Years before disgraced South Carolina attorneyfor the murders of his wife and son, there was another mystery in Murdaugh country — the death of , a 19-year-old gay man whose body was found in the middle of a rural road on July 8, 2015. The medical examiner ruled it a hit and run.
For years, his mother Sandy Smith wanted a second opinion, convinced Stephen's death was no accident.
"There was no vehicle debris, no broken headlight … paint scrapes or anything," Hampton County Guardian editor Michael DeWitt Jr. tells "48 Hours."
Theuntil the murders of Paul and brought it back to life.
Frustrated by a lack of answers, Sandy Smith is working with a team of lawyers and experts to find out what happened to her son. "48 Hours" has obtained exclusive access to the findings of an independent investigation into Stephen Smith's unsolved death.
"The injuries can tell us so much about what happened," says Dr. Michelle DuPre, a former investigator and forensic pathologist who oversaw the examination of Smith's body. DuPre spoke to "48 Hours" contributor and CBS News national correspondent Nikki Battiste. Just as important as what they found, DuPre says, is what they didn't find.
A SON'S LAST WORDS TO HIS MOTHER
Like his mother Sandy, Stephen Smith was born a fighter.
Sandy Smith: He was a preemie. He weighed two pounds, 12 ounces. And —
Nikki Battiste: A twin?
Sandy Smith: Yeah, a twin.
Born at 27 weeks with his sister Stephanie, Sandy says Stephen couldn't breathe on his own. After several months, she was told he might not make it, and she was finally allowed to hold her baby for the first time.
Nikki Battiste: How was that moment?
Sandy Smith: Oh my gosh, it was amazin'. … it was supposed to be my goodbye. But he started breathin' on his own.
Nikki Battiste: 'Cause he felt you?
Sandy Smith: Yeah. … That's why he was my heart.
Sandy never dreamed she'd one day be fighting for answers in her son's death.
Nikki Battiste: How would you describe … the journey that you've been on for justice?
Sandy Smith: It's been a hard journey – just living day by day and fighting day by day.
On July 8, 2015, Stephen was found dead on a country road in Hampton County. It's the same county where three generations of Murdaugh men had held the top prosecutor job for nearly a century. The Murdaughs still loomed large over small-town life.
Nikki Battiste: Alex Murdaugh coached Stephen's baseball team at one point?
Sandy Smith: When they were little … I think Stephen was like … 7 or 8.
Stephen and Stephanie were also classmates of Murdaugh's older son Buster before Stephen went to nursing school with dreams of one day becoming a doctor.
Sandy Smith: He wanted to be a doctor … but it was more expensive … so he just started with nursing school.
Sandy Smith: He loved dealin' with medicine … he just loved it.
Nikki Batiste: You must have been so proud.
Sandy Smith: Oh, I was.
But instead, Sandy says those dreams were buried with her son.
Nikki Battiste: You decided to bury him in his scrubs?
Sandy Smith: Scrubs. Dr. Stephen Smith. He had everything he needed in his pockets. He had his stethoscope and everything he needed.
Stephen had just completed a semester of school and was taking summer classes, shuttling back and forth between his parents, who lived apart. He had visited Sandy a week before he was killed.
Sandy Smith: A storm started brewin'. … I told him that he needed to hurry up and get back to his dad's house … So when he made it he texts me and says, "I made it safe, Mom. Mama, I love you."
Sandy says those were Stephen's last words to her. Days later she would hear the news that would alter the course of her life.
Sandy Smith: July 8th I was on my way to work, and I was listenin' to a local radio station … and I heard that they had found a body.
Sandy called her daughter Stephanie right away.
Sandy Smith: She said 'Mama, did Stephen stay with you last night? Because he didn't come home last night." … And then my stomach dropped, and I knew it was him.
Sandy says Stephen's father Joel went to the sheriff's office for confirmation that it was Stephen. That's when she says they received a call.
Sandy Smith: I was on the phone with Joel the whole time while we were waitin' for the sheriff to come out. And that's when Joel asked me to hold on because Randy Murdaugh was callin'…
Randy Murdaugh is Alex Murdaugh's older brother and had been representing Joel Smith in a worker's comp case. But now, he was calling about Stephen.
Sandy Smith: When Joel got back on the phone, he said Randy … asked if that was our Stephen … and that … he wanted to help pro bono.
