Updated: September 21, 2021 8:16:16 am
The unsolved killing of a mother and son. Millions of dollars in stolen funds. Fresh investigations into a fatal boat crash and a housekeeper’s deadly fall.
The mysteries swirling around a lawyer and his family in South Carolina have gotten only more tragic and perplexing this summer, and with them have come two arrests, stunning twists and intricate theories — as many more parts of the case remain unsolved. At its center is the Murdaugh family, whose members have served in powerful legal positions in the southern part of the state going back 100 years.
It all began on June 7, when Alex Murdaugh, a lawyer whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served as the top prosecutor across a wide swath of the state, came home late one night to find his wife and one of their two sons shot to death.
Their killings remain unsolved, and things have gotten only more puzzling since then. The initial investigation has spawned several more into three previous deaths in proximity to the family, and Alex Murdaugh himself ended up in handcuffs on Sept. 16 after concocting a bizarre scheme to stage his own suicide to look like a murder.
Here’s what to know.
What happened in the original ‘Murdaugh Murders’?
The fatal shooting of Murdaugh’s wife, Maggie, 52, and their son, Paul, a 22-year-old junior at the University of South Carolina, rocked the state’s Lowcountry region, where the family had established its legal dynasty. The killings began to be known as the Murdaugh murders.
Few details have been released about the attack, and no arrests have been made.
Murdaugh discovered their bodies when he returned to the family’s isolated home in Islandton, a rural hamlet about 65 miles west of Charleston.
In audio of his call to 911, which he placed just after 10 p.m., a distraught Murdaugh said he had gotten home and found their bodies on the ground “out at my kennel.”
“I’ve been up to it now, it’s bad,” Murdaugh told the dispatcher. He said that neither his wife nor his son was breathing, and he implored the emergency responders to hurry. “Are they close, ma’am?”
Officers with the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office wrote in reports that they had discovered several shell casings and had called a tow truck company to the scene. They also said they had looked for surveillance cameras from neighboring homes and businesses, although the heavily redacted police reports do not indicate whether they found any.
How was Alex Murdaugh shot, and why was he arrested?
Nearly three months after his wife and son were killed, Alex Murdaugh, 53, was forced to resign from his family law firm, P.M.P.E.D. — named for the initials of its partners — after leaders at the firm said Murdaugh had misused millions of dollars of client and firm money, which his lawyers have not denied.
The next day, Sept. 4, Murdaugh called 911 and said he had been shot in the head on the side of a rural road not far from his home. He survived with only a minor wound and initially claimed that he had been shot by someone who pulled up beside him as he was inspecting a flat tire on his car. But the story quickly fell apart.
Murdaugh soon admitted that he had actually paid a former client to shoot him in the head. Murdaugh’s lawyers said he had come up with the plan to make his suicide look like a murder because he had falsely believed that his life insurance plan would not cover his death if it was ruled a suicide. He had wanted to leave his older son, Buster, with a $10 million payout.
Two days after the shooting, Murdaugh issued a statement apologizing to his “family, friends and colleagues” and said he was entering rehab. His lawyers said he had been addicted for years to oxycodone and that his abuse of the painkiller had worsened after the death of his wife and son.
His scheme to have his former client kill him ended in the arrest of both Murdaugh and the former client, Curtis E. Smith, 61. Smith was charged with aggravated assault, assisting in a suicide attempt and insurance fraud.
Murdaugh turned himself in to the police on Sept. 16 and was charged with insurance fraud, conspiracy to commit insurance fraud and filing a false police report, all felonies.
In a courtroom in Hampton County, Murdaugh wept behind a face mask as he sat handcuffed and in a jail jumpsuit as one of his lawyers described his “fall from grace.” He was freed from jail without having to forfeit any money and returned to the rehabilitation center, which his lawyers said was in another state.
Murdaugh and his lawyers have steadfastly denied that he had any involvement in his wife and son’s deaths.
