UNION - Closing her eyes and shaking her head from side to side, Rozelle Bramlett practically bristles with quiet defiance.
Nearly a quarter century later, the executive director of the Union County Museum remains reluctant to talk about Susan Smith, Smith's sons Michael and Alex and the events of October and November 1994.
"People don't go there, still," Bramlett said. "It's tough to talk about."
Friday marked 25 years since the deaths of Michael Smith, 3, and Alexander Smith, 1, in John D. Long Lake in Union County.
Their mother, then 23-year-old Susan Smith, initially told investigators she'd been carjacked at gunpoint by a black man and that her sons remained in the car as the assailant drove away.
That started a frantic search for the children and Smith's Mazda Protege. Days later, Smith confessed to their murder, saying the two boys were inside the car when it rolled down a ramp and into the lake on Oct. 25, 1994.
Smith was convicted in 1995 and sentenced to life in prison with the possibility of parole after 30 years.
A community on edge
Carol Willis, a Union County Museum assistant, said it's not often people talk about the case. She said it's something many have worked hard to forget.
"I knew Susan and worked with her at Conso, at the mill," Willis said, dropping a dusty cardboard box on a museum table Oct. 17.
Inside are old newspaper clippings, photos, Time and Newsweek magazines from the era.
Willis remembers Smith as pleasant at times, troubled at others, but said she remembers her doting on her children.
Holding a photo of a group on horseback taken days before Smith's confession, Willis remembers searchers combing along roadsides, fields and woodlots for the missing children.
"Seems like everyone was pitching in how they could," Willis said.
Charles Gregory, a Union County Museum volunteer, was just 6 years old at the time. He remembers his mother issuing strict orders not to leave the house without her due to fears a kidnapper might be active in Union.
"Was someone snatching kids?" Gregory said. "We just didn't know, and everyone was scared."
Herald-Journal photographer Tim Kimzey, then a staffer for the Union Daily Times, remembers the early days in the search for Michael and Alex Smith as emotional.
He was on scene minutes after the 911 call - called in by a resident near John D. Long Lake - spurred the search.
And Kimzey was there at the lake in the hours after the sad revelation that the Smith children were not coming home.
Trained to dispassionately report the facts, Kimzey remembers emotions running high in the days following Susan Smith's confession.
As mourners placed flowers in the lake and along its banks, he had to wipe tears from his viewfinder.
'We'll never get over this'
Bramlett said she's worked for much of the past five years to help catalogue, preserve and promote Union County's history.
She strolled through the museum Thursday, indicating Revolutionary War and Civil War-era cannonballs that had been plucked from nearby fields and yards and unit colors for Confederate-era outfits like the Johnson Riflemen and Pea Ridge Volunteers.
The museum traces the county's long, proud mill history. At one point, there were some 20 companies in operation, employing much of the county's workforce.
Closures and layoffs in recent decades were a gut punch to Union County and its close-knit communities, she said.
The crush of national media attention that followed Smith's case was another blow. Print publications and cable news teams from across the country descended on the area, covering the search, trial and aftermath.
"It's like if you go away from here and say you're from Union, people stop and think and say 'Isn't that where Susan Smith...,' Bramlett said. "Every time."
Both Bramlett and Willis said they don't condone Smith's actions, but said revelations about her background during and after the trial made them empathize with her on some level.
"But still you've got to ask why," Bramlett said. "I think there were a whole lot of families who looked around and said, 'We would have taken those boys.'"
While Bramlett, Willis and Gregory said the case isn't often discussed, it's far from forgotten.
That much is clear, visiting the memorial markers for Michael and Alex Smith.
Near John D. Long Lake's southeastern corner, down a road just off Lockhart Highway, sit two memorials. The pavement has started to give way in places, with sections broken and turning to gravel, but the monuments to two little boys gone too soon remain well cared for.
Tucked among loblolly pines and poplar trees, the shaded monuments rest just off John D. Long Lake Road. It's a quiet spot, away from the drone of traffic on the nearby highway.
A collection of tiny race cars, candy and stuffed animals adorn each monument's base and top. Recent additions, most are unfaded by rain or sun.
"This is something this place will never get over," Willis said. "Never."
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