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Smith Case Now Investigated as Homicide; Firms Buy Water Rights to Make Millions; McKay Coppins is Interviewed about GOP Focus Group Assessment of Pence. Aired 6:30-7a ET

Aired March 22, 2023 - 06:30   ET




POPPY HARLOW, CNN ANCHOR: This morning, the death of a 19-year-old, whose body was found near the home of convicted murderer Alex Murdaugh, is now - that death is now being treated as a homicide. The autopsy performed the day Stephen Smith died in 2015 ruled that he had been the victim of a hit and run, but now officials are reopening the case because of new evidence they say they discovered during Murdaugh's double murder investigation.

Our Dianne Gallagher is live in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Reading about this, this morning, I was just floored because, frankly, I didn't know a lot about the case prior. I don't think a lot of people did. But now, because of the Murdaugh trail and investigation they're reopening this?

DIANNE GALLAGHER, CNN NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: So, they did open this case. A state investigation back in June of 2021. Back in 2015, July of 2015, Stephen Smith, a 19 year old nursing student, was killed. As you said, he was originally ruled to have died from blunt force head trauma as the result of a hit and run.

But we've looked at investigative files from the highway patrol back from 2015, and even then investigators said that there was no evidence that Stephen Smith had been hit by a car, saying that there was no vehicle debris. The injuries on his body were not consistent with that. And even that his shoes were still on his feet loosely tied. But it became a cold case.

And then you June 2021, state law enforcement division investigators announced that they were opening a death investigation into Stephen Smith's death because of information gathered during the course of the investigation into the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh, who, of course, Alex Murdaugh was convicted of killing earlier this month.

Now, state investigators have never said what that information they gathered was, but they made a phone call. The chief of SLED called an attorney who had just been retained by Stephen Smith's mother this week yesterday, and he said that they were looking into this as a homicide and that they were working towards trying to solve Stephen Smith's death.

HARLOW: Can you help us understand, Dianne, any connection to the Murdaugh family? Obviously, Buster Murdaugh, the son's name, has been brought up. He put out a forceful statement saying, basically, leave me out of this. Leave my family alone. There is no evidence. Is there any evidence to even tie him to this?

GALLAGHER: So, there's the obvious portion here, which is that the state law enforcement division opened their case up because of new information gathered during the course of the investigation into the murders of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh. So, that is the only official tie here.

But going back to 2015, in those highway patrol interviews, they mentioned Buster Murdaugh's name, they mentioned the Murdaughs dozens of time when they spoke with witnesses. Buster did deny this this week, saying he's been busy grieving his mother and his brother. But he said it has gone on far too long, these baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false. I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death, and my heart goes out to the Smith family.

There has been no actual official connection between the Murdaugh family or Buster Murdaugh and Stephen Smith's death.


GALLAGHER: No suspects have been named.


HARLOW: OK, Dianne Gallagher, thank you for that reporting.

KAITLAN COLLINS, CNN ANCHOR: Wall Street firms are buying up lots of drought-stricken farmland out west. How water is actually making these companies millions.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: And, actress Gwyneth Paltrow in court over a dangerous 2016 ski accident she was involved in.


The he said/she said allegations about what happened on the slopes, straight ahead.


COLLINS: All right, welcome back.

Today is World Water Day, and Wall Street companies are making big investments in the driest land that they can find in the U.S. and neighboring farmers are outraged about it. They say that many of these private investors are seeking to take advantage of the coveted water rights that come with these patches of farmland, but using them as a way to make millions when scarcity and droughts sends water prices skyrocketing. CNN's Lucy Kafanov has more.


LUCY KAFANOV, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Cibola, Arizona, is a place few are likely to have heard of. Home to some 300 people, this windswept community is a tiny oasis in the Sonoran Desert, sustained by water from the Colorado River.


But this rural corner of the American west has caught the eye of east coast investors. Much of this farmland now belongs to Greenstone, a subsidiary of the financial services conglomerate Mass Mutual.

