McCLELLANVILLE — Robert Lee Smith didn’t pick up much that morning, just a can of peas, a box of sweet tea and, his favorite, a can of spaghetti.
The store often offered customers free rides home, but the service was meant for people who had purchased too much to carry. Even though Robert only had three items, one of the people working, Almeta Fogle, agreed to give him a ride home in her truck.
For decades, Robert would describe what happened next the same way:
He thanked Fogle for the ride, jumped down from the truck and waved to the neighbor girl, Barbara Jean. Fogle drove off.
Robert went inside alone to eat his canned spaghetti, watched a little television, then walked the dirt path that led to his grandfather’s house to play a game of ball with his brothers and friends.
While they were playing, their neighbor Ed Singleton came to the yard and told them that Fogle hadn’t returned to the store that morning. People in town were asking about her. Did they know anything?
Robert told Singleton how Fogle had given him a ride home from the grocery store.
Not long after, two detectives arrived at the house, asking for Robert.
About a mile and a half away, far down a tree-lined dirt road, Fogle’s truck had been found abandoned, well out of the way of her logical route back to the grocery store. Her body, beaten and bloodied, lay 15 feet from the vehicle, near the tree line on the edge of the Francis Marion National Forest. Her hands were grasping fallen leaves and pine straw.
Within a day of this gruesome discovery on April 13, 1971, Charleston County Police declared they had a suspect in custody who had confessed to the murder: 13-year-old Robert Lee Smith.
1. "The village nobody knows"
Though it’s just about 30 miles north of the fastest-growing city in South Carolina, McClellanville’s population hovers somewhere around 500, give or take a couple dozen.
A 1977 travel feature in The New York Times dubbed it a “town in hiding” and “the village nobody knows.” The writer declared the town was “saved from progress by the mosquito,” referencing the pest’s sometimes overwhelming presence on sweltering summer days.
But on a cool day in January, a day when the pavement of Pinckney Street was dappled with sunlight filtered through gauzy oak trees, McClellanville looked like the Lowcountry that some farther south off Highway 17 yearn for — slow-paced, sea-soaked charm and no frenzy of growth.
Fogle’s murder was the kind of crime and McClellanville the kind of town where, if you ask someone who has lived there long enough, they’ll likely remember it, and remember it well, even so many years later.
That was the case for Tommy Graham, who had dropped by the town’s history museum to chat with its founder, Bud Hill. Graham arrived about an hour before Hill's daily trip to T.W. Graham’s, one of the town’s five options for eating out.
Graham instantly recalled the decades-old murder when asked about the Fogle case. He and his wife had just recently talked about Robert Lee Smith, wondering what had become of him.
“Memory is not fact, you know, it’s just the way you remember things,” Graham said. “I think the longer it’s been, the more absolute it becomes. ... But I know that it was a crime against the community to railroad that young man.”
When it happened, in April 1971, Graham owned the town’s only hardware store. He saw a lot of people every day, so it didn’t take long for the news to get to him that Almeta Fogle, who worked at Green’s Grocery store just about a mile away, had been found dead on Bellfield Road.
And it didn’t take long after that for people to start talking about what might have happened to her — and who might have been involved. But there was only one name that police ever labeled as “suspect,” and that was Robert Lee Smith.
Robert was railroaded, Graham said again, a word that people familiar with the case use repeatedly to describe it.
“You can’t forget what race did to influence the way people thought and acted then,” he said.
Fogle was a 61-year-old white woman, a married mother of three grown daughters. Robert was black and barely a teenager.
The investigation that named Robert as the first and only serious suspect took just one day, but the legal process that followed lasted well over a decade, creating a rift in the community, prompting claims of injustice and leaving questions behind that are still unanswered today.
2. The crime scene
On the afternoon Fogle's body was found, bloodhounds roamed the far end of Bellfield Road, a dirt path unmarked by a street sign.
People in town sometimes referred to the remote drive as “Lover’s Lane,” known for providing privacy to couples who wanted a place to steal away where they wouldn’t be seen.
The trained hounds sniffed Fogle’s body and the surrounding woods. They also took the scent of the suspected murder weapon, a 12-inch crescent wrench taken from the truck.
