Oct. 25, 1994, Union, South Carolina: A frantic woman calls the Union County Sheriff’s Office, worried about her children. A carjacker, she tells them, has taken her car with her two sons inside.
The sheriff immediately takes her statement. The woman, Susan Smith, says that she got off work the previous evening, picked up her two sons — 3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alexander — from daycare. After that, she went to a local bar, but didn’t go in. She sat outside with her boys and talked with a friend. She then went back to her workplace to talk with a co-worker, she says, and then returned home with the boys about 6 p.m.
She says she fed the boys pizza for dinner, then loaded them back into the car and went to Wal-Mart to pick up a few things. After that, she says, she was going to go to another friend’s house to visit. But when she was stopped at a stoplight, a black man broke into her car and threatened her with a gun. “Drive or I’ll kill you,” he said.
So she drove him east on Highway 49, going out of town and towards John D. Long Lake. When they reached the lake, she says, the man demanded she stop the car and get out. She says she pleaded with the man to let her take her boys, but he forced her out of the car and drove off. That’s when she ran to the nearest house to call the police.
The sheriff called in the FBI and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED). They began an intensive search for her car, a red 1990 Mazda Protege, as well as an on-the-ground search for the boys using dogs. Citizens and neighbors from all over Union County aided the search, both on foot and on horseback. Divers searched the lake — which was so dark they could barely see two feet in front of them — from the shoreline to 100 feet out.
Soon the national media descended on the small town, fascinated by the horrific story of every parent’s nightmare, and hoping national attention would help find the boys sooner.
Susan’s estranged husband and father of the boys, David, rushed to be by her side. He described her as “hysterical.”
Despite their on-again, off-again relationship, David said Susan was always a loving mother to the boys. Friends and neighbors agreed. The 23-year-old had been in the National Honor Society in high school and was voted “Friendliest Girl.”
But some reporters began doubting Susan’s story. First of all, the description she’d given of the carjacker was so vague, it could describe nearly any black man. Many noticed that in her media appearances where she would beg for the boys’ safe return, she would sometimes use the past tense. And though her voice was shaky, her eyes were dry.
Police were beginning to have doubts, as well. The vague description of the perpetrator was suspicious. Then there was her claim of being stopped at a stoplight with no other cars around when the carjacking happened. But that stoplight ran on a sensor and would only turn red if there was cross traffic. And none of the greeters at the Wal-Mart she claimed to have shopped at that night said they saw her.
As police questioned her friends and co-workers, they discovered more about the young mother. For one, she had been having an affair with Tom Findlay, the son of the owner of the company she worked for. Findlay, who was married, had broken off the affair with her recently, and Susan had taken it especially hard.
One friend told investigators that the day before the boys went missing, Susan had said, “I wonder what life would be like if I didn’t have kids.”
So police had her take a polygraph test. She failed it.
When they asked her directly if she’d lied about what happened, she got angry and stormed out of the interview.
Meanwhile, the search went on. Racial tensions in the community were amped up as black men were now under a cloud of suspicion.
Finally the sheriff tried one last tactic to get Susan to tell the truth about what happened that night: he lied. He told Susan that they had obtained surveillance footage of that intersection, which showed that she was most definitely lying.
It worked. Susan told police that her car, and her children, were at the bottom of John D. Long Lake, about 120 feet out from the shoreline.
In a written confession, she said that she had been suicidal over Findlay breaking up with her, so she had driven with her boys to a boat ramp at the lake. She put the car in drive and let it roll towards the water. At one point, her resolve broke, so she used the emergency brake to stop the car and got out. But then she decided to go through with it. She got back into the car, released the emergency brake, and rolled farther down the ramp. Again, she stopped the car and got out. But then she reached inside, released the brake, and let the car — with her two sons strapped in their carseats inside — drive itself into the dark waters.
Divers were sent back to the lake, to the spot Susan had indicated her car would be. At the bottom of the lake, in the coldest, darkest waters, they found the car. The diver who found it said he could see one tiny hand pressed against the window.
The car was pulled from the lake. Inside were the badly decomposed bodies of the two boys, still strapped into their car seats, as Susan had said.
Susan Smith was arrested and charged with two counts of first-degree murder.
Immediately, all the sympathy and prayers that people had for her turned to hatred and rage. People in the community and around the world were disgusted and confused as to how a mother could kill her two small children in such a cruel way. Everywhere she went, crowds shouted at her, and death threats were made. Many compared the environment as a “lynch mob,” a troubling analogy, considering she had placed the blame on a black man for her crime.
