Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Susan Smith: Child Murderer or Victim?

The Confession

On Thursday, November 3, 1994, the ninth day since the carjacking and disappearance of the Michael and Alex Smith, their parents, Susan and David rose early to prepare themselves for interviews on three television network morning programs. Susan and David sat together holding hands on the Russells living room sofa during their interviews. On CBS This Morning, Susan was asked if she had any involvement in her sons disappearance. Susan answered the question by saying, "I did not have anything to do with the abduction of my children." Susan added that, "Whoever did this is a sick and emotionally unstable person." Although David and Susan were legally separated, when David was asked whether he believed his wife, he replied, "Yes, I believe my wife totally."

After the interviews, Susan and David had been scheduled to sit for an interview with the Union Daily Times, but Margaret Gregory called and cancelled the interview explaining that the couple were exhausted and had enough media attention for the day.

At 12:30 p.m., Susan told her mother that she and David were going to run errands. Susan did not tell her mother that Sheriff Wells had sent for her. Susan was taken to another safe house for another interrogation.

Susan was dressed in jeans and a hooded sweatshirt and brought to her latest interrogation a newly revised statement that said the same things as her previous statement, the only change being that the name "Monarch Mills" had been changed to "Carlisle". Agent Logan asked Susan if she had anything else to add to her statement and she said no. At that point, Sheriff Wells was summoned to speak with Susan.

Susan was beginning to be worn down by the intensive and lengthy interrogations. Susan had also been facing increasingly skeptical news reporters who had started to pressure her for an explanation of Sheriff Wells statement regarding the unspecified inconsistencies in her story.

At 1:40 p.m., Sheriff Wells and Susan met in a small room in the Family Center of the First Baptist Church, located on the same street as the Union County Courthouse. Sheriff Wells and Susan sat on folding chairs, knee to knee, facing one another and talked.

Sheriff Wells confronted Susan about her story of the carjacking. Wells told Susan that he knew that Susans story of the black carjacker was a lie. He told her that she could not stop at the red light at the Monarch intersection if there were no other cars on the road. Wells told Susan that she had revised her statement because of this inconsistency and that even her back up story was a lie. Wells told Susan that he had undercover officers at the Carlisle intersection working on a drug investigation and that they did not see the alleged carjacker. Wells told Susan that he would have to tell the news media that her story about the alleged black carjacker was not true because Susans accusation had caused tension in Unions black community. After Wells told Susan this, she asked him to pray with her. At the close of the prayers Wells said, "Lord, we know that all things will be revealed to us in time." Wells then looked at Susan and said, "Susan, it is time."

Susan dropped her head and wailed, "I am so ashamed, I am so ashamed." She asked Sheriff Wells for his gun so that she could kill herself. Sheriff Wells asked Susan why she wanted to do that and Susan replied, "You dont understand, my children are not all right."

Susan told Wells about the crushing isolation she had felt while driving her Mazda along Highway 49 on the night of October 25th and the consuming desire she had to commit suicide. Susan had planned to drive her sons to her mothers house, but emotionally she felt so bad that she felt even her mother could not help her. Susan told Wells that her whole life had felt wrong and that she felt she could not escape the loneliness, isolation and failure that had ensnared her. Susan told Wells about her abortion, her troubled marriage to David and her affair with Tom Findlay.

Susan, teary-eyed (AP)
Susan, teary-eyed (AP)
Susan collapsed and began to sob; other investigators entered the room to obtain her written confession. In her confession, Susan filled two pages with carefully written script, rounding off her letters and drawing little hearts whenever she wanted to use the word heart. Susan wrote that she had driven off Highway 49 and onto the road leading to John D. Long Lake because she wanted to commit suicide. She believed that her children would be better off with her and with God than if they were left without a mother and alone. Her plan was that the three of them: Susan, Michael and Alex would die together.

Susan told the investigators that she had tried to end all of their lives by putting the car in neutral and letting it roll down the boat ramp, but she pulled on the parking brake and stopped the car. She did this three times before she stood outside the car and overcome with grief, loneliness and pain reached into the car and released the parking brake sending the car into John D. Long Lake.

It is interesting to note that according to a National Center for Missing and Exploited Children study of murdered children in the United States, completed in the mid-1990s, mothers who murdered their children disposed of their bodies in a distinctively womb-like manner. The study found that some victims were submerged in water and others were found carefully wrapped in plastic. Furthermore, the study also described how all the victims bodies were found within ten miles of their family home.

During her confession, Susan told investigators how much she loved her sons and that she never meant to harm them and that she was sorry. After the car had rolled into the lake, Susan wanted to undo what she had done, but she could not. As she ran towards the McClouds house, Susan planned her alibi.

Susan told investigators that keeping her secret during the nine days her sons were assumed to be kidnapped was very difficult. She said that watching her parents and David and his parents hurt her very deeply. Susan said she was scared, but admitted that she thought she would be found out and that her story would not withstand scrutiny.

After nine days of theories, speculations and unanswered questions, Sheriff Wells was left with the task of confirming the answers Susan provided to Michael and Alexs disappearance in her confession. Sheriff Wells wanted to confirm the contents of Susans confession before breaking the news to David, the Smith family and Susans family. Sheriff Wells sent for a team of divers from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and SLED agents to secure and search John D. Long Lake for Susans car. Sheriff Wells wanted to tell the families about Susans confession in person as soon as confirmation that the Mazda and Michael and Alex were resting on the bottom of John D. Long Lake was obtained.

