Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Underwater Forensics

Poisoning the Well

On October 17, 1994, Tom Findlay wrote a letter to Susan Smith  telling tell her that he was not interested in continuing their relationship because he did not want to be responsible for another man's children. He pointed out other problems as well, but Smith fixated on that single item: If only she had no children he would remain with her.

Susan Smith
Susan Smith

Still in a daze a week later on October 25, she picked up her two sons and drove around in her Mazda Protégé for over an hour. She ended up at John D. Long Lake outside Union, S.C., and parked on the gravel boat ramp. Michael, 3, and fourteen-month-old Alex were asleep in the back, strapped securely into the seat. Smith put the car into neutral and felt it start to roll toward the water. According to her, she could no longer bear her life and she wanted her sons to go to heaven, but others believe that she simply couldn't bear the thought of being abandoned by the man she loved—a married man. She'd already lost her father and her husband. She later claimed she had no choice but to end it.

Alex and Michael at birthday Party
Alex and Michael at birthday Party

But then she put on the brake and got out of the car. She decided she had to kill her sons first, to be sure they were dead. She hesitated and then reached into the car to release the emergency brake. The Mazda, lights still on, rolled forward. Smith watched as the car floated for a few moments and then filled with water. She knew her boys, probably struggling, were drowning. Finally the car submerged but Smith did not follow it into the water. Instead she ran to a nearby house, screaming that a black man had accosted her at a traffic light and taken her car with her sons inside.

She played the hysterical mother, fooling the woman in the house, responding police, and soon attempting to deceive the entire nation as she televised a plea to get her sons back. Her shocked, estranged husband, David, stood by her side.

Yet her story failed to add up to investigators, and her voluntary lie detector test results were mixed. It appeared that she knew where her sons were and knew that they were dead. Finally, nine days after the incident, she confessed to what she had done.

After ascertaining that the boys had been pushed into the lake, divers went in but were unable to find the car. It turned out they had miscalculated where the car might be because no one imagined that Smith had simply allowed it to roll in slowly. They went in again and found the upside down car, with the boys still strapped in and hanging from the seat. One diver described seeing a small hand against the window glass. Smith was convicted and sentenced to life in prison. A journalist later contended that she could not have released the brake, so the homicides could have been accidental.

As difficult as it can be to scour a lake, a river presents even greater challenges.


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