Thousands of people came to the boys’ funeral, where they were both placed in the same closed casket. The boat ramp where they had met their fate was turned into a memorial site; stone markers were put up and a tree planted in their honor.
Meanwhile, investigators going through the car found something besides the two boys. In the glove box was a letter from Tom Findlay. In it, he explained the reasons why he wanted to break off their relationship. One of those reasons, he wrote, was that he didn’t want to be a father.
This pointed to a motive other than suicide: like Diane Downs, Susan had gotten rid of her children so she could pursue a relationship with a married man.
Her trial began July 18, 1995. Since her case was happening during the same time as the OJ Simpson trial, the judge knew the effect of having so much media attention in the courtroom. He put witnesses and lawyers under a gag rule and banned cameras from the courtroom.
Her defense attorney’s goal was not to get an acquittal — Susan had confessed to the murders — but rather to spare his client the death penalty. He argued that because Susan was so regretful about the murders, life in prison would actually be a harsher punishment for her than death.
The defense also contested that the murders were a deliberate act, but rather a botched suicide attempt. She was examined by a psychiatrist and diagnosed with major depressive disorder and dependent personality disorder.
Her defense also brought up her psychiatric history — that the former honor-roll student had been struggling with depression for years. Her father had committed suicide when she was only six years old. Susan herself had attempted suicide twice before; the first time was when she was 13, and she ended up hospitalized for it. This was at the time her step-father, Beverly Russell, a prominent Republican and head of the state’s Christian Coalition, had begun molesting her. Russell took the stand at trial and admitted to having molested Susan starting when she was 13, and had continued having “consensual” sex with her after she was an adult. The abuse had been reported to CPS at the time, but — likely owing to Russell’s prominent political and religious standing — the family had declined to press charges, and nothing was done.
Three years later, she had attempted suicide again when her boyfriend (another married man) had broken up with her.
Unsurprisingly, the jury returned with their verdict after only two and a half hours: guilty on both counts.
The penalty phase of the trial was where the defense’s groundwork in developing an understanding of Susan’s mental health came in.
But the prosecution had a powerful piece of evidence in their favor. They had staged a recreation of the crime using a similar car at the same boat ramp, and they filmed it both from outside the vehicle and with a camera placed inside the back seat, near where the boys would have been. The video showed the car driving into the water, then going nose-down and slowly sinking. It took almost six minutes for the water to reach the back seat where the boys would have been — an agonizingly long time. Watching footage from the interior camera let the jurors see just what the boys had seen in their last minutes of life.
But in the end, the jury took Susan’s mental illness into account and came back with a verdict on July 28, 1995: 30 years to life in prison. She’ll be eligible for parole in 2025.
In November of that year, her family held an unusual press conference on the courthouse steps. Her brother Scott Vaughn said, “On behalf of my family, I would like to apologize to the black community. It is really disturbing to think that this would be a racial issue. It is a terrible misfortune that all this happened.”
Meanwhile, Susan Smith has not exactly been a model prisoner. Twice she was busted having sexual relationships with prison staff, so she has been moved to the Leath Correctional Facility. The two staffers were both fired and banned from working in South Carolina Corrections.
She still continues to commit infractions, such as possession of illegal drugs, not following prison rules, and inflicting self-harm.
But there is one last, disturbing chapter to this sad tale. After the murders, the memorial on John D. Long Lake had become a popular spot, drawing people from all over. They would visit, say prayers, and leave flowers, poems, and little toys for the boys.
In September 1996, a group of 10 people drove their GMC Suburban to the boys’ memorial and parked on the ramp. Five of them got out to get a closer look at the memorial, while the others — four children and one adult — remained inside the vehicle.
At some point, the SUV’s faulty transmission popped out of gear and it began rolling down the ramp. The driver tried to stop it but could not; it rolled between the two monuments and knocked over the memorial tree.
The mother of the children and another visitor jumped into the water to try and rescue the family. But in the end, seven people, including the mother and the man who tried to rescue them, drowned in the same spot that Alex and Michael had. One of the divers who recovered their bodies was the same one who found Alex and Michael two years earlier.
When it was recovered, the Suburban’s gearshift was in park.
In response to the tragedy, the city had the ramp removed and the memorial relocated to a spot far from the shoreline.
Since the deaths, many locals believe the lake is haunted. There have been reports of mysterious orbs of light; some people claim to hear a baby crying. Nevertheless, it remains a popular fishing and boating spot.