Stephen Smith’s mother flagged Buster Murdaugh as a potential suspect in his murder in 2016 letter to the FBI

The mother of an openly gay teenager found dead in the middle of a road in South Carolina in 2015 named Buster Murdaugh as the prime suspect in his murder years ago, according to a bombshell newly-surfaced letter.

Stephen Smith’s mother Sandy Smith sent a letter to the FBI back in September 2016 asking the federal agency to investigate her 19-year-old son’s mysterious death in Hampton County.

In the letter, obtained by local outlet FITS News and released this week, Ms Smith wrote that an alleged witness had told a family member that Buster had murdered her son – by beating him to death with a baseball bat.

The unidentified witness – who claimed they were present during the murder – was then allegedly coerced into silence by Buster who threatened to kill them if they spoke up about what had happened.

The bombshell letter also claimed that Randy Murdaugh – Buster’s uncle and Alex Murdaugh’s brother – contacted Smith’s parents hours after his body was discovered offering to represent them.

Ms Smith said that Randy then quickly stopped answering the family’s calls.

In the four-page letter, Ms Smith outlines several other alleged revelations detailing how the investigation appeared to have been “derailed” by local investigators and the prominent Murdaugh family – to cover up her son’s murder.

Investigators have never announced any connection between the Murdaugh family and Smith’s death and no charges have ever been brought.

On Tuesday – after almost eight years of Smith’s mother fighting for justice – his death was officially ruled as a homicide.

On Monday, Buster broke his silence to address the “vicious rumours” around Smith’s death and denied any involvement in it.

“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,” he said in the statement released by his attorney Jim Griffin.

“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.”

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

The Independent reached out to the attorneys representing both Buster Murdaugh and Sandy Smith.

“It was a letter written by a grieving mother who was starved for information and had only the rumour mill as a source so we’re trying to get better information this time,” Ms Smith’s attorney Ronnie Richter told The Independent by phone on Tuesday.

“We just don’t know [what happened to Smith]... that’s the most troublesome part of the case, we don’t know.”

He added that the new independent investigation into Smith’s death will “not be influenced by the letter”, saying that the probe will take a fresh approach and start from scratch.

“But we don’t accept the conclusion of the case [that Smith was killed in a hit-and-run – that doesn’t corespond so what would you expect of a mother in those circumstances?” he said.

Mr Griffin acknowledged the receipt of The Independent’s email and said he would be in contact if or when Buster decided to release a statement or information.

Smith, a 19-year-old openly gay teenager and nursing student, was found dead in a road in Hampton County, South Carolina, in the early hours of 8 July 2015 – just 15 miles from the Murdaugh’s Moselle estate where disgraced legal scion Alex Murdaugh murdered his wife Maggie and son Paul six years later.

Smith had suffered blunt force trauma to the head and his car was found around 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 have long disputed.

There were no skid marks around his body, no vehicular debris, and Smith’s loosely tied shoes were still on his feet – all evidence which Smith’s family believes casts doubt on him being struck and killed by a vehicle. 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 murmurings in the community that a “Murdaugh boy” may have been involved, Live5News reported.

Buster, now 26, 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.

For six years after Smith’s death, the case was closed and there were no developments in the case.

Days after the 7 June 2021 murders of Maggie and Paul, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) announced that it was reopening an investigation into Smith’s death.

The agency said in January that “progress” had been made in the case but provided no other details.

Since Murdaugh was convicted on 2 March for killing his wife and son, attention has increasingly turned back to Smith’s case.

On Monday, Smith’s family held a press conference where they announced plans to exhume the 19-year-old’s body and conduct an independent autopsy.

“I hope to find the real reason for Stephen’s death and the real why,” said Ms Smith.

Ms Smith’s attorney Eric Bland insisted that the new investigation is not about any member of the prominent legal dynasty.

“This is not an Alex Murdaugh 2.0 or any other Murdaugh 2.0. This is a Stephen Smith 2.0,” he said.

“This is about Stephen.”

In a bombshell development one day later, SLED chief Mark Keel then informed the Smith family that his death was now being investigated as a homicide.

Attorneys Mr Bland and Ronnie Richter described the update as “extraordinary” and “a shocking announcement after eight years of being proclaimed a highway vehicular manslaughter”

They said that law enforcement did not need to exhume Smith’s body to reach the conclusion that there was foul play in his death.

“SLED officials have revealed that they did not need to exhume Stephen Smith’s body to convince them that his death was a homicide,” the attorneys said in a joint statement.

“However, they will be present and participate in any exhumation of Stephen’s body to gather more evidence. We are committed to finding out what really happened, and getting the peace and justice the Smith family deserves.”

