Susan Smith made a false claim that a man kidnapped her sons during a carjacking on October 25th, 1994. After a 9-day search, she confessed to letting her car roll into John D. Long Lake and drowning her kids. She was convicted of murdering her sons, three-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alexander.
It seems that every story starts this way. It was a typical small town where everybody knows everyone. Union, South Carolina is called the City of Hospitality and people say that life really revolves around family and religion. It's quiet on Sundays except for trains that are passing through and the ringing of church bells. The city and county of Union got its name from the old Union Church. The town was previously known as Unionville, but it was later shortened to Union. The Union Church was home to three denominations: Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian, and they all worshiped together at the same services. There is a sign in Union that says, “The City of Hospitality.” On the water tower, there is a painted image of two hands clasped together in a handshake and it says, “Hospitality a tradition. People make a difference.” Susan Smith had grown up in Union and was born on September 26th, 1971. Her mother, Linda, was a homemaker, and her father, Harry, was a firefighter. When Susan was a child, she was really smart and loved to learn. When she was six years old, her mother decided she wanted a divorce after 17 years of marriage. Harry was devastated about the divorce and he began drinking heavily at the local bar. Five weeks after the divorce was final, he shot himself in the stomach. Many people believe that he didn't actually mean to kill himself and may have been looking for attention so Linda would take him back. Just moments after he pulled the trigger, he called for help, but it was too late. Shortly after Harry's death, Linda married a wealthy man named Beverly Russell and she moved into his home with her kids.
It seems obvious that Susan struggled tremendously with the death of her father. She often listened to tapes of him laughing and she kept a photo of him in the bottom of her desk drawer. She still got good grades in elementary school and junior high, but in high school, she actually excelled at everything. She was a member of the Beta Club which is a group for students with higher than a B average, and she was a member of the Math, Spanish, and Red Cross Clubs. She volunteered to help put on the city's annual Special Olympics competition, and she worked with the elderly. She was named president of the Junior Civitan Club, and her and her best friend, Donna Garner, worked as candy stripers at Wallace Thomson Hospital. And if you're not familiar with candy stripers, they are volunteers at hospitals. In 1989, when Susan was a senior, she was voted friendliest female at Union High School. Her classmates said she was cheerful, down to earth, and always smiled. She often wore miniskirts and blouses to school and many of the guys were into her. Her outward appearance may have have looked perfect to her classmates, but Susan was dealing with a lot. When she was 17, she showed up in the counselor's office at school to report that her stepfather, Beverly, had been molesting her. The school was of course obligated to report this, but when the sheriff went to their home, both Susan and her mother said they would not be pressing charges. There wasn't a court hearing, so a judge was presented with an agreement from Beverly's attorney and the judge sealed the records.
Susan began working at the local Winn-Dixie and she moved up the ranks quickly because she was such a good worker. She started secretly dating an older married man. She was able to keep it a secret, but the guy was talking to people at the store about it. Eventually, she got pregnant and this put her in a deep depression. She ended up getting an abortion, the relationship with the older man ended, and Susan was admitted to a medical center because she took an overdose of aspirin and Anacin. (aspirin and caffeine). Doctors found out that this wasn't the first time Susan had attempted suicide. She had done the same thing when she was 13 years old. Word of the suicide attempt spread through the town and Susan had to take a month off of school and work. When she went back to the Winn Dixie, her friend, David, dumped his girlfriend and had a huge crush on Susan. He took her out on a date and a year later, they were married. The marriage started out very rocky for the young couple, but it wasn't anyone's fault. David's brother, Danny was really sick with Crohn's disease which effects the gastrointestinal tract. He had surgery, but the bacteria developed and he got worse. Just 11 days prior to the wedding, David's brother died. David's parents already had issues with their marriage and it fell apart after their son died. In fact, Susan had actually walked in on her father-in-law's attempted suicide and she had to call for help.