Nikki Battiste: Did you think it was strange that Randy offered to help pro bono?
Sandy Smith: Well, I did … But Joel thought it was a nice gesture.
Later that morning Sandy says she was surprised again as she drove past the scene where Stephen's body had reportedly been found.
Sandy Smith: There was Alex and Randy standin' on the opposite side of the road.
Nikki Battiste: Murdaugh?
Sandy Smith: Murdaughs.
A few minutes later, Sandy says Randy Murdaugh called again.
Sandy Smith: And asked if that was me that passed by. … He said, "I wish you'da stopped so I coulda' met you."
Randy Murdaugh declined our request for an interview. But through his attorney he provided a written statement to "48 Hours," in which he said:
"I was not aware of Stephen's death until Joel told me…They wanted my involvement, and I contacted law enforcement on their behalf."
Randy Murdaugh said he went to the scene with a private investigator after meeting with Joel and Stephanie, adding:
"Claims that I visited the scene of Stephen's death with my brother, Alex, are false."
Joel Smith passed away three months after Stephen. But Stephanie and Sandy told "48 Hours" they never asked the Murdaughs for help. And there were other things about Stephen's case that didn't sit well with Sandy from the moment the Sheriff confirmed the body was Stephen's. At first he told them Stephen had been shot.
Nikki Battiste: What were you thinking?
Sandy Smith: Who would shoot him? … It made no sense. … I lost it then. … I left my job and just drove back to Hampton … And we just mourned together. We just couldn't understand why or who…. it was just the biggest shock of our life.
Within hours, Stephen's cause of death was suddenly changed to a hit and run.
Thomas Moore: Toward the evenin' time we were contacted by the sheriff's office … after his autopsy there was not any type of bullet or bullet fragment found in his head … because his body was found in the roadway it was bein' ruled a hit and run.
Retired South Carolina Highway Patrol Lieutenant Thomas Moore was the on-scene supervisor.
Thomas Moore: I was told that the medical examiner … made that rulin.' I reached out to her. … It became a little bit heated. … "Give me an answer medically … that would lead you to believe he was hit by a car." … there was no medical reason.
Nikki Battiste: Did you see any signs of a hit-and-run?
Thomas Moore: No, ma'am … none. … any type of debris — any kinda glass, car parts … piece of plastic, anything that looks like it may be related to a vehicle.
Also unusual for a hit-and-run, Stephen's clothing was intact and his shoes, which were loosely tied, were still on.
Thomas Moore: Generally clothes are torn … or unraveled and shoes have come off.
And Stephen's car keys and cellphone were in his front pocket, unharmed. And, Moore says, Stephen's body appeared staged.
Thomas Moore: His body was layin' … like it had been placed in a certain position — not what you would typically see and … it looked like somebody had hit him in the head with some kinda' object.
Meanwhile, Stephen's wallet was still in his car, which investigators found three miles away with the doors locked and the gas cap hanging open.
Thomas Moore: In all the years I've worked – a car sittin' on the side of the road with the gas cap off … is not normal. … I thought it was staged, like his body was staged in the roadway.
Sandy says she wondered if Stephen might have been the victim of a hate crime.
Nikki Battiste: Did you think it was possibly because of his sexuality?
Sandy Smith: I did think that … I know he was teased a lot at school, but … he still held his head high.
But Sandy says in the days leading up to his death Stephen was worried about his safety. He'd called his sister Stephanie for help the day before he was killed.
Sandy Smith: Stephanie said … the battery cable was loosened on his car. … So she had met him … and then she tightened the battery cable, and she asked him to get out of the car and help her. And he said, "no, I'm not getting out."
Nikki Battiste: Like he was scared?
Sandy Smith: Right.
But he never said why.
Despite what Lieutenant Moore felt were suspicious circumstances, he says once Stephen's death was ruled a hit and run, it became the Highway Patrol's job to solve the case, instead of the Hampton County Sheriff's Office or SLED — the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.
Thomas Moore: I felt like the case, for lack of a better word, was bein' pawned off on us. … No matter what we said, we were gonna be the ones investigatin' that case. … As we were gettin' started certain names started comin' up.
Nikki Battiste: Which names?
Thomas Moore: Murdaugh.
RUMORS SWIRL OF MURDAUGH INVOLVEMENT
Soon after Stephen Smith was killed, Hampton County Guardian managing editor Michael DeWitt says he began hearing persistent rumors all over town.
