From the beginning, police thought mother was lying

Published Nov. 6, 1994|Updated Oct. 8, 2005

From the beginning, investigators thought Susan Smith was lying.

Publicly, Union County Sheriff Howard Wells launched a nationwide search for Smith's missing children. Deputies scoured lakes and woods, counties and states _ following leads as far away as a motel in Washington state.

Privately, however, investigators spent just as much time picking apart Smith's story: that a man stole her car and her two sons on a quiet country road.

Agents seized on inconsistencies. They gave Smith two lie-detector tests. They searched her house. They bluffed.

Bit by bit, investigators say, they wore Smith down until _ nine days after she reported her children abducted _ she confessed to killing them.

Law enforcement officials wouldn't talk publicly about how they cracked the case. But interviews with sources close to the investigation revealed a glimpse of what was going on behind the scenes.

Day after day, the town of Union draped itself in yellow ribbons. The American public hung on the fate of 3-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alex. People wondered, how could anyone take a mother's children?

Day after day, investigators asked much smaller questions _ about a mother's story that never seemed to check out:

Smith said a man jumped into her car while she stopped for a red light at a deserted intersection with no other cars around. But the traffic light was the kind that stays green unless a car coming from the cross street trips a switch and makes it turn red.

Smith said she had been on her way to see Mitch Sinclair, a 24-year-old textile mill worker who was dating her best friend. But Sinclair hadn't been expecting her and, in fact, was not home that night.

Asked where she was earlier in the evening of the alleged carjacking, Smith said she had taken the children to Wal-Mart. But no one could recall seeing the family there. She then admitted she had been lying. Why? She told investigators she thought they'd be suspicious if she told them the truth: that she had been driving around town alone with the children.

The investigation began at 9:02 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 25.

A call came in on the county's 911 emergency line. A hysterical, sobbing woman stumbled up to a home on state highway 49, east of Union. She said a man had kidnapped her children.

About 15 minutes later, Sheriff Wells was at the house, trying to calm Smith enough to get details.

Almost immediately, the sheriff notified the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division. The agency put out a nationwide alert for Smith's burgundy 1990 Mazda Protege. They sent out a description of the man Smith said kidnapped her boys.

Investigators didn't think her story fit the profile of a carjacking.

They knew that typical carjackers only want transportation and ditch the car as soon as possible. They almost never take hostages.

Smith said the man ordered her out of the car at gunpoint. She claimed the kidnapper said he didn't have time for her to get her children. That didn't ring true.

"We're not satisfied with any aspect of this, including the original report," one haggard officer said on the second day of the search. "But we haven't been able to discount her story."

In questioning Smith, investigators began to notice a disturbing pattern.

Whenever they checked her story and found an inconsistency, she would come up with an explanation that would be harder to verify.

On two lie-detector tests given days apart, Smith each time answered several questions in a way that made investigators think she wasn't telling the truth.

David Caldwell, a behavioral specialist for the state police, helped investigators brainstorm strategies for questioning Smith. Another state agent, Lansing "Pete" Logan, formerly of the FBI, traveled from Columbia to spend hours talking with her alone.

The first few days after the children disappeared, Smith and her estranged husband, David, waited in the sheriff's office in the county courthouse. Dozens of journalists milled about outside.

Investigators focused on every aspect of Smith's life.

The 23-year-old secretary had filed for divorce in September. And, they learned, she had broken up only days before with a boyfriend, Tom Findlay, a 27-year-old Auburn University graduate who worked as graphic arts manager.

A friend of Smith's told investigators about a letter Findlay sent Smith. It said that although Findlay wanted to be with her, he wasn't ready to be a father.

Questioned, Findlay gave authorities a copy of the letter he had saved on his computer.

The letter was important to investigators for two reasons. It established a possible motive. It also suggested that if Smith had faked the carjacking to kill her children, the crime was one of passion. That meant she wouldn't likely have had an accomplice. She would have had to have left the car within walking distance of the house where she went for help.

From that point on, the real search concentrated within a 2-mile radius of John D. Long Lake, a popular fishing and picnicking spot a few hundred yards from the house.

Twice, state wildlife department divers searched the waters of the lake near a sloping concrete boat ramp, finding nothing.

Meanwhile, the search for the missing children dragged on amid intense attention from networks, newspapers and tabloid TV shows.

News reports portrayed Smith as a distraught victim. Sources said Smith seemed to begin believing that the car and the children would never be discovered.

Smith kept coming up with new explanations for the inconsistencies in her story. Investigators began bluffing, telling her that they could prove she was lying.

Thursday morning, Smith appeared on NBC-TV's Today show to plead for help in finding her sons. She said she couldn't understand how anyone could suspect her.

Later that day, investigators questioned her again.

Sources wouldn't elaborate on what happened. They say only that investigators approached her with a ploy, received the reaction they wanted, and sent Sheriff Wells in to speak to her with a carefully scripted approach.

By 3 p.m., investigators had a confession. Three hours later, divers using floodlights located the car, turned upside down about 100 feet from the boat ramp.

Sources say searchers missed the car before because it had rolled farther into the water than anyone had estimated.

A newspaper reported Saturday, quoting law enforcement sources, that Smith considered suicide when she reached the lake. The Greenville News said she had been driving aimlessly, distraught over failed romances and crumbling finances.

Once at the lake's shore, her thoughts turned to suicide. But she was unable to take her own life and instead rolled her car into the water. Sources believe her children, still alive, were strapped to car seats in the back of the car, its windows rolled up. They think the car, no longer running, was allowed to roll down the boat ramp into the depths of the murky lake.

Smith is being held in isolation in a state prison near Columbia, under a suicide watch.

S.C. town mourns brothers

UNION, S.C. _ Scores of flower arrangements adorned with teddy bears, Bible references and tender messages to the "precious little ones" deluged a funeral home Saturday as mourners from across the country said goodbye to the two little boys allegedly drowned by their mother.

Around town and at the lake where 14-month-old Alexander Smith and 3-year-old Michael died, grieving townspeople replaced yellow ribbons of hope with blue ribbons of remembrance.

"I have not stopped crying. I feel like if I could just get up on top of a hill and scream, maybe I'd be all right. But it's going to be a long time," said Joyce Bobo as she tied another bow.