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.
American Justice - The Susan Smith Story (A Mothers Confession) - Bing video
The Sins of a Mother by Maria Eftimiades
Residents were out searching, hanging photos of the boys around town, and tying yellow ribbons to mailboxes and telephone poles. They also went through the wooded areas on horseback. Susan never spent a moment alone and was surrounded by friends and family. Everyday, the same group of people would repeat the words that became their mantra: stay hopeful, stay positive, and pray. Susan made a plea on the news to get her kids back. She tearfully said, “I can't sleep, I can't eat, I can't do anything, but think about them. I just want to hug them so bad and tell them I love them.” On the second day of the investigation, Susan did take a lie detector test and failed. Police accused her of staging things and being involved in the kidnapping and she got belligerent with them right away. This is when police realized they wouldn't be able to intimidate her into a confession, they would have to slow things down and try a different tactic.
On the third day of the investigation, a car matching the description of Susan's Mazda was seen in North Carolina, but it ended up not being hers. Divers were getting ready to search John D Long Lake and the plan was to go from the shoreline to 100 ft out. The divers spent hours in the murky water and found nothing, but the experts made a huge mistake. No one considered that the driver of the car would simply let the car roll into the water and drift out. They believed the car would be driven at a high speed meaning it would drop and sink fairly close to the edges. The FBI searched Susan's home and didn't find anything. A week into the search, Susan appeared in front of the camera's again. She said, “ I wanna say to my babies that your mama loves you so much and your daddy, this whole family loves you so much. And you guys have gotta be strong because you are...which I just know, I just feel in my heart that you're ok, but you gotta take care of each other. And your mamma and daddy are gonna be right here waiting on you when you get home.”
Susan's neighbor, Dot Frost was one of the early skeptics of her story. She felt that Susan's tears were fake and Dot's son, Scott, was sure that he saw Susan's car pull out of the driveway between 8:15 to 8:30 on the night of the murder. He was watching TV and got up during a commercial. Scott saw Susan's car backing out of the driveway, but Susan said she had been at Walmart for a long time. He told his mother that was impossible. Dot had also noticed something weird that night. She had been at home listening to a police scanner and heard about the carjacking. She glanced at Susan's and noticed her porch light was off and she thought it was weird because the porch light was never off. Investigators took this information down, but told Dot not to talk to anyone. When a local reporter knocked on her door and asked if she believed Susan, she said, “It's like fishy. It looks suspicious.” That night, she got an anonymous call from someone that said, “I hope you rot in hell!.”
Police were interviewing Susan daily and they started to see more inconsistencies in her story. Remember when she said she stopped at Walmart to do some shopping? Well, no one remembered seeing her at Walmart that night with her two boys. Susan claimed she was going to see a friend afterwards, but that friend knew nothing about her coming over and they weren't even home that night. The police told Susan that no one saw her at Walmart and she changed her story. She explained that she's actually just been driving for hours with her boys, but she made up the story about Walmart because she was afraid that her story looked suspicious. When the man supposedly broke into her car at the stoplight, Susan said there were no other cars at that intersection, so there weren't any witnesses. That specific light will only turn red for the direction Susan was traveling if there was cross-traffic. By day 8, Susan changed her written statement after Police informed her that her story wasn't adding up.
The friend that Susan claimed she was going to see on the night of the murder was Mitchell Sinclair and the media was outside of his house and calling him all day and night. When one reporter cornered him, Mitchell made a mistake. He said, “The truth will eventually come out.” This made the reporters believe he had something to do with the disappearance even though the sheriff tried to shoot this rumor down and did a press conference to say Mitchell wasn't a suspect. He showed up at the door of Reverend Cato in the middle of the night and asked if they could just pray. The Reverend got out of bed and saw a line of cars in the street. Sixteen members of the Smith and Russell families and several friends filed into his home and they just prayed together for 45 minutes. At the end, Susan said they would have a celebration when the babies came home.
Sheriff Wells received a call at 3:30 AM saying a child matching Alex's description showed up in a Seattle motel room and the car is a South Carolina vehicle. This was the closest everyone got to having any hope that the children were ok, but they found out very quickly that it wasn't Alex.
