Stephen Smith Couldn't Wait to Become a Nurse and 'Wanted to Make Something of Himself,' Cousin Says
Stephen Smith was studying to be a nurse at the time he died in July 2015. Police reports obtained by Inside Edition Digital detail conflicting theories on how the young man wound up dead in the middle of a road.
Stephen Smith was pursuing his dreams of becoming someone who could be relied on to help others when his life was violently cut short.
"He was in nursing school and he was so passionate about that," Stephen's cousin Connie Whitehead told Inside Edition Digital. "That's what he wanted to be."
Instead, the 19-year-old was found lying in the middle of the roadway with his head bashed in the early morning hours of July 8, 2015. A call came in just before 5 a.m. for a reported vehicle fatality, according to police reports.
At first, when police arrived they suspected his death was a result of a hit-and-run. Detectives speculated a truck had side-swiped him with a rearview mirror as Smith walked along the dark road, according to incident reports.
Smith's car was left nearly three miles from where his body was found and case notes said that "the gas tank door was open and the gas cap was hanging on the side of the vehicle."
Since the moment she found out her child was dead, Smith's mother, Sandy Smith, has been fighting for answers.
"She's been trying so hard to get information and all she gets is ignored," Connie said.
Smith's mother finally got the news she had been waiting for when this week, South Carolina authorities announced they are investigating her son's 2015 death.
But the family still has a lot of questions. Who was the last person he texted or called? Where is the evidence taken from underneath his fingernails? Why haven't authorities returned Stephen's phone?
And, most importantly, what really happened to Smith the night of his death?
The Hampton County Sheriff's office and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division were called to the scene that day in 2015, but the State and Highway Patrol ended up handling the case.
According to investigative notes from the Highway Patrol, officers had differing opinions on whether the young man was actually a murder victim.
An investigator at the scene said that he saw "no evidence of any car parts of pieces" to indicate a hit-and-run.
The investigator wrote in his case notes that Hampton County Coroner Washington, who was also at the scene, "immediately advised me it was a homicide," according to case notes.
He added that Washington and another assistant coroner noticed head wounds that may have been consistent with gunshots.
But Dr. Erin Presnell, an attending pathologist at the South Carolina Medical Center, ruled the death caused by "blunt head trauma sustained in a motor vehicle crash," according to the final autopsy report.
Hampton County Coroner Ernie Washington authorized the medical determination made by Presnell –– and the case was seemingly closed, documents said.
Washington is now retired and could not be reached for comment Friday. Presnell could not be reached after multiple attempts.
Investigator Todd Proctor visited Presnell to speak about Stephen's autopsy.
In his patrol notes, Proctor wrote that Presnell said she ruled it a hit-and-run because "he was found in the middle of the road." She said that "it was [Proctor's] job to figure out what struck [Smith], not hers."
Investigators have not linked Smith's death to any member of the Murdaugh family, whose family name and history has received attention in recent weeks with the double-homicide of Paul Murdaugh and his mother Maggie Murdaugh. But the Murdaugh family name appears in highway patrol notes multiple times, along with the names of others.
Sandy Smith, Stephen's mother, pleaded with authorities to look deeper into their child's death. She wrote to the FBI and the former governor at the time. But all of the roads were leading nowhere.
Then in 2019, news of a boating accident that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach started to gain public attention.
"When Mallory Beach happened, we had started renewing our outreach," Whitehead told Inside Edition Digital. "Now that we had something else in the news that people were interested in we tried to remind them that our story is still out there, too."
Stephen was buried in his scrubs. A new pair had come in the mail the day before he died, his family said.
"He wanted to make something of himself," she said, "He was doing really well and they just smashed it all away."
She continued, "He was so excited about being a nurse. He loved to read, he loved school, he loved his mom," she continued. "He was inseparable from his win sister. He just had his fun and was so playful."
"He was a sweet, sweet person."
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