Investigators were so determined 20 years ago to get a confession from South Carolina’s Susan Smith that they were willing to use anything, including deception, to get her to admit to drowning her two small children in an Upstate lake.
Then-SLED chief Robert Stewart said this month that investigators created a copy of a false newspaper article they were prepared to show Smith about a woman who had killed a family member. The fictional woman served her time in prison, got out, married a rich businessman and went on to lead a happy life. The plan: let Smith read the article and then speak with the woman. If the shame of killing her children didn’t persuade Smith to confess, agents reasoned, perhaps hope would – hope that her life could go on beyond prison.
Not only was the article false, the woman was an undercover State Law Enforcement Division agent. Fortunately, Stewart said, Smith did confess, and investigators never had to use the scheme.
Stewart described the plan, which he has never discussed publicly, as the 20th anniversary of the case approaches. Others looking back on the Oct. 25 anniversary recall the media convergence on the small city of Union. They remember the stresses – and scrutiny – of the sudden national attention and the decisions they had to make to get through it all.
Stewart knew that if the case hinged on using deception, it would be just another tool that law enforcement had in its arsenal of coaxing confessions from alleged murderers. SLED and the Union County Sheriff’s Office already were receiving help from seasoned behavioral scientists and a veteran interviewer and polygraph analyst from the FBI.
“Bear in mind, there was a U.S. Supreme Court decision that says you don’t have to tell correct facts to get to the truth in interviews,” Stewart said. “When you get a case like this, especially when children’s lives are at stake and you don’t know if they are alive or not, you’re trying everything to get to the bottom of it.”
The nation was riveted when Smith, now 43, pleaded in front of a national television audience to help her find her sons, saying a black man had carjacked her 1990 Mazda Protege with Michael and Alex inside.
Stewart said those with SLED doubted Smith’s story early in the investigation.
“There was never any another suspect,” Stewart said. “Susan Smith was a conniving, manipulative person.”
Smith said she was stopped at a red light at an intersection behind the Monarch Mill Textile Plant, which is close to Union’s Main Street, when a black male forced her out of the car at gunpoint and drove off with her two small sons in the back.
“We were able to show, at one point, that her story could not have happened at that intersection because she said nobody was there,” Stewart said. “In order for the light to be red, a car would have had to activate the pressure pad on the intersecting street to make her light red.”
The revelation about the red light pointed investigators to Smith. After nine long days of intense interviews and polygraph tests, they had their confession.
Stewart said he remembered the heartbreaking gasp that came from the crowd as then-Union County Sheriff Howard Wells made the announcement outside the courthouse that Smith was charged with murder, after she confessed to strapping her small children into their car seats and pushing the car into John D. Long Lake.
Department of Natural Resources divers returned to the lake where searches in the early days of the investigation yielded no evidence of the young boys or a car. Stewart said divers adjusted where they searched the murky waters by 10 feet further, roughly 120 feet from the shore line, and found the bodies of Michael and Alex submerged in 18 feet of water inside the car.
The case that “hammered” a community - twice
The initial news of Susan Smith’s missing children spread rapidly throughout the community of Union – which has a population of under 10,000 – and it didn’t take long for news media outlets from across the nation to descend.
Fred Delk, who was in charge of revitalizing Union’s downtown, remembers it was one of the busiest times of his life as a flood of satellite trucks, news helicopters and reporters replaced the town’s usual quietness. But, for Delk, who is now director of the Columbia Development Corp. in Columbia, there wasn’t just one media wave to deal with, it “hammered the community two different times.”
“It was a nightmare,” Delk said. “From my perspective, this happened twice.”
The first wave of media came as Smith appeared in front of television cameras asking for the community’s help in locating her children a few days after she reported them missing to police on Oct. 25, 1994. After she was arrested in November, Delk, who had worked in the media before and was asked to be the community’s liaison for the media, said he knew that when the trial started in the upcoming months, he and the community would need to know how to present Union in the best light.
“We created a community plan of action,” Delk said. “We got ministers and others in the community together who could be really good spokespeople for the community. The media crew will just pick someone out of the crowd, and they won’t present the community in the best light. So, we trained people and made them available to the media.”
Delk said there also were planned locations where news crews could interview the trained community spokespeople, with nice homes and green tree lines in the background.
