Susan Vaughan Smith of Union, S.C. was convicted on July 22, 1995, and sentenced to life in prison for murdering her two sons, Michael Daniel Smith, 3, and 14-month-old Alexander Tyler Smith.
Susan Smith - Her Childhood Years
Susan Smith was born on September 26, 1971, in Union, South Carolina, to parents Linda and Harry Vaughan. She was the youngest of three children and the couple's only daughter. Her parents divorced when Susan was seven and five weeks later Harry, age 37, committed suicide. Her parent's tumultuous marriage and the death of her father left Susan a sad, empty and oddly distant child.
Within weeks of the Vaughans' divorce, Linda married Beverly (Bev) Russell, a successful local businessman. Linda and the children moved from their small modest home into Bev's house located in an exclusive subdivision of Union.
As a teen, Susan was a good student, well-liked and outgoing. In her junior year, she was voted president of the Junior Civitan Club, a club which focused on volunteering in the community. In her final year of high school, she received the "Friendliest Female" award and was known for her cheerful and fun disposition.
Family Secrets Exposed
But during those years of enjoying her popularity and positions of leadership, Susan was harboring a family secret. At the age of 16. her stepfather turned from caretaker to molester. Susan reported the inappropriate behavior to her mother and to the Department of Social Services and Bev moved out from the home temporarily. Nothing of any consequence resulted from Susan's report and after a few family counseling sessions, Bev returned home.
Susan was chastised by her family for making the sexual abuse a public affair and Linda appeared more concerned that the family would be subjected to public embarrassment than protecting her daughter. Unfortunately for Susan, with Bev back in the house, the sexual molestation continued.
In her senior year of high school, Susan turned to a school counselor for help. The Department of Social Service was contacted again, but Susan refused to press charges and the matter was swiftly swept under the proverbial carpet of lawyers' agreements and sealed records which protected Bev and the family from the feared public humiliation.
Rejection and an Attempted Suicide
During the summer of 1988, Susan got a job at the local Winn-Dixie grocery store and moved quickly up the ranks from cashier to bookkeeper. In her senior year at high school, she was sexually active with three men - a married older man who worked at the store, a younger co-worker and with Bev.
Susan became pregnant and had an abortion. The married man ended their relationship and her reaction to the breakup was to attempt suicide by taking aspirin and Tylenol. While being treated in the hospital she admitted to having tried a similar suicide attempt when she was 13-years-old.
At work, another relationship was beginning to form with the co-worker and high school friend David Smith. David ended his engagement with another woman and started dating Susan. The two decided to marry when Susan discovered she was pregnant.
Susan and David Smith married on March 15, 1991, and moved into David's great-grandmother's house. David's parents were suffering the recent loss of another son who died from Crohn's disease just 11 days before Susan and David married. By May 1991, the strain of the loss of a son proved to be too much for David's parents. His father attempted suicide and his mother left and moved to another city.
This kind of family drama fit right into what Susan was used to and the young couple, both very needy, spent the early months of their marriage comforting one another.
Michael Daniel Smith
On October 10, 1991, the Smith's first son, Michael, was born. David and Susan showered the child with love and attention. But having a child could not help the differences in the newlywed's backgrounds which began to put a strain on their relationship. Susan was more materialistic than David and often turned to her mother for financial help. David found Linda to be intrusive and controlling and resented Susan always doing what Linda wanted her to do, especially when it came to raising Michael.
By March 1992, the Smiths were separated and over the next seven months, they tried on and off to mend the marriage. During the breakups, Susan dated a former boyfriend from work which did not help matters.
In November 1992, Susan announced she was pregnant again which seemed to bring David and her into clearer focus and the two reunited. The couple borrowed money from Susan's mother for a down payment on a house, believing having their own home would fix their troubles. But over the next nine months, Susan became more distant and complained continuously about being pregnant.
In June 1993, David felt lonely and isolated in his marriage and began a relationship with a co-worker. After the birth of their second child, Alexander Tyler, on August 5, 1993, David and Susan reunited, but within three weeks David had once again moved out and the two decided the relationship was over.
Regardless of their broken marriage, both David and Susan were good, attentive and caring parents who seemed to enjoy the children.
Susan, not wanting to work in the same place as David, took a job as a bookkeeper at the largest employer in the area, Conso Products. She was eventually promoted to the executive secretary position for the president and CEO of Conso, J. Carey Findlay.
For Union, S.C. this was a prestigious position which exposed Susan to wealthy people with extravagant lifestyles. It also gave her the opportunity to get closer to one of Union's most eligible bachelors, the son of her boss, Tom Findlay.
