October 24, 2021

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The Unraveling of the Murdaugh Dynasty: Unsolved Murders, Insurance Fraud and Missing Millions – The Wall Street Journal

15 min read

HAMPTON, S.C.—A driver can park on the side of the road in this sprawling expanse of farmland, forest and swamp and not see another soul for hours.

It was here on the Saturday afternoon of Labor Day weekend that the walls closed in on Alex Murdaugh. His wife, Maggie Murdaugh, and younger son, Paul, had been shot and killed on June 7 in murders that remain unsolved. His father had died of cancer on June 10.

Mr. Murdaugh, 53 years old, the scion of a local legal dynasty, was broke, addicted to opioids and had lost his job at the family firm. Hours earlier, his partners had accused him of stealing client money and forced him to resign.

He already had been named as a defendant in a wrongful-death suit involving 19-year-old Mallory Beach, who was killed in a 2019 boat crash in which his son Paul had been criminally charged. The family’s housekeeper had died in a trip-and-fall in 2018 at their home, leading to another wrongful-death suit filed against him by her sons.

The dramatic events have made the Murdaugh saga fodder for tabloids and true-crime podcasts. Mr. Murdaugh is the former head of the state trial lawyers’ association. His father, grandfather and great-grandfather had served as prosecutors, or district attorneys, for a five-county region for nearly a century in addition to running one of the state’s dominant personal-injury firms. The Murdaughs have long been both feared and revered as highly connected power brokers in politics and on both the civil and criminal sides of the judicial system.

Mr. Murdaugh had long been a badge-carrying, part-time prosecutor himself, a volunteer role virtually unheard of elsewhere in the state. At least two judges and multiple law enforcement agencies have recused themselves in cases involving the Murdaughs, some citing relationships with the family that go back generations.

The unraveling of the Murdaugh legacy came slowly, then all at once.

On Sept. 4, Mr. Murdaugh parked his late wife’s black Mercedes-Benz SUV in the grass on the side of Old Salkehatchie Road, in sight of a country church and 7 miles from his family’s hunting estate.

For days afterward, Mr. Murdaugh’s representatives repeated what he told them had happened—that he was changing a tire when a man he didn’t know drove by, turned around and tried to shoot and kill him. They said a Good Samaritan happened upon him and drove him to get medical care; he was airlifted from a nearby field by a rural air ambulance.

Reddit posters were quick to note that the Mercedes would have had run-flat tires that operate even when punctured. Local reporter Mandy Matney, who has published dozens of blog posts scrutinizing the Murdaughs over the past two years, identified the air ambulance and found that the helicopter had been dispatched before sheriff’s deputies were called.

Hampton County sheriff’s deputies released a report dated Sept. 4 with the “visible injury” box checked “no” before retracting it on Sept. 9, citing a clerical error.

Mr. Murdaugh confessed to his involvement on Sept. 13, a week into his detox from opioids at a Georgia facility, his lawyers said. They were in the room when he called the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, or SLED, whose investigators had taken over the case because of conflicts of interest between local law enforcement agencies and the Murdaugh family.

According to Dick Harpootlian, his lawyer, Mr. Murdaugh had called Curtis Edward Smith and asked him to follow him to the remote spot and kill him so his older son could benefit from a $10 million life insurance policy. Mr. Smith, a one-time client in a traffic case, shot at Mr. Murdaugh’s head with one of Mr. Murdaugh’s guns. That sent the 6-foot-3, 225-pound former football player down to the roadway. Mr. Murdaugh sustained an entry-and-exit wound and a possible skull fracture, said Mr. Harpootlian.

Curtis Edward Smith.

Photo: Colleton County Sheriffs Office/Associated Press

On Sept. 14, a SLED officer arrested Mr. Smith on charges including assisted suicide and insurance fraud, as well as drug-related charges for methamphetamine and marijuana that officers had found at his house on Sept. 7 while executing a search warrant. Mr. Smith didn’t respond to requests for comment. According to a video of his Sept. 16 bond hearing, when advised of charges, he said softly that they were “all crap.”

