Crime File

Susan Smith-I The Missing Children

Mother’s love is unquestioning and unquestionable, but when the same mother turns around to kill her own offspring in cold blood, it is shocking and intriguing at the same time. It, therefore, is extremely important to investigate the events leading to such an unusual crime in totality. HEMRAJ SINGH tells the twisted tale of a mother who killed her young sons.

On October 25, 1994, it was around 9:00 p.m. when Shirley McCloud was reading Union Daily Times in the living room of her house, a quarter mile or so from John D. Long Lake, when she heard a woman crying at her front porch. She rushed out to see what was wrong with the young woman. The woman was crying hysterically, “Please help me! He’s got my kids and he’s got my car.” Shirley tried to comfort the woman and brought her inside the house. “A black man has got my kids and my car,” the woman said. Rick, Shirley’s husband, asked his son, Rick Jr., to call the police, which Rick immediately did. The woman said her name was Susan Smith.

Shirley calmed her down and asked Susan to tell what had happened while the police were on their way to the McCloud residence. Smith told that at the red light at Monarch Mills, a black man forced his way into her car and asked her to drive. She resisted, but when he threatened that he would kill her if she did not do as he said, she was left with no option but to drive at his directions. She was forced to drive through northeast of Union for about four miles, after which he asked her to stop right past the sign for the John D. Long Lake. He ordered her to get down. When she asked why she could not take both of her kids with her, he said he did not have time for it, and pushed her out of the car. Before driving away with both of her kids, the man told her that she need not worry as he was not going to hurt the kids. The children kept crying for their mother as the man drove away with them in the car. She walked and ran until she reached the house of Shirley McCloud. Susan asked if she could use their washroom and also if she could use her phone to call her mother. When she could not reach her mother, she called her stepfather. Later, she also called her husband, David. However, by that time the Union County Sheriff, Howard Wells, had reached McClouds’ residence and had initiated the search for the missing children.

The Sheriff, Howard Wells, was friends with Susan’s brother, Scotty and his wife, Wendy, and knew Susan through that connection. Howard Wells asked Susan to tell what had happened after having heard the same story from the 911 dispatcher and Shirley McCloud separately. Wells heard sympathetically, asked questions and took notes diligently. He carefully noted that Susan was dressed in grey sweatshirt with ‘Auburn University’ written on it in orange, and her face was red and puffy, and that she talked with her hands in her lap. She described what her sons were wearing. It was clear to Wells that a case like that was not easy to handle for his office because his office did not have adequate resources to find the abducted kids. He got in touch with the head of South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), Robert Stewart, and requested assistance.

Wells wanted to collect as much information as possible in order to find the children and reunite them with their mother as soon as possible. He knew that the possibility of finding the kids alive was diminishing with every passing moment.

While the Union County sheriff’s deputies continued their search for the children and Susan’s car, David and the Vaughn-Russell families came over to McClouds’ house, and at around midnight, when the children could not be found, Sheriff Wells suggested that they should move to some other place from the residence of the McClouds. Susan suggested that they could go to her mother’s place, and Susan, David, Bev and Linda, together with the concerned friends and family, left for Susan’s mother’s house. Susan was in David’s car with him. On the way, she told him that Tom Findlay, her then boyfriend, might come visiting and that she did not want David to get angry over that. David found it surprising that at this moment of crisis when she should be worried about finding the kids, she was more worried about his getting angry over her boyfriend visiting her.

Sheriff Wells, on the other hand, returned to his office and called SLED to have the search efforts coordinated so that the divers could be prepared to dive into the John D. Long Lake to rule out the possibility of the children having drowned. Divers did not find any trace of the kids or the car in the lake. A SLED helicopter equipped with heat sensors flew over the lake and the Sumter National Forest nearby but the effort yielded no results. Having ruled out the forest and the lake, Wells got in touch with Susan again for a detailed description of the kidnapper so that his sketch could be prepared to widen the search. The police sketcher drew the sketch of a black man of around forty wearing a dark shirt, plaid jacket, jeans and a dark knit cap.

Union County sheriff deputies, together with the SLED agents, dedicated October 26, 1994 to searching the area surrounding John D. Long Lake and interviewing the members of the McCloud family in quest for the Smith children. While they were at it, the Adam Walsh Center, located in the state capitol, Columbia, about 70 miles south of Union, and named in the memory of a six-year-old Adam Walsh who disappeared in 1981, also joined the search. Working with the SLED, the Adam Walsh Center got the fliers with the pictures and description of the missing boys printed and distributed.

Susan and David remained at the residence of Susan’s parents, Bev and Linda Russell. David’s father and his wife came down to Union from California and David’s uncle drove from Michigan with his wife to be with the family in the time of grief. The house was soon brimming with relatives, friends and neighbours. Susan, who had recently been very lonely and isolated, found herself comforted by a large number of well-wishers, friends and family members as several organizations, including the police, intensified their effort to find her children.