“The only violence he’s ever been involved in is this, which was to have himself executed,” one of his lawyers, Dick Harpootlian, who is also a state senator, said in court.
What does this have to do with a boat crash?
At the time of his death, Paul Murdaugh, the son who was killed, was out on bail after being charged in 2019 with drunkenly crashing a boat in an accident that killed one of his passengers, 19-year-old Mallory Beach, and injured several others.
Documents and videos released since his death have raised questions about whether the police were sloppy or gave him favorable treatment. One of the boat’s six passengers told a Department of Natural Resources officer shortly after the crash that Paul Murdaugh had been driving the boat, but the officer wrote in a report that the passenger had said he was not sure who was driving.
The South Carolina attorney general is still investigating the crash, in which Paul Murdaugh faced a charge of boating under the influence causing death and two charges of boating under the influence causing great bodily injury, all felonies. The authorities have not made any ties between the boat crash and the double-killing.
In June, two of Alex Murdaugh’s brothers appeared on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and said in one of the few public comments from the family that Paul, their nephew, had been getting threatening messages since being charged in the boat accident.
How did a housekeeper die at the Murdaugh home in 2018?
In February 2018, Gloria Satterfield, who had worked as a nanny and housekeeper for Alex Murdaugh and his family for more than 20 years, fell at their home and died from her injuries later that month.
The death was considered an accidental fall at the time, but on Sept. 15, the coroner in Hampton County, South Carolina, wrote in a letter to state police that Satterfield’s death had not been reported to the coroner and that no autopsy had been conducted. The coroner, Angela Topper, said the death was listed as “natural” on Satterfield’s death certificate, which did not make sense if it was an accidental fall.
That same week, Satterfield’s two sons said they had never received any money from the $505,000 settlement that their previous lawyer had reached with Murdaugh in a lawsuit over Satterfield’s death. That lawsuit had raised a wrongful death claim but did not allege any criminality on the Murdaughs’ part. The sons, now represented by new lawyers, filed a new lawsuit against Alex Murdaugh and their old lawyer, seeking transparency about where the money had gone.
All of that led the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, which is investigating the Murdaugh killings, to open a new investigation into Satterfield’s death and the settlement payment.
“I can’t recall a case that required sunlight more than this one,” said Ronnie Richter, one of the new lawyers for Satterfield’s sons. “Wherever it comes from, it’s a good thing.”
And the young man found along a road in 2015?
The housekeeper’s death is not the only one to receive fresh scrutiny.
In June, a few weeks after the death of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division announced that it was opening a new inquiry into the death of Stephen Smith, a 19-year-old man who was found on a road about 10 miles from the Murdaugh home.
His death has never been fully explained, and no arrests were made. It was initially investigated as a possible shooting, then was considered to be a hit and run. Police files have suggested that Smith ran out of gas on the side of the road several miles away from where his body was found.
“I’ve been waiting on this day for 2,174 days,” Smith’s mother, Sandy Smith, told FITSNews, an online news outlet, in June after learning that the state police would review her son’s death.
How powerful is the Murdaugh family?
The Murdaugh legal dynasty goes back to Randolph Murdaugh, who ran a one-man law office before he was elected, in 1920, as the first chief prosecutor for a five-county region that covers 3,200 square miles.
He served in the position for two decades before he was killed in a train crash. Then his son, Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh, Jr., took over the office, known as the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office. The younger Murdaugh was in the position for 46 years and, when he retired, his son, Randolph Murdaugh III, Alex Murdaugh’s father, was elected, serving until 2006.
Alex Murdaugh never ran for the prosecutor job, but he did serve as a volunteer prosecutor and sometimes helped his father with cases. He was officially removed from that volunteer role in September, The Island Packet newspaper reported.
Newsletter | Click to get the day’s best explainers in your inbox
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines
- The Indian Express website has been rated GREEN for its credibility and trustworthiness by Newsguard, a global service that rates news sources for their journalistic standards.