The wrench had been used as a bludgeon, causing fatal brain damage.
A knife was also found at the scene.
No fingerprints were extracted from the weapons.
A thumbprint was found on the inner handle of the passenger door of Fogle’s truck, which bore several points of resemblance to Robert’s. That print was reportedly the only one preserved, though it didn’t seem to reveal much about the crime. Robert never denied being in Fogle’s truck that day.
Since Robert was the last person seen with Fogle that day, police brought him to the crime scene, and at least four officers questioned him that afternoon.
Jesse Williams, then a Charleston County Police detective, later recalled watching the hounds approach Robert and walk around his ankles, in the same way they had sniffed around Williams' own. They paid no more attention to Robert than they paid to Williams or anyone else there.
Fogle had been badly beaten, and blood spattered over a wide area. As Williams watched, he couldn't see a speck of blood on Robert.
Sidney Wrenn, a State Law Enforcement Division agent sent to assist with the investigation, asked Robert and his mother, Marie Smith, to accompany him to the county police headquarters so Robert could be fingerprinted.
There, Robert again told them all he said he knew: Fogle delivered him to his home that morning, he got out of the truck and he never saw her again.
Wrenn said he was interested in bringing Robert to Columbia to take a lie detector test. If Robert passed the polygraph, it would help back up his story.
Robert and his mother agreed to the test, and officers gave them a ride home. At that point, it was around 10 or 11 p.m.
They set a pickup time for 9 the next morning.
Detective Williams and George Gathers, another black Charleston County Police detective who worked the murder scene, were taken off the case shortly after it began.
When Gathers went back to the police station later on to get the notes he had taken that day at the crime scene, he was told they weren’t there. Everything Gathers had on the case was gone.
3. The confession
The next morning, Wrenn and another officer drove Robert, his mother and his aunt to Columbia. Up to that point, Robert, who was in the seventh grade, had seen very little of the world.
That trip marked his first visit to any city other than Charleston and Georgetown. The prior evening had also been his first time in a police station.
Conflicting accounts would emerge of what happened that afternoon at SLED headquarters.
SLED agents would later testify that Robert's polygraph test began around 1:30 or 2 p.m. According to their accounts, Robert's mother was brought into the room with him, and polygraph examiner Stephen Wyndham slowly read aloud Robert's rights.
When Wyndham felt that Robert understood each of them thoroughly, the agent instructed Robert's mother to wait in the lobby — something she had been warned of the previous evening.
Wrenn listened in over an intercom. When later asked why Robert's mother was not invited to listen as well, Wrenn said they hadn't thought of it, though it would have been allowed.
After the 30-minute test, Wyndham testified, he removed the polygraph hookups from Robert's body and calmly told him that he was not telling the truth.
At that, Robert tearfully confessed to killing Fogle after luring her into the woods on the false pretense of having a Boy Scout meeting there, according to Wyndham's account. Wyndham then informed Robert's mother that her son had admitted to the murder.
"Oh no, Robert Lee didn't do that," she said, shaking her head. "Robert Lee, you say you didn't do that."
Robert, under his mother's warning, didn't say another word that afternoon, and he didn't give a written statement.
Both Robert and Marie Smith said they had a brief conversation with the polygraph examiner but were not advised of Robert’s rights. They recalled being given the rights form to sign after the interrogation was over. They also insisted that the session had lasted more than an hour.
Marie Smith heard Robert crying in the room but, when she tried to get closer, an officer closed the door to the intermediate area between the lobby and the polygraph room.
Instead of measured questions, Robert said Wyndham peppered him with accusations, "hollering" and hitting the desk.
At one point, Robert said the lieutenant told him his fingerprints were found on the murder weapon.
Robert recalled repeatedly asking to see his mother. Eventually, Wyndham removed the polygraph wires and called Marie in — only to inform her of a confession that Robert said he never gave.
There was a tape recorder in the room where the interrogation occurred, but no tape emerged from the session. Wrenn would later say there was no tape available at SLED's headquarters that day.
He'd never known of the tape recorder actually being used to record conversations in the polygraph room. Why not?