KAFANOV (on camera): So, what does an investment firm want with farmland like this?

HOLLY IRWIN, LA PAZ COUNTY SUPERVISOR: They want it for the water. They wanted to make money, you know, off the water rights that are attached to the land.

KAFANOV (voice over): La Paz County Supervisor Holly Irwin is fighting Greenstones' recent sale of Cibola water to a growing Phoenix suburb more than 200 miles away.

IRWIN: And make millions off of it, you know, at the expense of what it's going to do to our communities in the future, and the precedence it's going to set. Its opening Pandora's Box. And who is going to be the next one in line to roll the dice?

KAFANOV: A lawyer for Greenstone told CNN its plan was subject to public review, approved, and that it will have no impact on the potential of cities along the river to grow.

But it's not just happening in Arizona.

KAFANOV (on camera): Wall Street firms have been snapping up properties up and down the Colorado River, not so much for the land, but rather for its precious water rights. It's a growing interest and an increasingly scarce natural resource, with investors betting big on a major payoff.

MATTHEW DISERIO, PRESIDENT, WATER ASSET MANAGEMENT: It's a trillion- dollar market opportunity -

KAFANOV (voice over): Matt Diserio was president of Water Asset Management, an investment firm headquartered in this New York City building, which has also been buying water rights in states along the Colorado River. Diserio described its strategy in 2020 interviews with Institutional Real Estate and Fintech TV.

DISERIO: Water, we believe, is the resource that is defining the 21st century, much like oil defined the last century.

KAFANOV: The company did not respond to CNN's specific increase, issuing a statement that said it was proud of its investments and will manage assets in a matter that contributes to solutions to water scarcity.

TRAVIS LINGENFELTER, MOHAVE VALLEY COUNTY SUPERVISOR: They come out west. They purchase and pick up cheap, rural agricultural land. They sit on it for a little while, and then they're trying to sell the water.

KAFANOV: Mohave Valley County Supervisor (ph) Travis Lingenfelter says a number of large east coast investment firms are trying to get in on the action. His is one of three Arizona counties that sued the federal government to block the Cibola water transfer.

LINGENFELTER: If they're coming after a portion of our only water supply on the river for many of our communities, we have to fight it.

ANDY MUELLER, GENERAL MANAGER, Colorado RIVER DISTRICT: They're drought profiteers. They're trying to suck the very lifeblood out of these communities for their own financial benefit.

KAFANOV: Andy Mueller is tasked with helping to protect Colorado's share of the river and says the full scale of the land purchases is difficult to track because investment firms use different names to disguise ownership.

MUELLER: It's a very unpopular move to come from New York and invest in real estate and in irrigated agriculture with the intent to dry it up and watch it blow away. It's all about making money.

KAFANOV: Under a pilot program, the federal government has dedicated $125 million in drought relief funds to pay Colorado River farmers and ranchers to conserve water by not growing crops on their land. Something former state senator Kerry Donovan worries investment firms will take advantage of.

KERRY DONOVAN, RANCHER, COPPER BAR RANCH: That's where I think we start to see this investment speculation, these outside landholders, get big dollars to grow nothing. And that's when we start to see farm and ranchers go away.

KAFANOV: Her efforts to strengthen the state's anti-speculation laws failed, leaving her and other ranchers worried about how Wall Street will influence their future.

DONOVAN: It's not their land. It's not their legacy. It's their bottom line. And they're -- by law they're responsible to make money for their clients.

My family's brand is on the barn behind me. This is my family's land. It's our legacy. We work to keep it this way. That's a totally different mentality than a New York investment firm.

KAFANOV: Lucy Kafanov, CNN, western Colorado.


COLLINS: Thanks to Lucy for that great piece.

DON LEMON, CNN ANCHOR: Yes, really good (ph).

HARLOW: Fascinating.

