Stephen Smith was remembered as an uncompromising “fallen warrior” for the LGBTQ movement

Sandy Smith still doesn’t know who killed her son Stephen in 2015, but she does know that she is loved and supported and her “baby” will never be forgotten.

A grave ceremony was held at Gooding Cemetery in Hampton County on Sunday to unveil an ornate memorial stone for Stephen Smith, who was found dead on July 8, 2015 on rural Sandy Run Road not far away. During the event, the Smith family was surrounded by friends, loved ones, supporters and the media.

“Today is absolutely fantastic,” said Sandy Smith. “It was worth the wait and I want to thank everyone for the tremendous support. I never give up.”

Sandy Smith (right) smiles with Susanne Andrews during Sunday's event.

Smith’s death was attributed to severe head trauma and was controversially ruled a hit and run at the time, which the family and some investigators have disputed, and the official investigation into his death has been closed until 2021.

On June 23 last year, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) opened a new investigation into Smith’s death based on information obtained during its investigation into the June 7, 2021 shooting deaths of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh in Colleton County were collected .

What had been a cold case quickly became another intriguing piece in an international crime saga that may have involved Smith and other murder victims, but the increasing spotlight on Smith’s case had a positive impact on his family.

After hearing about Smith’s case and seeing news photos of his humble headstone, South Carolina resident Susanne Andrews, who didn’t even know the family, helped start #StandingForStephen to raise funds worldwide for the grave memorial, which opened on Sunday, It was revealed almost seven years to the week after his death.

Members of the Smith family hold each other during the memorial service.

“For seven years this mother has not been able to give her baby a proper burial,” Andrews said at the ceremony. “Today is not a typical memorial service. Today is a change for the Smith family. It is a happy day.”

“Standing up for Stephen accomplished part of what we set out to do,” she added. “Justice is due to Stephen now, not later. It’s time to end this and let him rest in peace.”

To date, no arrests have been made or suspects officially announced, and while the Smith family awaits answers and justice, SLED told the Hampton County Guardian last week that the murder investigation is “active and ongoing.”

“This is really a big game changer,” said an emotional Rachel Tuten, one of Stephen’s high school and college friends. “He definitely deserved it. I definitely hope we continue to make progress and get justice.”

Rachel Tuten, a friend of the late Stephen Smith, reacted emotionally during Sunday's memorial service.

Smith’s attorney, Mike Hemlepp Jr., told The Guardian that SLED had told the Smith family it was making “progress” in the case.

“I can’t speculate on the timing but we are very encouraged,” said Hemlepp. “This is not a cold case. There are running clues and they follow them. I think we will get answers.”

Smith described him as always himself without apology

Smith has been described by family and friends as someone who wasn’t afraid to be himself.

“I’ve always admired the way he was himself without apology,” said Olivia Boyles, one of Stephen’s high school friends. “He gave me the encouragement to come out in my 10th grade. it could have been me [who was killed]. It could be the next person like us.”

After Smith’s death, his family publicly speculated that the murder was a hate crime involving his sexuality. Hemlepp addressed this issue during his speech at the event, explaining that there are approximately 28,000 teens who identify as LGBTQ in South Carolina. He cited statistics on violence and abuse against gay and lesbian teenagers.

Another view of Stephen Smith's memorial.

Hemlepp described Smith as a “fallen warrior” for LGBTQ youth and a leader for gay teens across Hampton County to “get out.” Smith, who was a college student at the time of his death, also had big dreams of becoming a nurse and then a doctor.

Hemlepp mentioned Smith’s dream of healing and helping people when speaking emotionally about “the evil that happened in Hampton County” that affected Smith’s life and death.

“Imagine what kind of doctor he could have been for gay kids, but he wasn’t because his head was bashed in,” he said. “The time to be sad is over. I am no longer sad. I’m angry and I want more. It’s time to get angry. It’s time to get answers. It’s time to find solutions. We don’t honor Stephen by saying it; the way to honor Stephen is to get angry.

Smith’s family and #StandingForStephen closed Sunday’s event by asking anyone with information about their case to call Crime Stoppers at 888-CRIME-SC (888-274-6372) and leave your tip anonymously.

Through his GoFundMe account and an October 30, 2021 fundraiser, #StandingForStephen raised just over $40,000 for Smith’s memorial and his mother’s legal costs, as well as a memorial for his father, Joel Smith, who died three months after Stephen. The second marker will be deployed soon, Andrews said.

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