Crime File

Susan Smith-III The Twisted Background

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.

The divorce of Susan and David attained finality in May 1995 after a brief hearing in Susan’s absence, as she had waived her right to be present. Tom Findlay testified that they had been in an adulterous relationship during the subsistence of Susan’s marriage. As part of the divorce settlement, David and Susan divided their dead children’s toys and clothing in half. David got the Mazda their kids had died in. David got the car destroyed after the conclusion of Susan’s trial.

It did take some time to unravel the case of the missing boys and once it was clear that it was the mother who had killed them, the only question that remained, which is also the most important question, was: why? And the simple explanation that she did it because she saw her kids as hurdles in her love life with her boyfriend, Tom Findlay, doesn’t quite explain the situation in which a mother would kill her young sons so coldly. It must take more than a boyfriend for a mother to be that heartless. The answer lies in the unhappy past of Susan Smith. It doesn’t justify what she did, but it does, to some extent, explain why she acted the way she did at that point in her life.

Susan Leigh Vaughan Smith, born in Union, South Carolina on September 26, 1971, was the only daughter of Linda and Harry. Linda was a housewife and Harry a firefighter, who subsequently worked in one of the textile mills in Union.

In 1960, when Harry Ray Vaughan and Linda married, Harry was just twenty and Linda was seventeen and was already pregnant from her last relationship. Together the couple had one daughter, Susan, and a son, Scotty, in addition to Linda’s first child, Michael, which the couple raised as their own. Their marriage was far from happy, as the couple fought very often majorly because of Harry’s alcoholism and also because Harry thought that Linda was unfaithful to him. Susan’s early childhood was spent in the midst of an utterly chaotic and almost completely dysfunctional family. Both Susan and her elder brother, Scotty, were always very scared due to the tumultuous relationship of their parents. Michael, their half brother, did not feel very different and went into deep depression, and tried to commit suicide by hanging himself. At that time, Susan was a very young girl and had just entered pre-school. Michael received treatment at Duke University Medical Center, among other residential treatment facilities throughout Susan’s early childhood. Growing up in such an environment, Susan was an unhappy child, and was once described by the mother of one of her friends as “unusual and sad”. “Susan would stare in space, like she wasn’t there,” the mother reportedly told.

Despite being a very unhappy kid, Susan was particularly fond of her father and was always very happy around him. In 1977, when Susan was six, Linda ended her seventeen year long marriage with Harry with a divorce, which left Harry crestfallen. Harry started drinking even more heavily. Five weeks after the divorce, on January 15, 1978, Harry committed suicide after a heated argument with Linda culminated in Linda’s calling the police. The police officers who responded to the call saw Harry hit Linda and also noted that Harry had broken into Linda’s house through a window. Harry thought he was out of control and may hurt someone. So, he asked the officers to take him to the court so that he could be locked up in prison. Perhaps, that’s what he was thinking when he committed suicide by shooting himself in the abdomen. He did call the police for assistance after shooting himself and was taken to the hospital, but later succumbed to the injuries despite an emergency surgery. Harry was just thirty seven at the time of his death.
Harry’s death left Susan devastated. Throughout her childhood, Susan prized Harry’s coin collection and his tape recorded voice the most. Linda had married Beverly (Bev) Russell two weeks after her divorce from Harry. Russell had been previously married and had many daughters from his first marriage. After Susan’s marriage with Bev, Susan, Scotty and Michael moved into Bev’s three bedroom home in the exclusive Mount Vernon Estates section of Union. Beverly Russell was a successful businessman and was a South Carolina State Republican executive committeeman and a member of the advisory board of the Christian Coalition.

Susan focused on studies and did very well throughout elementary, junior and high school. In high school she was part of the Beta Club, an exclusive club of the students with grade point average of B or higher. That was not the only exclusive club she was a member of. She was also part of the Math, Spanish and Red Cross Clubs.

Susan was voted the ‘Friendliest Female’ at Union High School in her senior year in 1989, and was remembered by her classmates as “cheerful and down to earth”. Susan looked like a spirited, outgoing young woman. She regularly wore miniskirts and provocatively cut blouses to flaunt her figure although she was a bit on the chubby side. Deep down, she was insecure and craved male attention. For all her achievements, excellent academic record and her image as an ideal daughter, Susan was a deeply troubled young girl inside. She looked for Bev’s approval and his attention and at one point of time she was even competing with her own mother for Bev’s attention. Given her attachment to her father, it is possible that in her mind Susan positioned Bev somewhere close to Harry and tried to comfort herself with whatever she had in place of her own father. Perhaps, she wanted to turn the clock back and go to being her daddy’s little girl. It did not turn out well for her.