The doubt about Susan's story hit the front page of the Union Daily Times on Saturday, October 29th. It was reported that Susan's lie detector test had raised a lot of questions. The story pointed out the inconsistencies in Susan's story and one woman who knew her said she called several times to offer her prayers and Susan would end the conversations with, “I'll always cherish the memories of my babies.”
Heather Hoopes, the news reporter that was covering the story said that people kept asking her if she thought the mom did it. She said that Susan would say things like, I loved them, I really did. This is obviously past tense and it was making people really skeptical. During one of her early TV appearances, Susan was talking about the night where the carjacker shoved her out of the car. She said that she heard her son, Michael say, “Mama, where are you going?” and she told him, “Baby, I've got to go, bur you're going to be okay.” She said she yelled, “I love y'all” and she watched the car speed off. On the 9th day of the search, Susan and her husband, David appeared on the national network morning news programs to declare their innocence and they were pleading for the return of Michael and Alex. Susan told viewers that it hurts her to know that people even thought she could harm her children. She said, “As a mother, it's only a natural instinct to protect your children from any harm and the hardest part of this whole ordeal, is not knowing if your children are getting what they need to survive.”
Investigators were working on building a plan to get Susan to confess. It was a bit tricky because she has a history of suicide attempts and if they pushed her too far, they feared they would never learn the truth. The behavioral specialists that analyzed Susan put together a profile of a cool, cunning woman with a strong desire to succeed. Early in the investigation, Tom Findlay gave them a copy of that breakup letter he sent to Susan. He said she reacted vindictively and was bitter. He was surprised with the reaction he got. The original idea the team came up with was to do a big media blitz. Sheriff Wells did a press conference where he said, “I don't know that we're any closer to finding the car. I have nothing encouraging. We're following old information that we've just not gotten to. I don't think it's developed into anything as of yet to be any more excited about than yesterday.” Sheriff Wells talked about the abductor and said, “I'm waiting right now, hopefully to hear from the abductors. I will talk with him directly. I will go to where he is or I will go to where I can find the children. I'm open to suggestions right now, and I'm hoping he will call. This case has grown to such a degree that if this abductor has seen the amount of attention that has been placed on it, that he would be frightful of how to handle himself or what to do or even to move right now. We're still taking it as we did at the beginning, as a random carjacking. We do not know why the subject was interested in this particular car or if it had any bearing whatsoever, why the abductor would be at this particular location or even if he was one of our own citizens or not. We are following different scenarios; if it was a single abductor, what would be necessary to keep us from finding the vehicle, and where he might be.”
It's very easy to believe that maybe someone else also was involved, who was picked up later or someone else was waiting to be picked up or someone else assisted in hiding the car. When I say two or more people, it does not mean anything different that what she said, that one took the car. I wish I could tell you right now that I had something that made me very confident and had taken some of the burden off of our hearts, but as of right now, I don't have anything that gives me a great deal of relief. I can't say that anything is very promising at this time.”
One person that was completely hounded through this whole process was Shirley McCloud. This was the house Susan ran to on the night the kids disappeared. People were knocking on her door and showing up at the house asking to use her phone so they could get inside and talk to her about the story. She didn't want to say anything because it's not her story to tell, but the Sheriff requested that she be interviewed for a segment that would be aired on America's Most Wanted. She agreed to do this and hoped she could help prove Susan's innocence because she heard all the recent chatter around town.
Investigators were still in the middle of rolling out their big master plan to get Susan to confess. The next step was to call all of the city's most influential ministers. They were asked to gather on the steps of the courthouse to make an emotional plea to the man that kidnapped the boys. There was also one more step to this plan. They were going to print up a newspaper that looked authentic. It would show a story about a young mother who killed her children, served a short sentence, was released, and married a wealthy physician. They took photos of a policewoman that Susan didn't know for the newspaper story and they figured it might get Susan to confess if there was hope that she'd have a good life afterwards. The newspaper idea wasn't used, the story never aired on America's Most Wanted, and the ministers who gathered at the courthouse, didn't have the opportunity to make their plea.