In January 1994 Susan and Tom Findlay began casually dating, but by spring she and David were back together. The reconciliation only lasted a few months and Susan told David she wanted a divorce. In September she was dating Tom Findlay again and planning their future together in her mind. Tom, in the meantime, was trying to figure out how to end it with Susan.
Nice Girls Don't Sleep With Married Men
On October 17, 1994, just days before David and Susan's divorce papers were filed, Tom Findlay sent a "Dear John" letter to Susan. His reasons for wanting to end their relationship included the differences in their backgrounds. He was also emphatic about not wanting children or wanting to raise her children. He encouraged Susan to act with more self-respect and referred to an episode when Susan and a friend's husband were kissing each other in a hot tub during a party at Tom's father's estate.
Findlay wrote, "If you want to catch a nice guy like me one day, you have to act like a nice girl. And you know, nice girls don't sleep with married men."
Susan was devastated when she read the letter, but she was also living out delusional dreams which in reality were a combination of grotesque lies, deceit, lust, and narcissism. On one hand, she was deeply depressed that Tom ended their relationship but unknown to him, she was still sexually involved with David and her stepfather, Bev Russell, and had allegedly had a sexual affair with her boss who was Tom's father.
In an attempt to get Tom's sympathy and attention, Susan confessed to him about her ongoing sexual relationship with Bev. When that didn't work, she told him of her alleged affair with his father and warned him that the details of the relationship might come out during her divorce with David. Tom's reaction was one of shock and he reiterated that the two of them would never again have a sexual relationship. Any hopes to maneuver her way back into Tom's life had now been permanently severed.
On October 25, 1994, Susan Smith spent the day obsessing over the breakup with Tom Findlay. As the day progressed she became increasingly upset and asked to leave work early. After picking up her children from daycare, she stopped to talk to a friend in a parking lot and expressed her fears over Tom's reaction to her sleeping with his father. In a last-ditch effort to sway Tom's feelings, she asked her friend to watch the children while she went to Tom's office to tell him the story was a lie. According to her friend, Tom did not appear happy to see Susan and quickly got her out of his office.
Later that evening she phoned her friend who she knew was having dinner with Tom and friends. Susan wanted to know if Tom had said anything about her, but he had not.
The Murder of Michael and Alex Smith
At around 8 p.m. Susan put her barefooted sons in the car, strapped them in their car seats and began driving around. In her confession, she stated that she wanted to die and was headed to her mother's house, but decided against it. Instead, she drove to John D. Long Lake and drove onto a ramp, got out of the car, put the car in drive, released the brake and watched as her car, with her children sleeping in the back seat, plunged into the lake. The car drifted out then slowly sank.
Nine Days of Deceit
Susan Smith ran to a nearby home and hysterically knocked on the door. She told the homeowners, Shirley and Rick McCloud, that a black man had taken her car and her two boys. She described how she had stopped at a red light at Monarch Mills when a man with a gun jumped into her car and told her to drive. She drove around some, and then he told her to stop and get out of the car. At that point, he told her he wouldn't hurt the kids and then drove off with the boys who she could hear were crying out for her.
For nine days Susan Smith stuck the story of being abducted. Friends and family surrounded her in support and David had returned to his wife's side as the search for their children intensified. The national media showed up in Union as the tragic story of the boys' abduction circulated. Susan, with her face, spotted with tears, and David looking distraught and desperate, made a public plea for the safe return of their sons. In the meantime, Susan's story was beginning to unravel.
Unraveling the Truth
Sheriff Howard Wells, the lead investigator on the case, had David and Susan polygraphed. David passed, but Susan's results were inconclusive. Throughout the nine days of the investigation, Susan was given numerous polygraphs and questioned about the inconsistencies in her carjacking story.
One of the biggest clues that led the authorities to believe Susan was lying was her story about stopping at a red light on Monarch Mills Road. She stated that she saw no other cars on the road, yet the light turned red. The light on Monarch Mills was always green and only turned red if it was triggered by a car on the cross street. Since she said that there were no other cars on the road, there was no reason for her to come up to a red light.
Leaks to the press about discrepancies in Susan's story resulted in accusatory questions by reporters. Also, people around her noticed her displaying questionable behavior for a mother whose children were missing. She seemed overly concerned with how she looked in front of the television cameras and at times asked about the whereabouts of Tom Findlay. She also had dramatic moments of deep sobbing but would be dried eyed and tearless.
Susan Smith Confesses
On November 3, 1994, David and Susan appeared on CBS This Morning and David voiced his full support of Susan and her story about the abduction. After the interview, Susan met with Sheriff Wells for another interrogation. This time, however, Wells was direct and told her that he did not believe her story about the carjacking. He explained to her about the light on Monarch Mills staying green and discrepancies in other adaptations she had made to her story during the past nine days.