“We had these places all programmed, and it was all aimed to make Union look like a really nice, beautiful, Southern community that has suffered this tragedy,” Delk said.
Delk also said some of his revitalization projects in Union’s downtown got a boost from the blast of media attention.
“We had an African-American hospital across the street from the county courthouse,” Delk said. “That hospital sat there empty for 25 years and was abandoned. I worked with NBC news to cut a deal where NBC put a new roof, heating and air in, so they could use that building for all their different divisions.”
“They didn’t know how long they would be there. They thought they would be living in Union for months because the trial was projected (to last) for months,” Delk said. “So the cost of that for them was just the cost of doing business.”
Even though the media influx helped Delk’s revitalization – except for the delays in the road reconstruction project of downtown’s main street – the amount of satellite news trucks began to be a problem for the local merchants attempting to conduct business as usual.
“I had 38 satellite up-link trucks parked out on the street, running generators,” Delk said. “Cellphones were new, and you could spot media producers because they were young girls with cellphones. They would park everywhere, and they didn’t care if they got parking tickets – the companies would just pay for them.”
He decided to put a stop to it.
“I would tell them, ‘Please don’t do this,’ and they just didn’t care,” Delk said. “So, I went to Spartanburg and borrowed some boots and put them on the media trucks. Someone would say ‘Susan Smith’s mother is eating at such-and-such restaurant,’ and some of them couldn’t go because the boots were on their trucks. It was just unbelievable.”
But nothing hit home for Delk about the disruption the trial created for the city more than when his young daughter complained of the news helicopters flying over as she tried to sleep.
“When the children went missing, every night at 6 and 11, there were helicopters hovering over the city (because) the news guys had not gotten the satellite news trucks up” yet, Delk said. “So, they got helicopters to shoot microwaves back to the Greenville and Charlotte media centers.”
“My little daughter came in our room and said she can’t sleep because the helicopters are making so much noise,” Delk said. “When you have a child in the middle of all that whose life is changed, that’s pretty disruptive for a small town.”
Prosecuting the trial
As Delk handled the media frenzy on the outside of the courthouse, prosecutor Tommy Pope and assistant prosecutor Keith Giese prepared for one of the biggest cases of their careers inside.
Pope, now a S.C. House representative, was serving as the 16th Circuit solicitor. He said he remembers first hearing Smith’s pleas for her children on television while he was trying a case involving a preacher in York County who had embezzled money from a day care.
“It just didn’t fit right,” said Pope, who had been a SLED agent. “In a carjacking, they normally just take your car, number one; your money, number two; and maybe the woman for sexual purposes, number three. But the kids is off the scale.”
Pope said as Smith asked the community for help in locating 14-month-old Alex and 3-year-old Michael, investigators began to find inconsistencies in her story.
Smith’s motive for killing her two children came on the heels of a letter she received from Tom Findley, the son of the owner of the Conso Products company where Smith worked as a secretary, breaking off the affair the two were engaged in while Smith was separated from her husband, David.
“He writes her a Dear Jane letter saying you’re a nice girl, but I really don’t want kids,” Pope said. “Rather than tell her the truth, he kind of tied it to the kids. I think that what happened in her mind is she thought with the kids gone, then there is a chance for me with the boss’ son.”
Pope and Giese, who had become friends in Lexington County while assistant prosecutors there, prepared for nine months to pursue the death penalty against Smith. But her defense attorneys, David Bruck and Judy Clarke, who met while working in the 5th Circuit solicitor’s office in Columbia and would go on to careers on the national stage, were skilled. Bruck and Clarke argued that Smith had suffered years of sexual abuse committed by her stepfather, leading to her insanity.
“When they made that argument at trial, I never bought it,” said Giese, who now practices in Columbia with his brother, former 5th Circuit solicitor Barney Giese. “Smith’s overriding characteristic was she was a selfish person.”
In South Carolina, a death penalty case must be tried in two parts to get a complete sentencing. The first determines guilt or innocence, and the second determines the appropriate sentencing by a jury.
“There were days, literally, where I held the key to my own jail,” Pope said. “I could not seek the death penalty and make everything simpler, but I knew that wasn’t appropriate for this.”
Pope said it was Smith’s selfish actions, of “sacrificing the kids at the altar of what’s best for Susan,” as one of the two reasons he decided to pursue the death penalty. The other would come after he saw the car pulled from the bottom of John D. Long Lake.
