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The Murdaugh murders: the case of a dynasty of lawyers that has the US in suspense

A powerful South Carolina lawyer is on trial for killing his wife and son. Prosecutors say he did it to hide the extent of his financial crimes and opioid addiction

Alex Murdaugh weeps on the stand at the courthouse in Walterboro, South Carolina. Photo: Joshua Boucher (AP) | Video: Reuters

Like so many stories that end badly, this one began with a terrible case of drunkenness. Four years ago, in Beaufort, South Carolina, three young couples went out to party on a sport fishing boat. The night ended in tragedy as they were headed home in the foggy early hours of the morning. Paul Murdaugh – whose father, Alex, owned the boat – was piloting it, while in a state of total inebriation. He ultimately slammed the boat against the stilts of a bridge. All three couples were thrown overboard – Mallory Beach, 19, lost her life. It took a week to find her body.

This death ended up revealing the secret history of the Murdaughs: a four-generation dynasty of lawyers who thrived in the Lowcountry. These swampy lands – dotted with Spanish moss-draped oaks – lie on the border between South Carolina and Georgia.

The story feels like a southern gothic tale, involving unsolved murders, multimillion-dollar scams, tons of opiates… and a trial that climaxed last week, with a high-stakes move. The sole defendant – 54-year-old Alex Murdaugh – offered up a statement over the course of two days. He stands accused of murdering Maggie, his 52-year-old wife, and Paul, 22, who was ultimately never prosecuted for manslaughter over the boating accident.

What could have moved Alex Murdaugh to do this? According to the District Attorney, he killed his family in an attempt to gain time and divert attention away from his fraudulent dealings.

The trial – which has been broadcast live, for hours, by cable television channels – has hooked the American public. It’s “true crime,” too good to be fiction. Even Netflix and HBO Max couldn’t pass it up. The first company has released a documentary miniseries, whose ending will remain inconclusive until the jury decides whether to believe Alex Murdaugh. Low Country: The Murdaugh Dynasty aired on HBO last November. He is facing 30 years to life in prison if convicted.

On Thursday, Murdaugh denied killing his wife and son but also admitted that, out of opiate-fueled paranoia, he had lied about not being at the family’s hunting estate, where they were found dead of gunshot wounds.

He also went into detail about his double life. Beneath the image of a successful litigator who had everything under control, he was an addict who robbed his partners and clients. His drug dependency, he claims, cost him at least $50,000 a week. He is accused of having defrauded his firm of $8.8 million, which is why the judge ordered his imprisonment in October of 2021, before he was charged with the deaths of his wife and son. Murdaugh has since pleaded not guilty.

Until his explosive statement last week, Murdaugh had stuck to his alibi that, on the day of their deaths, he saw neither Maggie nor Paul in the house when he woke up from his nap. Previously, he claimed that he had left the property – a hunting estate called Moselle, on sale for $4 million – to visit his sick mother. It was when he returned, the suspect said, that he discovered the massacre and called the police. The DA maintains that he first murdered his family and then tried to fabricate a story by visiting his parents’ house.

The recording of the police call is one of the key elements of the case. In it, Murdaugh is heard using somewhat forced language – “My wife and son have been badly shot!” Moviegoers will inevitably remember that scene from Fargo, when the character played by William H. Macy was rehearsing the best way to inform authorities about the botched kidnapping of his wife, which he had actually commissioned and paid for.

When the police arrived at the scene of the crime, Murdaugh told them that his son had been receiving threats for his responsibility in the boat accident. During the trial, the DA showed videos in which the alleged murderer is seen wearing a white shirt without blood stains, despite the fact that, during the call, he had warned the operator that he had touched the bodies. Additionally, a clip from Paul Murdaugh’s Snapchat was played in court, which was recorded shortly before his death. In the video, his father’s voice can be heard.

It took quite a while before suspicion fell on Murdaugh. He was indicted a year after the night in question. Looking like a man besieged by tragedy – his father, Randolph Murdaugh III, died just three days after the murders – people were inclined to believe him.

At first, the lawyer tried to direct suspicions at those who were present when his son crashed his boat. What if the massacre was revenge for the death of Mallory Beach? Or because the family of lawyers had tried to shift the blame for her death to another passenger, Connor Cook?

Witnesses say that, on the night of the accident, the Murdaughs toured the hospital where the boys were taken, displaying a routine perfected over the years: pulling the strings to cover up the guilt of one of their clan members.

In the Netflix documentary, accusations are also made about the Murdaughs destroying evidence and hindering the search for Beach’s body, in collusion with officials involved in the investigation. The residents of Beaufort seem to relish the freedom to speak before the cameras, for the first time not fearing the family of litigators who have ruled the Lowcountry for a century.

Buster Murdaugh – the oldest son of Alex Murdaugh – listens to his father’s testimony on Thursday, February 23, 2023.
Buster Murdaugh – the oldest son of Alex Murdaugh – listens to his father’s testimony on Thursday, February 23, 2023. Joshua Boucher (AP)

In the family’s shady past, behind their untouchable image, there are two more corpses: Gloria Satterfield – the family maid and nanny for more than 20 years – and a young man named Stephen Smith.

Satterfield died in 2018, when she tripped over the family dogs and fell down a staircase, according to the Murdaughs’ testimony (in an interview in the miniseries, it is insinuated that the employee “knew too much”). An autopsy was never performed, but her family has authorized her exhumation in order to reopen the case. Among the clients that the defendant defrauded are Satterfield’s children.

Smith’s body was found dumped on a road near the family farm. Police received several tips implicating Murdaugh’s other son – the eldest, Buster Murdaugh – who testified in his father’s trial last week. However, he has never been investigated. The hypothesis that Smith was killed in a hit-and-run was taken for granted. Both cases are receiving renewed attention, although no formal charges have been made by police.

Alex Murdaugh’s alibis began to crack three months after the murders of his wife and son, when an employee of the firm his great-grandfather founded noticed the siphoning of funds into an account in his name. The discovery of this crime led to others, with Murdaugh ultimately being fired.

The next day, Murdaugh called 911 again. This time, he recounted that someone had shot him in the head while he was changing the tire on his car. It was soon proven that, in reality, the incident was part of a plot – hatched with a cousin of his – to fake his own murder and allow his surviving son to collect the life insurance money. After being caught in that lie, he finally confessed his years-long addiction to painkillers.

In addition to murder, Murdaugh is accused of insurance fraud and criminal conspiracy, as well as giving false statements to the police. But these are not the only charges that await the fallen lawyer. When the current trial ends – it began on January 23 and appears to be drawing to a close – he will subsequently be prosecuted for, among other crimes, fraud, money laundering and opiate trafficking. Meanwhile, the case of Mallory Beach’s death, on that drunken night when all of this began, has not been closed either.

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