April 05, 2010 12:00 PM

David Smith lay down on his sons’ grave, tears pouring down his face. Michael and Alex had been gone for a long time, but on this night, the 10th anniversary of their murders, the pain was just too much to bear. “I put a gun in my mouth and begged God to give me the strength to pull the trigger,” says Smith. “I just wanted to be with my sons.”

It wasn’t the first time his grief had taken him to such a dark place, but it would be the last. That night Smith realized he did have something to live for: Their names were Savannah and Nicolas. “I thought about how blessed I was to have two more healthy, beautiful children,” says Smith, 39, “and how they would suffer if I killed myself. That will to live just got strong, and I knew if I made it this far I could keep going.”

But Smith’s journey has been a tough one. In October 1994 his life was virtually destroyed by a case that captured the nation’s emotions and brought a spotlight to his hometown of Union, S.C. His estranged wife, Susan, told police she’d been carjacked by a black man who had taken off with her two young sons still in her car. For nine days she made tearful pleas for their safe return, until admitting she let her car roll in the lake with Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months, still strapped in their car seats. Susan is serving a life sentence for murder at Leath Correctional Institution in Greenwood, S.C.

It hasn’t been easy, but somehow David Smith has slowly moved on: He has a new career as a commercial truck driver; in 2003 he married Tiffany Moss, 36, whom he was dating at the time of the murders (they met at the Winn-Dixie in Union, where they both worked). Most of all he revels in watching Savannah, 9, and Nicolas, 7, grow up. But for years Smith wrestled with his anger toward Susan, knowing it would eat him up until he forgave her. He spent the entire trial staring at her and thinking about killing her. He even went to see her in prison one time, hoping to find answers-but says he got nothing from her. To keep his emotions in check during the following years, he leaned on his wife for support, shared his devastation with friends and family and talked to his therapists, who helped him understand that forgiveness is something he must come to alone.

Another big step was leaving Union, the site of all that heartbreak. David now lives in a modest, one-story blue house with black shutters in Moore, S.C., about 25 miles from Union. Careful not to make his home a shrine to Michael and Alex, he hung only a large portrait of the boys in the dining room, has a framed picture of each in his bedroom and a sketch and painting drawn by strangers that hang on the walls.

Finally, around 2000, after years of taking small steps to move on with his life, Smith says, “One night I sat on the couch, took a deep breath and said, ‘Okay, I forgive her.’ It was a big relief. It lifted that burden off my soul.”

And while the anniversaries of the deaths still find him at the grave wishing his sons were with him, he no longer wants to die. Even family members say they’ve stopped worrying about Smith. “I don’t go to sleep and have him on my mind anymore,” said David Smith Sr., 63, a retired Wal-Mart manager in Pensacola, Fla. “For a while it was, every time the phone rings, what’s it going to be? We’re all fragile when we lose somebody the way he did.”

But while time may have eased his son’s pain a bit, the hurt will never be entirely erased. “There’s always this nagging and gnawing heartache,” says Smith Jr. “It’s there every day, even if I’m not always conscious of it.”

Ever since the tragedy, strangers have been seeking him out, asking for Smith for advice. “It’s like I’m on a pedestal and they’re reaching up to me for answers,” he says. “Sometimes I don’t know what to tell them. People can give you guidance, but in the end you’ve got to figure it out for yourself.”

Last year Smith began working on a follow-up to his 1995 bestselling book Beyond All Reason: My Life with Susan Smith. Digging up those searing memories hasn’t been easy, but Smith hopes that telling the story of his descent into suicidal grief and ultimately his resurrection will help others cope with their losses. He wants people to know that sometimes going through the worst pain of your life can help you find your strength. “If I’m having problems financially or a hard time at work, when I’d get to that breaking point, I’d think about losing Michael and Alex,” he says. “And I’d say to myself, ‘David, if you could make it through that, you can make it through this.’ And the problem would shrink down to nothing. In a lot of ways I feel like Michael and Alex taught me more in death than I ever got to teach them in life.”

A heartbreaking lesson, indeed. When divers found Susan’s burgundy Mazda Protege, the two boys were still in their car seats, hanging upside down. While Susan has always claimed she intended to kill herself but changed her mind at the last minute, Tommy Pope, the prosecutor at the time, still believes she killed her sons because her wealthy boyfriend-David and Susan were separated at the time-didn’t want a ready-made family. “She thought the kids were the only impediment to her having this wonderful life with a rich guy,” says Pope, now in private practice in South Carolina.

By the time Susan eventually confessed, David was not allowed to see his sons because their bodies were so badly decomposed. He buried them in one coffin because there was so little of them left. “It haunts me every day,” he says, “that I didn’t get to make peace, say goodbye, touch their little heads, stroke their little hands. She even took that from me.”

But losing two children has made Smith treasure every moment with Savannah and Nicolas. “I know they can be here one minute and gone the next,” he says. When they were babies he took them to the cemetery. He takes them back whenever they have more questions about their brothers. “They don’t know the whole story,” he says. “They’ve seen me cry over their pictures, so they know I miss them.”

Despite all the progress Smith has made, he knows he can’t totally escape the past. His ex-wife continues to make headlines, even from behind bars. In 2000 two prison guards were fired for having sex with her. In January she petitioned the state for a new trial (she is eligible for parole in 2024), saying she had inadequate counsel. Her mother, Linda Russell, defends her daughter’s behavior both in and out of prison, including her quest for a new trial. “I think anybody who is incarcerated can never give up hope,” says Russell, 65, a retired bookkeeper who still lives in Union. As for the murders of her grandchildren, she says, “I think at that moment in time Susan simply lost touch with reality.”

For David Smith, it’s the memories of his dead sons that keep him grounded, like when he recently took his skills test for his trucking license. “I was given three chances to park at an angle with a trailer,” he says. “I failed the first two times. I was on my third chance, and before I tried, I asked Michael and Alex for their help. And it was almost like they steered the steering wheel. I did it.”

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