Nikki Battiste: What are the rumors?
Michael DeWitt: That at least one Murdaugh child was in a vehicle with other boys and allegedly, somebody in the vehicle … struck the young man with a baseball bat and killed him.
Sandy says those same rumors hit her doorstep as soon as Stephen's body was taken for an autopsy.
Sandy Smith: It made no sense to me.
Nikki Battiste: At any point did you think that someone in thewas involved?
Sandy Smith: Well, the longer it went on, the more I was asking myself questions. … But I just couldn't find the connection … a powerful family, and then you got Stephen, who was just Stephen.
Sandy couldn't help but think back to her last conversation with Stephen a week before he was killed.
Sandy Smith: Somebody was messaging him a lot.
Sandy Smith: He told me that he was goin' … deep sea fishin'. … he said, "Key West." And I said, "Well, who are you goin' with?" He said, "Well, I can't tell you."
Nikki Battiste: Did that make you pause?
Sandy Smith: Yeah. … He said, "You'd be surprised. … it's kinda, like, a prominent person." And then all I could say was, "Well, I hope you have fun."
Sandy says Stephen had become more secretive the last couple of weeks. But it never crossed her mind he might be talking about a Murdaugh.
Liz Farrell: The original rumor was that Stephen was planning to go away with Buster Murdaugh and his family … That they were together romantically.
Liz Farrell is the writer and co-host of the "Murdaugh Murders" podcast.
Liz Farrell: There's no evidence of that that we know of.
And "48 Hours" found no evidence to support the rumors.
Retired Highway Patrol Lieutenant Thomas Moore says the mere mention of the Murdaughs made it difficult to get help from local agencies.
Thomas Moore: We … tried to hand that case file over to the sheriff's office, and they physically would not take it from our hand.
Michael DeWitt: The Murdaugh name was still very powerful, very well-connected in law enforcement. And the rumors suggested, well, the local cops aren't going to dig into it.
Instead, the case was handled solely by the Highway Patrol's Multi-disciplinary Accident Investigation Team — MAIT — which specializes in complex vehicle crashes.
Thomas Moore: The MAIT team was from out of town. … And — we wanted outside eyes involved in this.
The Murdaugh name appears dozens of times in MAIT's 2015 case file, which "48 Hours" obtained through a Freedom of Information request. In his audio notes, Corporal Michael Duncan makes it clear he doesn't think Stephen's death is a hit and run.
CPL. MICHAEL DUNCAN: There is no body trauma other than to the head area. … Does not appear to be, in my opinion, struck by vehicle.
Another investigator, Todd Proctor, goes further.
TODD PROCTOR: Typically you don't see the Highway Patrol working a murder, and that's what this is.
He hints at a conflict of interest for the local sheriff's department.
TODD PROCTOR: There's a reason why Hampton County Sheriff's Department is not handling this … And I'll leave it at that.
In this interview with Proctor, local teen Taylor Dobson shares a detailed version of that story about several young men in a truck.
TAYLOR DOBSON: I heard that these two, maybe three young men were in a vehicle. They were riding down 601, saw the car on the side of the road, I guess saw the boy walking. Um, they turned back around. … and stuck something out the window.
He offers a name reluctantly.
TAYLOR DOBSON: He goes by Buster Murdaugh.
Dobson says he grew up with Buster.
TAYLOR DOBSON: Kind of out of character to who I knew. … it's just strictly hearsay from all I know.
Proctor reassures him the Murdaughs are already aware authorities want to speak with Buster.
TODD PROCTOR: They know that he's on our radar.
TODD PROCTOR: Matter of fact, I talked to one of their guys yesterday and told them, you know, I'm going to talk to Buster here soon, you know? And they said, "OK, that's fine."
But according to the case file, a call to Buster Murdaugh in October 2015 was never returned, and In December, following a front-page story in the Hampton County Guardian, MAIT received a tip called in at the direction of Randy Murdaugh, Buster's uncle.
A man named Darrell Williams called a Hampton Police Officer to report the tip, which involved two teens — Shawn Connelly and Patrick Wilson. In a recorded phone call, the officer relays to Corporal Duncan what Williams told him.
OFFICER: Darrell called me and he said … Patrick come over here to the house. … He said … that Shawn Connelly was drunk and hit something … he went back the next day to see what it was he had hit. And he seen a lot of police out there ...
