Portrait of a Killer

updated 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

An anguished father buries his sons

SOME WEPT WHEN THEY SAW the blue-and-white teddy bears at the gravesite. Others cried when the single white coffin bearing the bodies of 3-year-old Michael Smith and his 14-month-old brother Alex was set by the newly dug grave. But it was the sight of the boys' grieving father that cut like a chilled blade into the 1,000 mourners gathered at the Bogansville United Methodist Church cemetery just outside Union, S.C. After David Smith, 24, walked from a black limousine to a chair near his sons' grave last week, his head fell to his knees, and he let loose a wail of pure, piercing agony. His face contorted in pain, he moaned over and over the single word that said it all: "No, no, no, no, no, no."

Meanwhile, 70 miles away, at the Women's Correctional Center near Columbia, David's estranged wife, Susan, was alone in her stark 6-by-14-foot cell, charged with the murder of her two babies and kept under a round-the-clock suicide watch. Allowed only a Bible, a blanket, her eyeglasses and a single family visitor a week, she was virtually incommunicado, probably one of the few Americans who did not see footage of her sons' funeral or read accounts of it. There have been, says a spokeswoman for the South Carolina Department of Corrections, no tears in Susan's solitary cell.

The search for Smith's missing children, discovered where she left them, in her overturned Mazda under 18 feet of water, has been replaced by another hunt, this one for answers. Nowhere are people more mystified by the killing than in Union, a close-knit mill town of 10,000 people. Until her children disappeared—taken by a carjacker, she said—she had been seen as an unimpeachable mother. "From the outside," says one neighbor, "they all seemed like a wonderful family."

Smith was, of course, not all that she seemed. "She was a good put-on," says Catherine Frost, who lives across the street from the Smiths' modest redbrick home. "In the end she fooled all of us." Most tragically, she fooled herself, possibly sacrificing her children for a deluded dream of wealth, love and status.

Susan Vaughan Smith learned early that there are dark secrets better kept to oneself. She was around 7 when her father, Harry Vaughan, a fireman and mill worker, fatally shot himself in the head, despairing, some say, over the breakup of his marriage. "Susan took her daddy's death hard," says Stacy Hartley, a childhood friend. "She kept an 8-by-10 picture of him in her bottom drawer. I remember Susan crying." Susan was saddened too when her mother, Linda, married Beverly Russell, then the owner of a successful appliance store, and she had to leave her friends behind to move from their cozy house in Union to an upscale development just outside town. "I went up to her new house every now and then," says Hartley, "but it was never the same as those days swinging in the hammock in Susan's yard."

By the time she got to high school, Smith seemed to have left her childhood pain behind. Her friends at Union High remember her as an honors student who volunteered her time to aid the elderly, helped produce her town's Special Olympics and was voted "friendliest" girl in the class of 1989. "Of all the people in our whole senior class," says Amy Austin, a cashier at a local pharmacy, "Susan is just the least likely person to have done this. She was such a together person." Another friend agrees: "Susan was always laughing, always happy."

The truth, though, was that Smith was a deeply troubled young woman. In her senior year of high school she suddenly disappeared from classes for a few weeks, apparently because of emotional problems. Friends say there were rumors of a suicide attempt, though the reason for her profound unhappiness remains a mystery to them.

After high school she seemed to have found love and stability when she began to date David Smith, the son of a department manager (also named David) at a Wal-Mart store. Susan was working as a cashier and her beau as a dairy manager at the local Winn-Dixie supermarket. On March 15, 1991, when Susan was two months pregnant with Michael, they married. It was just 11 days after David's older brother had died, at the age of 22, after an extended illness. Townspeople say that, overcome by grief, his father later tried to kill himself.

If the newlyweds were a comfort to one another, that didn't last long. By the time Alexander was born, on Aug. 5, 1993, the marriage was rocky. Still, most people were fooled by the smiling image Susan presented. "They'd come into Wal-Mart with those two beautiful children," says Stacy Hartley, "and seemed like the ideal family." About a year ago, during one of their several separations, Susan attempted suicide and was hospitalized for a time. The marriage continued to deteriorate. Employees at Winn-Dixie, where David is now an assistant manager, say Susan would sometimes show up at the store unannounced and publicly accuse her husband of seeing other women. Friends of the couple say those accusations were, in fact, true. By late summer, David had moved out for the last time to a nearby apartment, and on Sept. 22, Susan filed for divorce, charging her husband with adultery. His current girlfriend is said to be a coworker.

Though David, neighbors say, visited his sons nearly every day, Susan did not have an easy time as a single mother. For one thing, money was tight. As a secretary at Conso Products Co., a decorative trimmings factory, she took home $1,096 a month after taxes, and David was paying $115 a week in child support. After mortgage, car payments and child-care costs, she barely broke even. Moreover, for a single parent, Union offers little in the way of diversion. "We don't have a movie theater here," says Don Wilder, publisher of the Union Daily Times. "One of our forms of exercise is the pursuit of the opposite sex."

The man Susan chose to pursue was Thomas Findlay, the 27-year-old son of Conso's owner, who works as a graphic artist at his father's company and is famous for his hot-tub parties. "Most of the young women in town are interested in Tom," says one well-placed social observer, "and when women get attached to him, they can't let go."

Smith's grip might have been tightened by her desperate hope that Findlay would save her from a life of drudgery the way her stepfather Bev Russell had saved her mother 15 years before. But by all accounts, her romance with Findlay was brief and casual. It also may have been what led Smith to kill her sons.

