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Murder, missing money and cover-up claims: South Carolina family mystery grips America

·8-min read
<span>Photograph: Jeffrey Collins/AP</span>
Photograph: Jeffrey Collins/AP

It’s a story as thick and unctuous as South Carolina’s low country mud. Those in the know aren’t talking, and those who don’t know are. But with six active investigations, including a murder inquiry, the case of Richard “Alex” Murdaugh, a 53-year-old tort lawyer and scion of one of the state’s most powerful families, has gripped America.

Last week, Murdaugh appeared in court in Columbia, the state capital, on a bond hearing over charges he misappropriated $3.5m in insurance settlements relating to the death of the family’s longtime housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield. The defense and prosecution approved the bond request. Judge Clifton Newman denied it.

Related: US lawyer arranged his murder so son would receive life insurance, say police

Newman’s stated rationale was that Murdaugh, who appeared a shadow of the portly man pictured in earlier photographs, was a danger to himself and others because he – prosecution and defense acknowledged – has a 20-year addiction to opioids and, the judge said, close to 80% of criminal cases that come before the court have a component of addiction.

“No amount of bond court can be set to satisfy protections to Mr Murdaugh and the community,” Newman said.

But that’s barely the start of it. Like most things about the Murdaugh family, what is said raises questions about what’s being left unsaid – and most of that revolves around power, money and intimidation in the south stretching back decades.

Outside court, Satterfield lawyer Ronnie Richter told the Guardian that issues of class pervade the case. “We have a problem in the country with the perception that power and influence, true or not, gets you a second tier of justice from rank-and-file. It took courage for the system to say you’re going to get treated like everyone else.”

Asked if the Satterfield family accepted Murdaugh’s explanation for her death, he said: “Not sure. It’s under investigation like everything else.”

Over the last four months, the name Alex Murdaugh – pronounced Murdoch – has become like steps on a trail of misadventure.

On the night of 7 June this year, Murdaugh’s wife, Margaret, or Maggie, 52, and son Paul, 22, were found dead of gunshot wounds in front of the kennels at the couple’s 1,770-acre estate near the town of Hampton. No suspects have been publicly named. Maggie Murdaugh had reportedly explored a separation from her husband after a check to a charity she supported bounced.

Three days later, South Carolina state investigators said they had opened an investigation into the death of Stephen Smith, a 19-year-old LGBTQ person found dead on a nearby road in July 2015. His death was officially ruled a hit-and-run, but deep gashes to his head suggested to some he was beaten to death.

Files with the state highway patrol showed that a Murdaugh family member – a personal injury lawyer – called Smith’s family on the day he was found in the road, offering to represent them at no charge. The family told police they thought the offer was “weird”.

Then, in July this year, court documents alleged a civil conspiracy connecting law enforcement and the Murdaugh family to the aftermath of a 2019 boat crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach, the daughter of another prominent South Carolina family. Paul Murdaugh was alleged to be driving the boat while intoxicated, and was facing related criminal charges at the time he was killed.

“The Beach family are incensed at the way the criminal investigation was conducted while their daughter’s body was missing and believe people were actively trying to cover up what had happened,” the Beach family attorney Mark Tilsey told the Guardian.

In August, the murder investigation in the deaths of Maggie and Paul was kicked up to the state level. In September, Alex Murdaugh resigned from the law firm the family co-founded. Last week, the firm sued Alex for millions they claim had been misappropriated.

Then, on 4 September, at about 1.30pm, Hampton county central dispatch received a 911 call from Alex Murdaugh, who reported he had been shot in the head. Two days later, he entered a rehabilitation facility in Georgia. In a statement, he said he had been having “an incredibly difficult time”.

Alex Murdaugh in court during a bond hearing Columbia on Tuesday.
Alex Murdaugh in court during a bond hearing Columbia on Tuesday. Photograph: Lewis M Levine/AP

But the shooting, according to state police, was not a homicide attempt but a possible suicide attempt, carried out by a cousin, Curtis “Eddie” Smith, in a doomed attempt to gain a $10m life insurance payout to benefit Murdaugh’s other son, Buster.

