TIME Domestic

December 19, 1994 Volume 144, No. 25


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Amid new revelations about Susan Smith, a town mourns her sons and braces

for the trial


The pilgrims began arriving in Union, South Carolina, almost immediately,

pouring in from Florida and Pennsylvania and Alaska. They show up on Main

Street, ask directions to the lake and then head out State Highway 49 to

the popular fishing area once known as Black Bottom. There they gather near

the boat ramp where Susan Smith stood on the night of Oct. 25 and gaze into

the perilous depths of John D. Long Lake, speaking in hushed voices and

adding their offerings of flowers and toys to the shrines standing at the

water's edge. Glen Outlaw Jr., a sheriff's deputy from Jacksonville,

Florida, arranged the planting of a 14-ft. Christmas tree at lakeside. Then

he made the six-hour trip from his home, decorated the tree, and turned

around and drove back. "Every child deserves a Christmas," he said. Outlaw

plans to return each year to ensure that the tree - and the two little

boys, Michael and Alexander, who lost their lives in this lake - are not


Of course, no one will soon forget the terrible drama that unfolded there

last month, when after convincing the community that she had been carjacked

and her children abducted, Susan Smith confessed that she had, in truth,

murdered her babies. But even those who pray simply that this small textile

town of 9,800 can return to its familiar rhythms understand that the Susan

Smith story is just beginning. On the courthouse steps and in the popular

Palmetto restaurant and on front porches shaded by magnolia trees, the talk

is of Smith's long-held secrets: her suicide attempts, her allegations that

her stepfather molested her as a teenager, all the hidden troubles of a

blandly pretty young woman from a good family whom friends routinely recall

as "nice" and "happy." "Now it's coming out," says Thomas H. White IV, the

lawyer who represented Susan in her divorce from David Smith. "Susan had a

right rough time of it."

These revelations about Smith are the backdrop to the legal maneuvering

that begins this week, as a grand jury convenes to decide whether to indict

Smith, 23, on two counts of murder. Though the charges are a foregone

conclusion, the defense strategy remains a subject of intense speculation.

Smith's attorney, David Bruck, who is one of the top death-penalty lawyers

in the country, has brought a psychiatrist into prison to examine his

client and successfully delayed the prosecution's evaluation of her, but he

says an insanity plea in the trial, which is expected to begin mid-1995, is

"just one option among many."

Also hanging in the balance is whether the state will seek the death

penalty, a decision that 16th Circuit solicitor Tommy Pope will announce on

Jan. 16. This is an issue that has Unionites - for the most part a

conservative, churchgoing bunch - passionately divided. Says one local

waitress: "I'd pull the switch tomorrow. Wouldn't bother me at all." To

others, however, even those who thought they supported the death penalty,

the matter now hits uncomfortably close to home. "We know her. We just

can't see something like that happening to her," says Patsy McNeace, a

teacher. Pope, 32, who was elected solicitor two years ago, intends to

listen carefully to both sides. "I will be doing a lot of soul-searching,"

he says. "I will talk to the family, but I also need to remember who the

victims are - Michael and Alex. This is as much about them as it is about


Delving into Smith's past for clues may help Unionites find forgiveness, if

not absolute understanding. The youngest child of Harry Ray Vaughan, a

fireman and millworker, and secretary Linda Vaughan, Susan was seven when

her parents divorced. A month later Harry Vaughan shot himself, and the

next year Linda was remarried, to Beverly J. Russell Jr., a prominent local

figure. The nephew of former South Carolina Governor and U.S. Senator

Donald Russell, Russell - onetime owner of Bev's TV and Appliance Store -

is active in the Republican Party and the Christian Coalition.

To outsiders, the Russells appeared model citizens. Bev sang in the Buffalo

United Methodist Church choir, and Susan was an honors student at Union

High, who participated in such volunteer activities as the Special

Olympics. But twice, at ages 13 and 18, according to court papers, she

attempted suicide, each time swallowing an overdose of aspirin. And in

1988, when she was 16, she told a high school guidance counselor that her

stepfather had molested her. The counselor reported the complaint to the

local department of social services, which in turn notified the Union

sheriff's office. No criminal charges had been filed, however, by the time

Susan and her mother withdrew the complaint. Family court judge David

Wilburn sealed court records of the allegations in March 1988 because, he

said at the time, they were "of no interest to persons not directly

involved." Now retired, Wilburn says he remembers only that the Russell

family was "dysfunctional," but one of Susan's high school friends told the

Columbia State, "Everyone close to Susan knew" about the alleged

molestation. A judge will decide on Jan. 4 whether the records should be


Ironically, just before the murders, Smith had appeared to be in good

spirits. Although her troubled three-year marriage to David Smith, an

assistant manager at the Winn-Dixie supermarket, had fallen apart in August

amid accusations of David's infidelity, and although she was struggling

financially, she seemed optimistic. Her clerical job at Conso, which has

some glamorous foreign clients (their tassels adorn furniture in Buckingham

Palace, for example), had "a future," she told an acquaintance. And, like

other women at Conso, she perhaps even dreamed of marrying the boss's

handsome 27-year-old son, Tom Findlay, whom she had briefly dated. But Tom

had other ideas and a week before the murder sent Susan a letter ending

their relationship.

The night before she took her children out for their final ride, Susan had

one last encounter with Tom. Around 8 p.m. on Oct. 24, after her British

literature course at the University of South Carolina-Union, Susan and a

girlfriend went to Hickory Nuts, a clean, quiet sports bar that Findlay

frequented. He was there that night, seated at the bar with a few friends.

Susan sat down a few stools away, and according to bartender Lori Robins,

when Findlay heard Susan order a beer, he paid for it and ordered a round

for everyone. After a second beer, Susan left. The former couple never

exchanged a word.

For now the principals in this drama remain mostly silent. Smith is in

isolation at the Women's Correctional Center in Columbia, where a camera

observes her round the clock. Findlay reportedly left for Britain

immediately after Smith's arrest and may not return to Union. David Smith,

who said he never once suspected his wife of the murders, is on paid leave

from the Winn-Dixie, holed up in an apartment increasingly crowded with

boxes of supportive letters - many of them addressed simply "David Smith,

Union, S.C." And the weary citizens of Union murmur among themselves,

dreading the next act, in which the entire tragedy of Susan and David Smith

must be replayed - with no hope of changing the ending.

Reported by Lisa H. Towle/Union


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This document was last modified 23:22:45 EST Thu 23 Mar 95.