CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The body of a 19-year-old found dead in the middle of a South Carolina road in 2015 will be exhumed, his family announced last week, almost two years after state authorities reopened a probe into his death based on information learned while investigating the murders of Margaret "Maggie" Murdaugh and Paul Murdaugh.
The family of Stephen Smith has raised about $60,000 to put towards the exhumation and a private autopsy in what his mother described on a GoFundMe page as a "fight for justice."
"I could not have imagined when we began this fundraiser that it would take off the way that it did," Sandy Smith wrote. "Thank you for not allowing Stephen's story to be swept under a rug. We will pursue the exhumation immediately and provide updates along the way."
Authorities have not announced a connection between Smith's death and the Murdaugh family, whose patriarch, Alex Murdaugh, was found guilty earlier this month of murdering his wife and son at their rural estate the night of June 7, 2021. Murdaugh was sentenced to life in prison and has since appealed his conviction, according to his attorney.
About two weeks after Maggie and Paul were killed, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, or SLED, announced it was reopening the Smith investigation due to information gleaned from the Murdaugh case. SLED did not detail what that information was.
"SLED has made progress in the death investigation of Stephen Smith," the agency said in a statement to CNN Sunday, "however this investigation remains active and ongoing."
The body of the 19-year-old nursing student was discovered on July 8, 2015. An incident report from the state highway patrol indicated he suffered blunt force trauma to the head, and his death was initially deemed a hit and run.
However, while a pathologist cited in a SLED report states Smith appeared to have been hit by a vehicle, the responding officer referenced in a report by the state highway patrol's Multidisciplinary Accident Investigation Team noted "no vehicle debris, skid marks, or injuries consistent with someone being struck by a vehicle."
Smith's shoes were also both on and loosely tied, the report added, and investigators saw no evidence suggesting he was struck by a vehicle.
Smith's family started the GoFundMe in an effort to seek a "new, unbiased look at his body and an accurate determination of his cause of death based on facts," reads the page, which originally sought $15,000. The autopsy would cost about $7,000, it says, and a private medical examiner would also need to be present throughout the process -- at a rate of about $750 per hour.
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"It is a huge expense, but we are hoping that with your support we can make this happen and finally get the answers we need," the page says, adding, "We believe 2023 is Stephen's year."
Buster Murdaugh released a statement Monday morning, saying:
"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. I love them so much and miss them terribly.
"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.
"Before, during and since my father's trial, I have been targeted and harassed by the media and followers of this story.
"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.
"I am requesting that the media immediately stop publishing these defamatory comments and rumors about me."
The legal team representing Sandy Smith reacted to the statement during a press conference Monday, saying in part, "this is not about Buster Murdaugh. This is about Stephen Smith."
ABC News contributed to this report.
The video in the player above is from an earlier report.
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