OFFICER: Patrick was crying, telling him. And after he got finished telling the story, he walked outside his house and threw up.
CPL. MICHAEL DUNCAN: … Did he go into any detail about how it happened? …
OFFICER: Supposedly he had … fixed his mirror … one of the mirrors up on the truck.
The side mirror story matched Stephen's original death certificate. For reasons that are unclear, there is no record of Duncan or Proctor ever speaking to Connelly or Wilson.
Wilson had no comment to "48 Hours." Messages to the Hampton County Sheriff's Office, Williams and Connelly have not been answered. Sandy Smith says she asked Shawn Connelly point-blank if he killed Stephen.
Nikki Battiste: And he said?
Sandy Smith: He said, "No, ma'am I did not … I give you my word, I promise you, I never killed your son."
Nikki Battiste: Do you believe him?
Sandy Smith: Yeah.
Nikki Battiste: If he lied to you — if that turns out to be the case –
Sandy Smith: It won't be the first time I'm lied to … but you know. If you did it, you need to pay.
In September 2016, fed up with what she calls the lack of an investigation, Sandy began a letter-writing campaign that included the FBI.
Nikki Battiste: What did your letter say?
Sandy Smith: I was just lettin' 'em know that … my son was murdered and there's no progress bein' done. And I think it had somethin' to do with the Murdaugh family … And please help, just please help me.
Sandy also told the FBI she believed someone was deliberately trying to derail the investigation.
Nikki Battiste: Did you ever get a response from the FBI?
Sandy Smith: I did. … and I had two agents come to my house.
She asked them to unlock Stephen's phone, and they did.
Nikki Battiste: Do you know if … anyone actually was able to read Stephen's text messages, or see where he might've been based on cellphone evidence?
Sandy Smith: What I heard from the FBI agent … there was— a lot of interesting information in the phone that needed to be looked at.
But she says that didn't prompt local or state authorities to pursue the case further.
Sandy Smith: There's somethin' in that phone that nobody wants out there.
By late 2016, the investigation into Stephen Smith's death went cold.
Nikki Battiste: What do you think it took for Stephen's case to finally get the attention it deserves, that you wanted?
Sandy Smith: Somebody else had to die.
A NEW LOOK A STEPHEN SMITH'S COLD CASE
The murders of Paul andin June 2021 caused a seismic shift in small-town Hampton and gave Sandy Smith a lifeline she desperately needed.
Sandy Smith: It took this … to get Stephen's name back out there so somebody would start payin' attention.
In a strange twist of fate, while investigating the murders of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh, SLED announced it had stumbled on a new lead in Stephen's death and would be taking over the case. They did not say what that evidence was.
Nikki Battiste: It seems like all roads lead to the Murdaugh family around here.
Sandy Smith: Yes.
Nikki Battiste: Is that coincidence, is there a reason for that?
Sandy Smith: Around here it's natural.
It would be another two years while authorities focused on getting. But Sandy now has a high-octane legal team in her corner.
Ronnie Richter: After eight years of waiting for your turn … Sandy Smith finally just had enough.
Eric Bland: Ronnie and I are like arsonists. We started the fire.
Ronnie Richter and Eric Bland are representing Sandy pro bono.
Eric Bland: Our sole goal was … to rekindle the interest in Stephen's death.
And they turned up the heat on SLED. In March 2023, SLED publicly acknowledged it was treating.
The same week,through his father's attorney, saying:
"… 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 …"
Eric Bland: Those words are now in cement. … I take him at his word that he had nothing at all to do with Stephen's death.
Rather than old rumors, Bland and Richter say they're focusing on a new investigation made possible by $130,000 in GoFundMe donations from Sandy's supporters.
Ronnie Richter: The resources were made available for us to do some private investigative work that's gonna start with … hiring … a pathology team.
They were also able have, something Sandy had wanted for years.
Ronnie Richter: Our primary function right now is to have a true independent set of eyes look at it and tell us, once and for all, what really happened to Stephen Smith.
In April 2023, Dr. Michelle DuPre, a former investigator and forensic pathologist who's performed more than 3,000 autopsies, oversaw the examination of Stephen's body.
Dr. Michelle DuPre: The injuries can tell us so much about what happened.
Nikki Battiste: And in this case they did?
Dr. Michelle DuPre: They did.
