Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Susan Smith: Child Murderer or Victim?

The Investigation

Union County sheriffs deputies continued searching for the Smith brothers and Susans Mazda while Susan, David and the Vaughn-Russell families gathered at the McClouds' home. Around midnight, Sheriff Wells suggested that Susan and her family find another meeting place. Susan volunteered her mothers home and Susan, David, Bev, Linda and assorted friends and family left the McClouds for the Russell home. Susan rode with David in his car to the Russells. On the way to the Russells, Susan told David that Tom Findlay might come and see her and that she didnt want David to become angry. David found Susans statement incredible in light of the fact that their sons were missing. It seemed that Susan was more worried that David would become upset if her boyfriend came to visit, rather than worrying about finding their sons.

Wells returned to his office and began to organize the investigation. He called SLED to coordinate efforts to send divers to John D. Long Lake to search the lake. A SLED helicopter with heat sensors flew over John D. Long Lake and nearby Sumter National Forest. Divers who searched the lake did not find anything on the bottom of John D. Long Lake in the area they searched. Wells needed to obtain a better, more detailed description of the kidnapper from Susan and made arrangements for a police sketch artist to sketch a composite drawing. The police artist met with Susan and using the description she provided composed a sketch of a black man, around forty years of age, wearing a dark knit cap, a dark shirt, jeans and a plaid jacket.

Throughout October 26, 1994, Union County sheriff deputies and SLED agents searched the area surrounding John D. Long Lake. Agents conducted interviews of the McCloud family. Another organization also became involved in the search for Michael and Alex Smith, the Adam Walsh Center, located in the state capitol, Columbia, about 70 miles south of Union. The Adam Walsh Center was named in memory of six-year-old Adam Walsh who disappeared during a shopping trip with his mother from a Florida Sears store in 1981. Even though an intense search was undertaken to find Adam, he remained missing for ten days until his body was found 150 miles from where he had disappeared. Adams killer was never found. In 1981 law enforcement agencies did not have standard operating procedures for locating missing children. There were no computer databases of child molesters, no clearinghouses of information on missing children, and no way for one law enforcement agency to communicate with another. John and Reve Walsh, Adams parents, dedicated themselves to changing the system. As a result of their efforts, the 1984 Missing Childrens Act was passed. The act organized a computerized system for sharing information and established four regional missing children centers in the United States, one of which was located in Columbia.

Later in the afternoon of October 26th, Margaret Frierson, Executive Director of the South Carolina Chapter of the Adam Walsh Center spoke to Susans sister-in-law, Wendy Vaughn, and offered the centers assistance to Susan and David Smith. Margaret told Wendy that she would need to speak to Susan and David and asked that they call her back. They never did. Instead, Bev Russell called Margaret later that same day and provided directions to his home. Before driving to Union, Margaret and her assistant, Charlotte Foster, worked with SLED to obtain pictures of Michael and Alex and arranged for fliers to be printed describing the missing boys.

Susan and David continued to stay with Bev and Linda Russell. Davids father and his wife Sue flew to Union from California and Davids uncle Doug and his wife drove from Michigan to be with him. The house quickly filled with other relatives, friends, neighbors and ministers. Susan never spent a moment alone. In her parents home, her friends and family comforted Susan and provided the affectionate nurturing Susan so badly desired. This was in sharp contrast to the isolation and loneliness she recently felt.

Tom Findlay called Susan and expressed his sympathies about Michael and Alex. Susan shifted the topic of conversation away from her missing children and to her relationship with him. Tom told Susan not to worry about their relationship and to concentrate on her children. This telephone call would be the only one that Susan would receive from Tom. Tom never visited Susan, not even when a group of Susans co-workers from Conso visited. When Sue Brown came to visit, Susan Smith asked her when Tom was planning to visit her.

Margaret Frierson and Charlotte Foster arrived at the Russell home on the afternoon of October 26th. Instead of talking to Susan and David alone, as they preferred, the women met with Susan, David, Bev, Linda and Scotty Vaughn. Margaret explained why the Adam Walsh Center was founded and what services it could provide to the parents of missing children. Margaret explained that she and Charlotte could act as the familys liaison with the news media and could arrange and schedule interviews and broadcast pictures of the missing boys and information about the crime. After 40 minutes, Susan and David excused themselves from the conversation and drove to the sheriffs office for interviews. Margaret followed David and Susan in her car. Sheriff Wells questioned Susan in his office. Margaret and SLED investigator Eddie Harris spoke with David about making a plea for the safe return of his sons to the news media. Margaret and Harris believed that a nationally televised appeal for the childrens return would be instrumental in solving the boys disappearance. David was nervous, but agreed that it was important to do anything that would return his sons.