Susan was only 19 when she got married. She was working part time at the Winn Dixie, taking college courses and she was pregnant again. The young couple had a lot of financial troubles, but that wasn't their biggest problem. They went through a few separations where they WERE ON A BREAK. Susan rekindled things with a previous boyfriend, so David began an affair with a cashier at Winn Dixie in retaliation. Susan would show up at the Winn Dixie with their son and scream at David. It was a whole jealous scene. During one of their attempts to work things out, Susan got pregnant again. So, now she has two kids with David. On their 3rd anniversary, David gave Susan a card that said, “Hang in there Sugar Booger. You mean everything to me. God, I love you.” They broke things off 4 months later.
By all accounts early on, Susan appeared to be a good mother. When she took Michael for his first haircut, she brought a camcorder to film it and she showered him in kisses when he got fussy. After the haircut, she knelt down and scooped Michael's hair into a small bag. She always carried photos of her children and would show them off to anyone that asked how they were doing. Susan and David weren't like most couples when they broke up. Neither of them wanted to miss out on things. When the kids had a doctor appointment, they both went. The boys were dropped off each day at daycare and on Sundays, Susan took them to church. On September 21st, 1994, Susan's attorney served David with legal papers asking for the divorce on the grounds of adultery. In the complaint, it said, “During the course of this marriage, Defendant has carried on, and continues to carry on an adulterous relationship with a paramour known to plaintiff; due to this behavior and other irreconcilable differences, the parties herein separated and have continued to live apart.” Susan got full custody of Michael and Alex and David got visitation rights, but he had to give her 48 hours notice. People that knew the couple said the separation went pretty smoothly. On the weekends, David picked up the boys and brought them to his apartment. Susan got a new job as a secretary at Conso Products Company which is a company that manufactures decorative trimmings. At work, Susan fell hard for another employee, Tom Findlay (Fin-lay) and his father was the boss of the company. Tom was popular around town and most women were very interested in him. One of the locals said he was the most eligible bachelor. Tom and Susan began dating, but things fizzled out quickly. She seemed to be in love with him, but Tom felt that she was too possessive and needy.
Tom actually wrote a letter to Susan which causes a lot of people to wonder if this is the motive for her later actions. I did cut a few pieces out of this letter that were irrelevant to our story because it's so long. He writes,
I hope you don't mind, but I think clearer when I am typing, so this letter is being written on my computer. This is a difficult letter for me to write because I know how much you think of me. And I want you to know that I am flattered that you have such a high opinion of me. Susan, I value our friendship very much. You are one of the few people on this earth that I feel I can tell anything. You are intelligent, beautiful, sensitive, understanding, and possess many other wonderful qualities that I and many other men appreciate. You will, without a doubt, make some lucky man a great wife.
Even though you think we have much in common, we are vastly different. We have been raised in two totally different environments, and therefore, think totally different. That's not to say that I was raised better than you or vice versa, it just means that we come from two different backgrounds.
Susan, I could really fall for you. You have so many endearing qualities about you, and I think that you are a terrific person. But like I told you before, there are some things about you that aren't suited for me, and yes, I am speaking about your children. I'm sure that your kids are good kids, but it really wouldn't matter how good they may be... the fact is, I just don't want children. These feeling may change one day, but I doubt it. With all of the crazy, mixed-up things that take place in this world today, I just don't have the desire to bring another life into it. And I don't want to be responsible for anyone else's children, either. But I am very thankful that there are people like you who are not so selfish as I am, and don't mind bearing the responsibility of children. If everyone thought the way that I do, our species would eventually become extinct.
But our differences go far beyond the children issue. We are just two totally different people, and eventually, those differences would cause us to break-up.
But don't be discouraged. There is someone out there for your. In fact, it's probably someone that you may not know at this time or that you may know, but would never expect. Either way, before you settle down with anyone again, there is something you need to do. Susan, because you got pregnant and married at such an early age, you missed out on much of your youth. I mean, one minute you were a kid, and the next minute you were having kids. Because I come from a place where everyone had the desire and the money to go to college, having the responsibility of children at such a young age is beyond my comprehension. Anyhow, my advice to you is to wait and be very choosy about your next relationship. I can see this may be a bit difficult for you because you are a bit boy crazy, but as the proverb states. “good things come to those who wait.” I am not saying you shouldn't go out and have a good time. In fact, I think you should do just that....have a good time and capture some of that youth that you missed out on. But just don't get seriously involved with anyone until you have done the things in life that you want to do, first. Then the rest will fall in place.
