The Disturbing Story Of Susan Smith, The Woman Who Drowned Her Children In A Lake

Published January 13, 2022
Updated March 8, 2024

In October 1994, Susan Leigh Smith of South Carolina strapped her boys into her car, drove it straight into John D. Long Lake, and then tried to blame it all on a Black man.

Starting at a very early age, Susan Smith suffered unspeakable tragedy. Her father killed himself when she was just six years old, and she tried to follow suit at age 13. After her mother remarried, Smith’s new stepfather began to molest her. Plagued by lifelong trauma, she married David Smith at 19 to start a family of her own. But in 1994, she destroyed her own family — when she murdered her children.

David and Susan Smith had a rocky relationship plagued by mutual infidelity. Meanwhile, David had no idea that she suffered from depression and dependent personality disorder. He also didn’t know that his wife had been dumped by a wealthy South Carolina man because he didn’t want kids.

This is what prompted Susan Smith to drown her own children.

Susan Smith

Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma/Getty ImagesSusan Smith was convicted of murdering her children on July 22, 1995.

One day in October 1994, Susan Smith’s kids, three-year-old Michael and 14-month-old Alexander, joined her for a drive. But then, she purposefully rolled her car into John D. Long Lake in Union County, South Carolina, and left them to die.

What’s more, she told police that a Black man had carjacked her with the children inside. But eventually, her lies came crashing down and the horrible truth about what happened to Susan Smith’s children was revealed.

From Childhood Trauma To An Unhappy Marriage

Born on September 26, 1971, in Union, South Carolina, Susan Leigh Vaughan was the youngest of three children and the only girl. Tragedy struck in 1977 when her father, Harry Ray, committed suicide. Susan navigated that grief by keeping his coin collection and an audio recording of her father’s voice, but tried to kill herself at 13.

When her mother Linda married Beverly C. Russell Jr., it seemed the family’s luck was looking up. A divorced father of three, Russell was a thriving stockbroker, and a member of both South Carolina’s Republican community and the Christian Coalition. At home, however, he was molesting his 15-year-old stepdaughter, fondling her breasts and genitals.

Susan told her high school guidance counselor and her mother about the abuse in 1987 when she was 16. Linda confronted her husband about it. He swore to never do it again and agreed to family therapy, but then kept abusing Susan — who revealed as much in February 1988.

David Smith

Thomas S. England/Getty ImagesDavid Smith Sr. mourning his grandsons at John D. Long Lake.

Later that year, she attempted suicide yet again. Working part-time at a Winn-Dixie supermarket, Susan was overwhelmed after an older, married co-worker broke off an affair with her, and swallowed an overdose of aspirin in an attempt at self-harm. Doctors diagnosed her with an “adjustment disorder” and blamed her behavior on stress.

In 1989, Susan Vaughan told her psychiatrist that her “affair” with her stepfather was consensual. Susan said she wasn’t happy about her mother receiving all the male attention. She would ultimately find a partner in David Smith, a fellow Winn-Dixie supermarket worker who was raised a Jehovah’s Witness by strict parents.

They got married after only about a year of dating. The 19-year-old bride was already two months pregnant with her first son Michael, while her 20-year-old groom lost a brother to Crohn’s disease and had his father attempt suicide within a year.

They both came from families tormented by tragedy. But their own family would prove to be an unhappy one as well. Almost as soon as they were wed, the Smiths would begin relentlessly arguing and cheating on each other.

The Horrific Murder Of Susan Smith’s Children

Susan Smith’s most intense extramarital affair was with a newfound employee at Conso Products in 1993. She began sleeping with her boss’s son, Tom Findlay, in January 1994. But the rich, handsome 27-years-old broke things off with her in October — writing Smith a letter clarifying he wasn’t ready for a relationship involving kids.

On Oct. 25, they had a particularly upsetting conversation. Findlay recalled Smith being “upset because David knew, or so she thought, some information that he was going to make public that upset her.” It’s unclear just what this was, while it would later be revealed that Smith had continued having sexual relations with her former stepfather.

Then, after insulting Findlay by claiming she slept with his father, he asked her to leave. Three hours later, she decided that if Findlay didn’t want kids, she was going to get her own children out of the picture.

Just three hours later, Susan Smith put her kids in her 1990 Mazda Protege and set out for a drive. As she approached John D. Long Lake, she rolled her car straight into the water, then fled the scene and left her two children to drown.

She then reported her car stolen and her children missing, even pretending that a Black man had carjacked her and abducted her sons. For nine days, she went on television, pleading tearfully for their safe return.

But on November 3, with police suspicious of her flimsy story, Smith finally relented and confessed about what she’d done. Her trial began soon after.

Funeral Of Susan Smith's Kids

Brooks Kraft LLC/Sygma/Getty ImagesThe funeral of Susan Smith’s kids, Michael and Alexander.

Smith’s defense attorney David Bruck argued that her actions were rooted in mental illness spurred by the suicide of her father, sexual abuses, and emotional rejections. Lead prosecutor Thomas Pope painted a very different picture. He claimed Smith was a murderous manipulator who killed her children to regain Findlay’s affections.

Apparently unconvinced by Smith’s defense, the jury deliberated for two and a half hours on July 22, 1995, and quickly found her guilty. Convicted of two counts of first-degree murder, Susan Smith was sentenced to life in prison.

Susan Smith Today And The Legacy Of Her Crimes

Today Susan Smith is incarcerated at Leath Correctional Institution in Greenwood, South Carolina. Her behavior behind bars has only made her more infamous, as she’s been caught smoking marijuana and sleeping with a correctional officer. Ss for the crimes that put her in prison in the first place, she broke her decades-long silence in 2015 via a letter to South Carolina’s The State.

“It has been hard to listen to lie after lie and not be able to defend myself,” the letter read. “It’s frustrating to say the least. The thing that hurts me the most is that people think that I hurt my children in order to be with a man. That is so far from the truth. There was no motive as it was not even a planned event. I was not in my right mind.”

Even now Susan Smith maintains that it was only a temporary, albeit violent, break from her normal mental state that caused her to harm her children. Though the court of public opinion has largely sided with the prosecution, the state will have to actually consider Smith’s pleas in 2024, when she’ll be eligible for parole.

After learning about the murder of Susan Smith’s children, read about Texas woman Andrea Yates drowning her kids to save them from the Devil. Then, learn about Alice Crimmins, the New York mom accused of killing her kids.

Marco Margaritoff
A former staff writer for All That’s Interesting, Marco Margaritoff holds dual Bachelor's degrees from Pace University and a Master's in journalism from New York University. He has published work at People, VICE, Complex, and serves as a staff reporter at HuffPost.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.
Cite This Article
Margaritoff, Marco. "The Disturbing Story Of Susan Smith, The Woman Who Drowned Her Children In A Lake.", January 13, 2022, Accessed April 23, 2024.