The news media descended in large numbers on Union. At first the carjacking was covered by the local paper, the Union Daily Times; and local radio stations, but interest in the story quickly grew and the national networks were soon covering the story.

David, with Susan by his side, stood on the steps of the Union County Sheriffs department and made the following statement: "To whoever has our boys, we ask that you please dont hurt them and bring them back. We love them very much...I plead to the guy please return our children to us safe and unharmed. Everywhere I look, I see their play toys and pictures. They are both wonderful children. I dont know how else to put it. And I cant imagine life without them." After he finished David, along with Susan, returned to the sheriffs office. Susan was questioned by both investigators from the Union County sheriffs office and agents from SLED for about six hours. Susan was asked on a number of occasions to repeat the details of her story.

At the end of the day, Sheriff Wells called David A. Caldwell, Director of the Forensic Sciences Laboratory for the State Law Enforcement Division in Columbia and asked him to drive to Union to interview Susan Smith.

Two days after the carjacking, on Thursday, October 27, 1994, both David and Susan submitted to polygraph tests administered by the FBI. Susan and David each read and signed a form advising them of their Miranda rights, their right to remain silent, their right to an attorney, and their right to stop talking to investigators. Davids test showed that he knew nothing about the disappearance of his sons. Susans test was inconclusive. Susans test showed that her greatest level of deception was when she was asked the question; "Do you know where your children are?" The investigators did not hide the results of her polygraph from Susan. Susan told David that she thought she had not done well on the test. She wasnt sure that she failed the test outright, but she told David that she thought the police might begin to doubt her story. This would be the first of many polygraph tests Susan was given. Each time Susan was interviewed, she was given a polygraph test. This would be the one and only polygraph test given to David.

There were several inconsistencies in Susans story. Over the course of the day, Agent Caldwell interviewed Susan on three separate occasions at the Union County sheriffs office. Agent Caldwell asked Susan to relate the details of October 25, beginning when she awoke in the morning until she spoke with Sheriff Wells at the McClouds' house. Susan told Caldwell she had called her mother after she came home from work to ask if she could visit her later in the evening. Susans mother told her that she had other plans and would not be home. Susan made dinner for her sons, but they were fussy and did not want to eat. David called Susan during the time she was preparing dinner and later told the police that he could hear his sons in the background and that they seemed "fussy". Susan told Caldwell that at 7:30 p.m., Michael told her he wanted to go to Wal-Mart. Caldwell questioned Susan about this and Susan admitted that she suggested going to Wal-Mart. Susan told Caldwell she drove to Foster Park and stayed until 8:40 p.m., but did not get out of her car. Susan then claimed she returned to the Wal-Mart parking lot because of the bright lights so that she could search for Alexs bottle that he had dropped on the floor of the car. Susan then told Caldwell that Michael had suggested visiting Mitchell Sinclair, fiancé of her best friend Donna Garner, but then amended her answer when Caldwell questioned her further about it. Susan told Caldwell that Mitch lived less than a mile north of the Monarch intersection and that she had stopped at a red light on Monarch, but saw no other cars at the intersection while she had stopped.

Agent Caldwell told Susan that investigators had spoken to Mitchell and he told them that he had not been expecting her and that he wasnt home around 9:00 p.m. Agent Caldwell also told Susan that investigators had visited the Wal-Mart and had spoken to many people who were working or shopping in the store that evening and that no one remembered seeing Susan or her two children. Susan backpedaled away from her story and said that she had actually been driving around for hours with her two children strapped to their car seats. Susan had not said anything about this to investigators because she was afraid that her behavior sounded suspicious.

After interviewing Susan on October 26, investigators became suspicious of her story. The light at the Monarch intersection is permanently green unless a car on the cross street triggers the signal to switch. If there had been no other cars on the road that night, the light would not have been red.

While Agent Caldwell was interviewing Susan, David met with other SLED investigators and told them that Susan had been dating other men. The investigators wanted names and dates. David told them about Tom Findlay. David was frustrated that the investigators were focusing so much attention on Susan rather than searching for his sons. Agent Caldwell told Susan that investigators had obtained information that Susan had a boyfriend, Tom Findlay, and that Tom had broken off his relationship with Susan because of Susans sons. Caldwell asked Susan, "Did this fact play any role or have any bearing on the disappearance of your children?" Susan replied that, "No man would make me hurt my children. They were my life." Susans answer indicated that she thought her sons were no longer alive.