Later in the day, Susan met with police behind the local church and she broke down on November 3rd. She begged Sheriff Wells for his gun, said that her children were not alright, and she fell to the floor crying. Investigators didn't reveal what they said to Susan that afternoon, but she was ready to confess. The police wanted to make sure they got something in writing from her that they could use, without making her confrontational. She explained that she was suicidal on the night of the murder. She said she was living in a veil of tears and didn't want her children to live without a mother. She planned to take her own life and to kill her children at the same time. She remembers driving around town for an hour, then pulled off on the access road for the lake and let her car roll down the boat ramp, but then stopped it by pulling the emergency brake. She sat in the car, motionless, clutching the steering wheel. As she sat there, she heard the sound of her two children breathing as they were fast asleep in the back seat. After awhile, she got out of the car, released the brake and watched the car roll down the ramp and into the water. She filled two pages with her confession and drew little hearts whenever she used the word heart. Her confession said the following:
When I left my home on Tuesday, October 25th, I was very emotionally distraught. I didn't want to live anymore! I felt like things could never get any worse. When I left home, I was going to ride around a little while and then go to my mom's. As I rode and rode and rode, I felt even more anxiety coming upon me about not wanting to live. I felt I couldn't be a good mom anymore, but I didn't want my children to grow up without a mom. I felt I had to end our lives to protect us from any grief or harm. I had never felt so lonely and so sad in my entire life. I was in love with someone very much, but he didn't love me and never would. I had a very difficult time accepting that. But I had hurt him very much and I could see why he could never love me. When I was at John D. Long Lake, I had never felt so scared and unsure as I did then. I wanted to end my life so bad and was in my car ready to go down that ramp into the water, and I did go part way, but I stopped. I went again and stopped. I then got out of the car and stood by the car a nervous wreck. Why was I feeling this? Why was everything so bad in my life? I had no answers to these questions. I dropped to the lowest point when I allowed my children to go down that ramp into the water without me. I took off running and screaming, Oh God! Oh God, NO! What have I done? Why did you let this happen? I wanted to turn around so bad and go back, but I knew it was too late. I was an absolute mental case! I couldn't believe what I had done.
I love my children with all my heart and that will never change. I have prayed to them for forgiveness and hope that they will find it in their hearts to forgive me. I never meant to hurt them!! I am sorry for what has happened and I know that I need some help. I don't think I will ever be able to forgive myself for what I have done. My children, Michael and Alex, are with our Heavenly Father now, and I know that they will never be hurt again. As a mom, that means more than words can ever say. I knew from day one, the truth would prevail, but I was so scared I didn't know what to do. It was very tough emotionally to sit and watch my family hurt like they did. It was time to bring a peace of mind to everyone, including myself. My children deserve to have the best, and now they will. I broke down on Thursday November 3rd, and told Sheriff Howard Wells the truth. It wasn't easy, but after the truth was out, I felt like the world was lifted off my shoulders. I know now that it is going to be a tough and long road ahead of me. At this very moment, I don't feel I will be able to handle what's coming, but I have prayed to God that he give me the strength to survive each day and to face those times and situations in my life that will be extremely painful. I have put my total faith in God, and He will take care of me. Susan V Smith 11/3/94 5:05 PM.
Susan said that her car and children were at the bottom of John D Long Lake. Sheriff Wells went to the lake and told the divers that the car rolled in, it hadn't been driven fast like they originally assumed. Divers did locate the car 122 feet from the shore, upside down, under 18 feet of water. It wasn't a surprise that the car was flipped over because as an object sinks, the heaviest part goes first and in this case, that would be the engine. The lake was dark and murky, but through the beam of a diver's flashlight, they could see a small hand pressed against the window. When the divers emerged, they were all crying. The Mazda was slowly dragged up and Steve Morrow and Francis Mitchum had to hold onto the sides of the car to make sure the doors or windows didn't open up. It took about 45 minutes for the car to be pulled out and flipped right side up. Tears rolled down everyone's faces as the bodies of Michael and Alex were unbuckled from their carseats and carried to an ambulance. When a reporter asked Sheriff Wells about this, all he could say was, “We had a plan, the plan was carried out, and everyone there saw what was there. We all saw what we saw.”