“Not for a voyeuristic sense, but I needed to see what had happened to those boys to remind me why I do what I do,” Pope said. “I saw those boys pulled out of that lake, and that helped me feel better when I was tired and weak during the case.”
After the jury quickly found Smith guilty of the killings, Pope and Giese showed jurors an emotional video re-creation of how long it took for the car to fill with water – nearly six minutes – as it floated farther into the lake. But Giese said the hardest part of the trial for him would be when the father of the two slain children testified.
“Looking back on it now after 20 years, it was one of the most gut-wrenching, moving experiences I have ever felt in a courtroom,” Giese said. “Tommy and I had done plenty of other murder cases together, so it wasn’t like we hadn’t seen tragedy in a courtroom. But I was fighting back tears.”
Still, after the difficult testimony from David Smith and the eerily soundless video of the car’s descent into the lake’s murky water, the jury decided to settle for life in prison.
“There is nothing that we would have done differently in my opinion that would have changed the jury’s verdict,” Giese said. “When you have a small, tight-knit town like that, it would be hard to get that verdict.”
Pope said he remembers that all of his steps “reverberated in an echo chamber” and said he considers the case a loss because he had sought the death penalty.
He said the case will never truly leave him.
“I have accepted that when they write my obituary, ‘Susan Smith’s prosecutor’ will be in it,” Pope said.
Part of a city’s history
The quiet bustle of everyday life has returned to Main Street in downtown Union, but some still visit the access road that leads to John D. Long Lake – the same road Susan Smith drove down before she pushed her car, boys inside, into the depth of the dark water.
The four-block-long downtown, which comes to a head at the Union County Courthouse, was the scene of upheaval as Smith announced on national television that a black man carjacked her two children.
For Mayor Harold Thompson, the city’s current mayor and the first who is African-American, the case and trial will always be a part of the city’s history. But Thompson said that if someone were to visit the city today – 20 years after the fact – they would see that Union has moved on.
What still weighs on Thompson’s mind, however, was that no apology has been offered to black residents by anyone for the fact that a black man was the No. 1 suspect in the media for nine days until Smith’s eventual confession.
Thompson watched the case and trial play out behind the lens of a news camera he operated for Spartanburg’s CBS affiliate, Channel 7. He said he remembers watching police rouse black people from their homes and question them about the disappearance of the children.
“Situations like that create problems between the black community and law enforcement,” Thompson said. “They were hurt, but their hurt wasn’t channeled towards the white community. It was more channeled toward the police department.
“It left a bad taste in the black community,” Thompson said. “The black community was made the scapegoat, and people jumped onto that bandwagon quick.”
Susan Smith told investigators that a black male in his 30s or 40s, between 5 feet 9 inches and 6 feet tall, weighing about 175 pounds and wearing blue jeans, a plaid shirt and a ski cap was the man who took her car.
Thompson said he could name nearly 200 people who would have fit that description, but nobody he knows ever would have taken the car or the two small children who were in the back seat.
“We have a lot of good folks in both the law enforcement and black communities,” Thompson said. “We kind of pulled together, despite what some people were saying.”
But a question remains: Will Union ever shake the identity as the place where Susan Smith killed her kids?
For Giese, it will won’t be until the next generation.
“I think it will eventually shake it – but it will take years and years of people’s memories of what happened to start to die off,” Giese said.
Delk said the city has in fact progressed past the idea that Smith killed her children there.
“I don’t think it still sticks in people’s minds,” Delk said. “Occasionally when I bring it up to people, I have to remind them of it. I don’t think it’s the first thing people go to when they think of the community.”
Thompson agrees. He said the community has moved passed the racial stigma and the identity thrust upon it.
Thompson said even though the case will always remain a part of the city’s history, Union is a place that bounces back from tragedy and corruption, including when, after the trial, four of the city’s public officials, including the sheriff, were arrested in one of the largest public corruption busts in the state’s history.
June Miller still works at the Union County Clerk of Court Office, as she did when the news story broke 20 years ago.
She said when she and her husband were at a diner while on vacation a few years ago at a beach in North Carolina, she was reminded that the Smith case will always follow her.
“When the waiter knew that we were from Union, he pulled a chair up to the table and joined us,” Miller said.