer database indicated the paint could be from an industrial tool, dumpster or sign post. He also said Toyota used this particular paint on its vehicles from 1982 to 1988, the report states.

Family, friends say Smith acted strange shortly before death

The report also suggests a former boyfriend of Smith told police he received threatening calls after the funeral.

Smith’s twin sister told investigators her brother became secretive about two weeks before his death. But she said she knew of no one who had a problem with him.

His mother confirmed that he had become more secretive. She also told investigators she thought it was strange he had not been studying like he used to and was “playing hooky” from school.

Smith’s sister told investigators a friend claimed there was a green Jeep following Smith on the day or day before he died.

But Smith’s family insisted from the beginning of the investigation that he would never have been walking in the middle of the roadway, describing him as “very skittish,” the report states.

Smith case reopened as state police investigate Murdaugh killings

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division confirmed this week it had reopened the Smith case after discovering information in the investigation into the June 7 shooting of Maggie Murdaugh, 52, and her son Paul, 22.

SLED agents have not said what type of information they uncovered in the Murdaugh death investigation that would lead them to reopen the Smith hit-and-run case. But there are mentions of the Murdaugh name in the report.

Some people who knew Smith claim he knew the Murdaughs.

No one in the Murdaugh family was ever officially named or even implicated as a suspect in Smith’s death.

Yet another note in the case file mentions a tip that came from a man who claimed his stepson struck and killed Smith. The man claimed he was instructed to pass this information to investigators because “Randy Murdaugh told him to call,” the report states.

SLED has released no further details to explain why the Smith case was reopened.

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