COLLINS: Really interesting.


LEMON: He's alienated every Republican and Democrat. It's over. That is a direct quote out of a Republican focus group talking about former Vice President Mike Pence. We're going to tell you what else was said and how the Pence team is firing back.




MIKE PENCE, FORMER U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: I've received a lot of encouragement around the country from people that -- that see our particular style of leadership. And - and we're going to -- we're going to continue to reflect very deeply on entering that national.


COLLINS: That's former Vice President Mike Pence, yesterday, teasing a potential presidential run, suggesting that Republican voters want to see him run for president in 2024. We should note, that comes along and Monmouth University survey that showed Pence's likeability among GOP voters slipped over the last month, down from 55 percent in February 2023 to 42 percent in March.

And according to our next guest, a focus group of Republican voters also had some harsh words for the former vice president. Their views are part of this "Atlantic" story. The headline is, quote, "Nobody Likes Mike Pence." One voter of the 34 that were surveyed commenting, I don't care for him. He's just middle of the road to me. If there was someone halfway better, I would not vote for him. And, quote, he's only going to get the vote from his family, and I'm not even sure if they like him.


COLLINS: In a statement to CNN, a spokesperson for Pence pushed back heavily on the story and those harsh quotes there saying, quote, Mike Pence has spent the last two years traveling to more than 30 states, campaigning for dozens of candidates and listening to potential voters. Those interactions have been incredibly positive and encouraging, and we place more value in those experiences than a focus group conducted by disgruntled former Republicans, paid for by an anti-Republican group, and essentially leaked to "The Atlantic," which recently declared that the GOP is just obnoxious. Do people even try to hide their ulterior motives anymore? Once again, that is a statement coming from Pence's team. Also joining us now is McKay Coppins, who is the staff writer for "The

Atlantic," who observed the focus group, has these quotes, experienced these voters?

McKay, I just want to note quickly because of what's alluded to in that statement there, the focus groups and the costs of them are split between "The Bulwark" (ph) and the Republican Accountability Project.


Those are two anti-Trump organizations that she's affiliated with. You note that in your story. So, you do put all that background there.

But let's just start with what you saw, what you heard from these -- from these Republican voters.

MCKAY COPPINS, STAFF WRITER, "THE ATLANTIC": Yes, it was really interesting. You know, the Republicans that I listened to -- and it was actually several focus groups -- they all rejected the idea of a Mike Pence president -- candidacy with a couple exceptions. And for all different reasons. So, strong Trump supporters were alienated by Pence because of his refusal to obstruct the certification of the electoral votes on January 6th. Less trump inclined Republicans said that they felt Pence was tarnished by his time in the administration. All of the Republicans suggested in one way or another that they felt Pence was weak or lacked conviction. And just to give you one data point, of the 34 Republicans across four focus groups that I heard discuss Pence's perspective candidacy, only four said they would even consider Pence as president and two of them immediately started to backpedal after initially indicating interest.

LEMON: That -- you sort of answered the next question that I had, McKay, and that is, the Trump administration, or the affiliation with Trump has damaged him in many -- being with the administration, being, you know, a loyal soldier, but then, at the end, not doing what Trump wanted him to do that and overturned the election. It is hurting him in -- on two different fronts. It's a tough thing for him to have to navigate.

COPPINS: Yes, that's right. And a number of voters pointed this out. They said, look, whatever you think of Trump, nobody that I know likes Mike Pence. They -- you know, what one voter actually said, he has no constituency. It's over. It's retirement time. And I think that reflected kind of the consensus view of him.

What was especially interesting is there was one group I listened to was -- consisted entirely of conservative evangelical Christians who presumably might like Mike Pence's persona, which is rooted in the religious right. Even all of them rejected Pence as a prospective candidate -

HARLOW: That's interesting.