"Well, I don't know," he'd later testify. "I just never had any desire to use it."
4. The sole suspect
Discrepancies arose between what officers said Robert had confessed to and what was found at the crime scene.
According to Wyndham, Robert claimed he had intended to make sexual advances on Fogle and took the wrench to knock her out. He indicated that he did not rape her, though experts later testified that Fogle had been raped.
Wyndham also said Robert indicated that he had dropped the wrench on the side of the road after beating Fogle with it. Officers would go on to testify that they found the wrench under the seat of the truck.
The neighbor girl, Barbara Jean, had backed up Robert's alibi. She continued to say that she saw Robert get out of Fogle's truck in front of his house that morning.
And there were other possible suspects, according to claims made by detectives Williams and Gathers in a 1977 newspaper interview — suspects never questioned by police.
With Robert's oral confession in hand, the investigation concluded about a day after it began. Investigators charged him with murder.
The state offered to let him plead guilty to a murder charge in juvenile court, which would have likely landed him in a reform school until age 21. Though that was a much lesser sentence than he potentially faced if tried as an adult, Robert refused the offer and continued to insist he had not confessed.
Despite his young age, Robert was held at the county jail from the day of his arrest until his case was called for trial in January of the following year — about nine months.
At trial, Robert’s attorneys, Fred Moore and George Payton, planned to argue that the alleged confession was improperly obtained and not admissible in court. The judge, Harry Agnew, suggested that this argument be taken up at trial, which would have been standard procedure. But the attorneys insisted that Agnew rule on the confession before a jury was drawn.
Agnew decided to toss out the confession because investigators had failed to advise Robert of his rights a second time before interrogating him after the polygraph test. Since the confession was the basis for Robert’s arrest, the charge was dismissed and Robert released from custody.
Life returned to near-normalcy. Robert started high school at Lincoln High in McClellanville even though he had spent most of his eighth grade year in jail.
Before the his arrest, Robert's academic record was spotty, at best. Most of his grades and standardized test scores were low or failing.
But in high school Robert starting earning passing grades. He learned to play the tuba. He joined the football team. He played well enough that he thought it might get him somewhere someday.
His world had changed, though, in ways that weren’t so visible. He and his siblings used to wander around town on their own, taking trips to the store and the Post Office. But after Fogle’s murder they didn’t go anywhere in town unsupervised.
They never stepped foot in Green’s Grocery again.
The three oldest brothers started to walk together as a trio as a safety measure. Some people in town couldn’t tell them apart, so that way, they figured, people wouldn’t know which one of them was Robert.
The town had been divided by Robert’s arrest and later release. Though some suspected he was innocent, others wanted him dead. A phone call to the family home shortly after he was released from jail threatened his life, and Robert’s mother sent him to New York to stay with his aunt for several months until she thought it was safer for him to return.
Robert’s youngest sister, Annette, was out of school for long periods of time. A doctor determined that her constant sickness, which had started shortly after Robert was arrested, was a nervous condition.
Then, on March 18, 1975, police officers arrived at the family home on River Road.
It was a Saturday, so Robert and his siblings were home from school.
Several police cruisers lined the street. After nearly three years of quiet since the murder charge was dismissed in court, their appearance was nothing short of shocking.
Prosecutors had appealed Judge Agnew’s ruling on the admissibility of Robert's confession. The S.C. Supreme Court reversed Agnew’s ruling, reinstated the confession and sent the case to Charleston for trial.
Had the issue of the confession been decided during trial, as Agnew had suggested, Robert couldn’t have been arrested and tried four years later because of the rule against double jeopardy: no person can be tried for the same crime twice. Though Robert had faced Agnew in court, the jury had never been sworn in.
The double jeopardy rule did not apply.
5. The attorney
The week of Robert’s second arrest, his family was already reeling. They had just lost a key ally in his case, Charleston attorney George Payton. He was the only lawyer they felt they could trust.
Four days earlier, someone had shot Payton while he was taking a phone call in his Spring Street office, a single bullet piercing his right eye. Payton died before reaching a hospital. A .38-caliber bullet was embedded in the cinder block wall behind where he had stood.