Later in the day, when Susan was interviewed again by Agent Caldwell, she was confronted again by the inconsistencies in her story. Agent Caldwell demanded to know why Susan had not told the truth about Wal-Mart. Caldwell asked Susan about her childrens fussiness and asked Susan, "is that why you killed them?" Susan slammed her fist on the table and said, "You son of a b-! How can you think that!" Susan got up from her chair and left the office where the interview was taking place yelling, "I cant believe that you think I did it!"

Agent Caldwell noted that from time to time during his interview with Susan, she would sob, but tears would not always accompany her apparent crying. The FBI agent, who administered her polygraph test on October 27, noted that Susan made "fake sounds of crying with no tears in her eyes."

Another person who thought Susan was lying about the carjacking was the forensic artist, Roy Paschal, who had drawn the sketch of the carjacker from Susans description. Paschal felt that Susan was vague in her description of the kidnapper, but she was very specific about some of the small details in the drawing.

Sketch of the alleged abductor (AP)
Sketch of the alleged
abductor (AP)
Sheriff Wells and Agent Logan contacted the FBIs Behavioral Sciences Unit for assistance. Wells and Logan asked the unit to provide a profile of the characteristics of a homicidal mother. The profile the FBI provided fit Susan Smith almost perfectly. The FBIs profile described a woman in her twenties, who grew up or lived in poverty, was under-educated, had a history of either physical or sexual abuse or both, remained isolated from social supports, had depressive and suicidal tendencies and was usually experiencing rejection by a male lover at the time she murdered. The profile also described how the mother might also find herself enmeshed with her children and show an inability to define her boundaries as separate from her children. The profile also described how depression in the mother was often correlated with a blurring of boundaries. A mothers biological ties, her strong role expectations to be a mother, her significantly greater care giving responsibilities, her isolation in carrying out those responsibilities and her greater tendency toward depression and self-destruction were likely to result in her becoming trapped in enmeshment with her children.

During a homicidal act, a mother may view a child as a mere extension of herself rather than as a separate being. A mothers suicidal inclination may often be transformed into filial homicide.

The investigation continued into its third day. Sheriff Wells appeared on the Today show and on Larry King Live. He told Larry King that his office had received more than 1,000 calls but that none had developed into a strong lead to follow. Divers searched the bottom of John D. Long Lake, but they found nothing in the murky water.

Experts had made a tremendous error when they told the divers to assume that anyone trying to hide a car would drive it into the water at a high rate of speed. None of the experts considered that a driver might simply let a car roll from the edge of the banks into the water. It is easy to envision that a car driven into a body of water at a high speed would go further than a car driven slowly, in reality, the opposite occurs. The faster that a car hits the water, the more waves it creates which stops the forward momentum of the car. A car driven at a high rate of speed into water simply drops and sinks at the edge of the body of water. Because the Mazda had been rolled into the lake at a slow speed, it had drifted out much further from the edge of the water, nearly 100 feet. Drivers searched the edge of the water, while the Mazda remained submerged.

On Friday morning, October 28, 50 volunteer fire fighters and dozens of SLED agents and sheriffs deputies searched the north and south sides of Highway 49 near John D. Long Lake. They came up empty handed. Sheriff Wells held a press conference to announce that he had no solid clues in the kidnapping of Michael and Alex and he had not ruled out any suspects, including Susan and David Smith. Wells also stated that the investigators had uncovered several discrepancies in Susans statements, but Wells would not elaborate about specific details. Wells also said, "We do not have a car, we do not have the children, we do not have the suspect."

The Saturday, October 29, 1994 edition of the Union Daily Times published a story about the discrepancies in Susans story. The story described how Mitchell Sinclair had not been expecting Susan on the night of the carjacking, that no one had seen her or her children at Wal-Mart, and that Susan had told investigators that she had been driving around aimlessly in the hours before the carjacking. In many ways, the front-page story echoed the doubts many in the community were harboring but hesitated to express. Susan seemed reluctant to speak publicly in order to raise awareness of her missing children and this caused additional speculation that Susan was somehow involved in the disappearance of her children.

There was another issue surrounding the disappearance of Michael and Alex Smith that caused a greater amount of speculation, the fact that Susan claimed that the carjacker was a black man. Many in the black community found that Susans story lacked credibility. They found it impossible that a black man would go unnoticed driving around with two white children, especially given the intensity surrounding the search for the Smith children.

