Authorities Say They Believed Stephen Smith's Death Was a Homicide as Far Back as 2021

At the time of his 2015 death, Stephen Smith was a 19-year-old college student who was studying to become a nurse

Authorities in South Carolina say they have believed Stephen Smith's 2015 death was a homicide as far back as 2021, according to a press release sent out Wednesday afternoon by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division.

The release stated that on June 23, 2021, the agency opened an investigation into Smith's death — which was initially ruled a hit and run — after agents from SLED "received information about his death and subsequently reviewed" the case file from the South Carolina Highway Patrol.

"From SCHP case notes it was apparent that the SCHP did not believe Mr. Smith's death was a hit and run by a motor vehicle," the SLED statement says.

SLED has said the investigation into Smith's death was reopened based on information obtained while investigating the killings of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh, the wife and son of Alex Murdaugh, who was convicted of the murders this month and handed two life sentences.

"SLED is investigating Stephen Smith's death as a homicide," SLED spokesperson Renée Wunderlich tells PEOPLE. "We've made progress in the investigation. The investigation remains active and ongoing."

Stephen Smith facebook no credit
Stephen Smith. Facebook

Smith was found dead with deep gashes to his head in the middle of a dark Hampton County road on July 8, 2015. His car was discovered three miles away with the gas cap off.

At the time of his death, Smith was a 19-year-old Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College student who was studying to become a nurse.

stephen smith's headstone
Stephen Smith's headstone. Courtesy Suzanne Andrews

Smith's mom Sandy Smith launched a GoFundMe campaign last week hoping to raise money to exhume his body for an independent autopsy to prove that he did not die of a hit-and-run.

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The GoFundMe has raised nearly $89,000 as of Tuesday evening.

"SLED officials have revealed that they did not need to exhume Stephen Smith's body to convince them that his death was a homicide. 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" Smith family attorneys Eric Bland and Ronnie Richter said in a joint statement.

The law firm added that during its phone call with SLED, the police agency revealed they wanted to wait until after Murdaugh's trial to announce that they had ruled Smith's death a homicide "out of concern that witnesses would not be as forthcoming under the Murdaugh sphere of influence."

Now that the disgraced lawyer's trial is over, Bland Richter Law Firm said more "resources have been devoted and will be devoted to Smith's case."

murdaugh family
Maggie, Paul and Alex Murdaugh.

Richter added that SLED is publicly backing Smith's mom Sandy in her "efforts to find out what really happened to her son. They have expressed their condolences to the Smith family and will continue to work diligently to bring those responsible for Stephen's death to justice. We are proud to be their partner in finding justice."

Smith's case was initially investigated by the South Carolina Highway Patrol before going cold in 2016, according to FITSNews. In that investigation, the Murdaugh name — a powerful local family known for their longstanding law firm — was mentioned dozens of times as possibly being connected to Smith's death, FITSnews reported. However, no member of the Murdaugh family was ever questioned in his death and no charges were ever filed.

On Monday, Buster Murdaugh, Alex's only surviving son, vehemently denied he had anything to do with the mysterious death.

"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," Buster, 27, said in a statement on Monday released through his attorney, Jim Griffin.

"I love them so much and miss them terribly," he wrote.

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