Lawyer believes Stephen Smith’s murder was a hate crime

Now that Stephen Smith’s mysterious death in 2015 has been officially ruled a homicide, his family’s lawyer is speaking out about what he believes may have led to the 19-year-old’s killing.

Speaking to PEOPLE, Eric Bland, the Smith family’s attorney, said he believes Smith’s death was a hate crime.

“Considering the possibility that it was a hate crime and they took a rape kit, this is an openly gay 19-year-old boy,” Bland tells PEOPLE. “And that’s not in New York City or California or Washington DC, Philadelphia. It’s in the Lowcountry, South Carolina, where being openly gay is probably not the most popular thing in 2015.”

South Carolina authorities have never said Smith’s death was a hate crime, and no suspects have been named at this time. But last week, authorities officially ruled Smith’s death a homicide for the first time.

“I think it was a hate crime,” Bland said. “That means it could be a bunch of thug kids deciding, ‘Hey, we’re going to beat up the gay kid,’ or it could be someone who felt like Stephen was going to come out on their relationship or was uncomfortable with Stephen being in their friendship.”

“I think we’re going to find out because Stephen told his mother he was dating someone celebrity,” Bland continued. “He was very secretive about his lifestyle. He made no secret that he was gay, but respected the boundaries of the people he was involved with.”

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Smith was found dead in the early hours of July 8, 2015 on a dark road in Hampton County, SC, three miles from his vehicle and near the home of the Murdaugh family — a powerful local family responsible for their longtime law practice is known. Smith’s death was initially ruled a hit and run, and no arrests were ever made.

It was reported that Smith was out of gas and was running in the street when he was hit, but Bland says he doesn’t believe this is true.

“He definitely didn’t run out of gas,” Bland said.

When asked if he thinks Smith was killed elsewhere and his car was parked where authorities found it, Bland replied, “I do.”

During the investigation into Smith’s death, the name Murdaugh was mentioned dozens of times as possibly linked to the death, FITSnews reported. Buster Murdaugh — the surviving son of convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh — and Smith were high school classmates.

However, authorities have never charged the Murdaugh family or Buster Murdaugh with any connection to the murder. On Monday, Buster vehemently denied having anything to do with Smith’s untimely death.

Bland confirmed to PEOPLE that a rape kit was administered after Smith’s death but was never tested.

Cpl. Michael Duncan, the former supervisor of the South Carolina Highway Patrol, also told NewsNation’s Ashleigh Banfield that a rape kit was performed on Smith – marking the first time in Duncan’s career that a rape kit was ordered in connection with a traffic accident.

“I had no idea why it was ordered,” Duncan told Banfield.

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Smith’s family has now raised enough money to have his body exhumed for an independent autopsy while the inquest into his death continues.

“Stephen N. Smith’s family is incredibly grateful for the love and support we have received from Standing for Stephen and the entire community,” Smith’s mother, Sandy Smith, wrote in the GoFundMe description. “You monumentally shed light on Stephen’s story and lack of justice.”

In an update, Sandy said they are “following up on the exhumation immediately” and will keep the public informed of any findings.

“You made this possible and it means the world to us,” the update continued. “This is Stephen’s year.”

* With reporting by Christine Pelisek