Susan, I am not mad at you about what happened this weekend. Actually, I am very thankful. As I told you, I was starting to let my heart warm up to the idea of us going out as more than just friends. But seeing you kiss another man put things back into perspective. I remembered how I hurt Laura, and I won't let that happen again; and therefore, I can't let myself get close to you. We will always be friends, but our relationship will never go beyond that of friendship. And as for your relationship with B. Brown, of course you have to make your own decisions in life, but remember...you have to live with the consequences also. Everyone is held accountable for their actions, and I would hate for people to perceive you as an unreputable person. If you want to catch a nice guy like me one day, you have to act like a nice girl. And you know, nice girls don't sleep with married men. Besides, I want you to feel good about yourself, and I am afraid that if you sleep with B. Brown or any other married man for that matter, you will lose your self-respect. I know I did when we were messing around earlier this year. So please, think about your actions before you do anything you will regret.
Susan received the letter 4 days after her divorce papers were filed in court with David and it was just a few days prior to the murder. She was in a current state of rejection after rejection. On October 24th, the night before the murders, Susan picked up her children and went to her best friend, Donna Garner's house. Donna's parents babysat while Susan met with a professor at the University of South Carolina. Around 7:30, Susan and Donna stopped at the only bar in Union called Hickory Nuts. When the two of them arrived, Susan saw that Tom Findlay was already there talking to two women that he had known for a long time. Tom was well known at this bar and stopped there about 2-3 times a week after work. Susan and Tom didn't speak a word to each other, but he told the bartender to put Susan's and Donna's drinks on his tab. Susan didn't say anything and left. She went back to Donna's place to pick up her kids and Donna's parents remember her acting very normal and she played with her boys and kissed and hugged them.
The next day, Susan went to a Conso staff lunch. Tom and Susan sat next to each other and their co-workers noticed that Susan was very quiet. Most people were talking and laughing, but she wasn't joining in and she didn't eat much. They all returned to work around 1PM and at 3:30, Susan told her supervisor that she needed to leave early and there were tears in her eyes. Her supervisor asked if she wanted to talk and she said no, but maybe later.
On October 25th, 1994, 23 year old Susan Smith left the Conso Products Company. She headed to the daycare to pick up her two boys, 3 year old Michael and 14 month old Alex. Michael's third birthday had just been two weeks earlier and Alex had recently taken his first steps. On her way home, Susan was really in her head about the breakup, so she decided to stop at a local tavern. She sat in the lot and talked to a friend from work. She actually drove back to the office with her children and hoped that she could work things out with Tom and get him back, but it didn't happen.
Susan and her children arrived home about 6 PM. They had some pizza and she called the tavern and asked one of her friends if Tom was there and if he mentioned her name. The friend confirmed that Tom was at the tavern, but he hadn't mentioned Susan. Around 7:30 to 8PM, she put the boys in their car seats in the back of her burgundy Mazda (Pro-de-jay) Protege. She thought that a little drive might help to clear her head and she ended up swinging by Walmart to do some shopping. After she was done, she was going to a friend's house, but she never made it. Let's start with the story she originally told. Susan said she was stopped at a traffic light and a black man broke into her car with a gun in hand. The man tells her drive or I'll kill you. She said she did what she was told and they drove East on Hwy 49 and a gun was pressed against her while her two boys were crying in the backseat. After about 10 minutes, they reached the access road to John D Long Lake. The man told Susan to stop the car and get out. She said she was frantically pleading for her children, but the man pushed her out of the car and drove off with her boys. She took off running to the nearest house, crying.
