COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) — The shooting deaths of South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh’s wife and son started a chain of investigations, strange happenings and legal maneuvers over the past 13 months that led to murder charges Thursday.
But Murdaugh’s life was quietly unraveling behind the scenes long before that. Authorities said he was stealing money,addicted to painkillers and desperately trying to avoid an in-depth examination of his finances tied to a wrongful death lawsuit involving his son — all while lying to just about everyone in his life.
Like the whiteboard on a detective show, the spokes of a half-dozen investigations radiated from Murdaugh after the killings of Maggie Murdaugh, 52, and 22-year-old son Paul on June 7, 2021.
Suddenly, a whole cast of people became victims or unwitting players in the drama — the family of a teenager killed in a boat crash determined to fight for justice, the slain wife who led a quiet life, the Murdaugh client who may have been hired to stage an attempt on the lawyer’s life and the housekeeper who died in a fall in the Murdaugh home.
More than a year before the killings, 19-year-old Mallory Beach died when she was thrown from a Murdaugh family boat after it crashed into a bridge pier. Police said Paul Murdaugh was drunk while driving the boat in February 2019.
Beach’s family demanded justice not just criminally, but in civil court too, filing a wrongful death lawsuit that still is awaiting trial.
That lawsuit likely meant a close look at the Murdaugh family’s finances. Murdaugh fought the suit at every turn as Beach’s attorneys suggested he was fearful they would discover how he was managing to live so far above his current means. Prosecutors said they have learned since that Murdaugh was stealing money from his law firm and clients.
The State Law Enforcement Division is investigating if Murdaugh, his family or his friends tried to obstruct the investigation into the boating crash. Others on the boat said Murdaugh was at the emergency room that night, looking up their rooms and trying to convince them to tell investigators his son wasn’t driving.
Maggie Murdaugh married the sweetheart she met at the University of South Carolina and moved to tiny Hampton County, where Alex Murdaugh’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather had been elected prosecutors.
By all accounts, she led a quiet life, supporting her husband’s work and raising two sons. Friends don’t remember her working outside a brief time running her own gift shop. They remember a devoted mother who loved her family’s coastal home about 60 miles (96 kilometers) away on Edisto Island.
Maggie Murdaugh died near her younger son at the family’s Colleton County hunting estate. Both were shot multiple times, the coroner said. Alex Murdaugh called 911 after discovering their bodies. He has said he had just returned home from visiting his mother and ailing father.
Thirteen months later, Murdaugh was indicted in her death and the killing of their younger son. Police said Murdaugh used two different guns — shooting his wife with a rifle and his son with a shotgun. But the indictments said nothing about what evidence linked Murdaugh to the killings.
Curtis “Eddie” Smith
Curtis “Eddie” Smith met Alex Murdaugh when he sued the tree company he worked for after hurting his back in 2007. Or they might have already known each other. Like many things with Murdaugh, exactly what transpired is murky.
Murdaugh won a settlement for Smith, who said the two became friends. Murdaugh’s lawyers said it was more of a business relationship, with Murdaugh buying drugs.
A few days after the century-old Murdaugh family law firm discovered stolen money in September 2021, Murdaugh asked Smith to meet on the side of a lonely Hampton County highway, according to prosecutors. Murdaugh said he asked Smith to kill him so his surviving son could get $10 million life insurance policy. Smith said Murdaugh threatened to kill himself and the gun fired as Smith tried to wrestle it from his grip.
The shot only grazed Murdaugh’s head. Murdaugh’s lawyers called Smith a drug dealer.
“With a friend like that, who needs enemies?” Smith told an Associated Press reporter.
Both men were indicted for the roadside shooting — Smith for assisted suicide, conspiracy and other charges; Murdaugh, for insurance fraud and filing a false police report after initially saying he was shot at randomly while changing a tire.
In June, prosecutors suggested a much deeper relationship. They indicted both men again, saying Murdaugh wrote 437 checks worth $2.4 million that Smith cashed over eight years to try to hide theft and other illegal activity, including a drug ring involving the painkiller oxycodone.
It was the 16th indictment against Murdaugh, who prosecutors said has stolen more than $8 million from clients and others.
Gloria Satterfield was a housekeeper for the Murdaughs for two decades before slipping into a coma and dying a few days after Alex Murdaugh said she tripped and fell in their home.
Murdaugh steered Satterfield’s family toward a friend to act as their attorney, according to a lawsuit. Murdaugh then strong-armed his insurers to pay more than $4 million in wrongful death settlements, prosecutors said.
But Satterfield’s family never saw a dime until their new attorneys came after him. Eric Bland and Ronnie Richter relentlessly attacked Murdaugh in court and in the media. Murdaugh eventually ended up behind bars on a $7 million bond.
Bland compared Murdaugh to a bank robber, but using a pen and corrupt friends instead of a gun.
Months later, the lawyer friend and a banker who prosecutors said secretly sent Murdaugh money meant to go into trusts for his clients were indicted.
Bland and Richter have earned well over $4 million in legal settlements from Murdaugh, whose assets have been frozen, as well as Murdaugh’s attorney friend and the bank Murdaugh used.
The investigation into Satterfield’s death continues. State agents said in June that they would exhume her body. Coroners in South Carolina are supposed to be notified of any suspicious death, but the Hampton County coroner wasn’t told about Satterfield’s fall.
Another death investigation was reopened after the shooting deaths. Stephen Smith, 19, died in what investigators said was a hit-and-run, likely struck in the head by the mirror of a semitrailer on a Hampton County two-lane road in 2015. But Smith’s mother said there was no broken glass or plastic shards from a mirror on the road where her son’s body was found.
State agents haven’t said what evidence in the Murdaugh case led them to reopen the Smith case.
WSAV contributed photos to this report