Shady details about the death of Stephen Smith, the 19-year-old found dead on a backcountry road near Alex Murdaugh’s family estate in 2015, continued to emerge Wednesday, with a former South Carolina trooper saying investigators ignored his determination that Smith was murdered.
Thomas Moore, a lieutenant in the South Carolina Highway Patrol, was one of the first officers to respond to the discovery of Smith’s body. He said it was clear to him that Smith was murdered, but the probe was quickly closed after a medical examiner concluded Smith died in a hit-and-run—just one of a series of questionable incidents surrounding the death.
“[I] explained to them why this was not a hit and run and tried to hand them the file, and they would physically not take it with their hands,” Moore told WJCL this week, referencing the Hampton County Sheriff’s Office. “I definitely think [Smith] was murdered; he was murdered there or murdered elsewhere and dropped there.”
Moore has called out the oddities of Smith’s death previously. Last year, he told HBO Max in a documentary—about convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh fatally shooting his wife and son—that he believed the Murdaugh family was involved in Smith’s death because of their bizarre actions in the aftermath and the nature of Smith’s injuries, which included a large wound to the right side of his forehead.
“When I get on the scene the Sheriff’s Department is already there, so is the coroner. I looked at his injuries, I walked the scene to look for vehicle parts. I mean, that road essentially was clean, nothing on it, no parts, no glass, no fragments, no anything,” he told HBO. “I was confident when I left, this is not a wreck, this is a murder.”
Moore added that other officers at his agency, which specializes in investigating crashes, also thought it was impossible Smith died in a wreck. But their expertise fell on deaf ears, Moore said, and investigators closed the case so fast it made him suspicious that “somebody’s trying to cover something up.”
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) reopened their investigation into Smith’s death in 2021 after making unspecified new discoveries while probing the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh. This week, SLED officials uncovered “an extraordinary disclosure,” according to the Smith family attorney Eric Bland.
Quoting SLED Chief Mark Keel, Bland said that discovery—which was not disclosed publicly—has convinced detectives that Smith’s death was actually an “intentional killing.” Smith’s body is due to be exhumed soon.
“SLED officials have revealed that they did not need to exhume Stephen Smith’s body to convince them that his death was a homicide,” Bland said in a statement on Tuesday. “However, they will be present and participate in any exhumation of Stephen’s body to gather more evidence.”
Moore, clearly exasperated in a recorded interview, told WJCL that Smith’s family would never have had to wait eight years for answers had officials done their job properly in 2015.
“SLED, sheriffs, Hampton County Coroner’s office, if they had done their job that day and not been lazy, I don’t think we would be here today,” he said.
As Smith’s death investigation has vaulted into the national spotlight, Alex Murdaugh’s son Buster—the lone family member who remains free, and a high school classmate of Smith’s—has become the focus of speculation.
Smith’s mother, Sandy, told the HBO doco that Smith’s dad, Joel, was called into the sheriff’s office the same morning their son died but, before the sheriff arrived, Alex Murdaugh’s brother Randy called.
Randy, who was already doing a workman’s comp claim for Joel, offered to investigate Smith’s death. However, he said he only needed Smith’s electronics and account passwords, Sandy recalled.
“He didn’t ask any questions, ‘I just need those electronics.’ It just didn’t make no sense,” she said.
Then, as she drove past the scene of where Smith’s body was found on her way to the funeral home, Sandy Smith said she saw Alex and Randy Murdaugh at the scene, not long after her son’s body had been removed.
Moore said that he continued to comb the “crash” scene for clues after Smith’s body was removed because “no other law enforcement [was] willing to help.” Then, out of nowhere, he said an investigator from Murdaugh’s law firm showed up.
“He shows up with a camera and wants to come in the crime scene,” Moore told HBO. “I said, ‘I’m sorry you can’t come in here.’ … It wasn’t about taking pictures, it was about seeing what we were doing to try to get one step ahead… If you wanted pictures, you could have got those at any time. It makes you wonder.”
Moore isn’t the only official to call out the alleged shadiness surrounding Smith’s death. Cpl. Michael Duncan, a former officer with the highway patrol’s Multi-Disciplinary Accident Investigation Team, told HBO that there were “several red flags from the start in this investigation.”
“Things that were not there should have been there,” he said. “For example, there’s no glass. With that type of force there would be glass on the ground or possibly in the body. There’s no tire marks. There was no paint from the vehicle… The phone didn’t even fall out of his pocket… The way the body was laying in the roadway, there’s no ‘tumble’ to the body.”
Buster Murdaugh released a statement this week shooting down “vicious rumors” linking him to Smith’s 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,” he said. “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.”
Since his father’s trial, which he attended daily, Buster and his longtime girlfriend have filed two police reports against national media outlets they claim have harassed and photographed them at their ritzy coastal home in Hilton Head, South Carolina.
“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,” Buster added.
Adding to the messiness of the ordeal, Moore was once the victim—like many others—of alleged financial crimes by Alex Murdaugh, who is accused of stealing $100,000 from Moore after he was injured on the job. Moore’s name came up in court last month during the waning days of Alex Murdaugh’s murder trial.
“Thomas Moore? You never lied to him? Just took his money?” state prosecutor Creighton Waters asked Murdaugh. “You didn’t lie to his face?”
“He and I never had a conversation, but I did take his money,” Murdaugh responded.
Moore now figures heavily in the resurrected official investigation into Smith’s death—something the slain teen’s family has been pleading and fundraising for since his death.
“Today was a great day for justice in the Stephen Smith investigation,” the Smith family’s attorneys said in a statement to The Daily Beast on Tuesday night. “After eight long years, it’s Sandy Smith’s turn for justice. After eight long years, Stephen’s mother will sleep tonight knowing that her son’s murder will not be ignored.”