On Sept. 16, Mr. Murdaugh was charged with insurance fraud, conspiracy to commit insurance fraud and filing a false report. At his bond hearing at the Hampton County jail that day, he wore a faded brown, size 3X prison jumpsuit and a white face mask as he hunched over the defense table. His knee bounced rapidly under the table, causing his handcuffs to clink. It was the day after what would have been his wife’s 53rd birthday; he sobbed at the mention of her murder.

His lawyer, Mr. Harpootlian, a Democratic state senator and former solicitor who has worked with three generations of Murdaughs, told the judge that Mr. Murdaugh admitted it was wrong to stage his own death.

“He has a tremendous opioid addiction,” Mr. Harpootlian said in court, an addiction that has lasted 20 years. “The death of his wife and son have put him over the edge.”

SLED has since opened an investigation into the circumstances around the death of the Murdaughs’ housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, as well as related insurance payments.

Ms. Satterfield’s two adult sons had filed a wrongful-death suit against Mr. Murdaugh. Last week they filed a new lawsuit in which they said Mr. Murdaugh had urged them to pursue the previous suit to generate an insurance settlement for medical and funeral bills. According to court filings, their lawyer in the first suit, Cory Fleming, was Mr. Murdaugh’s friend and former college roommate.

Mr. Harpootlian, who is representing Mr. Murdaugh on pending criminal charges, said the Satterfield lawsuit is a civil matter, though he noted, “I don’t know what his responsibility will be. He wasn’t her lawyer.” Mr. Fleming didn’t respond to requests for comment.

SLED has also opened an investigation into Mr. Murdaugh’s alleged embezzlement at the family firm, now known as Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick. There could be more than $10 million missing, according to people familiar with the firm.

In the wake of his firing, Mr. Murdaugh released a written statement, saying, “The murders of my wife and son have caused an incredibly difficult time in my life. I have made a lot of decisions that I truly regret.”

SLED Chief Mark Keel said agents would continue working to bring justice to anyone involved with any criminal act associated with the continuing investigations. “The arrests in this case are only the first step in that process,” he said in a written statement.

“It’s a real Penny Dreadful,” said Joe McCulloch, a Columbia lawyer who now represents Connor Cook, a passenger in the fatal 2019 boat wreck. “The shoes drop on this caterpillar every single day.”

Buster Murdaugh, center, received a hug during the funeral service for his brother and mother on June 11.

Photo: Kacen Bayless/The Island Packet/Associated Press

Family legacy

The name Murdaugh (pronounced MUR-dock), has been synonymous in the area with the law since 1910, when Alex Murdaugh’s great-grandfather founded the family firm.

In 1920, Randolph Murdaugh was the first elected solicitor for the state’s 14th judicial circuit, which now comprises five mostly rural counties in the southeastern part of the state. The district is unusually large, and serving as district attorney while simultaneously running a dominant law firm is equally rare, with rivals and allies alike saying it gave the Murdaughs insight into everything from jury selection to what criminal cases might lead to civil action.

The family patriarch served 20 years before he was killed in 1940 when a train struck his car late at night at a railroad crossing.

His son Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr. took over and served 46 years as solicitor, while also growing the firm largely through a successful personal injury practice.

The firm netted a $31 million verdict in 2006 suing Ford Motor Co. in the rollover of a Ford Bronco II and a $12.5 million verdict against CSX Transportation Inc. when a man died crossing a track in 2001 obscured by overgrown vegetation.

The firm’s two-story brick headquarters on Mulberry Street is still among the grandest buildings in Hampton, population 2,500. The hometown scenes from “Forrest Gump” were filmed in Varnville, the twin town a few miles east.

Randolph Murdaugh III, Alex Murdaugh’s father.

Photo: Michael M. DeWitt, Jr./Augusta Chronicle-USA TODAY NETWORK/Reuters

The Murdaughs became political heavyweights in an era when rural Democrats ruled the South. Candidates sought their blessing for offices at every level, including judicial candidates, who rely on legislators to appoint them to the bench.