The news media continued to descend on Union. Among the media that was attracted to the case was the television program American Journal. The producers of American Journal asked Marc Klaas, the father of Polly Klaas, the twelve year old girl from Petaluma, California who was kidnapped from her bedroom and murdered in 1993, to report on the Smith brothers disappearance. Klaas had previously reported on three other cases of missing children for the television program. After his daughters murder, Klaas became an advocate for children, giving up the ownership of a Hertz Rent-A-Car franchise at the San Francisco airport in order to devote his full attention to his new role. A year after becoming a board member of the Polly Klaas Foundation, Klaas formed his own organization, The Marc Klaas Foundation for Children which lobbied for stronger laws to protect children and keep violent, repeat offenders behind bars. Klaas also assists parents who are suffering through the disappearance of a child. When his daughter was kidnapped, Marc Klaas met Jeanne Boyton, a cognitive graphic artist, who sketched the drawing of Richard Allen Davis, the man ultimately caught, tried and convicted for the murder of Polly Klaas. After Pollys murder had been solved, Marc and Jeanne had stayed in touch with each other. When Jeanne saw the drawing of the black man Susan had described to Roy Paschal, she felt that if Susan Smith had really been carjacked, a far more detailed drawing of the suspect would have been produced. Klaas suggested that Jeanne join him in Union. Before Jeanne agreed to go to Union, she called the FBI office in Columbia, South Carolina and obtained their approval. Klaas and Boyton arrived in Union on Friday, October 28, 1994. They had both traveled from the West Coast on red eye flights. As Boyton and Klaas approached the Russell home where Susan was staying, Margaret Gregory met them on the driveway. Gregory is the wife of Susans cousin and was employed by the Richland County Sheriffs public information office. Bev and Linda Russell had decided that Margaret Gregory would be the official family spokesperson since she was the only member of the extended Russell and Smith families that regularly dealt with the media. Gregory told Klaas and Boyton that Susan had no interest in meeting with them. Jeanne could not understand why Susan wouldnt meet with them. Jeanne had worked on over 7,000 criminal cases and she felt she understood what type of behavior was typical and what wasnt and Susans refusal to see them was atypical.

Klaas stayed with the media camped out in front of the Russell home while Boyton went to the sheriffs office in Union. Boyton meet with FBI agents, SLED investigators and Union County sheriffs deputies and explained her criticism of the original drawing of the carjacker. Boyton explained how the positioning in the drawing was incorrect, how the suspect was devoid of emotion and how the drawing was of a person that was very passive. Boyton learned from the SLED investigators, the FBI agents and Sheriff Wells that they did not believe Susan Smith. Boyton tried to meet with Susan on her own. She changed from her black business suit into jeans and a casual shirt. She tucked her long blond hair into a baseball cap, but when she approached the Russell home, Margaret Gregory met her in the driveway and again told her that Susan was not interested in meeting with her.

Klaas had spoken briefly to Bev Russell and Margaret Frierson on Friday, his first day in Union, but he was unsuccessful in setting up a meeting with Susan or David Smith. Klaas eventually spoke to Davids father who was supportive of the idea of Klaas meeting with David and Susan. Klaas and Davids father tentatively set an appointment for Sunday morning but when Klaas arrived at the Russell home to meet with Susan and David, he was met again by Margaret Gregory who told him that Susan and David were not up for meeting him.

After four days of trying to talk to Susan and David Smith, Boyton and Klaas gave up and went home. Marc Klaas left Union convinced that Susan Smith was involved in the disappearance of her children. Klaas did not believe that Susan harmed her children, instead he thought that the Smiths were involved in a custody battle and that Susan had hidden the children from David.

Six days after the Smith children disappeared, the Union County sheriffs office received a call from police in Seattle about a fourteen-month-old white child. The childs description matched the physical description of Alex Smith. The child had been abandoned by a man driving a car with South Carolina license plates at a motel near Seattle. Sheriff Wells called the Russell home and spoke to Bev and told him about the boy in Seattle. For a short period of time, it looked like one of the Smith children had been located. Unfortunately, the good news was short lived. By 10:00 a.m., a call from the police in Seattle confirmed that the boy was not Alex Smith. Sheriff Wells meet with Bev, Linda, David, Susan, Margaret Gregory, her husband and Scotty and Wendy Vaughn in his office. Wells told them about the disappointing news. After their meeting with Wells, David and Susan held a short press conference in front of the Union County sheriffs office.

Sheriff Wells, Robert Stewart, the Chief of SLED, Agent David Caldwell, the behavioral specialist and the FBI Agents working on the case had each concluded on their own and together as a group that Susan Smith was lying about her involvement in the disappearance of her children. The investigators now faced the challenge of proving Susans involvement in the crime. Investigators continued to interview Susan on a daily basis. Gradually they began to suggest to her that while they wanted to believe her story, they could not.