The shot grazed Murdaugh’s head; a toxicology report found opioids and barbiturates in his blood. Smith claimed he was 1,000% certain Murdaugh was not shot. Ten days later, Murdaugh was arrested in connection with the shooting and returned to treatment. Smith has been charged with assisted suicide, insurance fraud and several other counts. He denies the charges.

Then, last week, Murdaugh appeared before Judge Newman after being arrested at a second rehab location in Florida on charges that he diverted millions in wrongful death lawsuit settlement funds from the Satterfield family, in what prosecutors described as scheme “to sue himself in order to seek an insurance settlement”.

But that death, too, has raised questions. Murdaugh said Satterfield tripped over the family dog, a hunting dog, fell, and hit her head. She later died from a stroke and cardiac arrest. At the bond hearing on Tuesday, assistant attorney general Creighton Waters said the alleged fraud “is the tip of the iceberg. There is far more we will reveal soon.”

But instead of granting a release on bond, and returning Murdaugh to rehab in Orlando, Judge Newman ordered a psychiatric evaluation and placed him back in custody.

Residents of Hampton, the civil seat of Colleton county, are unclear if the entire saga marks the unravelling of an individual or an entire dynasty: the Murdaughs, whose wealth reputedly originated in moonshine, have extensive land holdings, as well as extensive political, judicial and blood ties to the region.

For more than 85 years, a Murdaugh has served as South Carolina’s 14th circuit solicitor – the chief prosecutor for the region. Votes, some claim, were bought through donations of money “to the Black folk and the churches”. The law practice, run out of the largest building in downtown Hampton, has profited from cases involving CSX, a $79bn railroad and freight company, whose tracks run through the county.

I wouldn’t say Alex looked down on people, but he thought he was better than them

Suzy Murdaugh

Equally important, perhaps, are the family’s social ties in South Carolina, a state known for traditional, conservative mores and a wealthy white society that enjoys hunting, fishing, costume balls and, for some, heavy drinking.

But alongside the wealth is deep poverty. In Hampton itself, formalwear stores sit close to thrift stores. In court, the Satterfield family came in check shirts and mullets, while Murdaugh attorney Dick Harpootlian sported a grey pinstripe suit.

But in Hampton, few were willing to speak on record. The stakes, some said, were too high. Someone who had been at school with Alex Murdaugh said simply: “He was a bully and he abused the lower-class kids. What’s happened to him is appropriate.”

Suzy Murdaugh, a relative on her father’s side, said she could go to her wealthier relations for help. “They were powerful. They own the country. If you went to court, you won. Didn’t matter what it was. Don’t think Alex, his father Buster, or his grand-father ever lost a case. He told the judge what to do.”

That side of the family owned land across the county and considered themselves “on a higher level”.

“I wouldn’t say Alex looked down on people, but he thought he was better than them,” she said.

But Suzy Murdaugh also said she didn’t believe he had drug addiction. “Could have been, I guess, but Hampton is a drug county. But he was [a] full-blown alcoholic, yes. All Murdaughs are alcoholic. Three generations back they ran moonshine. So we come from a long line of alcoholics.”

How the different deaths are resolved, or if they are resolved, is now a matter for state investigators. Theories, some highly complex and abounding with motives, power plots, and accidental crossed paths, hang like Spanish moss from the oaks in the swamps of the inner coastal plain.

“Alex’s handling of the Beach civil case certainly precipitated his current unraveling, but it’s still difficult for me to fathom how or why the murders could have happened, or how they could be connected with our case,” said Tinsley.

Most say they just don’t know the truth. Others indulge in conspiracy. Suzy Murdaugh says she’s convinced Maggie and Paul aren’t dead: “I know it in my gut.”

It’s a fantastical theory, but not out of character for the region and this story, where truth seems very hard to find.

Either way, she says, “all this leads to cover-up, cover-up, cover-up.”

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