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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Rachel Sharp

Stephen Smith’s body is exhumed after murder near Murdaugh home – as family offers $35k reward to catch killer

Sandy Smith/GoFundMe

The body of a teenager found murdered close to the Murdaugh family home in 2015 has now been exhumed – and his family has offered a $35,000 reward to catch his killer.

Stephen Smith’s body was excavated from his grave in South Carolina over the weekend so that a second autopsy could be carried out, according to the Smith family’s attorney Eric Bland.

Following the autopsy, officials “transport[ed] him back and then put[...] him back to his final resting place”, Mr Bland tweeted.

No findings from the autopsy have been revealed but it comes just weeks after the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) announced that Smith’s death had officially been ruled a homicide.

Smith, a nursing student and a classmate of Buster Murdaugh, was found dead on a road in Hampton County, South Carolina, in the early hours of 8 July 2015 – not far from the prominent Murdaugh family’s estate where Alex Murdaugh murdered his wife Maggie and son Paul six years later.

Smith, 19, had suffered blunt force trauma to the head and his car was found about three miles down the road.

At the time, his death was ruled a hit-and-run – a ruling that his mother, investigators on the original case and members of the local community long disputed.

There were no skid marks around his body, no vehicular debris, and the victim’s loosely tied shoes were still on his feet. Police reports also revealed that some of Smith’s injuries were inconsistent with being struck by a car.

During the initial investigation, the Murdaugh name cropped up 40 times in official documents in the case and there has long been murmurs in the community that a “Murdaugh boy” may have been involved, Live5News reported.

Buster and Smith were classmates and there were rumours – albeit unsubstantiated – that the two had been in some sort of relationship around the time of his death.

Smith’s mother Sandy Smith named Buster as the prime suspect in her son’s murder in a letter begging the FBI to get involved in the case back in 2016.

Stephen Smith was found dead in a road back in 2015 (Sandy Smith/GoFundMe)

In June 2021 – mere days after Murdaugh gunned down his wife and son on the family’s sprawling 1,700-acre estate on 7 June 2021 – SLED announced that it was opening a new investigation into Smith’s death.

This January, the agency said that “progress” had been made – but had provided no other details.

Last month – just days after Murdaugh was convicted of his wife and son’s murders – SLED announced that his death is now finally being investigated as a homicide.

Smith’s mother had raised over $100,000 for an independent investigation – including his exhumation and a private autopsy – through a GoFundMe campaign.

On Monday, her attorneys announced that some of the money was being used to offer a $35,000 reward for information leading to the arrest of the person or persons responsible for the 19-year-old’s death.

“To those who have knowledge of how Stephen died or was killed please come forward,” Mr Bland tweeted.

In a video statement released on Sunday night, Mr Bland confirmed that Smith’s exhumation had taken place, describing it as a moment where finally “we hear his voice”.

“This time is a very solemn time for Stephen. It’s very bittersweet,” Mr Bland said in a video statement.

“Stephen for many, many years I can only imagine was not so much at peace in his grave. He probably was pounding on his coffin to anybody who could hear ‘I was not hit by a car but I was intentionally killed’.

“And now we’ve told him we hear his voice.”

Ms Smith and her attorneys have said they believe the teenager was killed elsewhere before his body was dumped in the road to look as though he’d been struck by a car.

They believe he was targeted because of his sexuality as an openly gay teen in the lowcountry.

One day before SLED’s announcement about the case, Buster Murdaugh released a statement hitting out at the “vicious rumours” of his potential involvement and denying he had anything to do with Smith’s death.

Stephen Smith was found dead in mysterious circumstances in 2015 (Family handout)

“I have tried my best to ignore the vicious rumors about my involvement in Stephen Smith’s tragic death that continue to be published in the media as I grieve over the brutal murders of my mother and brother. I love them so much and miss them terribly,” the 26-year-ols surviving son of Alex and Maggie Murdaugh said in the statement.

“I haven’t spoken up until now because I want to live in private while I cope with their deaths and my father’s incarceration.

“Before, during and since my father’s trial, I have been targeted and harassed by the media and followers of this story.

“This has gone on far too long. These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false.

“I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death, and my heart goes out to the Smith family. I am requesting that the media immediately stop publishing these defamatory comments and rumours about me.”

Ms Smith’s attorneys have insisted that the investigation into Smith’s death is not about any member of the prominent legal dynasty – but about looking at the case from scratch and going where the evidence leads.

“This is not an Alex Murdaugh 2.0 or any other Murdaugh 2.0. This is a Stephen Smith 2.0,” Mr Bland said at a press conference in March.

“This is about Stephen.”

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