Susan Smith told police on October 25, 1994, that she had been carjacked by a Black man who had fled with her two young sons still in her car. She cried out for their safe return for nine days.
But everything was a lie.
Smith admitted that there was no carjacker and that she had let her car roll into a lake while Michael, 3, and Alex, 14 months, were still strapped in their car seats.
Her motive: She was secretly dating a childless man. The story made international headlines. Smith was convicted of two counts of mu*rder and is serving a life sentence in Greenwood, South Carolina’s Leath Correctional Institution.
PEOPLE obtained records 25 years after the incident that revealed her incarceration had been marred by disciplinary infractions for self-mutilation, drug use, and possession of narcotics or marijuana. Each infraction resulted in the loss of privileges, such as visitation, canteen, and phone privileges.
Smith, then 28, was disciplined in 2000 for having four sexual encounters with 50-year-old prison guard Houston Cagle. (He pleaded guilty and was imprisoned for three months.)
Alfred Rowe, a prison captain, pleaded guilty to having sex with Smith the following year and was sentenced to five years probation.
She was disciplined on drug charges three times, once in 2010 and once in 2015, and lost her driving privileges for more than a year each time.
Smith, on the other hand, claimed she was misunderstood.
Smith defended herself in a letter to The State, a South Carolina newspaper, in 2015. “Mr. Cahill, I am not the monster society thinks I am,” she wrote to Harrison Cahill, a reporter. “I am very far from it.”
“Something very bad happened that night. “I wasn’t myself,” she admitted. “I was a good mother who adored her sons.” There was no motive because the event was not even planned. “I wasn’t thinking straight.”
However, Smith’s ex-husband, and the boys’ father, told PEOPLE in 2010 that he has never fully recovered from the pain. “There’s always this nagging and gnawing heartache,” said David Smith. “It’s there every day, even if I’m not always conscious of it.”
Smith was working as a landscape laborer in the prison in 2017 — a step down from her previous position as a senior groundskeeper. She was promoted to wardkeeper assistant in March 2018, where she is responsible for the daily operation of her housing unit.
At least six times from 2017 to 2019, Smith had severe enough medical issues that she was transferred to another facility for outpatient treatment. The nature of her treatment had not been made public.
PEOPLE obtained access to letters Smith had written to a long-distance boyfriend, whom she said she wanted to marry if she was released from prison, in March 2022.
“She’s imagining the normalcy of married life,” Smith’s relative told PEOPLE. “She wants everything in life that she believes has passed her by.”
PEOPLE saw excerpts from two letters she wrote to the man. “I can’t wait to build a life with you,” Smith wrote in one of his letters. “Leave the mistakes of the past behind and start fresh, just you and me.”
According to one of Smith’s family members, by October 2022, Smith and the man had stopped corresponding.
“Yeah, that fizzled out,” a family member confirmed to PEOPLE. “They are no longer communicating. It’s all over.”