On October 25, 1994, a 23-year-old woman was found crying on the doorstep of a home near John D. Long Lake in Union County, South Carolina. She claimed that she had been carjacked by a black man & that her two sons, 3-year-old Michael & 14-month-old Alex were driven away in the car. Her dramatic case gained national attention. For nine days, she & her husband David pleaded with the press for their children’s safe return. As the days progressed, things seemed off to friends & authorities. Her story changed each time she was asked for details & police noticed missing pieces.
Susan Leigh Vaughn was born on September 26, 1971 in Union, South Carolina. She was the youngest of three children. Her childhood was very tumultuous; shortly after her parents divorced, her father, whom she adored, killed himself when Susan was only six. Susan suffered from depression & when she was 13 year old, she herself tried to commit suicide. In 1989, after graduating from high school, she made a second attempt. Susan’s mother remarried Beverly Russell who was a member of the local chapter of the Christian Coalition. When Susan was in her teens, her stepfather began to molest her. He not only admitted to this, but later it was revealed that the two continued to have consensual sex when Susan was an adult.
Susan worked at the local Winn-Dixie grocery store & had sexual relationships with two of her co-workers. One was David Smith who she also knew from high school. David was engaged to another woman but he broke that off to start dating Susan & when she discovered she was pregnant, the two got married in March of 1991 when Susan was 19. The two moved into David’s great-grandmother’s house.
David’s family was dealing with a lot of heartache during this time; his brother died of Crohn’s disease, his father attempted suicide & his mother fled to another city. Susan was used to this rocky way of living from her own childhood & during the early months of their marriage, she & David found comfort in each other.
On October 10, 1991, Susan gave birth to their first son, Michael. The stress of having a new baby in the house took its toll on Susan & David’s relationship. Susan liked material items & shopping & often relied on her mother, Linda for financial support. David was not fond of his mother-in-law & found her to be very controlling
Less than a year after Michael was born, Susan & David separated though they continued to work on their relationship over the next several months. This was complicated by the fact that Susan was also dating an ex–boyfriend from work.
By the end of 1992, Susan was pregnant for a second time & she & David reunited. They borrowed money from Linda & bought a house. During Susan’s pregnancy, she became more & more distant from David; she complained that the pregnancy was affecting how she felt & looked. By the summer of 1993, David began dating a coworker. On August 5, 1993, their second child, Alexander Tyler was born. Susan & David reunited after Alexander’s birth but it was very short-lived & three weeks later, David moved out & decided his marriage was over.
Susan & David had been working together but after their marriage ended, Susan decided to leave & got a job as a bookkeeper at the largest employer in Union, South Carolina, Conso Products. She was eventually promoted to an executive secretary position for the President & CEO of Conso, J. Carey Findley.
The new position opened her life up to new experiences & wealthy people & their extravagant lifestyles. During her time at the job, she met the CEO’s son, Tom Findley, one of Union’s most eligible bachelors.
By January of 1994, Susan & Tom began casually dating but by that spring, she & David yet again reunited. History repeated itself & their rekindled relationship soon fizzled & after a few months, Susan told David she wanted a divorce. In September of 1994 she started dating Tom again; as she envisioned their future together, Tom on the other hand, was trying to figure out a way to end their relationship.
In October of 1994, only days before Susan’s divorce papers were filed, Tom wrote Susan a “Dear John” letter. He started the letter by saying, This is a very difficult letter for me to write because I know how much you think of me. He said he was flattered & that he knew she would make some lucky man a great wife but he wasn’t that man. He said, 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. I don’t want to be responsible for anyone else’s children. He said, I can’t let myself get close to you. We will always be friends but our relationship will never go beyond that of friendship.
When Susan read the letter, she was devastated. She was deeply depressed that he ended their relationship but at the same time, she was still sexually involved with David as well as her stepfather, Beverly Russel. She also allegedly had an affair with her boss, Tom’s father.
Susan responded to Tom’s letter, writing, to thank him for everything. I know how you feel about our relationship & I respect that. I’m appreciative of your honesty with me. She did say that she hoped they would able to date some & be together someday. She signed the letter, Friends Forever, Susan.
In addition to the letter, to gain sympathy from Tom, she confessed to him her ongoing sexual relationship with her stepfather Bev. When that failed, she told him of the alleged affair with his father & warned him that the details could come out during her divorce with David.
Tom reacted with shock & again insisted that they no longer have a romantic relationship. Her hopes of getting back together with Tom shattered.
