Lakeside memorial to Michael and Alex Smith.
Susan Smith is a member of an exclusive and infamous club made up of mothers who have murdered their own children.
On October 25, 1994, she came to national attention when she reported to police that she had been carjacked by a black man who drove away with her two young sons still in the car. She made dramatic and emotional pleas on television for the rescue and return of her children. However, nine days later on November 3, after an intensive, heavily publicized investigation and a nationwide search had turned up nothing, Smith finally confessed to easing her 1990 Mazda Protege down a boat ramp and letting it roll into nearby John D. Long Lake, with her children trapped inside.
Smith wanted to shed herself of her children so that she might resume an affair with a wealthy local man, the son of the CEO at the company where she worked, who had no interest in assuming responsibility for a "ready-made" family.
During her trial, Smith's defense psychiatrist diagnosed her with dependent personality disorder. The youngest of three children, she led an emotionally tortured and tumultuous life. Her biological father, whom she adored, committed suicide when she was six years old. She was molested in her teens by her stepfather, who not only acknowledged it, but admitted that he had consensual sex with her as an adult. Susan attempted suicide twice – once when she was 13, and a second time after graduating from high school in 1989.
At the local Winn-Dixie grocery store where she worked, Smith had sexual relationships with two co-workers. One of them was with David Smith, whom she knew from high school. David was initially engaged with another woman, but started dating Susan and broke off the engagement. He and Susan decided to marry when they discovered she was pregnant.
In March of 1991 Susan and David Smith married and moved into David's great-grand-mother's house. David's parents were suffering at the time from the very recent loss of another son who had died from Crohn's disease. Soon the strain of that loss proved too much for David's parents. His father attempted suicide and his mother fled to another city. This sort of family drama, tragically, was entirely consisted with what Susan was used to. She and David, both very needy emotionally, spent the early months of their marriage comforting each other.
On October 10, 1991, the Smith's first son, Michael, was born. David and Susan lavished love and attention on him, but the pressures of child-rearing and stark differences in the personalities and backgrounds of the parents began to take their toll.
Susan was much more materialistic than David and habitually turned to her mother Linda for financial support. David found Linda intrusive and controlling and objected bitterly to Susan's kowtowing to her, especially when it came to raising Michael.
Less than a year later the Smiths were separated, though over the next several months they made several attempts to save their marriage. Susan's dating of an ex-boyfriend from work at this time only complicated things.
By the end of 1992 Susan was pregnant again; the prospect of a new baby seemed to have a salutary effect on the troubled couple, and they reunited. They borrowed money from Linda for a down payment on a house, hoping it would solve their problems.
It didn't. Throughout her second pregnancy Susan grew emotionally distant from David and complained about the effects it was having on how she felt and looked. By the summer of 1993, a lonely and isolated David began a relationship with a co-worker.
On August 5 their second child, Alexander Tyler, was born. David and Susan reunited again, but again it didn't last, and three weeks later David moved out and decided the marriage was over.
No longer wishing to work in the same place as her husband, Susan found a new job as a bookkeeper at the largest employer in the Union, South Carolina, area – Conso Products. Eventually she was promoted to an executive secretary position for Conso's President and CEO, J. Carey Findlay.
Her new job elevated Susan socially, exposing her to wealthy people and their extravagant lifestyles. Crucially and tragically, it also brought her to the attention of one of Union's most eligible bachelors, her boss's son, Tom Findlay.
By January 1994 Susan and Tom Findlay were casually dating, but by spring she and David were back together. The reconciliation was short-lived; after a few months Susan told David she wanted a divorce. In September she was once again dating Tom Findlay, and mentally envisioning their future together. Unbeknownst to her, Tom was trying to figure out how to end it with Susan.
Days before David and Susan's divorce papers were filed in October, Tom Findlay wrote Susan a "Dear John" letter. Some key excerpts from the letter:
"You will, without a doubt, make some lucky man a great wife. But unfortunately, it won't be me."
"Susan, I could really fall for you. You have some 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."
"If you want to catch a nice guy like me one day, you have to act like a nice girl." (This is a reference to a scene that unfolded during a party at Tom's father's house when Susan openly engaged in sexual foreplay with a married man in a hot tub. The two were naked at the time.)
The letter devastated Susan when she read it, in no small part because it punctured the delusions that were most dear to her. Tom Findlay's letter, as gentle as it tried to be, had brought Susan Smith in direct and brutal contact with her own lies, deceit, narcissism, and lust.
As deeply depressed as she was that Tom had ended their relationship, she was still sexually involved with David – and with her step-father, Bev Russell. She had also allegedly had a sexual affair with her boss – Tom's father.
In a desperate attempt to win back Tom's sympathy and attention, Susan confessed to him her ongoing sexual relationship with Bev. When that failed, 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 reacted to this with shock – and again insisted that the two of them must never again have a sexual relationship. Smith's isolation was complete. Any hopes she may have harbored to maneuver her way back into David's life were now permanently dashed.