Exhausted and emotionally badgered, Susan asked Wells to pray with her then afterward she began crying and telling how ashamed she felt for what she had done. Her confession to pushing the car into the lake began to spill out. She said she had wanted to kill herself and her children, but in the end, she got out of the car and sent her boys to their deaths.
A Small Hand Against the Window
Before breaking the news of Susan's confession, Wells wanted to locate the bodies of the boys. A previous search of the lake had failed to turn up Susan's car, but after her confession, she gave police the exact distance the car had floated out before it sank.
Divers found the car turned upside down, with the children dangling from their car seats. One diver described that he saw the small hand of one of the children pressed against a window. Also found in the car was the "Dear John" letter Ton Findlay had written.
An autopsy of the children proved that both boys were still alive when their tiny heads were submerged under water.
Who is Susan Smith Really?
Incredibly, Susan reached out to David in a letter filled with, "I'm sorry," then complained that her feelings were being overshadowed by everyone's grief. Stunned, David questioned who Susan really was and felt a brief moment of sympathy for her confused and demented state of mind.
But it did not take long for the sympathy to turn to horror as more facts about the murders of his sons surfaced. He had assumed Susan had shown mercy by killing the boys prior to pushing the car into the lake, but after finding out the truth he was haunted by images of his sons' last moments, in the dark, scared, alone and drowning to death.
When he discovered Susan had supplied the police with the exact location of the car and that the car lights had been on when she lifted the break, he knew she had stayed and watched the car sinking, motivated by her desires to rebuild her relationship with the wealthy Tom Findlay.
During the trial, Susan's defense lawyers relied heavily on Susan's littered childhood of tragedy and sexual abuse which manifested itself into a lifetime of untreated depression and suicidal thoughts. They explained that her abnormal need to depend on others for happiness led to the multiple sexual relationships she was involved in during her life. The bottom line was that Susan, as outwardly normal as she might have appeared, was in truth hiding a deep-seated mental illness.
The prosecution showed the jury a more devious and manipulative side of Susan Smith whose only concern was her own desires. Her children had become a major handicap in Susan's ability to get what she wanted. By killing them she would not only get the sympathy of her former lover Tom Findlay but with the children gone, it was one less reason for him to end their relationship.
Susan Smith was unresponsive during her trial except when her sons were mentioned which sometimes led to her sobbing and shaking her head as if in disbelief that the boys were dead.
The Verdict and Sentence
It took the jury two-and-a-half hours to return a verdict of guilty of two counts of murder. Despite David's protests, Susan Smith was spared the death sentence and received a sentence of 30 years to life in prison. She will be eligible for parole in 2025 when she is 53 years old. David has sworn to attend every parole hearing to try to keep Susan Smith in jail for life.
Since her incarceration at South Carolina's Leath Correctional Institution, two guards have been punished for having sex with Smith. Her sexual activity in prison was discovered after she developed a sexually transmitted disease.
Michael and Alex Smith
Michael and Alex Smith were buried together in the same casket in the Bogansville United Methodist Church cemetery on November 6, 1994, next to the grave of David's brother and the children's uncle, Danny Smith.
The Dear John Letter
This is the Dear John letter that John Findlay gave to Susan October. 17, 1994. Many believe it is what motivated Susan Smith to kill her children.
(Note: This is how the original letter was written. Corrections have not been made.)
I hope you don't mind, but I think clearer when I am typing, so this letter is being written on my computer.
This is a difficult letter for me to write because I know how much you think of me. And I want you to know that I am flattered that you have such a high opinion of me. Susan, I value our friendship very much. You are one of the few people on this earth that I feel I can tell anything. You are intelligent, beautiful, sensitive, understanding, and possess many other wonderful qualities that I and many other men appreciate. You will, without a doubt, make some lucky man a great wife. But unfortunately, it won't be me.
Even though you think we have much in common, we are vastly different. We have been raised in two totally different environments, and therefore, think totally different. That's not to say that I was raised better than you or vice versa, it just means that we come from two different backgrounds.
When I started dating Laura, I knew our backgrounds were going to be a problem. Right before I graduated from Auburn University in 1990, I broke up with a girl (Alison) that I had been dating for over two years. I loved Alison very much and we were very compatible. Unfortunately, we wanted different things out of life. She wanted to get married and have children before the age of 28, and I did not. This conflict spurred our breakup, but we have remained friends through the years. After Alison, I was very hurt. I decided not to fall for anyone again until I was ready to make a long commitment.