Maybe it was practice at feigning happiness that gave Smith the capacity to devise an elaborate hoax in her most desperate moment, claiming that a young black man in a knit cap, wielding a gun, had ordered her out of her car and driven off with her sons in the backseat. Nine days would pass before she would say that, near suicide, she had driven to the edge of the boat ramp at John D. Long Lake, seven miles east of Union, released the hand brake and let the car, with her sons strapped into their car-seats, float into the darkness. With the windows shut, it would have taken about 10 minutes for the Mazda to sink into the silt at the bottom of the lake.

"I dropped to the lowest," Smith later said in her handwritten confession, "when I allowed those children to go down that ramp into the water without me. I took off running and screaming, 'Oh, God, oh God, no. What have I done.' "

In the time between the alleged kidnapping and her confession, Smith cut a tragic figure before the cameras, beseeching God to protect her babies, her fair, delicately featured face streaked with tears. But if many were convinced by her performance, the police were not.

From the start, investigators found her story filled with inconsistencies and outright lies. Her account that she and her sons were on their way to visit a family friend, Mitchell Sinclair, on the night of the alleged abduction didn't check out. Nor did her story that she had been shopping at the Wal-Mart that evening. Moreover, she failed numerous lie-detector tests, tripped up each time by the question, "Do you know where your children are?" Interviewing her for hours every day at a couple of secret locations, Pete Logan, a veteran interrogator from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED), often felt she was on the verge of confessing. She would rest her head on a table and sit silently, showing, says an investigator, "a lot of characteristic traits of someone who was about to break." But she was a formidable subject. Suddenly she would sit bolt upright and resolutely stick to her story.

Investigators got a break in the case when they discovered a letter from Tom Findlay, in which he said he wanted to end their romance, partly because he didn't want to take on a family. While it was true, Findlay would later say in a statement issued through his lawyer, "that I was not ready to assume the important responsibilities of being a father," he had never suggested to Smith, he continued, "that her children were the only obstacle in any potential relationship with her."

Still, as investigators discussed Findlay with Smith, her responses convinced them that she believed Michael and Alex to be the obstacles between her and a life of relative ease. They also came to believe, rightly or wrongly, that they were not dealing with a woman suffering from psychosis, but with a cold, calculating social climber.

On Nov. 3, apparently worn out by long hours of questioning, Smith finally broke down. Shortly after 3 in the afternoon, as she began writing a confession in her careful, schoolgirl script, Union County sheriff Howard Wells, SLED chief Robert Stewart and divers Francis Mitchum and Steve Morrow went to John D. Long Lake, which had been searched unsuccessfully twice before. This time they found the car, some 100 feet off the boat ramp, mired in a depression at the lake's murky bottom.

"This is the most traumatic experience I've ever been part of," Morrow later told PEOPLE. "We wanted to find the car, but we didn't want to find the bodies. Everyone was in tears."

By drowning her sons, Susan didn't get the man she was after. But she did, for a time, get David back. For nine days they stayed together, wept together and prayed together at her mother's home—nine days that were probably the closest they had ever known. Now, according to his mother, Barbara Benson, David remains inconsolable and uncomprehending. "He couldn't understand it," she told an interviewer. "He had so many things he wanted to talk to Susan about." Such as, Benson said, " 'Why didn't you let me know you were having difficulty or that you didn't want them any longer?' "

For most of her life, Susan Smith has been able to persuade people to see her as she wished to be seen—as a happy teenager, a contented wife, a grieving mother. Ahead of her, presumably, lies the challenge of convincing a jury that she was insane when she drowned her children—the defense that many speculate will be employed by her lawyer David Bruck and is perhaps her only way of avoiding the electric chair. Meanwhile there have been numerous death threats made against Smith, and outrage is so strong among the people of Union that Bruck says he might ask that the trial be moved out of town. Thomas Findlay's life has also been threatened, and he has left Union.

David Smith is, for now at least, staying and doing his best to thank the thousands who prayed so fervently and searched so hard for his children. But in his grief, even gratitude isn't easy to express. He called a press conference last week, then—unable to face the public—asked his father to speak on his behalf. The senior David was scarcely in better shape himself. His hands shook as he read a statement. Breaking into tears, he said softly, "May God bless all of you—okay?" Susan's brother Scotty Vaughan also spoke, apologizing to "the black community of Union" for the wrong his sister had done them by falsely implicating a black man. "I'm thankful especially to many of my black friends," he said, "who called to comfort me and tell me they still love me."

Most townspeople, certainly, are hoping to put this ordeal behind them. Along with hundreds of reporters and photographers, Oprah has been here, and Phil Donahue and Sally Jesse Raphaël. People who once welcomed the press with coffee and doughnuts were jeering, "Go home! Go home!" by week's end.

Many people say they will never fish again in the catfish-rich waters of John D. Long Lake. It is, as one man put it, "hallowed ground." One recent misty morning, a visitor, himself paying silent tribute, noticed a forlorn figure walking toward him. "It's unthinkable, isn't it?" the visitor said. The man nodded, then began to sob. He was, he said, David Smith's father. "I wish I knew what to say to you, sir," the visitor said. Looking over the water where his grandsons had met their death, David Smith again nodded slowly, sorrowfully. "I never would have dreamt it," he said, "not in all my born days."

SHELLEY LEVITT
DON SIDER and GAIL WESCOTT in Union

From Our Partners