In October of 1994, I was a homeless high school dropout deeply entrenched in a serious meth habit. Nonetheless, I distinctly remember the first time I saw Susan Smith on television, standing before a crowd of cameras and reporters, sobbing about her kidnapped babies. She definitely had something to do with this, was my immediate thought, and perhaps why I remember it so well: it turned out I was right.
By the time Susan Smith was convicted of drowning her two boys in John D. Long Lake in Union, South Carolina, I was living clean 180 miles away in Charleston, six months pregnant with my own boy. July 1995 was a summer filled with hurricanes, incessant "morning" sickness, and abject poverty and loneliness. Now married to my former drug dealer, the father of my unborn child, I was 19 years old and working as a clerk at a Hess station.
A lifetime away from everyone and everything I had ever known in my hometown of Atlanta, the television was my constant companion. Susan Smith was all over it, and I was transfixed. Perhaps due to my incredibly vulnerable state, and magnified by just having found out the gender of the child I was carrying, I was deeply affected by Smith's crime.
Not even a year prior, she'd strapped her two sons, three year old Michael, and 14 month old Alexander, into their car seats, drove to the edge of John D. Long Lake, and rolled her car down the boat ramp. She got out of the car before it hit the water, but left her babies strapped in, and then stood there and watched as they slid and sank helplessly to their deaths.
Smith initially claimed a random black man was responsible for abducting her children. In the deep south, black men have long been scapegoats for the crimes of others, and there is no victim more tragic in the United States of America than the white woman. Ironically, the lake in which Smith murdered her children is named for State Senator John D. Long, who championed the Ku Klux Klan for restoring the south "to her own" following the Civil War.
It didn't take long, though, for law enforcement to see through Susan's bullshit, and she eventually confessed, providing details of how exactly she murdered her sons.
Although certainly not the first mother to commit infanticide, Smith's story is one of the most sensational. In the small town of Union, S.C., people from all over the world flocked to John D. Long Lake to witness in person the site of this senseless and tragic act. What many people don't know, though, is that John D. Long Lake was not in any way finished claiming the lives of innocent children.
Almost exactly two years after Susan Smith sent her children to their watery graves, four more children drowned in a vehicle that rolled into the lake, at exactly the same spot.
According to a September 1996 New York Times article, a group of ten people from nearby towns all piled into a Chevy Suburban on a Saturday night, and drove to John D. Long Lake. Half of them exited the Suburban while the driver, 26 year old Tim Phillips, remained with the four children (aged four months to four years), three of them his own.
At some point, the Suburban, with Tim Phillips still behind the wheel, began to roll off the embankment and into the lake. Although investigators do not believe foul play was a factor, they found no evidence of anyone inside the vehicle attempting to stop it from going into the water. Phillips' 22 year old wife, Angie (and mother of three of the children), drowned attempting to rescue her family.
A seventh person, Carl White (29), was the father of the fourth child in the Suburban, and he also drowned attempting to rescue the occupants of the sinking vehicle.
The shocking twist in this second instance was that the ten people had travelled to the lake for the purpose of seeing where Susan Smith murdered her children. Before rolling into the water, the Suburban was parked in front of the site, headlights shining on a memorial to Smith's boys.
I didn't learn of the second tragic instance of drowning until today, when I read an article about Susan Smith's insistence, twenty years after her conviction, that she's not actually a "monster." The prosecution in her case insisted she killed her children because the man she was dating did not want to be involved with someone who had kids, but Smith explains that was not what happened at all. She was just "not in her right mind."
Regardless of whatever convoluted excuses Smith may have for murdering her children, her actions triggered the events leading the deaths of seven more people, including four more children. The town of Union, South Carolina, along with myself and others all over the world, are left haunted.