When you look at the path Susan took to get to the lake that night, she drove past the Winn-Dixie supermarket where her husband David was working as an assistant manager. She passed the road that led to the day-care center, she went by the factory that she worked at, and she wasn't far from her mother and stepfather's home, or her brother's home. She could have stopped at any of these places for help.
That night, after the confession, Sheriff Wells made an announcement. He said, “I have a brief statement to make. When I am finished, there will be no questions asked, and none answered.” “Susan Smith, has been arrested and charged with two counts of murder in connection with the deaths of her children, Michael, three, and Alexander, fourteen months. Late this afternoon, a car was located in John D. Long Lake. Two bodies were found in the vehicle's back seat. Mrs. Smith has been arrested and will be charged with two counts of murder. Identities are still pending.”
Some people in the crowd started shouting and debating the racial injustices because Susan said a black man was responsible for taking her kids. It's been said that Sheriff Wells did a a great job at handling this and shutting it down. The community's ministers preached a message of healing not division. The night after the confession, the people of Union had a town meeting to pledge their desire for unity in the face of tragedy. They followed the meeting with a prayer vigil and there were more than 100 people, both black and white that came together. They were determined to send a message to the nation that their city wouldn't be racially divided. In fact, the communities had forged stronger ties and Susan's brother, Scotty, issued an apology in a letter he read to the media to apologize for the racial issues Susan caused.
Susan's husband, David said that he immediately felt hollow and betrayed. He had no idea that Susan was behind this whole thing. He believed her until the end and would have gladly taken the boys if she didn't want them. When David got his own apartment, he started setting up a room for the boys so they would feel like it was their home too. South Carolina decided to pursue the death penalty against Susan, but her defense attorney said this made no sense because Susan actually wanted to die. They said the worst punishment she could face is having to live everyday with what she had done.
On November 6th, 1994, Michael and Alex were laid to rest...together, in the same casket. The yellow ribbons that had been placed on the mailboxes and light posts were replaced with blue and white ones as a remembrance for the boys. More than 1,000 showed up for the funeral visitation and it's estimated that about 700 gifts of flowers were delivered, including one from President Bill Clinton. The boat ramp at John D Long Lake was transformed into a shrine for the boys and it was covered in flowers, stuffed animals, balloons, pictures, and crosses.
On November 22nd, two weeks after the funeral, David filed a countersuit in his divorce from Susan. He asked for a divorce on the grounds of adultery. He has also asked for the return of the Mazda. In the counterclaim, his lawyer stated, “The minor children are now deceased due to very tragic circumstances. The issues of custody, visitation, and child support are therefore moot....the children of the Plaintiff and Defendant were tragically killed in this automobile and the Plaintiff believed that he should be entitled to exclusive title, control, and possession of this automobile so that he can see that the same is properly disposed of.”
On December 12th, Susan was indicted on two charges of murder. The media coverage had been so intense on this case and people weren't sure if they would be able to find a jury that could be fair. Instead of having the trial moved to another location, the defense attorney, David Bruck decided to stay local and thought this would work in Susan's favor. He said that the prosecution was painting Susan as a non-human, or a character full of evilness. If he got a jury full of people in another area, it would be easy for them to believe she was evil, but if the jury grew up in the same area as Susan, it's more difficult for them to believe they were raised near a human this awful and they never noticed anything.
The jurors were chosen, 9 men and 3 women. Four jurors were black and 8 were white. The Prosecution pulled a move that many people say was a huge mistake during the trial. They attempted to prove why Susan murdered her children even though the law didn't say they needed a motive. It was argued that Susan got rid of her kids in an attempt to win back her boyfriend, Tom Findlay. He was wealthy, lived in his family's mansion, worked at his father's company, and was known around town for being the most eligible bachelor. He would have provided a better life for Susan. Tom had sent a letter to Susan a week before the murders and he outlined the reasons that he was ending their relationship and one of those reasons was her children. It wasn't anything against the kids themselves, Tom explained that he just didn't want to ever have kids and that's why the relationship was brief. But again, the Prosecution didn't need to prove the motive. South Carolina law says they only need to prove that it was premeditated by a mere second. Susan already provided this information in her confession when she said she was driving down the boat ramp and stopped to put the emergency brake on. She gave herself time to think about her actions. The reason it's a mistake for the Prosecution to provide a motive when it's not necessary to win is because then it gives the defense the opportunity to provide their theory. They were able to say she wasn't actually evil. She was a loving mom that was immature and they argued that the murders of Michael and Alex was a botched attempt of Susan trying to end her own life.