DuPre says the autopsy confirmed Stephen died from a single blow to his forehead, severely fracturing his skull.
Nikki Battiste: That's a big gash.
Dr. Michelle Dupre: That's seven-and-a- half inches, almost. … there would be another gash in this posterior area from hitting the pavement so hard.
Nikki Battiste: It literally split his skull.
Dr. Michelle Dupre: It split his skull.
They were also able to put to rest some rumors, including the one that Stephen had been beaten with a baseball bat.
Nikki Battiste: It wasn't a baseball bat?
Dr. Michelle DuPre: No. … those type of injuries would cause something that we call pattern injuries, and we don't see that here. … This is a linear fracture — as well as this is here (points to a diagram of the head).
Just as important as what they found, DuPre says, is what they didn't find.
Dr. Michelle DuPre: We didn't find fractures of any part of the body, except for the head. … There was a little road rash, which you would expect.
Nikki Batiste: Any signs of a struggle?
Dr. Michelle DuPre: No.
Nikki Battiste: Any signs of a beating?
Dr. Michelle DuPre: No.
Nikki Battiste: Any injuries below his head other than the road rash?
Dr. Michelle DuPre: None whatsoever.
She says that eliminates the possibility Stephen was hit by a car head-on. DuPre says the findings also refute early theories that Stephen's body might have been staged.
Nikki Battiste: Were you able to determine whether Stephen was struck and fell, or he might have been struck, and then placed there?
Dr. Michelle DuPre: We don't believe that he was placed there. We believe that … whatever happened — happened right there.
Dr. Kenny Kinsey agrees.
Nikki Battiste: You think he was killed right here?
Dr. Kenny Kinsey: Right there.
A crime scene expert and star prosecution witness in the Murdaugh murder trial, Kinsey worked with DuPre to analyze Stephen's case. He says the evidence at the scene is clear.
Dr. Kenny Kinsey: That's a massive amount of blood. And if he had that kind of injury somewhere else, it wouldn't be that uniform.
Due to their sensitive nature, "48 Hours" created versions of the crime scene photos in which the blood and body are shown as graphics.
Dr. Kenny Kinsey: The quantity of blood, the direction of the flow in the road, and then the direction of all … the - the blood on his person — led me to … the only conclusion.
Kinsey's convinced an object attached to a vehicle traveling at high speed caused the single fatal blow to Stephen's head.
Dr. Kenny Kinsey: Whatever hit him was fast and it was large.
Nikki Battiste: So a hit and run, but an atypical hit and run?
Dr. Kenny Kinsey: Yeah, very atypical.
A hit and run with no vehicle debris at the scene. It's a conclusion no one was expecting.
Nikki Battiste: How confident are you that you know what happened to Stephen Smith that night?
Dr. Kenny Kinsey: I'm as close to a degree of scientific certainty as I've ever felt.
What no one can say with certainty is whether Stephen's death was accidental or not. But, still, Richter points out, he was left there to die.
Ronnie Richter: Someone left him in that condition, in the roadway. … And — and that … is a very serious felony.
Stephen's body was found about three miles from his car. Kinsey tried to retrace his steps.
Dr. Kenny Kinsey: I wanted to walk every possible path that Mr. Smith may have taken.
Stephen's family has always insisted if Stephen had car trouble, he would have felt safer walking through the woods.
Nikki Battiste(walking along the road with Kinsey holding a flashlight): So, where was Stephen's car?
Dr. Kenny Kinsey: Stephen's car was located — if you look at this gate here, it was not grown up then, you could access that gate. But in this area … really close to the woods.
But to cut through the woods, Stephen would've had to scale a fence that was 8 feet tall.
Dr. Kenny Kinsey: And from what I understand from interviewing neighbors, it's been there for well over a decade.
Kinsey theorizes Stephen was walking along the road, trying to flag someone down for help.
Dr. Kenny Kinsey: He is walking this direction in the — in the lane facing traffic. … whatever was attached to the vehicle or hanging off of the vehicle … whenever it struck Stephen … he went down in — in this area somewhat on this line (lying in the road as Stephen was found).
Dr. Kenny Kinsey: The vehicle that struck Stephen was coming toward him just like that vehicle in the — photograph.
Nikki Battiste: Like this?
Dr. Kenny Kinsey: Yes, goin' that direction.
Kinsey says the evidence suggests the driver saw something in the road and changed lanes.