James Smith, the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor, was pledge brothers in the late 1980s with Alex Murdaugh at Kappa Alpha Order, a fraternity at the University of South Carolina. Mr. Smith said that Alex and Maggie Murdaugh hosted at least three fundraisers for him at their hunting lodge.

“Every time I called on Alex, he would always do more than I ever asked,” said Mr. Smith, a lawyer and former state House minority leader. Mr. Smith said it is difficult to reconcile the Alex Murdaugh in the tabloids with the one he knows, saying, “I love him dearly.”

The Murdaugh family’s dominance has waned slightly since 2005, when Republican Gov. Mark Sanford signed tort-reform legislation. It wiped out a venue loophole that allowed the firm to bring suit in Hampton County against virtually any company operating in the state.

Randolph Murdaugh III stepped down as solicitor after 20 years, marking the end of the family’s 87-year tenure in the role. The family firm now has roughly 15 lawyers and an equal number of employees supporting them.

Trouble

Richard Alexander “Alex” Murdaugh, whose name is pronounced “ELL-ick,” married his college sweetheart, Maggie Branstetter, in 1993 and joined the family firm soon after graduating from USC law school in 1994. In a white house on Holly Street a few miles from downtown, the couple raised two sons, Richard Alexander Murdaugh Jr., known as Buster, born in 1996, and Paul in 1999.

The boys were redheads and outdoorsmen. They hunted, played pool and rode go-karts frequently at Moselle, the 1,700-acre hunting property Alex Murdaugh amassed as a family retreat.

Buster, Maggie, Paul and Alex Murdaugh in a photo posted to Maggie’s Facebook page in June 2020.

On Feb. 2, 2018, Ms. Satterfield, the family’s housekeeper for more than 20 years, fell down the stairs. She was hospitalized and in a coma for three weeks before she died, according to court filings. In her obituary, the 57-year-old was remembered for her laughter and her love of kids, with Alex, Maggie and their children described as “those she loved as her family.”

Around that time, Paul was running into trouble with law enforcement, getting cited for a half-dozen minor legal infractions over the course of roughly a year. An avid boater, he was cited by game wardens who police state waterways for possession of alcohol on Memorial Day weekend 2017, days after he graduated from high school.

Paul was a criminology major at the University of South Carolina, his parents’ alma mater. He frequently came home on weekends to see Morgan Doughty, his on-and-off girlfriend, and to hang out with a group of friends, according to depositions.

Ms. Doughty declined to comment through her lawyer.

On the night of Feb. 23, 2019, Paul, Ms. Doughty and two other couples took the Murdaughs’ 17-foot boat to an oyster roast. Paul bought beer and hard seltzer using his older brother’s ID, according to receipts and court documents.

After about four hours, according to court documents, the group left. The boat didn’t have running lights, so passengers took turns holding a flashlight to maneuver the waterways. Paul docked the boat at one point in downtown Beaufort, where he and his friend Mr. Cook had two rounds of liquor shots.

Several passengers later testified that Paul drove the boat except for when Mr. Cook took the wheel while Paul went to the bow to confront Ms. Doughty. She told police he spit on her and slapped her, “screaming, cussing and saying horrible things,” according to court documents.

At 2:20 a.m., GPS data show the boat accelerated rapidly and slammed into the pilings by the bridge to Parris Island, investigative reports say. Three of the passengers were thrown into the water, including Ms. Beach, who couldn’t be found. Paul, Ms. Doughty and Mr. Cook were taken by ambulances to the hospital.

Alex Murdaugh arrived at the hospital shortly after his son, accompanied by his father. Randolph Murdaugh III stayed with his grandson, who was shackled to the bed.

“He is drunk as Cooter Brown,” Randolph Murdaugh III said, according to testimony by a security guard. Cooter Brown is a Southern trope for the town drunk.