COPPINS: Saying that either that he was too weak or that he was, you know, not a fighter. In many cases they noted that he was a nice guy, strong, you know, an honest, decent guy in their view, but that that didn't make him necessarily a good presidential candidate.

HARLOW: Honest, decent guy doesn't make a good presidential candidate. That's really telling in and of itself.

What I found so fascinating, because you've been following him since you profiled him in 2017, is that you talk to voters all across the country, so this was not just one sort of geographical location. You went from suburban Atlanta, to rural Illinois, to San Diego. And I wonder, to Don's great point, is it sort of that people -- that you heard from these focus groups, Republican voters feel like he's trying to have it both ways, and you just can't have it both ways. You're either in Trump's camp or you're out. But he's kind of both depending on what you asked him about the former president.

COPPINS: I think that - I think that's right. I think this was the fundamental miscalculation that Mike Pence made, right. He thought that by being incredibly loyal, incredibly willing to cover for Trump, to defend Trump, to offer fawning praise of Trump throughout his presidency, he would win goodwill with the Trump base. And then on January 6th, and, you know, to his credit. I won't try to read into his motives. It's possible that he genuinely thought he was doing the right thing by breaking with Trump on January 6th. But he did it so late that he didn't win that much credit from the less MAGA-inclined Republicans either.

And so I think all of these Republicans, regardless of where they are on the kind of ideological spectrum or where they are on Trump, all of them sensed opportunism when they saw Pence. And, you know, voters just don't like that. They want a candidate who they think is following his gut and doing what he thinks is right, and they don't see that when they look at Mike Pence.

COLLINS: Yes, I think it remains to be seen. I mean we -- we have to see the full shape of the 2024 field and see what voters -

HARLOW: He's not even officially running yet.

COLLINS: Well, yes, he's not officially running yet.

COPPINS: That's right.

COLLINS: See what voters decide. Obviously -

LEMON: Can I - sorry.

COLLINS: Well, I want to get to the DeSantis stuff because -

LEMON: Yes, yes, go - go for it.

COLLINS: Because, obviously, Pence is dealing with that loyalty.


COLLINS: Trump dealing - navigating that. So are people like Governor DeSantis. And he is speaking out in his most wide ranging criticism we have seen of Trump yet. He responded to some of the nicknames that Trump gave him.


PIERS MORGAN, HOST, "PIERS MORGAN UNCENSORED" ON FOX NATION: Which is your favorite nickname that Trump's given you so far? Is it Ron desanctimonious or meatball Ron.

GOV. RON DESANTIS (R-FL): Well, I can't -

MORGAN: I think even he went off meatball Ron but -

DESANTIS: I can't -- I don't know how to spell desanctimonious. I don't really know what it means. But I - you know, I kind of like, it's long. It's got a lot of vowels. I mean, so, we can go with that. That's fine. You know, you can call me -- you can call me whatever you want, I mean, just as long as you, you know, also call me a winner.



COLLINS: Make it -- what do you make of that and also him going after -- talking about Trump's character, his leadership and the direct criticisms we're seeing?

COPPINS: I think DeSantis is trying to walk a fine line. And these focus groups voters repeatedly expressed that they didn't like that Trump was constantly attacking other Republican candidates, other Republican figures. They want party loyalty. They want party solidarity. And they liked that DeSantis has managed to avoid being in the fray with Trump. So, I think he's -- if he's going to end up running against Trump, he's going to have to draw that contrast. But I think he's wise to try to avoid wading into that fray this early.

COLLINS: Yes. All right, McKay Coppins, thank you so much for joining us this morning.

LEMON: Thank you very much for that.

My point was that everyone who has any affiliation with Donald Trump, if they served in the administration, they're going to be dealing with the same thing that Mike Pence is dealing with.


LEMON: If you're running for president.

So, we're following two major investigations surrounding Donald Trump, the Mar-a-Lago special counsel probe and a possible indictment here in New York in the Stormy Daniels hush money case. We have team coverage standing by. Stay with us.