Dr. Kenny Kinsey: And sometime before it struck Stephen, I believe it changed into the oncomin' lane …
That's when he says an object from the passenger side struck Stephen.
Nikki Battiste: What kind of object could it be?
Dr. Kenny Kinsey: It could be anything. It could be a ladder … hangin' off the back of — a work truck. It could be a extended side mirror … the metal type that you see on some farm vehicles or some larger vehicles.
That scenario matches up with the tip from 2015 involving Patrick Wilson and Shawn Connelly, which Kinsey calls plausible.
Dr. Kenny Kinsey: That certainly would be possible … that would be one of the places I would start.
SLED has kept its investigation close to the vest, but Bland and Richter say a grand jury was empaneled and issuing subpoenas.
Eric Bland: They're honing in on specific individuals. And I think there's about five or less that SLED believes has information regarding Stephen's death.
We don't know who those individuals are. In an interview on Fox Nation in August 2023, Buster Murdaugh again denied the rumors of his involvement.
BUSTER MURDAUGH (on Fox Nation): I never had anything to do with his murder and I never had anything to do with him on a physical level of — of any regard.
He also provided an alibi.
BUSTER MURDAUGH (on Fox Nation): The night Stephen was killed I was at our Edisto Beach house … with my mom and brother.
INTERVIEWER (on Fox Nation): With your family?
BUSTER MURDAUGH (on Fox Nation): With my mom and brother.
Sandy's team says it's turned over all of its findings to SLED. But Kinsey says it's still going to take someone coming forward.
Nikki Battiste: Somebody knows?
Dr. Kenny Kinsey: Oh, they know. Yes, ma'am.
ALEX MURDAUGH'S FINANCIAL CRIMES
As a grand jury zeroes in on potential suspects in Stephen Smith's death, the legal wrangling hasn't slowed down for Alex Murdaugh.
Michael DeWitt: You've got local charges. You've got state charges. … the legal civil cases are gonna go on for years.
ALEX MURDAUGH (in court Nov. 17, 2023): I am guilty, yes sir.
On Nov. 17, 2023,that encompasses all of the state financial charges he faced for defrauding and stealing millions from clients and law partners. He had already pleaded guilty to 22 federal conspiracy, wire fraud, and money laundering charges.
Nikki Battiste: Alex preyed on the vulnerable whom he also thought would never figure out his schemes.
Eric Bland: Correct. … It's people that are at the worst times of their lives. … where you need a lawyer to be the best for you, not the worst for you.
Perhaps none more so than Alania and Hannah Plyler, who are now represented by Bland and Richter.
They were just 12 and 8 when they survived a deadly crash due to a faulty tire that killed their mother and 14-year-old brother in 2005, and became the youngest of the financial victims to whom Murdaugh admitted he lied and stole from when questioned at his murder trial.
CREIGHTON WATERS: Who were the Plylers?
ALEX MURDAUGH: They were two young girls from uh, Columbia.
CREIGHTON WATERS: What loss did they suffer? Who died?
ALEX MURDAUGH: Uh, their mother. Their mother did.
Nikki Battiste: He only mentioned your mom.
Alania Spohn: Yeah, that bothered me.
Hannah Plyler: That hurt.
Alania Spohn: You don't remember that a 14-year-old was killed in that wreck? … Alex … got a very good paycheck off of my brother's death.
Both women are now mothers, and Alania is a detective with the Lexington County Sheriff's Office.
Alania Spohn: Since all of this has come out … there's a lotta pain that's still there.
Alania was old enough to remember the details of the last road trip she and her sister would ever take with their mom and brother.
Alania Spohn: My brother and I had gotten into an argument … I wanted to start sitting in the front seat. … so we fought about it and fought about it. … And finally, mom was like, "You know what? … Justin's gonna ride on the way to Columbia. And on the way back home … Alania gets to ride up front." And I was so happy.
Alania and Hannah, who were still sitting in the backseat, survived the crash.
Nikki Battiste: You must think about that all the time.
Alania Spohn: I do. … I actually had a lotta guilt for several years.
That guilt is something she says she's learned let go, as she recounts her and her little sister's harrowing survival.
Alania Spohn: We hadn't been on the road too long. … Hannah was sleeping. … And I was listening to Usher. … And I remember mom sayin' … "Lanie, you awake?" And so I remember pullin' my headphones down. I said, "Yeah, mom." … within seconds I heard this loud pop. … And then I immediately heard my mom scream … I looked out the window, and my Usher CD was spinning on a tree limb.