On October 25, 1994, Susan Smith was consumed with thoughts of her ended relationship with Tom. Her distress grew as the day went on so she asked if she could leave work early. She picked her kids up from daycare & stopped to chat with a friend in the parking lot. During their conversation, she expressed her fears about Tom’s reaction to her sleeping with his father. She continued to hold out hope that she could change Tom’s mind. She asked her friend if she could watch Michael & Alexander so she could go to Tom’s office to admit that her story was a lie. According to this friend, Tom was not happy about Susan’s visit & quickly ushered her out of his office.
About 8pm, that evening, Susan put her boys in her 1990 Mazda Protege, strapping them into their car seats & began driving around Union. In her confession, she said that she wanted to die & was headed to her mother’s house. She changed her mind & instead headed to John D. Long Lake. She drove down a boat ramp, got out of the car, put the car in drive, released the brake & watched her car roll toward the lake with her sleeping children in the back seat. The car entered the dark, lake waters & drifted out along the surface for a short distance, before slowly sinking.
Susan ran to a nearby home & began pounding hysterically on the door. Homeowners Shirley & Rick McCloud were the first to hear Susan’s story; in the coming days, the nation would hear about a black man who took Susan’s car at gunpoint & disappeared into the night with her two boys in the backseat.
She said she stopped at a red light at Monarch Mills & a man with a gun jumped into her car & told her to drive. She said she drove around with the man in a state of terror & he stopped & told her to get out of the car. He told her he wouldn’t hurt the kids & drove off with them. She said she could hear their cries as the man drove off.
For nine days, Susan stuck to her story as friends & family supported her. David also came to her side. The search for the kids ramped up & national media came to Union to tell Susan’s tragic story. Susan told her story as tears streamed down her face & pleaded for the safe return of her children. David joined in & also pleaded.
Behind the scenes, Susan’s story began to unravel. Sheriff Howard Wells was the lead investigator of the case. He had David & Susan take a polygraph test; David passed but Susan’s results came back inconclusive. Susan continued to be questioned & polygraphed & her story began to show more & more inconsistencies.
The first red flag investigators picked up on was the location Susan claimed the car jacking happened. She said the man jumped in her car at a red light on Monarch Mills & that there were no other cars on the road at the time. Police knew that the traffic signal was always green & only turned red if it was triggered by a car on the cross street. Again, Susan claimed that the road was empty at the time of the car jacking so there was no reason the sensor would have changed the light to red.
Leaks to the press of the inconsistencies led to accusatory questions by reporters at a press conference. People close to Susan also began to notice odd & unsettling behavior for a mother whose thoughts should be solely focused on her missing children. Susan showed a preoccupation with how she looked in front of the cameras & was worried about where Tom Findley was. She would break into fits of uncontrolled sobbing but no tears could be seen in her eyes.
On November 3, 1994, David & Susan appeared on CBS This Morning & David expressed his full support of Susan & her story of abduction. After the show, Susan met with Sheriff Wells for another interrogation. This time Wells was very blunt & told Susan that he straight up didn’t believe her story. He didn’t believe that a carjacking had occurred & explained the workings of the traffic signal at Monarch Mills. He also brought up the inconsistencies in her story.
Susan finally broke, she asked Sheriff Wells to pray with her & as she cried & expressed how ashamed she was, the confession spilled out of her. She said she wanted to kill herself and her children but decided to get out of the car in the end, allowing her innocent children to die alone, trapped in a sinking car.
Her confession letter:
When I left my home on Tuesday, October 25, I was very emotionally distraught. I didn’t want to live anymore! I felt like things could never get any worse. When I left home I was going to ride around a while and then go to my mom’s. As I rode and rode and rode, I felt even more anxiety coming upon me about not wanting to live. I felt that I couldn’t be a good mom anymore but I didn’t want my children to grow up without a mom. I felt I had to end our lives to protect us all from any grief or harm. I had never felt so lonely and so so sad in my entire life. I was in love with someone very much but he didn’t love me. When I was at John D Long Lake I had never felt so scared and unsure as I did then. I wanted to end my life so bad and was in my car ready to go down that ramp into the water and I did go part way, but I stopped. I went again & stopped. I then got out of the car & stood by the car, a nervous wreck. Why was I feeling this way? Why was everything so bad in my life? I had no answers to these questions. I dropped to my lowest when I allowed my children to go down that ramp into the water without me. I took off running & screaming, “Oh God! Oh God, no! What have I done. I love my children with all my (heart symbol). That will never change. I have prayed to them for forgiveness and hope they will find it in their (heart symbol) to forgive me. I never meant to hurt them!! I am sorry for what has happened and I know that I need some help. I don’t think I will ever be able to forgive myself for what I have done. My children, Michael & Alex are with our Heavenly Father now & I know that they will never be hurt again. As a mom, that means more than words could ever say.