Agent Caldwell had accused Susan of murdering her children during an interview on October 26th. Susans reaction shocked the investigators. The quiet, passive, semi-hysterical woman who continually repeated, "God, look after my babies," suddenly became angry and lashed out at the investigators. From Susans response, investigators learned that Susan was not just a brokenhearted mother but a strong willed woman and that they would have a difficult time getting her to confess. There was nothing that the investigators could prove yet, but all the details of Susans story: the red light at the Monarch Mills intersection; the absence of cars on the road; the conflicting stories about where Susan was headed the night of October 25, and the fact that Susans car had vanished, made investigators doubt her. The issue that most nagged at the investigators was Susans car. Very early in the investigation, investigators felt that Susan was culpable of the crime and that she had acted alone, but where was Susans car? Investigators felt that the car and the children were within walking distance of the lake. They returned time again to search for the car in the two-mile area surrounding the McClouds' house.

From the start of the case, investigators carried out meticulously planned interrogations of Susan Smith that were designed to gradually break down her defenses so that she would confess. The investigators behavior and movements were carefully scripted and choreographed. There were no ad libbed or casual questions to Susan. Sheriff Wells and Agent Pete Logan acted as the "good cops." Logan has thirty-five years of law enforcement experience; twenty-seven of those years were spent in the FBI. Logan spoke gently to Susan and manipulated her into trusting him. The investigators believed that if they could build Susans trust in them, they could coax her into confessing. Logan was careful not to push Susan too hard. Investigators were familiar with Susans previous suicide attempts and they were concerned that if they pushed her too hard she would shut down or commit suicide.

The investigators all hoped that the Smith children would be found alive and unharmed, but they knew as the days passed that this wish was less and less likely to come true. The strongest weapon that investigators were able to use against Susans steadfast claim that she was the victim of a carjacking was psychology. Investigators met several times each day during the nine days that the Smith children were missing to plot strategy and consider their next move in interrogating Susan.

Investigators met with Susan at two different locations away from the news media. Agent Pete Logan met daily with Susan and after each conversation, Logan would attach Susan to the polygraph machine and test her. Susan routinely failed the question: " Do you know where your children are?"

After Agent Caldwell interviewed Susan and studied her behavior, he wrote a psychological profile of her. Caldwells profile described a cool, cunning woman with a strong drive to succeed. Agent Caldwell had obtained information from Tom Findlay, whom had met with investigators at the beginning of the investigation. Findlay had provided the investigators with a copy of the letter that he had sent to Susan ending their relationship. Findlay told the investigators that Susan had reacted vindictively to his rejection and Findlay had been surprised by Susans bitterness. The investigators used Findlays information and their own observations of Susans angry outburst when confronted with their early suspicions to develop a possible motive: that greed and ambition had pushed Susan to rid herself of her children by murdering them. Agent Caldwell designed a series of questions and comments for Pete Logan to use in his length daily conversations with Susan. Several of the scenarios would be used to during the nine-day interrogations as part of Logans efforts to pressure Susan into confessing.

One of the investigators tactics was to build up the media frenzy directed at David and Susan Smith. One example of the way the investigators shaped the news was at the press conference held by Sheriff Wells on Tuesday, November 1, exactly one week after Susan made her claims about being carjacked. Wells met in the parking lot of the Union County courthouse with a dozen reporters. Wells words were carefully scripted and impeccably planned. There was no question to whom Wells statement was directed to: Susan Smith. Wells said, "I dont know that were any closer to finding the car." "I have nothing encouraging." "Were following old information that weve just not gotten to. "I dont think its developed into anything as of yet to be any more excited about than yesterday."

The investigators contacted the producers of Americas Most Wanted and had them tape a segment on the disappearance of the Smith brothers. The investigators hoped that the additional media coverage would bring pressure on Susan and would push her to confess. The investigators contacted a group of Unions most influential ministers to arrange for them to hold a press conference to appeal to the carjacker. Agent Caldwells most elaborate scheme involved the creation of an authentic appearing newspaper on desktop publishing software that contained an article about a young mother who had killed her children, then served a short prison sentence and upon her release from prison, married a wealthy physician. A photograph of a policewoman Susan did not know would be used. Caldwells intention was to convince Susan to confess with the expectation that she might lead a different life with a wealthy man.

The Americas Most Wanted segment never aired, the newspaper was never created and the ministers gathered in front of the cameras in front of the Union County courthouse, not to appeal to the carjacker, but to ask for understanding.

 

 

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