Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Susan Smith: Child Murderer or Victim?


Susan Leigh Vaughan Smith was born in Union, South Carolina on September 26, 1971. She was the only daughter born to Linda, a homemaker, and Harry, a firefighter who later worked in one of the textile mills that surrounded Union.

Union, South Carolina is in Union County and both the city and the county received their names from the old Union Church that stood a short distance from the Monarch Mill. When it was first founded, Union was known as Unionville; later it was shortened to Union. The countys first white settlers came from Virginia in 1749. Union Countys population grew the fastest between 1762 and the start of the Revolutionary War. Settlers built log cabins and cultivated tobacco, flax, corn and wheat. Union was one of the first towns settled in the area and was untouched during the Civil War because the Broad River flooded and turned Shermans troops away from the town.

Today, Union County has a population of 30,300. The city of Union, the countys largest town, has a population of 9,800. 69.8% of the population of Union County is Caucasian and 29.9% is African American. Union County includes several smaller towns: Lockhart, Carlisle and Buffalo. There are many industrial and manufacturing plants located in these towns which employ 13,000 people. A large portion of Union County is part of Sumter National Forest.

The per capita income in the town of Union is $9,230; the median family income is $25,760 and the median household income is $18,790. Downtown Union is composed of a shopping area, four shopping centers and a branch of the University of South Carolina. Union is also home to the first Carnegie Library in South Carolina.

Linda, Susan's mother (AP)
Linda, Susan's mother
In 1960, Harry Ray Vaughan was twenty and Linda was seventeen and pregnant from a previous relationship when they married. Together, Harry and Linda had a son, Scotty, a daughter, Susan and they raised Lindas son, Michael. Harry and Lindas marriage had many conflicts and some of those conflicts escalated to the point where Harry became violent and threatened to kill Linda and then himself. Harrys violence was the result of his alcoholism and his obsession with the idea that Linda was unfaithful. During Susans early childhood, her home life was very dysfunctional.

The turmoil in the Vaughans household caused Susan and her older brother Scotty to be very frightened. They were especially frightened by the behavior of their parents toward one another. Before Susan entered preschool, her half-brother, Michael, tried to commit suicide by hanging himself. Michael was treated at Duke University Medical Center and at other residential treatment facilities during Susans childhood. As a result of her turbulent home life, Susan was an unhappy child. The mother of one of her playmates described Susan as unusual and sad. Susan would stare in space, like she wasnt there.

Although Susan was a sad child, she was especially close to her father and would light up whenever Harry was around. In 1977, after seventeen years of marriage, Linda divorced Harry. Susan was six years old. Harry was devastated by the divorce; he became even more depressed and continued to drink heavily.

On January 15, 1978, five weeks after Harry and Lindas divorce became final, Harry Vaughan committed suicide. The suicide was preceded by an argument that Harry and Linda had that escalated and forced Linda to call the police. When the police officers arrived at Lindas house, they saw Harry strike Linda. The police report also noted that Harry had broken a window to gain entry into Lindas home. After the police came to Lindas home, Harry apparently feared that he would hurt someone and appealed to one of the police officers to take him to court so that he could have himself jailed.

Harry committed suicide by placing a gun between his legs and aiming the gun at his abdomen. Harry then pulled the trigger, mortally wounding himself, but he did not die immediately. Harry called 911 for assistance and was rushed to the hospital, but emergency surgery could not save his life. Harry was thirty-seven years old when he died.

Harrys suicide left a huge void in Susans life. During her childhood, Susan would treasure two possessions: Harrys coin collection and a tape recording of his voice.

Beverly (Bev) Russell (AP)
Beverly (Bev) Russell (AP)
Two weeks after her divorce from Harry became final; Linda married Beverly (Bev) Russell, a well-to-do businessman who owned an appliance store in downtown Union. Bev had been previously married and had several daughters from his first marriage. Bev had once been a Democrat, but had switched to the Republican Party, becoming a South Carolina State Republican executive committeeman and a member of the advisory board of the Christian Coalition.

After her mothers remarriage, Susan and her brothers moved from the Vaughans modest home outside of Union, into Bevs three bedroom home in the exclusive Mount Vernon Estates section of Union.

Susan did well in school. Throughout her elementary, junior and high school years, Susan excelled. While she was in high school, she was a member of the Beta Club, a club for students with a grade point average of B or better. She also was a member of the Math, Spanish and Red Cross Clubs. Susan volunteered in Unions annual Special Olympics and worked with the elderly. Susan was named president of the Junior Civitan Club, a high school club that performed volunteer work in the community, and from 1986 to 1988, Susan and her best friend, Donna Garner, volunteered as candy stripers at Wallace Thompson Hospital in Union.

During Susans senior year of high school in 1989, she was voted Friendliest Female at Union High School. Susans classmates remembered her as cheerful and down to earth. Although she was a bit chubby in high school, Susan wore miniskirts and blouses which flattered her figure. Susan was vivacious and outgoing, but this only masked her insecurity and burning need for male attention.