Shirley McCloud was in her home reading the Union Daily Times. It was a few minutes past nine and her husband, Rick was on the couch watching TV and their son, Rick Jr was watching TV in his room. Shirley was just about to get the remote from her husband so she could put a movie on, but she heard something outside. Like a moaning or wailing sound? She wasn't sure, but she locked eyes with her husband in that moment. Then, someone was banging on the front door. Shirley and her husband ran to the door, left the security lock on and opened the door just a crack. The light on the front porch was shining and the McCloud's saw Susan Smith crying. They immediately unlocked the chain and opened the door. Susan was yelling, “Please help me!” Shirley didn't know what to do and wondered if this was fake. What if the woman was going to rob them? Susan continued to cry and said, “He's got my kids and he's got my car!” Shirley could hear the terror in Susan's voice and she pulled her into the house. Susan fell back on the sofa and Shirley was attempting to stay calm. She asked her to tell them again what happened. Susan said, “A black man has got my kids and my car.” Rick yelled to his son and said, “Rick Junior, call 911!”
The dispatcher called Union County deputy sheriffs and the call was logged at 9:12 PM. Once he hung up the phone, he saw his father grab his car keys and he said, “Let's go see if we can find them.” The two men headed out and Susan announced that she needed to call her mother. Shirley dialed the number for her and Susan's older brother said his mom wasn't home. Shirley explained that Susan's children were kidnapped and Michael said he would try to track his mom down. When she hung up the phone, Susan said she needed to call her stepfather too and he said he would get there as soon as possible. They made a third call to Susan's husband, David and he was also heading over immediately. As they waited for the police, Susan told Shirley where she lived. She mentioned that her and David had separated a few months ago and were getting a divorce and then she even talked about another McCloud she knew and asked Shirley if they were related. Shirley thought the conversation was a little strange. She couldn't imagine caring about anything else if her son was missing.
Officers arrived at the scene and Sheriff Wells arrived minutes later and he immediately contacted the FBI and SLED which is South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. Agent's were dispatched to Union, South Carolina to begin looking for the children.
Susan's ex-husband, David, showed up right away and said that Susan was hysterical and he had to physically pick her up off the floor and put her on a couch. David called his father to tell him the boys had been kidnapped and his dad says, “she ain't holding a bumper?” He told his son that if anyone ever tried to drive off with his kids, he would at least have a piece of the car in his hands. Even though his father thought something was weird, David never thought that for one second. He believed Susan's story and never questioned her.
The Sheriff eventually announced that they needed to move their operation and leave the McCloud home, so Susan said she wanted to go to her mom's house. When they arrived, the photographer for the Union newspaper said he wanted to run a picture of the missing children in the next day's edition. After Kimzey got photos of the kids, he said he wanted a photo of Susan and David as well. She said, “ Should I take my glasses off?” Kimzey tried to hide his surprise, but he was wondering why she would care about her appearance when her children were missing.....he told her to do whatever made her comfortable and she pulled her glasses off and sat next to David for the photo.
Word of the kidnapping spread fast through the small town and everyone quickly joined the 9 day search and at the end of it, people were shocked to learn that everything Susan said, was a lie. She appeared to be a very loving mother, but police were discovering some interesting things about her that didn't add up. Just 5 days prior to the disappearance of her boys, Susan was talking to a friend of hers and said, I wonder what life would be like if I didn't have kids.
Susan and David were of course interviewed by the police. When Susan gave a description of the man that kidnapped her kids, it was very problematic because it was so generic. She said he was a black male, 30-40 years old, 5'9” to 6 feet tall, 175 lbs, dark hair, dark eyes, medium build, wearing a dark cap, dark shirt, jeans, and a plaid jacket. Within days, police had a hunch that something else was going on, but they were in a tough spot. Two children were missing and they needed to work on finding them and they were worried about how the community would react if they found out Susan lied or if they accused her of such.
David and Susan Smith met with the press on the steps of the Union County Sheriff's Department and Susan said, “I would like to say that whoever has my children, that they please bring em home to us. Where they belong. Our lives have been torn apart by the tragic events. I can't express how much they are wanted back home, how much we love em, we miss em. They are our hearts. I have prayed every day. There is not one minute that goes by that I don't think about those boys. And I have prayed that whoever has em, that the Lord will let them, let him, realize that they are missed and loved more than any children in this world, and that whoever has em, I pray every day that you're taking care of em, and know that we would do anything, anything to help you go get em home back to us. I just can't grasp it enough that we've just got to get em home. That's where they belong, with their Momma and Daddy.”