Payton, likely the most well-known black attorney in Charleston at that time, had a reputation for challenging the status quo.
A few theories emerged as to what precipitated the killing that some in the black community described as an “assassination.” One theory involved Payton’s real estate dealings around Hilton Head Island.
Developers were trying to buy up properties owned by black families, and Payton was fighting to get those families a fair price for what investors knew was becoming increasingly valuable coastal property.
Another theory posited that a disgruntled former client had hired someone to take Payton out. Others thought the attorney’s reputation as a ladies’ man led to his untimely death.
But for people connected to the case of Robert Lee Smith, they couldn’t help but think that the timing of Payton’s death and Robert’s second arrest had, in some way, been linked.
The timing of Robert’s 1975 arrest was particularly unusual: After the state’s high court had sent Robert’s case back to Charleston, a bench warrant for his arrest was issued. But instead of being sent to the county sheriff, as was the usual practice, it ended up with Charleston County Police.
That warrant, handed down in May 1974, sat unserved for nearly 10 months until the day of Robert's arrest the following March.
He had no idea he would be arrested for Fogle’s killing — or even that he could be arrested for it again.
6. The conviction
Almost four years and five months to the day after Fogle’s murder, the case came to trial.
By that time, Robert was 17 and close to graduating from high school. At 13, he was big for his age and chubby, but, in the four years since, he'd grown taller and more muscular.
The extracurricular activities he’d taken up in high school in the years after Fogle's killing became evidence used in the prosecution’s presentation.
Robert played the tuba, a large and heavy instrument that required some strength to lift. On the football team, he was a defensive lineman. Robert, the prosecution argued, could have forced Fogle out of the truck on his own.
SLED polygraph examiner Wyndham recounted the details of Robert's alleged confession. SLED agent Wrenn and a Charleston County police officer who had also listened to the interrogation over the intercom backed up Wyndham’s account.
The judge, Rodney Peeples, heard four hours of testimony, outside of the presence of the jury, before ruling that the alleged confession was admissible this time around. Peeples decided detectives had taken sufficient care to explain Robert's rights and had emerged from the interrogation with signed waivers.
Charles S. Goldberg, a Charleston attorney whom the family had hired after Payton’s death, accused law enforcement officials of rehearsing their testimony in order to win a conviction. The police’s witnesses were “finely dressed, very smooth” and articulate, Goldberg said in court.
Robert, on the other hand, had to rely on a rural family from McClellanville without any significant prior experience with the legal system, Goldberg argued. It was “David versus Goliath. Joe Namath versus some pee wee high school quarterback.”
Ninth Circuit Court Solicitor Robert B. Wallace, who led the case for the state, cast serious doubt on the argument that officers were lying about Robert’s confession.
“If you believe that happened, these men ought to be convicted of perjury and fired. ... Lied to do what? To convict an innocent person? Have we come to that stage in Charleston County?” Wallace told the jury.
The verdict was read to a silent courtroom. There had been several outbursts in court during the trial, and Peeples promised six months in jail to anyone who caused further interruptions.
The only sound as Robert stood to hear the verdict was the tapping of the judge's pencil.
“I didn’t get a fair trial,” Robert told the judge before the jury handed down its verdict.
The jury found Robert guilty, and he was sentenced to life in prison.
7. The court battle
Robert's mother and his oldest brother, William, usually visited him at the Kirkland Correctional Institution in Columbia on Sundays. They came as often as they could, but Marie, who had a bad heart, was declining in health.
From hundreds of miles away in New York, Robert's aunt, Christine Snyder, led the family's effort to appeal Robert's conviction. Having exhausted their financial resources, the family turned to Edmund Robinson, an attorney with the Charleston County Public Defender's Office.
The appeals process had revolved almost entirely around the validity of the confession, which was dissected down to the most minor detail.
Robinson wrote about the need to dig into more of the facts of the murder itself in a memo from March 13, 1979.
“The rest of the field remains unplowed ground,” Robinson wrote. “This is not a time for discouragement, but rather one for dedication, hope, and digging for the long haul.”
Still, he only saw two viable legal routes: request a new trial or try to bring the case to the United States Supreme Court, where he could continue to challenge the validity of the confession.