Tom Findlay, the boyfriend Susan had been concerned about, called her to offer his sympathies at the disappearance of the kids. Susan moved the discussion from the missing children to her relationship with Tom. Tom assured Susan that it was not the time to worry about their relationship and she should focus on getting her kids back. Tom never visited Susan, as she had hoped, and called her only once to express his concern and sympathies.

The official from the Adam Walsh Center arrived at the Russell home on October 26, 1994 in the afternoon and explained what had Adam Walsh Center been set up for and on the advice of Adam Walsh Center and the SLED investigator Eddie Harris, Susan agreed to make a televised appeal to the public for the return of her kids. David too agreed though he was slightly nervous at the thought of having to address the media.

The media had been covering the case quite extensively, and news networks across the nation were getting increasingly interested in the ongoing investigation. Susan stood by David’s side, when he addressed the media from outside the office of the Union County Sheriff’s department and said: “To whoever has our boys, we ask that you please don’t hurt them and bring them back. We love them very much…I plead to the guy please return our children to us safe and unharmed. Everywhere I look, I see their play toys and pictures. They are both wonderful children. I don’t know how else to put it. And I can’t imagine life without them.”

After addressing the media, Susan and David returned to the office of the Sherriff. Susan was once again asked to recount the events leading to the abduction of the children, which she had done on many occasions previously. After another six hours of careful questioning, Sherriff Wells called David A. Caldwell, Director of the Forensic Sciences Laboratory for the State Law Enforcement Division in Columbia, to request him to come over and interview Susan in connection with the disappearance of her children. He agreed to do the needful.

On October 27, 1994, both Susan and David took polygraph tests conducted by the FBI, after the Bureau informed them of their rights and asked them to sign the form to the effect that they had been made aware of their Miranda rights and they knew that they had the right to remain silent, have their attorney present during the questioning and could stop talking to the investigators at any time they thought fit.

The polygraph test conclusively established that David knew nothing about the abduction of his sons, but Susan’s test returned inconclusive, as they showed that Susan was not at ease when asked the question whether or not she knew where her children were. The investigators did not keep the results secret. Susan had told David that she was not sure if she had done well enough at the test and that the police might start doubting her story. After the first test, Susan was subjected to many more. In fact, she was put on polygraph every time she was interviewed whereas David was put on the polygraph only once. Clearly, there was something hinky about Susan’s version of the story. There was a crucial piece of information about the disappearance of her children that she had not revealed while the investigators needed a full disclosure from her side.

The investigators started getting suspicious because the more they questioned Susan about the events of the day leading to the disappearance of her kids, the more inconsistent her account got. This led to closer questioning and verification of the truth of her statements, which worsened the situation for Susan. Susan told Caldwell that Michael wanted to go to Wal-Mart at 7:30 p.m., but on close questioning she ended up admitting that it was her suggestion that they go to Wal-Mart. She also told that she had stopped at a red light on Monarch Mill intersection, but there were no cars at the intersection then. Later, Caldwell told Susan that the investigators had spoken to several people working at Wal-Mart and none of them could place Susan or her sons at Wal-Mart on the day of the alleged abduction.

The red light at Monarch Mill intersection, as a matter of fact, remained permanently green until and unless a vehicle on the street prompts it to turn red. So, if Susan did not see any other car at the cross-section, the light could not be red.

Confronted with the problems that the investigators had found with her Wal-Mart story, Susan backtracked and said that she had not been to Wal-Mart, but had been driving around with her kids in the car, and that she did not tell the truth about it because that could have made her look suspicious. Why was she so worried about looking suspicious when she had done nothing wrong? That didn’t look all that innocent, which led the investigators to look deeper into the truth of her story. The mother was now on the suspect list. In fact, she was the only real person on the list, for the other suspect was basically an unknown man whose sketch made from the now-suspect mother’s description was all that they had on him. And for all that the investigators knew about him, he could just be a product of Susan’s imagination.

David was interviewed by other SLED investigators while Caldwell was talking to Susan, and David disclosed the fact of Susan’s dating other men after they had started living separately. When SLED investigators insisted on specific names, David told them about Tom Findlay, but David was unhappy that the investigators were focusing on Susan rather than trying harder to find his children. He perhaps did not realize that the two things were more closely connected than they appeared to be.

Agent Caldwell confronted Susan with the information that the investigators had gathered about his relationship with Tom Findlay, including the fact that Tom had broken up with Susan because he did not want Susan’s children. Caldwell inquired if Tom’s unwillingness to accept her kids had anything to do with the disappearance of the children. Susan retorted, “No man would make me hurt my children. They were my life.” And that was a major giveaway, as Susan had referred to her children in the past tense indicating that she knew they were not alive any longer.
… to be continued

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