“We have a chance to right eight years of wrongs, and we intend to do just that,” Mr Bland added.

With an investigation now under way to find Smith’s killer, new information is also coming to light about the initial investigation – and the information that was being relayed to the victim’s family.

Ms Smith’s 28 September 2016 letter to the FBI revealed what she believed may have happened to her son in the months after he was killed.

Buster, Maggie, Paul and Alex Murdaugh (Maggie Murdaugh/Facebook)
Buster, Maggie, Paul and Alex Murdaugh (Maggie Murdaugh/Facebook)

In the letter – sent around 14 months on from Smith’s death – Ms Smith wrote that the investigation into her son’s death was being “deliberately derailed” and that she “no longer trusted” law enforcement working on the case.

“It has been apparent from the first week of this investigation that authorities are covering up critical evidence, and we no longer know who to trust,” she wrote.

Ms Smith wrote that she and Smith’s father were initially told that her son was shot.

Then, they were told he was killed in a hit-and-run.

They were then told he was beaten to death but investigators told them to continue to say it was a hit-and-run as they didn‘t want to alert the killer, the letter states.

Ms Smith wrote that – on the day her son was killed – the first call came from law enforcement notifying her of his death and the second came from Randy.

“The second came very quickly the same morning from solicitor Randolph Murdaugh. In fact, he called my ex-husband’s cell phone as we waited in the police station for a positive identification,” she wrote.

“He said he heard of the case and was interested in working pro bono as a liaison between the family and investigators.”

Ms Smith said that they accepted the offer but remained “unsure why Mr Murdaugh wanted to help us”.

“We also weren’t sure how he found out so quickly – even before it was confirmed to be our son,” she said.

But – “after just a few interactions” – she said Randy stopped returning their calls.

It was around that time – just days after Smith’s death – that she said her son’s twin sister Stephanie Joyner was approached “multiple times by peers telling her that Solicitor Murdaugh’s nephews were responsible”.

This – and Randy’s sudden departure from representing them – raised the family’s suspicions.

From left, Randy Murdaugh; John Marvin Murdaugh; his wife, Liz Murdaugh; Brooklynn White; and Buster Murdaugh, the son of Alex Murdaugh, leave the courthouse during Alex Murdaugh’s trial (AP)
From left, Randy Murdaugh; John Marvin Murdaugh; his wife, Liz Murdaugh; Brooklynn White; and Buster Murdaugh, the son of Alex Murdaugh, leave the courthouse during Alex Murdaugh’s trial (AP)

Not long after that, Smith’s brother Chris was approached by the individual claiming to be a firsthand witness to his murder.

“The witness said they were out smashing mailboxes when they came upon Stephen, and Buster seized the opportunity,” she wrote in her letter.

“The young man [said] that Buster threatened to kill him if he ever spoke up. This information was given to investigators but nothing has come of it.”

The witness allegedly told Chris that Smith was killed because he was gay.

Ms Smith also told the FBI that she had been tipped off about a conversation between a schoolmate of Paul’s and school officials in which the classmate had “claimed to have knowledge of the murder and implicated Buster as the murderer”.

Instead of this information being passed onto law enforcement, it remained within the school and Paul changed schools not long after, she wrote.

Prior to his death, she said that her son had told friends he was “involved romantically with someone from a prominent family in the county who was hiding his sexuality”.

“The Murdaughs are probably the most prominent family in Hampton County,” she wrote.

Ms Smith also claimed that Buster got rid of his vehicle in the aftermath of the murder.

She wrote that she believes her son’s DNA could have been in the vehicle as – based on the lack of blood on the scene and the location of Smith’s own car – her son was “transported to that site” where his body was found.

Ms Smith also described how investigators had reportedly stonewalled the family about data they could have retrieved from her son’s phone.

She also claimed that the conclusions by the coroner – that Smith died by a hit-and-run – contradicted the evidence and beliefs of some of the initial investigators on the case.

Before contacting the FBI, Ms Smith said that she had contacted then-South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley.

Ms Haley – who is now running for president as a Republican candidate – responded and assigned new investigators to the case, she said.

But that probe also stalled.

For the last eight years, Smith’s mother has been fighting for answers about her son’s death and is now hoping that an independent investigation will provide answers.

Then, after Murdaugh gunned down Maggie and Paul on the affluent family’s sprawling 1,700-acre estate in Islandton, it shot to national attention.

Murdaugh was convicted of Maggie and Paul’s murder earlier this month and is now behind bars while awaiting trial on a string of financial fraud charges.