Student Samantha Josephson was just weeks away from her graduation and ready to make a difference in the world.
Originally from New Jersey, the 21-year-old was reading political science at the University of South Carolina.
While there, Samantha had spent time studying in Barcelona and she had won a full scholarship to Drexel University in Philadelphia. There, she would chase her dream of practising international law.
It was 2019 and the future looked bright for Samantha. But on 28 March, she was feeling a bit down after getting some bad news about a family member’s health. She had planned to go out with her friends and her boyfriend, who was away at the time, told her she should go ahead and have some fun.
Samantha headed to the popular Five Points area in downtown Columbia. She spent the night with her friends and then, in the early hours of 29 March, decided to leave The Bird Dog bar and go back to her apartment.
She ordered an Uber and headed outside to wait for it. At 2.09am, surveillance footage captured a black Chevrolet Impala pulling up beside her. She was pictured wearing an orange shirt and black trousers as she got into the vehicle and it drove away.
But not long afterwards, the Uber that Samantha had called arrived. When the driver found she was not there, they cancelled the journey. Samantha had mistakenly climbed into the wrong car.
The next day, her roommates were worried when they realised she hadn’t returned home, so they reported her missing. A search began and tragically, less than 24 hours later, turkey hunters discovered a body in woodland some 65 miles away from Five Points. It was Samantha and she had been subjected to a brutal attack.
She had more than 120 stab wounds, inflicted with a double-bladed knife. There were so many it was impossible to say exactly how many.
It was also clear that Samantha had put up a brave fight. While trying to shield herself, one of the blows had gone straight through her right hand. Her attacker had used so much force the knife had gone through her skull and into her brain on some strikes.
Many of the injuries, especially to the neck, were close together – which suggested a rapid and violent stabbing. There were wounds from her face right down to her feet.
Almost all of her wounds were potentially fatal and she would have bled heavily, dying within 10 to 20 minutes. The human body usually has four litres of blood in it – Samantha’s only had 1.3 tablespoons left.
Investigators quickly determined that Samantha had accidentally got into her killer’s car, thinking it was her taxi. Once inside, they believed the driver had triggered the vehicle’s childproof locks – meaning the doors could only be opened from the outside. Samantha would have had no way of escaping.
The police had the description of the vehicle and in the early hours of 30 March, it was spotted driving around the same area Samantha was snatched in.
Police pulled it over and the driver tried to flee but was quickly apprehended. His name was Nathaniel Rowland.
Rowland had once lived near the spot where Samantha’s body was discovered. Officers found bleach and other cleaning products in his car. There was also a lot of blood on the seats and in the boot. And the child locks were activated – just as they had suspected.
In a search of his home, cops found more cleaning supplies and a double-bladed knife with Samantha’s blood on it. Her blood was also on one of his socks and a bandana, and her DNA was found under his fingernails.
Rowland, then 24, had been arrested the previous year for allegedly trying to sell items stolen during a woman’s kidnapping in 2018.
The victim said two men carjacked her at traffic lights and forced her to withdraw cash. Her abductors then made her take them to her home, where they stole items. Those belongings later turned up at a pawn shop and were traced back to Rowland. He couldn’t be connected to the carjacking so he was just charged with obtaining goods under false pretences.
But now, Rowland was arrested and charged with kidnapping and murder.
The shocking case attracted nationwide attention and put taxi safety in the spotlight. It illustrated the importance of making sure the driver is registered before entering a taxi – highlighting the need for a clearer display of that information.
Samantha’s death brought several changes to the law in South Carolina, which included all ride-share vehicles displaying a sign with their company’s name. Meanwhile, Samantha was awarded a posthumous political science degree in May 2019 at what would have been her graduation ceremony.
Rowland’s trial began in July this year. Prosecutors said Samantha had got into her killer’s car believing it was her ride home.
Rowland’s mobile placed him at the scene. They said he had used child locks to trap her but they couldn’t determine a motive – although there was evidence he’d tried to withdraw cash from her bank account.
In court, Rowland’s former girlfriend said she’d seen blood in his car and saw him cleaning it with bleach. She said she also saw him cleaning a knife.
The prosecution held up the shirt Samantha was wearing that night. The original colour wasn’t visible due to the amount of blood that had stained it.
The defence said scientists were not certain it was Rowland’s DNA on the knife and that there was none on Samantha’s body. They also said, while she had put up a fight he had no visible marks upon his arrest. However, they had no witnesses and the accused did not testify.
After deliberating for just an hour the jury found Rowland, 27, guilty of kidnapping, murder and possessing a weapon.
At the sentencing, the judge was in no doubt of Rowland’s guilt. “There’s a thousand trails that led to you,” he said. “All of the evidence, each speck – not simply beyond a reasonable doubt but as the highest standard the law requires – points to your guilt.”
The judge called Rowland “totally heartless” and said the harrowing case was the “most severe” murder he had ever dealt with.
Samantha’s mum, Marci, gave an emotional statement. “Her dream was my dream and her death was my death,” she said.
“I close my eyes and I feel what she endured at [Rowland’s] hands 120 times. Over and over and over, fighting for her life, locked in his car.
“I pray that when Sami closed her eyes she thought of beautiful things and his evil face was not the last thing she saw before she took her last breath.”
Her father, Seymour, said of the impact of her death, “Do I tell you that I contemplated suicide several times over the past 28 months? To me, the monster has stolen that bright light, this enthusiasm for life out of me.”
Seymour said he could no longer look at photos of Samantha because they made him think of her fighting for her life.
The judge said Samantha’s bravery had led to her killer’s conviction.
“She obviously put up an amazing fight against you and left a sufficient trail for the jury to see what you did,” he told Rowland.
Rowland was sentenced to life in prison without parole and the judge said the decision had been “an easy one”.
Samantha’s parents set up the What’s My Name Foundation to educate on ride-share safety and support charities. The student’s death, seemingly at the hands of a man set on committing an act of random violence, changed her loved ones’ lives forever.
They only hope the law changes it led to will spare others such heartache.