Alex Murdaugh went room to room, nurses said, according to court documents, attempting to talk with each young person. Ms. Doughty later testified that she asked her nurse to keep Mr. Murdaugh out of her room and that she feared he was trying to make it look like Mr. Cook was driving.

At least four local law enforcement agencies were involved in the initial investigation. No one was administered a field sobriety or Breathalyzer test. Paul’s blood drawn as part of his care at the hospital showed that his blood-alcohol level was .286, according to hospital records, three times the legal limit in South Carolina.

For a week, volunteers combed the water. On March 3, a pair of brothers found Ms. Beach’s body. Her parents filed a wrongful-death suit against several parties, including Alex Murdaugh, who owned the boat, and Buster Murdaugh, whose ID was used to buy alcohol.

Paul Murdaugh in a Beaufort County courtroom in 2019, where he pleaded not guilty to charges related to the fatal boat crash.

Photo: USA TODAY NETWORK/Reuters

SLED investigators brought charges against Paul in April 2019, including boating under the influence causing death. The criminal and civil court proceedings in the boat crash involved dozens of witnesses and nearly as many lawyers.

For months, Beach family lawyer Mark Tinsley pressured Alex Murdaugh to turn over his financial statements. Mr. Murdaugh refused, saying in a mandatory mediation that he had no money to go after, according to people familiar with the proceedings.

In September 2019, Philadelphia Indemnity Insurance Co. filed a federal lawsuit against Mr. Murdaugh, a policyholder, saying it wasn’t on the hook for as much as $6 million in the crash because Paul wasn’t covered under Mr. Murdaugh’s policy. Mr. Murdaugh disputed this for more than two years; a judge decided in favor of the insurer earlier this week.

In May 2020, Maggie and Alex Murdaugh sold their 6,800-square-foot house on Holly Street for $375,000, according to real-estate records. In July 2020, Maggie posted on Facebook that she had moved to Edisto Island, where the family had a beach house.

That December, one of Alex Murdaugh’s insurers signed a financial settlement in the wrongful-death case brought by the sons of Ms. Satterfield, his late housekeeper, according to court filings. His insurer was to pay $500,000, with $166,000 of that going to Mr. Fleming, Mr. Murdaugh’s friend and the lawyer representing the Satterfield sons.

Unraveling

By the late spring of 2021, Randolph Murdaugh III was sick with cancer and his health was deteriorating, according to people familiar with the family. Buster had been kicked out of law school for plagiarism, according to court records.

Paul, who was out on bond, had continued to have minor run-ins with law enforcement, including a speeding ticket and a boating violation.

After more than two years, the wrongful death suit of Ms. Beach was coming to a head, with a hearing scheduled for June 10. A judge was expected to consider a motion by Mr. Tinsley to compel Alex Murdaugh to turn over his financial statements.

Three days before the hearing, Alex Murdaugh was with his father at the hospital. According to a person close to the family, he came back to Moselle, took a nap and when he awoke, he left to check on his mother, who suffers from dementia. He didn’t see Maggie and Paul before he left, according to the person.

At 10:07 p.m. on June 7, Alex Murdaugh called 911 from Moselle, saying he had just arrived back home. “I need the police and ambulance immediately!” he said, according to a recording of the call. “My wife and child have been shot badly!”

Mr. Murdaugh stayed on the line with a dispatcher, who told him not to touch the bodies. He said it was too late. “I already touched them to see if they were breathing,” he said.

Deputies arrived roughly 20 minutes after the 911 call, followed by state law enforcement officers.

Paul was shot in the chest and head, according to his death certificate. He was shot at close range with a shotgun, according to a person familiar with the investigation.

Maggie was shot multiple times, including in the back, with a different gun, and cases of a type of ammunition known as 300 Blackout were found nearby, according to two people familiar with the situation. The family owned an AR-15 style rifle that can use that type of ammunition but it wasn’t recovered at the scene or turned over for inspection, the people said.

On June 10, less than 72 hours after the murders, family patriarch Randolph Murdaugh III died at age 81. Law enforcement vehicles from nearly every regional agency filled the funeral procession three days later as a sign of respect.