On October 25, 1994 – the last day of the lives of her children – Susan Smith was consumed by thoughts of her breakup with Tom Findlay. As the day wore on she grew 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. She couldn't give up the idea of swaying Tom's feelings. She asked her friend to watch the children while she went to Tom's office to admit to him that the story was a lie. According to her friend, Tom was not happy to see Susan and quickly ushered her out of his office.
Around 8 p.m. Susan loaded her unsuspecting sons into the little Mazda, strapped them in their car seats and began driving around Union. In her confession she said that she wanted to die and was headed to her mother's house. 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, entered the dark waters of the lake. It drifted out along the surface for a short distance, then slowly sank.
Susan Smith ran to a nearby home and pounded hysterically on the door. And so it came to pass that homeowners Shirley and Rick McCloud were the first people to hear the story that would, in the coming days, rivet the nation: that a black man had taken Susan Smith's car at gunpoint and disappeared into the night with her two boys.
Smith described how she had stopped at a red light at Monarch Mills. How a man with a gun had jumped into her car and told her to drive. How she had driven around with the man in a state of terror. How he told her to stop and get out of the car. How he told her he wouldn't hurt the kids and then drove off with them. How she could hear their cries as they called out to her.
For nine long days Susan Smith stuck to this fabrication. Friends and family supported her. David returned to her side. The search for their children intensified. The national media descended on Union and the tragic story of the boys' abduction dominated the news. Susan, her face spotted with tears, pled publicly for the safe return of her sons. David, distraught, joined in. But behind the scenes, away from the cameras, Susan's story was beginning to come apart.
The lead investigator on the case, Sheriff Howard Wells, had David and Susan polygraphed. David passed, but Susan's results were inconclusive. Throughout the nine days of the investigation Susan was questioned and polygraphed many times. As time passed, inconsistencies emerged in her carjacking story.
One of the biggest clues that led the authorities to doubt Susan's truthfulness was her claim that she had stopping at a red light on Monarch Mills Road. She said that at the time the light had turned red there were no other cars on the road. But investigators familiar with the traffic signal on Monarch Mills knew that it was always green, and only turned red if it was triggered by a car on the cross street. Since Smith claimed to have seen no other cars on the road, there was no reason for her to have encountered that red light.
Leaks to the press by detectives about these discrepancies led to accusatory questions by reporters at press conferences. Also, people around her began to notice odd and unsettling behavior from a mother whose first and only concern was supposedly her missing children. Smith seemed preoccupied with how she looked in front of the cameras and concerned about the whereabouts of Tom Findlay. She exhibited dramatic bouts of deep sobbing that somehow managed to be dry-eyed and tearless.
On November 3, 1994, David and Susan had just appeared on CBS This Morning and David had just expressed his full support of Susan and her abduction story. Afterwards, Susan met with Sheriff Wells for another interrogation. After nine fruitless days, Wells was blunt: he told her he didn't believe there had been any carjacking. He told her about the nature of the traffic signal on Monarch Mills, and about the suspicious nature of her story, which had evolved over time as she told it.
Exhausted and emotionally under siege, Susan broke. She asked Wells to pray with her, then she was crying and saying how ashamed she felt for what she had done. At last, the confession spilled out of her. She said she'd wanted to kill herself and her children, but in the end, she'd got out of the car. She would not join her sons in death.
Before publicly breaking the news of Susan's confession, Wells wanted to find the bodies of the little boys. Previous searches of the lake had come up empty; there was no trace of Susan's car. Now that she'd confessed she revealed to police its exact location.
Divers found it turned upside down, the children still dangling in their car seats. One diver told how he saw the small hand of one of the children pressed up against a window. Tom Findlay's "Dear John" letter was also found. An autopsy revealed that both boys were conscious when the water had closed in around them.
In court Susan's defense lawyers worked hard to generate sympathy from the jury by emphasizing the tragedy and sexual abuse she had suffered in her childhood. They explained that her abnormally deep dependence on others for happiness led to both her promiscuity and her unthinkable decision to sacrifice the lives of her children in a desperate bid to retain the affections and attentions of a wealthy man. As outwardly normal as she may have appeared, Susan Smith was hiding and lived with a deep-seated mental disorder.
The prosecution showed the jury a completely different side of Smith. More devious. More manipulative. In this cold and chilling perspective, her boys were little more than impediments to her emotional gratification. By killing them she would not only win the sympathy of her former lover Tom Findlay, she would presumably have removed the only obstacle to a renewed relationship, unencumbered by the inconvenience of a pre-existing family.
The jury deliberated just two-and-a-half hours to return a verdict of guilty on two counts of murder. But much to the surprise and shock of many, including her ex-husband, they spared Susan Smith the death penalty, sentencing her to 30 years to life in prison. She will be eligible for parole in 2025, when she is 53 years old. David has promised that he will attend every parole hearing so long as he has breath in his body to try to keep Susan Smith in jail for the rest of her life.