I knew from day one the truth would prevail but I was so scared, I didn’t know what to do. It was very tough emotionally to sit & watch my family hurt like they did. It was time to bring a piece of mind to everyone, including myself. My children deserve to have the best & now they will. I broke down on Thursday, November 3 and told Sheriff Howard Wells the truth. It wasn’t easy but after the truth was out, I felt like the world was lifted off my shoulders. I know now that it is going to be a tough and long road ahead of me. At this moment, I don’t feel I will be able to handle what’s coming but I have prayed to God that he gave me the strength to survive each day & to survive each day & to face these times & situations in my life that will be extremely painful. I have put my total faith in God and He will take care of me. -Susan V Smith 11/3/94
Before releasing Susan’s confession to the public, Sheriff Wells wanted to find the bodies of Michael & Alex. The lake had been searched previously & came up empty with no trace of Susan’s car or her children. With her confession, police knew exactly where to look.
Divers found the car, upside down at the bottom of the lake, the children dangling from their car seats. One diver said he saw the small hand of a child pressed against the window of the car. They also found Tom Findlay’s “Dear John” letter. The autopsies revealed that both boys would have been conscious when the water closed in around them.
During the trial, Susan’s defense attorneys tried to gain sympathy from the jury. Defense attorney David Bruck argued that her actions were related to mental illness brought on by the suicide of her father & the sexual abuse & emotional rejections in her life. They explained that her abnormally deep dependence on others for happiness led to her decision to sacrifice the lives of her children in a desperate attempt to keep her relationship with Tom. They said though she looked normal on the outside, inside she lived with a deep-seated mental disorder.
Prosecution showed the devious & manipulative side of Susan. That she killed her innocent children who were the obstacle between her & her relationship with Tom who clearly wrote that he didn’t want children.
On July 22, 1995, the jury deliberated for 2.5 hours & returned with a verdict of guilty on two counts of murder. Family & friends, David included, were shocked that Susan avoided the death penalty. She was sentenced to 30 years to life in prison & would be eligible for parole in November 2024 when she is 53 years old. David said he would attend each & every parole hearing so long as he has breath in his body in order to keep Susan in jail for the rest of her life. David told People magazine in 2010 that he’s never fully recovered from the pain. “There’s always this nagging and gnawing heartache. It’s there everyday, even if I’m not conscious of it. “
In 2015, Susan wrote a letter to South Carolina’s The State:
“It has been hard to listen to lie after lie and not be able to defend myself,” the letter read. “It’s frustrating to say the least. The thing that hurts me the most is that people think that I hurt my children in order to be with a man. That is so far from the truth. There was no motive as it was not even a planned event. I was not in my right mind.”
Even now Susan Smith maintains that it was only a temporary, though violent, break from her normal mental state that caused her to harm her children.
According to People.com, Susan is hoping to restart her life with her long-distance boyfriend if she is released from jail in 2024. She has sent letters to him saying:
“We’re going to have amazing chemistry in person,” she wrote in one letter. “I can’t wait to build a life with you. Leave the past mistakes behind and start fresh, just you and me.”
Her boyfriend is a man in his mid-40s living outside of Columbia, SC. He works in residential construction, is divorced & has two adult children. He wrote to Susan after seeing a documentary about her & a long-distance romance started.
A family member said, “I don’t have a problem with her finding happiness by writing to a man, but let’s not forget what she did. So I hope her ‘happily ever after’ is happily in jail.”
In 2001, prison guard Alfred Rowe pleaded guilty to having sex with Susan while she was incarcerated at Camille Graham Correctional Center in Columbia, SC. She also had sex with another guard, Houston Cagle & has been given multiple violations for using drugs in prison. She’s currently serving her sentence at Leath Correctional Institution in Greenwood, South Carolina. She will be eligible for parole in November of 2024.
- Realmurdermysteries.com: Susan Smith: Mother and Murderer
- Crime Museum: Susan Smith
- ati: The Disturbing Story Of Susan Smith, The Woman Who Drowned Her Children in A Lake
- People.com: Susan Smith, in Jail for Killing Her 2 Kids, Tells New Boyfriend She Wants To ‘Start Fresh’ if She’s Paroled
- DailyMail: Prison guard who had sex with child killer Susan Smith behind bars says she did drugs because she could ‘no longer get male attention’
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