Their mother Angela and brother Justin died instantly. Alania realized she was trapped and couldn't move and had to send Hannah for help.
Alania Spohn: I said, "I need you to get outta the car and I need you to go to the top of the hill to the interstate."
Nikki Battiste: And you're only 12.
Alania Spohn: I'm 12. Right. … so many things could've went worse.
Hannah, 8 years old, climbed up to the interstate.
Hannah Plyler: There was an 18-wheeler. And I was able to flag him down. …And I think by that point, an ambulance … came. … and they had taken me to the hospital.
Alania waited alone until the fire rescue team arrived and cut her out of the wreckage. She watched as they removed her mother and brother.
Alania Spohn: And so I watched them put them in a black body bag.
She was then airlifted to a hospital and would need numerous surgeries.
Nikki Battiste: What was the moment like when you were able to see each other again after that?
Alania Spohn: I remember it. I remember … hugging her and thanking her for not dying, for not leaving me.
Hannah Plyler: And then from there I was just in the hospital bed with you.
Alania Spohn: You couldn't keep us apart.
The sisters say they were passed around to live with family members.
Alania Spohn: We didn't have a bedroom.
Nikki Battiste: You just had each other.
Alania Spohn: We just had each other. Yeah. … We lived outta little plastic bins.
When a family friend referred the Plylers to Alex Murdaugh, he promised to change all of that.
Nikki Battiste: Do you remember the first time you met Alex Murdaugh?
Alania Spohn: Yeah … I remember when he walked in. … he seemed really arrogant … like a bulldog.
Hannah Plyler: Tall, almost intimidating in a sense.
Alania Spohn: He told us … "They took your family from you. And we're gonna make this right. They're gonna pay."
To two young girls who had lost everything, Murdaugh seemed larger than life.
Alania Spohn: I always felt at peace when I got to talk to Alex … people listened to him … You could tell there was a lotta control there.
Nikki Battiste: How did he earn your trust?
Alania Spohn: Really with his words. … he was a smooth talker. And … he made you feel special.
But once the case settled, the special treatment stopped.
Alania Spohn: He pretty much checked out. … he had explained that the case … had settled. … We won — big money.
Ronnie Richter: Alania's case settled for $4.7 million, you know … Hannah's for right at $3 million. That money was then entrusted to Russell Laffitte.
Laffitte was the CEO of Palmetto State Bank in Hampton and close friend of Alex Murdaugh, who'd hand-picked Laffitte to manage the funds as conservator until the girls turned 18.
Michael DeWitt: So these two very wealthy, prominent men … basically help themselves to these kids' piggy bank.
Any money they needed had to be approved by Laffitte and a judge.
Alania Spohn: Even if it was a dollar, we had to have a receipt for it.
Nikki Battiste: When you and Eric took on their case, what did you discover?
Ronnie Richter: Russell was making loans to Alex … Alex would be overdrawn $50,000, $100,000, $300,000 in his personal account, and he needed money to cover those shorts.
Richter says that at Murdaugh's direction, Lafitte transferred nearly $1.5 million from the Plylers' money to Alex Murdaugh and himself.
Michael DeWitt: When it came time for these young ladies to turn 18, the money was supposed to be there. So Alex had to go out and steal new money from different clients and put that money back.
Murdaugh was never charged for Hannah and Alania's case. But Lafitte was convicted on federal charges for his role.
Eric Bland: But, still, there is that toll of how do you trust going forward … people were put in a position of trust on their behalf when they were just children. And then, to learn as an adult that, the entire time … they saw you as nothing more than a checkbook.
While the Plylers can begin to heal Sandy Smith still waits for her day of reckoning.
Michael DeWitt: All this sweeping drama, there's answers and there's closure for everybody else, but not for Sandy Smith. … It's time to put the spotlight on Stephen Smith.
A MOTHER'S FIGHT FOR JUSTICE
Months after his blockbuster trial, convicted double murderer Alex Murdaugh and the "crime of the century" are still Hampton's biggest attractions.
Michael DeWitt: Almost every day somebody's coming by taking a picture of the law firm or riding out to Moselle taking pictures. … they just can't get enough.