Susan actually had a past history of being suicidal in high school and she was briefly hospitalized for this. Also, her father took his own life when she was 6 which puts Susan at a higher risk for taking her life as well. She did suffer from depression and there were accusations that she was sexually abused by her stepfather which started when she was 15 and the most recent abuse by him was allegedly 3 months prior to the murders. All of these extra facts wouldn't have been allowed in the trial if the Prosecution didn't try to prove the motive. It immediately made the case more complex by adding in how suicidal she was. Especially when they were seeking the death penalty.
Since the defense brought up the allegations of Susan's abusive past and it was determined that it made her suicidal, but not mentally ill, the Prosecution wasn't allowed to have their own psychiatrist evaluate her. She was found guilty of two counts of murder and the next phase of trial would be figuring out the punishment. The Prosecution put together a video to show what would happen if a car like Susan's, was dropped into the lake. You see the car rolling down the ramp and entering the water. It was taped from the shore and another camera was inside the car where the boys would have been sitting. The reason they recreated how this happened is to show how long it actually takes. In the movies, a car might sink directly to the bottom in seconds, but that's not what happened when the car went down the boat ramp. It floated for awhile and the front started to slowly sink first and they were able to see how the car would have filled with water and trapped the boys inside. The defense asked the Judge to not allow the video to be seen by the jury. They argued that the video was done in the daylight and there were divers next to the car which gave a false sense of rescue that Susan wouldn't have had in the dark night by herself. Judge William Howard said he reviewed the video and determined it was relevant. The camera inside the car provided the most information because you could see how slowly the water was rising. This shows that Susan had time to stop things. It took almost 6 minutes for the water to reach the interior camera and the car just bobbed around.
The boys' father, David, gave a testimony about all the things he used to do with his kids such as taking them to the park to play. It's been said that there wasn't a dry eye at the end of what he said. The Prosecutor, Tommy Pope said he actually went to David and apologized for what he had to do and Susan whispered an apology to David and this made him so angry.
Susan's stepfather was called to the stand for the abuse allegations and he actually confirmed that they were true and took part of the blame for her actions. On July 28th after only 2.5 hours of deliberation, the jury unanimously voted to sentence Susan to life in prison. She was sent to the Women's Correctional Center in South Carolina and she is eligible for parole after serving 30 years.
A few years after Susan drowned her children in John D Long Lake, another tragedy happened in the exact same spot. In September of 1996, a group of 10 people, including 6 children, drove to the shore in a van. They were there to see the memorials for Michael and Alex Smith. They stopped the van and some of them got out. The van, which had transmission problems, ended up rolling down the same boat ramp that Susan sent her kids down. It passed between the memorial markers and knocked over a tree planted in memory of the Smith boys. There was one adult and 4 children inside the vehicle. Two adults dove into the lake to help and were able to free some of the kids from the vehicle, but it was too late. The adults that dove in drowned with everyone that was trapped inside. The bodies were pulled out by the same divers that pulled Alex and Michael from the lake. The van incident was ruled accidental.
Here's the names of the people that died”
Tim Phillips 26 and his wife, Angie 22. Their kids: Courtney 4, Meleana 1, and 4 month old Kinsleigh. Also killed were Carl White 29 and 3 year old Austin Roodvoets.
Soon after the accidental drownings, the Weekly World News published an article that says an ancient Indian curse was responsible for the deaths and the lake was haunted. The article explained that the local Yamasee Indians say the lake is inhabited by an evil spirit with the power to draw humans to their deaths. Visitors say that they hear the sounds of children laughing or a baby crying. There have also been sightings of orbs dancing across the lake. I will say I couldn't find any information on this and locals say it's not true.
The Sins of a Mother by Maria Eftimiades