Robinson became the first of Robert’s attorneys to be get a copy of the polygraph exam Robert took the day after Fogle’s murder. The state, which had withheld the document, was forced to release it after the state Legislature enacted the Freedom of Information Act.
Robinson had the record examined by a third party expert who said the results of the test were inconclusive.
Many questions remained but weren't part of the ongoing legal debate.
Why would Fogle agree to go with Robert to the woods off Bellfield Road? The path lay beyond Robert's house and well outside the normal route back to the grocery store, requiring a mile-long detour.
How did Robert know there was a wrench in Fogle's truck? When did he grab the wrench?
Why were Fogle's undergarments folded in the the truck?
Why would Robert confess to Fogle's murder but not to her rape?
And if Robert was seen by neighbors getting out of Fogle's truck that morning, how did he end up with her, alone, on the edge of the woods?
8. The activists
Troubled by Robert’s conviction, Gathers, one of the two black Charleston County detectives who had worked the crime scene the day of Fogle's murder, told a friend in Charleston about his concerns.
That friend then turned to two young activists at the College of Charleston who had started a new civil rights organization called People United to Live and Let-Live, or PULL-L.
One of the young men, Jerome Smalls, had caught his bug for activism by joining workers at the Medical University of South Carolina during the 1969 hospital strike. At his side was Eugene Jenkins who, though quieter than the fiery Smalls, had a passion for social justice issues.
When the two men in their early 20s heard about Robert’s case, they almost couldn’t believe the story.
They decided to go to McClellanville themselves to do their own investigating. Smalls tried to get answers from reluctant neighbors. Jenkins spoke with Robert’s family.
Jenkins’ conversation with Robert’s mother motivated him during the years of rallies, petitions and letters that would follow.
He saw, in talking to Marie Smith, how Robert was raised. He saw her grief. And Jenkins knew then that he couldn’t abandon the case.
On April 16, 1977, Smalls and Jenkins led a rally in Marion Square for Robert. “Join us if you are really concerned about such racist injustices in America, supposedly, the home of the free until proven guilty,” a flier for the event read.
The Charleston Chronicle newspaper started frequently printing letters from PULL-L and updates on Robert’s case.
To raise awareness beyond South Carolina, Smalls made a plan to travel with a large sign that summed up Robert’s case as succinctly possible: 13-year-old black boy in SC jailed for raping and murdering 61-year-old white woman.
His sign caught the attention of a man in Harlem, N.Y., a minor actor who Smalls had recognized from the film "Superfly." The encounter took Smalls to the Harlem NAACP office and, after that, the national NAACP headquarters on Broadway. That’s when things changed, Smalls said.
The story got some national, and even international, press, and multiple NAACP chapters gave their support. The Southern Poverty Law Center wrote a brief on Robert's behalf.
At one point, a group of activists went to Washington, D.C., to meet with officials from the Justice Department and demand an investigation. At the time, a public affairs officer for the FBI told reporters that local agents would launch a limited investigation into the case, though nothing came of that announcement.
In April 1984 — nine years, one month and six days after he was given his life sentence — Robert came up for parole.
He was still a young man, 26 years old. He was a newlywed. He married his wife, Jacqueline, while he was still in prison. They met while he was participating in a supervised program that allowed him to look for employment before his actual release.
At the hearing, a daughter of Fogle’s, Esther Richards, presented a petition with at least 800 signatures asking that his parole be denied.
“I just don’t feel the time was served, and he should have served it,” Richards said.
It was very unusual for a prisoner to get parole the first time, especially if there was community opposition, Robert's attorney Robinson noted. Smith's age, his record of good behavior and the fact that was married all worked in his favor.
The parole board moved to release Robert that day, on the terms that he be banned from living in McClellanville for life and remain under intense supervision. An investigator representing the state argued that the ban be extended to all of Charleston County.
The parole board agreed, and Robert was free to go anywhere but home.
9. The return
More than 30 years later, William Smith, the oldest of the Smith brothers, talked calmly about Robert's time in prison. He spoke slowly, fidgeting with his baseball cap as he sat in the kitchen of his cousin's home in McClellanville.