Despite Susans record of achievement and her image as a model daughter and friend, Susans life was filled with turmoil. Some of it came from her relationship with her stepfather. Over the years, Bevs attention and approval became increasingly important to Susan and she found herself competing with her mother for his attention.

In 1987, when Susan was about to celebrate her sixteenth birthday, one of Bevs daughters from his previous marriage stayed overnight in the Russell home. The daughter was given Susans bedroom and Susan was to sleep on the family room sofa. When Susan was ready to go to sleep, Bev was sitting at one end of the sofa. Rather than ask Bev to move, Susan crawled into Bevs lap and began to fall asleep. It was odd for a fifteen-year-old to act like a two-year-old, but Susan may have felt that this behavior was harmless. Bev, on the other hand, seemed to feel that Susans behavior was provocative. Susan fell asleep, but gradually awoke to the awareness of Bevs hand moving slowly yet firmly from her shoulder to her breasts. Bev then took Susans hand and placed it directly on his genitals. Susan pretended to be asleep while the molestation took place. Susan later told her mother that she did not object to Bevs behavior because she wanted to see how far he would go. Susans response was clearly inappropriate.

Susan filed a compliant against Bev that was investigated by the South Carolina Department of Social Services and the Union County sheriffs office. Linda contacted Susans guidance counselor and obtained the name of a family counselor. Bev, Linda and Susan only went for family counseling four or five times before discontinuing the sessions. While the matter was being investigated, Bev agreed to move out of the familys home, but returned a short time later.

During Susans murder trial, it was revealed that the abuse never stopped. According to Seymour Halleck, the defenses psychiatric expert, the family seemed to blame Susan as much as Bev. The family was concerned that stories about the sexual abuse would spread into the community and they blamed Susan for worsening the situation by making it public and reporting it to the Department of Social Services.

In February 1988, Susan was seventeen and sought out her guidance counselor, Camille Stribling for advice. Susan told Stribling that her stepfather had been molesting her. Stribling was required by law to report the sexual abuse allegations to the South Carolina State Department of Social Services. An official in that department called the Union County sheriffs office.

Records from the Union County sheriffs office indicate that in March 1988, Susan reported an incident of sexual molestation by her stepfather to her high school guidance counselor and to her mother. Linda told officials from the sheriffs office that when she confronted Bev, he had not denied that the incident of abuse had occurred. The Department of Social Services sent a caseworker to interview Susan, Susans guidance counselor and several of Susans teachers.

At Susans trial, the caseworker testified that she had learned that Bev Russell had on repeated occasions, fondled Susans breasts on top of her clothing, rench-kissed her and had taken Susans hand and placed it on his genitals.

No charges were brought against Bev Russell regarding this second series of molestation acts and there was no court hearing because Susan, probably under pressure from Linda, agreed not to press any charges against Bev. The Department of Social Services caseworker did not let the matter drop so easily and notified Assistant Circuit Solicitor Jack Flynn. The caseworker tried to convince Flynn to take the matter to court in order to obtain a court order so that charges of assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature could be brought against Bev. However, an agreement was reached between Robert Guess, Bevs attorney, and Solicitor Flynn and charges were never filed against Bev. The agreement reached by Guess and Flynn was presented to Judge David Wilburn on March 25, 1988. Judge Wilburn sealed the agreement, which meant that the agreement would never be made available to the public.

Susan Smith's high school yearbook photo, 1988
Susan Smith's high
school yearbook
photo, 1988
In the summer of 1988, between her junior and senior years of high school, Susan began working at the Winn-Dixie supermarket in Union. Susans first job at the market was as a cashier, but within six months she was promoted to head cashier and later she was promoted again and became the markets bookkeeper. At the beginning of her senior year in high school, Susan began to secretly date one of her co-workers from Winn-Dixie, an older married man. Shortly after her relationship with the older, married co-worker began. Susan became pregnant and had an abortion. At the same time that this relationship was occurring, Susan was also dating another co-worker. After the abortion, the older married co-worker found out about the other relationship, and ended his relationship with Susan. Susan became deeply depressed over the breakup. In early November 1988, Susan attempted to commit suicide by taking an overdose of aspirin and Tylenol. Susan was admitted to the Spartanburg Regional Medical Center on November 7, 1988 and remained hospitalized for one week. During her hospitalization, Susans doctors discovered that this was not Susans first suicide attempt. When Susan was thirteen years old, she had taken a similar overdose of aspirin. Susan spent a month recovering from her suicide attempt. The managers of Winn-Dixie were supportive and allowed Susan to return to her job.

Prior to her suicide attempt, Susan became friendly with David Smith, one of the stock clerks at Winn-Dixie. Susan knew David because they had attended Union High School together at the same time. During the time Susan was involved in her two relationships, David was dating his long time girlfriend, Christy Jennings. David and Susan became friendly and when Susan returned from her month long recovery, David broke up with Christy and began to pursue a relationship with Susan.