David spoke next and said, “I would like to take the time to plead to the American public that you please do not give up on these two little boys, the search for their safe return home to us. That you continue to look for the car, our children, and for the suspects themselves, that you continue to keep your eyes open. And anything that you see that might help the police, call and let it be known. We ask that you continue to pray, that the American public continue to pray, for Michael and Alex, that they are returned home safely to their mother and father and the family members who love them so much, that you pray most of all for them and that they are being taken care of and that they are safe and that they will return home safely.”
Susan walked back up to the microphone to add, “I want to say to my babies that your Momma loves you so much, and your Daddy and this whole family loves you so much. And you guys have gotta be strong because I just know, I just feel in my heart that you're okay. You've got to take care of yourselves, And your Momma and Daddy are going to be right here waitin on you when you get home. I love you so much. I want to tell a story. The night that this happened, before I left my house that night, Michael did something that he's never done before. He had his pooper (I guess this is their word for pacifier) in his mouth, and he came up to me and took his pooper out, he put his arms around me and he told me, I love you so much Momma. He's always told me he loved me, but never, never, before, not without me telling him first. And that was just...I'm holding on to that so much, because it means so much. I love em. I just can't express enough. I have been to the Lord in prayers every day with my family, by myself, with my husband. It just seems so unfair that somebody could take such two beautiful children. And I don't understand. I have put all my trust and faith in the Lord, that He's taking care of em, that He will bring them home to us.”
Investigators watched and listened as Susan made a plea for her children and they noticed that she just couldn't seem to get the tears flowing. And yes, everyone grieves different, but her voice kept breaking as if there were tears, but nothing happened.
A reporter with WIS TV in South Carolina, Heather Hoopes, was sent to cover the story. Discussions were happening right away about the composite sketch. Heather said the sketch was vague and pretty much described half the people in Columbia and they ended up pulling it off the air.
Jeanne Boylan, is a famous facial identification specialist who immediately saw how problematic the vague sketch was. She got on a plane and decided she would talk to investigators and Susan to see if she could help. She explained to investigators that a face or image can be stored in a traumatized individual's memory, but it's susceptible to change. In the original sketch that was released, it showed a man entering a vehicle and she said this was inappropriate because the positioning was all wrong and the man was not showing any emotion on his face. Jeanne was told that she would have to talk to Susan and David, but investigators weren't forcing them to do a new sketch. Jeanne went to their house and was told told that she would not be speaking with them. Marc Klaas also showed up in town to help. He is the father of Polly Klass and she was murdered when she was 12. If anyone could relate to what the family was experiencing, it was him, but he was also turned away. Marc and Jeanne had teamed up before to help families and they had never been turned away. Marc said, “It's so strange. It seems to me they are putting Susan ahead of the children's welfare. There's no time to waste. You have to find the children as fast as possible. They're making all the wrong moves.” The two of them went to a hotel and Jeanne received a message that said, “I'm taking media calls for Susan Smith. Susan is ready to work with you to develop a caricature of the abductor.”
Jeanne was ecstatic at the change of heart and she rushed over to the house. When she arrived, she was told they were no longer interested. David's father was actually very supportive of doing a new sketch. He had been living in California when Polly Klaas went missing and watched her father on TV pleading for help. Marc told him he needed to see Susan and David. David's father said he was worried about the kids and felt like no one was fighting to help them, so he promised he would try to talk them into this.
The next morning, Marc Klaas showed up early to the home and was told that Susan and David weren't up to meeting with him. Marc looked at David's father and Charles Smith said, “I thought it was all arranged.” His eyes filled with tears as he apologized. Marc Klaas left Union that night without being able to talk to Susan and David. He believed that Susan was clearly involved in the disappearance, but he thought she had someone hiding the kids for her and didn't believe she had hurt them.
The Sins of a Mother by Maria Eftimiades