For my first two years in Union, I dated very little. In fact, I can count the number of dates I had on one hand. But then Laura came along. We met at Conso, and I fell for her like "a ton of bricks." Things were great at first and remained good for along sic time, but I knew deep in my heart that she was not the one for me. People tell me that when you find the person that you will want to spend the rest of your life with… you will know it. Well, even though I fell enlove sic with Laura, I had my doubts about a long and lasting commitment, but I never said anything, and I eventually hurt her very, very deeply. I won't do that again.
Susan, I could really fall for you. You have so many endearing qualities about you, and I think that you are a terrific person. But like I have told you before, there are some things about you that aren't suited for me, and yes, I am speaking about your children. I'm sure that your kids are good kids, but it really wouldn't matter how good they may be… the fact is, I just don't want children. These feelings may change one day, but I doubt it. With all of the crazy, mixed-up things that take place in this world today, I just don't have the desire to bring another life into it. And I don't want to be responsible for anyone elses sic children, either. But I am very thankful that there are people like you who are not so selfish as I am, and don't mind bearing the responsibility of children. If everyone thought the way that I do, our species would eventually become extinct.
But our differences go far beyond the children issue. We are just two totally different people, and eventually, those differences would cause us to break-up. Because I know myself so well, I am sure of this.
But don't be discouraged. There is someone out there for you. In fact, it's probably someone that you may not know at this time or that you may know, but would never expect. Either way, before you settle down with anyone again, there is something you need to do. Susan, because you got pregnant and married at such an early age, you missed out on much of your youth. I mean, one minute you were a kid, and the next minute you were having kids. Because I come from a place where everyone had the desire and the money to go to college, having the responsibility of children at such a young age is beyond my comprehension. Anyhow, my advice to you is to wait and be very choosy about your next relationship. I can see this may be a bit difficult for you because you are a bit boy crazy, but as the proverb states "good things come to those who wait." I am not saying you shouldn't go out and have a good time. In fact, I think you should do just that… have a good time and capture some of that youth that you missed out on. But just don't get seriously involved with anyone until you have done the things in life that you want to do, first. Then the rest will fall in place.
Susan, I am not mad at you about what happened this weekend. Actually, I am very thankful. As I told you, I was starting to let my heart warm up to the idea of us going out as more than just friends. But seeing you kiss another man put things back into perspective. I remembered how I hurt Laura, and I won't let that happen again; and therefore, I can't let myself get close to you. We will always be friends, but our relationship will never go beyond that of friendship. And as for your relationship with B. Brown, of course you have to make your own decisions in life, but remember… you have to live with the consequences also. Everyone is held accountable for their actions, and I would hate for people to perceive you as an unreputable person. If you want to catch a nice guy like me one day, you have to act like a nice girl. And you know, nice girls don't sleep with married men. Besides, I want you to feel good about yourself, and I am afraid that if you sleep with B. Brown or any other married man for that matter, you will lose your self-respect. I know I did when we were messing around earlier this year. So please, think about your actions before you do anything you will regret. I care for you, but also care for Susan Brown and I would hate to see anyone get hurt. Susan may say that she wouldn't care (copy unintelligible) husband had an affair, but you and I know, that is not true.
Anyhow, as I have already told you, you are a very special person. And don't let anyone tell you or make you feel any different. I see so much potential in you, but only you can make it happen. Don't settle for mediocre in life, go for it all and only settle for the best… I do. I haven't told you this, but I am extremely proud of you for going to school. I am a firm believer in higher education, and once you obtain a degree from college, there is not stopping you. And don't let these idiot boys from Union make you feel like you are not capable or slow you down. After you graduate, you will be able to go anywhere you want in this world. And if you ever wanted to get a good job in Charlotte, my father is the right person to know. He and Koni know everyone who is anyone in the business world in Charlotte. And if I can ever help you with anything, don't hesitate to ask.
Well, this letter must come to an end. It is 11:50 p.m. and I am getting very sleepy. But I wanted to write you this letter because you are the one who is always making the effort for me, and I wanted to return the friendship. I've appreciated it when you have dropped me nice little notes, or cards, or the present at Christmas, and it is about time that I start putting a little effort into our friendship. Which reminds me, I thought long and hard about getting you something for your birthday, but I decided not to because I wasn't sure what you might think. Now I am sorry I didn't get you anything, so you can expect something from me at Christmas. But do not buy me anything for Christmas. All I want from you is a nice, sweet card… I'll cherish that more than any store (copy illegible) present.
Again, you will always have my friendship. And your friendship is one that I will always look upon with sincere affection.
p.s. It's late, so please don't count off for spelling or grammar."
Source: Court Document