The Murdaugh craze was on full display at an auction for the family's personal items from their. The infamous leather couch set where Alex testified he took a catnap while his wife and son were murdered sold for $30,000.
And Maggie's dog Bubba, who helped prosecutors prove Alex was actually at the crime scene, has become a local folk hero.
Michael DeWitt: If that … rambunctious yellow lab hadn't been … doing what … labs like to do, chase birds … we might not have solved this case and we might not have gotten a conviction.
Alex Murdaugh's voice calling Bubba was caught in the background of cellphone video Paul took minutes before he was killed.
Michael DeWitt: Bubba and the other dogs at the kennels … they were witnesses to a very horrific event.
Bubba now lives a quiet life with the Murdaugh's housekeeper. Meanwhile, Alex Murdaugh is serving two life terms in a maximum-security prison.
Nikki Battiste: Do you think Alex Murdaugh still thinks he can try to play the system —
Ronnie Richter: A hundred percent.
Now, Murdaugh's attorneys are hoping their latest motion will be a get-out-of-jail-free card.
DICK HARPOOTLIAN (to reporters) We're focused on getting him a new trial.
In September 2023, Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin announced their motion for a new trial based onby the Colleton County Clerk of Court Becky Hill.
JIM GRIFFIN: What we have filed today … supported by sworn testimony of jurors, is that the clerk of court had improper private communications with the jurors.
They argued that Hill violated Murdaugh's right to a fair trial when she allegedly told jurors not to be fooled by his testimony and to watch his body language, as Alex was about to take the stand.
In a signed affidavit, Hill denies all of the defense allegations. And voluntary statements from a majority of the jury support Hill's account. Richter and Bland say even a new trial can't save Alex Murdaugh.
Eric Bland: If the murder conviction's overturned, then you have … the financial crimes.
According to the plea deal with prosecutors, Murdaugh could be sentenced to nearly 30 years for the state charges alone.
Ronnie Richter: So yes, there's a theoretical universe in which Alex Murdaugh could see the sun again, but it's theoretical only.
Eric Bland: It's like rearranging … the — the deck chairs on the Titanic.
Ronnie Richter: It's futile.
Michael DeWitt: If you were to write a made-for-TV Southern legal drama … you couldn't have done a better job than this.
DeWitt writes about it in his book, "The Fall of the House of Murdaugh," which he ends with Stephen Smith.
Michael DeWitt: It's kind of … interesting … and tragic that the oldest story … remains unsolved. … Solving his murder … I think will be the end of … this sweeping saga.
As SLED continues its investigation of the Smith case behind closed doors, what investigators found after the Murdaugh murders remains the subject of intense speculation.
Nikki Battiste: Do you have any idea what the new evidence that may be presented to the grand jury is?
Eric Bland: No. Uh, I do know that SLED has Stephen's phone. I know that they have Stephen's tablet.
Could Stephen's phone reveal the identity of the prominent person with whom he told Sandy he planned to go deep sea fishing?
Eric Bland: That'll be interesting … what SLED has found out and what the grand jury's going to determine … whether the person that he was going to go away with deep sea fishing, um, had anything to do with his death or his knowledge of his death.
Nikki Battiste: How has this fight for justice been?
Sandy Smith: Oh, it has been a long road. But it's worth it.
Sandy is keeping the faith and keeping Stephen's memory alive. She recently established a college scholarship in his name.
SANDY SMITH ANNOUNCEMENT :We are starting this scholarship fund, so other children won't have it as hard as Stephen did.
And she's offering a $30 thousand reward for information leading to an arrest.
Sandy Smith Announcement: Now it's your turn that if you know something, that you say something.
Nikki Battiste: What do you miss most about Stephen?
Sandy Smith: (Sighs) I miss everything about him.
Nikki Battiste: What do you think Stephen would think of your fight and where we are today in his case?
Sandy Smith: He'd say, "Oh Mama, you would do that for me?"
Nikki Battiste: Yep.
Sandy Smith: Yep, I would. Over and over.
If you have information about the Stephen Smith case, please email firstname.lastname@example.org
Produced by Gayane Keshishyan Mendez. Emma Steele and Dena Goldstein are the field producers. Ryan Smith is the development producer. Richard Fetzer is a field producer.Ken Blum, Gregory Kaplan, Michelle Harris and George Baluzy are the editors. Peter Schweitzer is the senior producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive story editor. Judy Tygard is the executive producer.
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