Robert's conviction — or "the thing that happened to Robbie" — is something they try not to think about but is never far away.
That was especially true for William, who still lives nearby, and his aunt, Christine Snyder, who moved back to McClellanville after living in New York for many years.
Even at 92, Snyder had been doing pretty well until a serious fall around Thanksgiving landed her first in the hospital and now in the care of her niece, Clara Gibbs.
As Snyder and William talked about Robert, Gibbs sat at her table, cracking through a pile of pecans. She interjected her own comments and memories, or sometimes just shook her head to herself.
Snyder's memory isn't as sharp as it used to be, but she could still recall little details about Robert. She remembered how much he loved canned spaghetti. She remembered all the flights back and forth from New York for his court dates. She remembered Robert's playfulness as a child.
She and Robert wrote to each other often when he was in prison. One of his many handwritten notes to her is still tucked between piles of legal memos, rally fliers and other documents Snyder saved from the case.
In it, Robert wrote that he was hopeful he'd be released. He was 22 at the time and had served about five years of his sentence.
“I’m still putting all my faith and trust into the Lord hand (sic) because I truly believe he will make a way for me and all of my family,” Robert wrote.
Then he signed off, listing off all the people in the family Snyder should give his love to. “This letter is short but never my love for you,” he wrote.
Snyder had shipped that letter, along with other envelopes of documents she'd held onto, to Honolulu, Hawaii, where Robert ultimately settled with his brother.
Robert had initially stayed near Columbia after being released from prison, working various jobs and raising three children. He sometimes visited family in McClellanville, but only did so quietly. He would stay within the black community and never ventured into the main part of town again.
Eventually, his younger brother, Francis, persuaded Robert to come live with him in Hawaii and enter a rehabilitation program. Since his release from prison, Robert had struggled off and on with drug use, and it had become particularly serious, even contributing to his separation from his wife.
Francis was afraid Robert would end up back in prison.
The move, which was cleared with Robert's parole officer, worked just as Francis had hoped. Robert completed the rehab program, got a job and found a circle of friends in Hawaii. His health eventually started to decline, though, leaving him legally blind and unable to work.
Robert started making plans to move back to South Carolina. Still on parole for life, Robert remained tethered to the legal system long after he left prison.
He wondered if, after all these years, there was a way to cut that tie for the last years of his life.
On a phone call last May, Robert told The Post and Courier that his desire to clear his name was more for his mother than himself. She had always blamed herself for what happened.
Marie didn't live to see Robert released from prison. She died, while talking on the phone with Robert, a few years before he was put up for parole.
At age 26, when he was released, Robert just wanted to put the whole case behind him. But in his early 60s, with his health declining, he wanted to come home.
"I just hope, going back, things will be different," Robert said in May.
Many of the prosecutors and police involved in the case have since died. But some remained assured of Robert's guilt.
Wrenn, the SLED agent who responded the day of the murder, said this month that he's still convinced it "couldn't have been anyone else."
Robert's attorney Robinson, who went on to work as a minister in Massachusetts after his law career in Charleston, said he remembers the case now as one with "strong overtones of racial injustice." Still, Robinson said he saw support for Robert cross racial lines.
"It got an awful lot of the folks there, black and white, united on the agreement that this kid was getting a raw deal," he said this month.
A close friend of Robert’s, Ailana Molina, started early last year to compile all the facts about the case that Robert could remember. She sent a letter on Robert’s behalf to the Innocence Project, a New York-based nonprofit that works to exonerate wrongly convicted people through the use of DNA testing.
The Innocence Project primarily investigates the cases of people who are currently incarcerated. Robert also didn't think there was any way to prove his claim of innocence with DNA. Still, Molina wanted to try what she could.
But Robert's move never happened as he planned.
On June 6, 2019, Robert died from heart failure. His body was sent from Honolulu to Columbia, where he was buried later that month.
Robert's funeral was one of the few events where his family has seen Snyder cry in her 92 years.
"He came back," her niece said. "He came back in a box."
Despite all their efforts, Robert had died a guilty man. And they all knew that would never change.