In the double murder case, investigators have released no suspect sketches, held no news conferences, and said, without explanation, that there is no threat to the public.

Mr. Harpootlian said Mr. Murdaugh had nothing whatsoever to do with the murders of his wife and son. “The only violence he’s ever been involved with is this, which was to have himself executed,” he said in court.

An entrance to Moselle, the Murdaugh property where Maggie and Paul were killed, on June 18.

Photo: Michael M. DeWitt, Jr./Augusta Chronicle/USA TODAY NETWORK/Reuters

Two weeks after the murders, SLED reopened an investigation into the 2015 death of Stephen Smith, a former classmate of Alex Murdaugh’s older son, Buster, it said, “based on information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation.”

Mr. Smith was a friend of Buster, and some of the passengers in the boat crash testified that it was rumored that the Murdaughs were involved in his death, originally described by authorities as a hit-and-run. A spokeswoman for Alex and Buster Murdaugh declined to comment on the Smith investigation.

Last week, lawyers watching the live stream of Mr. Murdaugh’s bond hearing traded close-up pictures of his head, asking why was there no bandage, no shaved spot, no sign of visible injury.

“With a gunshot, you get powder burns, a huge ball of fire that comes out, you’d think there’d be some evidence of medical attention,” said Mr. Tinsley, who filed the wrongful-death suit against Mr. Murdaugh on behalf of the family of Ms. Beach, the boat crash victim. He said the fake shooting is a ploy for attention, a claim Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyer denies.

Mr. Harpootlian said Mr. Murdaugh’s injuries “are not clearly visible unless you look under his hair.” He noted that Mr. Murdaugh was airlifted across the state line to Savannah, Ga., where he was hospitalized for two nights. “If he had no wound, why keep him in the hospital?” he said.

In the suit filed last week by the sons of the Murdaughs’ late housekeeper against Mr. Murdaugh, Mr. Fleming and a banker involved in the 2020 settlement, they said they had received “not one dime” of the settlement and didn’t know one had been reached until seeing it in recent news reports.

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Eric Bland, a lawyer for the sons, said this week he received documentation from lawyers for Mr. Fleming and the banker that there was a separate $3.8 million payout that is also unaccounted for. Ms. Satterfield’s sons live modest lives, he said, one bagging groceries for a living, the other working in a hospital storeroom.

The demise of the Murdaugh empire has been surreal, he said. “I feel like I’m in a three-ring circus. Are the elephants coming at me? Are the tigers coming?” Mr. Bland said.

SLED has left the Mallory Beach criminal case open despite Paul’s death, which people familiar with the investigation say could result in obstruction of justice charges against Alex Murdaugh.

Mr. McCulloch, Mr. Cook’s lawyer, alleged in a lawsuit filed late Monday that Mr. Murdaugh wrongfully tried to shift blame to his client to protect his son. According to the lawsuit, Mr. Murdaugh also convinced Mr. Cook to hire Mr. Fleming in the days after the crash, without telling Mr. Cook that Mr. Fleming was a family friend and Paul’s godfather. Mr. Cook later dropped Mr. Fleming. The Murdaugh family spokeswoman declined to comment on the case.

After last week’s court hearing, Alex Murdaugh was released on a $20,000 personal recognizance bond in the faked murder case, meaning he would only pay if he failed to return to court when summoned. The next hearing is next month. Mr. Murdaugh is spending the coming weeks at an unnamed inpatient rehab facility in Georgia covered by insurance, Mr. Harpootlian said.

Prosecutors with the state attorney general’s office sought unsuccessfully to have Mr. Murdaugh wear a GPS monitor.

Mr. Harpootlian said a tracking device would have been pointless. “He doesn’t own a house in Aspen, a place in Costa Rica,” Mr. Harpootlian said. “Hampton is home. He’s got nowhere else to go.”

Write to Valerie Bauerlein at valerie.bauerlein@wsj.com

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