The first divers to arrive at John D. Long Lake were Curtis Jackson and Mike Gault. They paddled out in a small boat onto the lake and Jackson dove into the water. His first dive yielded no results. Gault told Jackson some of the details that Susan Smith had revealed during her interrogation that Gault had learned from Sheriff Wells. Six minutes into his second dive, Jackson located the underside of the upside down Mazda, however his divers light failed and he was unable to see into the car. The next divers to arrive, Steve Morrow and Francis Mitchum, were equipped with more sophisticated diving lights. Morrow and Mitchum located the Mazda in approximately eighteen feet of water. At the place in the lake where the car was located, visibility was only twelve inches.

Morrow and Mitchum made a slow search around the Mazda Protégé and observed that all of the windows were rolled up and that all four doors were closed. Morrow later testified at Susans trial that he saw a small hand against the window glass. Morrow also testified that we had to be down on the bottom of the lake to see inside the car...they were in car seats hanging upside down. Morrow added that, I was able to determine one occupant on either side of the vehicle. Morrow and Mitchum reported their observations to Sheriff Wells. Sheriff Wells flew from the lake, in a waiting SLED helicopter, to the Russell home to inform David Smith and Susans parents that Michael and Alex had been found. Unfortunately, the family had already heard an unconfirmed Associated Press report that Susan had confessed to murdering her children. Sheriff Wells stayed at the Russell home for about 20 minutes. Wells told the family members and friends assembled at the home portions of what Susan had told him during her confession and confirmed Susans account of rolling the Mazda with Michael and Alex strapped inside the car into the lake. Wells also told them that Susan had been arrested and charged with two counts of murder. A bail hearing would be arranged the following day at the Union County Courthouse.

Sheriff Howard Wells (right) announces Susan's arrest (AP)
Sheriff Howard Wells (right)
announces Susan's arrest (AP)
Immediately after her arrest, strong hatred was directed at Susan. Shouts of baby killer! and Murderer! greeted Susan as she was led from the sheriffs office to a waiting car to be driven to the York County Jail.

Sheriff Wells held a press conference at 5:00 p.m. to announce that Susan had confessed and had been arrested and charged with two counts of murder in connection with the deaths of her sons, Michael and Alex and that divers had located her car with two bodies inside. Wells would not answer questions about the motive, but the news media speculated on the letter Tom Findlay wrote to Susan that stated he did not want a ready made family.

The press conference attracted many residents of Union. Some in the crowd were angered that until Susan Smiths story was confirmed, the made-up story of a black carjacker was believed.

Susan's 1990 Mazda, after it was pulled from the lake (AP)
Susan's 1990 Mazda, after it was pulled from the lake (AP)

After his press conference, Sheriff Wells returned to John D. Long Lake to be on the scene when the Mazda was pulled from the water. It took about forty-five minutes to pull the car through the mud along the lake bottom and into shallow water. Once the car was in shallow water, it was flipped right side up. The windshield of the car had cracked from the temperature changes and water pressure at the bottom of the lake.

The bodies of Michael and Alex were placed in a waiting ambulance that was then driven to the University of South Carolina Medical Center in Charleston. Autopsies were performed on Friday, November 4th and confirmed that the children had been alive when their mother sent them in her car into the lake and that they had drowned as the car submerged.

In the days immediately after Susan Smith confessed there were many newspaper editorials condemning those who were quick to believe blacks were responsible for the carjacking as well as for many of societys problems. In some of the editorials, the Smith case was compared to the 1989 case of Charles Stuart. Stuart was a Boston man who shot and killed his pregnant wife in a parked car and then called 911 to report that he and his wife had been attacked by a black man. Stuarts 911 call was broadcast repeatedly in the days after the crime took place. Stuart claimed that the black man robbed Stuart and his wife of their wallets and jewelry and then shot Mrs. Stuart in the head and Stuart in the stomach. During their investigation, the Boston police aggressively questioned a large number of black men in the Roxbury neighborhood of Boston. Roxbury has a large African American population. Gradually, investigators became suspicious of Stuart and his story. Stuart, fearing that the truth was about to emerge, committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. Bostons African American community was outraged by the treatment that the young men in their community had received during the Stuart investigation and leaders staged rallies and demanded the resignation of several policemen and an apology from city officials.

Fortunately Union was different than Boston. The towns black ministers preached messages of healing, rather than division. On Friday, November 4, the night after Susan confessed, the people of Union held a town meeting to pledge their desire for unity in the face of the Smith tragedy. More than one hundred blacks and whites attended the meeting hoping to find comfort as well as send a message to the nation that Union was not bitterly divided along racial lines. One of the black ministers, Reverend A.J. Brackett, the pastor of St. Paul Baptist Church, pointed out that only a few black men had been stopped by investigators during their search for the alleged carjacker and that only two black men had been brought to the sheriffs office for questioning. Both men were treated courteously and released after a short time.

On Friday, November 4, the day after Susan Smith confessed, her brother, Scotty Vaughn, apologized to the black community of Union by reading a letter to the news media. In his letter, Vaughn said, We apologize to all of the black citizens of Union and everywhere and hope you wont believe any of the rumors that this was ever a racial issue.

The night that Susan was arrested, she wrote David a letter. The letter was filled with the phrase, Im sorry, and complaints that Susans feelings were getting lost in the midst of everyone elses sorrow. David was upset by the contents of the letter and thought, what kind of person is Susan? David had the same thoughts after he read Susans confession.

The funeral for Michael and Alex was held on Sunday, November 6th at Buffalo Methodist Church. The funeral was preceded by a visitation on Saturday, November 5th. The casket remained closed during the visitation and funeral because of the water damage done to the bodies. Michael and Alex were buried together in a white casket with gold trim during a private ceremony in the cemetery behind the Bogansville United Methodist Church, next to the grave of Danny Smith, Davids older brother and the childrens uncle.

The boys' coffin (AP)
The boys' coffin (AP)

 

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