In 1987, when Susan was about to turn sixteen, one of her stepfather’s several daughters came visiting and stayed overnight. She was given Susan’s room for the night with Susan given to spend the night on the couch in the living room. When it was time for Susan to go to sleep, Bev was sitting at the end of the couch. Ideally, Susan should have asked him to make space for her to sleep, but she chose to place her head in his lap and tried sleeping. She might have been trying to be the little girl, which she no longer was, to the father that wasn’t really her own father. Apparently, the gesture was misunderstood. She was too old to be acting like that. So, Bev found her behaviour sexually provocative, and acted as though he was not her stepfather. Susan woke up from sleep to Bev’s crawling hand, which had moved from her shoulder to her breasts. Bev took Susan’s hand and placed it on his genitals. Susan did not resist and pretended to be asleep. She would later tell her mother that she did not resist only to see “how far he would go”, which sounded too bizarre for an explanation.

However, Susan approached the authorities against Bev and a complaint was duly filed. The case was investigated by the South Carolina Department of Social Services and the Union County Sheriff’s office. Bev, Linda and Susan also went for family counseling for four or five times. When the authorities were investigating the matter, Bev left the family place but returned later. During Susan’s trial for the murder of her children, it came to light that the abuse continued. The expert psychiatrist, Seymour Halleck, who testified for the defence testified that the family blamed Susan just as much as Bev, and further blamed Susan for spoiling the family name by making the abuse public by reporting the matter to the authorities.

In February 1988, as a 17-year-old, Susan sought assistance and guidance of her guidance counsellor, Camille Stribling, and told Stribling that her stepfather had been sexually abusing her. The counsellor was required by the law to report the abuse to the authorities. The official records of the Union County Sheriff’s office revealed that Susan had indeed reported sexual molestation at the hands of her stepfather in March 1988 to her high school guidance counsellor and also to her mother.

A caseworker was sent by the Department of Social Services to interview Susan as well as her guidance counsellor and teachers. The caseworker testified for the defence in Susan’s trial and told that in the course of the interviews conducted by her, she came to know that on several occasions Bev Russell had fondled Susan’s breasts from over her clothing and had also forced her hand on his genitals. However, Bev Russell was never tried for Susan’s molestation because Susan did not press charges against Bev, apparently, under pressure from her mother. However, the caseworker assigned to Susan’s case by the Department of Social Services did not give up, and tried to persuade Assistant Circuit Solicitor Jack Flynn to take the case to the court and have Bev charged with “assault and battery of a high and aggravated” nature. It did not work out that way because Robert Guess, Bev’s attorney, and Solicitor Flynn entered into an agreement against charging Bev, and the agreement was taken to Judge David Wilburn on March 25, 1988, and a judicial seal on the agreement was duly obtained. No charges were filed against Bev and the agreement could never be made public.

In 1988, while she was still in school, Susan took a job at the Winn-Dixie supermarket in Union as a cashier, became the head cashier within six months and was soon the bookkeeper for the market. When she was in her senior year in high school, she started dating one of her co-workers secretly. He was a married man. She got pregnant with his child and had to have the child aborted. However, while she was dating this guy, she was also dating another co-worker. After the abortion, Susan’s married lover got to know of the other man in her life and terminated his relationship with her promptly. Susan was heartbroken and slipped into depression over the break-up. She attempted suicide in November 1988 by overdosing herself with Aspirin and Tylenol. She stayed in the Spartanburg Regional Medical Center for a week from November 7, 1988 onwards. Susan’s doctors got to know that it was not Susan’s first attempt at taking her life. She had attempted suicide as a 13-year-old, too, by the same means. She had spent a month in the hospital back then. Her employers at Winn-Dixie were understanding and supportive enough to allow her to keep her job.

Just before Susan had attempted to take her life, she had become friends with David Smith, a stock clerk at Winn-Dixie. David and Susan had been at the Union High School together and were familiar with each other. At the time when Susan and David became friends, Susan was juggling her two relationships while David was steady with his longstanding girlfriend, Christy Jennings. However, after Susan recovered and got back after a month, David ended his relationship with Christy, and started one with Susan. However, by this time the relationship between Susan and David got serious, Susan was already pregnant with the baby of another man, and David and Susan were both against Susan aborting the child. So, in order to facilitate the birth and upbringing of the baby, Susan and David decided to marry. Both David and Susan were in need of emotional support at different levels, and it appears that David saw in Susan someone he could support and find emotional comfort in the process. David could relate to Susan quite closely because he, too, like Susan, did not have a happy family background.

His parents’ marriage had always been troubled owing basically to his father’s dislike for her mother’s devotion to her religion. David’s mother, Barbara was a devout Jehovah’s Witness, and kept David protected for all his childhood against what she saw as bad outside influences. David had an older brother, Billy, who was actually his mother’s son from her first marriage, and another older brother, Danny, and a younger sister, Becky.

…To be continued

About the author

HemRaj Singh

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