Jun. 24—A former state trooper has cast fresh doubt on the conclusions of a 2015 death investigation that is being re-examined after new information surfaced in connection with the high-profile Murdaugh family killings.
Former trooper Todd Proctor served as a lead investigator on the death of 19-year-old Stephen Smith, whose body was found on July 8, 2015, on Sandy Run Road near Joe Miley Road in Hampton.
He told the Aiken Standard on June 24 he still disputes the autopsy findings and disagrees with conclusions that Smith died as a result of a hit-and-run collision.
"I'd been on the Highway Patrol at that time for 15 years and nothing about that case looked like a hit-and-run to me," Proctor said. "There was just no evidence to support a hit-and-run."
Proctor, who was born and raised in Aiken, was part of the Highway Patrol's Multi-disciplinary Accident Investigation Team, which investigates complicated crashes and traffic fatalities. He has been interviewed by multiple national media outlets this week after the State Law Enforcement Division confirmed it was taking another look at Smith's death as a result of information uncovered during the probe of the Murdaugh slayings.
It remains unclear how Smith's death may be related to the fatal shootings of Paul Murdaugh, 22, and his mother, Maggie, 52, who were killed June 7 at the family's hunting lodge near the border of Hampton and Colleton counties.
The Murdaughs are a prominent family in South Carolina. Three generations of Murdaughs have served as 14th Circuit Solicitor covering the state's southern tip.
Alex Murdaugh, Paul's father and Maggie's husband, also works part time for the 14th Circuit Solicitor's Office, which will have to determine whether to recuse itself depending on the outcome of SLED's probe.
Smith's death was initially thought to be a hit-and-run, which is why MAIT was called out that day in July 2015. After examining a head wound Smith suffered, authorities suspected he might have been shot. Proctor said the MAIT team's involvement then ended and Hampton County called SLED for assistance.
"So, SLED came out to the scene and processed the scene and the vehicle and all that kind of stuff," Proctor said.
However, when the pathologist who performed the autopsy determined Smith was not shot and might have been struck by a car, Proctor's unit became involved again. It had been a few days since the incident, so Proctor said his team had to play catch-up with collecting pictures and evidence from the scene.
In a report by Proctor from July 22, 2015, he describes visiting MUSC to meet with Dr. Erin Presnell, the pathologist who performed Smith's autopsy. In the report, Proctor wrote that Presnell spoke in a "negative tone" and that Presnell said it was a hit-and-run because "'(Smith) was found in the road.'"
"She asked why we did not think it was a vehicle strike and I explained to her that we had no evidence of this individual being struck by a vehicle," Proctor wrote.
Investigators noted there was no vehicle debris or skid marks on the road. Smith suffered blunt-force trauma to the head, but his loosely tied shoes remained on his feet, records state.
Proctor asked the pathologist whether it was possible a person wielding a baseball bat had struck Smith from a moving vehicle, records show. He said Presnell told him "the report was preliminary and it was my job to figure out what it was struck (Smith) not hers" as he was leaving.
In August 2015, Proctor spoke with the coroner, who said he didn't agree with the autopsy report either. The report stated the cause of death as blunt head trauma from a motor vehicle crash, pedestrian v. vehicle, with the manner of death being undetermined.
After a while, Proctor said, all the leads ran out and "we kind of hit a brick wall."
"Every once in a while, a new lead would come in and we'd try to track it down and see if anything panned out," Proctor said. "Unfortunately, we weren't able to solve it."
SLED spokesman Tommy Crosby confirmed June 22 that information gathered as part of the Murdaugh double-murder case in Colleton County prompted the agency to open the new investigation.
Crosby did not say what information led to the decision.
Highway Patrol records indicate troopers chased numerous tips in the investigation, including some involving members of the Murdaugh family, but the case remains unsolved.
Smith, a 2014 graduate of Wade Hampton High School in Hampton County, was attending OC Tech in Orangeburg and was studying to become a registered nurse at the time of his death, according to his obituary.
Proctor said Smith's case is one of a handful of cases that has stuck with him over the years, and he hopes it gets solved one day so "the victim's family gets some justice and peace, and whoever committed the crime has to pay for it."
Due to his connection to the Smith case, Proctor has been approached by numerous national media outlets recently, including Fox News, Dateline and the New York Post. All have been chasing details in the Murdaugh killings, which have drawn intense interest because of the family's connections to wealth and legal power in the Lowcountry.
"It's a little overwhelming," Proctor said of the media attention. "They're calling my wife or showing up at my house."
But Proctor thinks some good could eventually come out of it.
"If this did not have all that national spotlight and attention, I think there's a good chance it could get pushed back under the rug again," Proctor said. "I don't think, in my opinion, SLED would open this investigation if they didn't have all this pressure on them."
Steve Garrison of The Post and Courier contributed to this article.