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The Independent UK
The Independent UK
Rachel Sharp

Why did Alex Murdaugh kill his wife and son? The ‘trial of the century’ explained


On the surface, Alex Murdaugh had it all.

He was a high-powered attorney who ran both his own law firm and worked in the local prosecutor’s office.

He was the son of a powerful legal dynasty that dominated the local South Carolina community for almost a century.

And he was a family man who lived with his wife and two adult sons on their sprawling country estate.

But, over the last few years, Murdaugh has experienced a spectacular fall from grace, culminating in what was described as the “trial of the century” in a courtroom in Walterboro, South Carolina.

In March 2023, the 54-year-old was convicted of killing his wife Maggie, 52, and their son Paul, 22, in a savage double murder that sent shockwaves across the lowcountry back in the summer of 2021.

The two victims were found brutally shot to death at the dog kennels of the family estate in Islandton – Paul’s wounds so horrific that his brain was entirely removed from his skull.

For 13 months, their slayings remained a mystery as no arrests were made. Law enforcement said there was no risk to the public but did not divulge why.

Then, in July 2022, Murdaugh was finally arrested and charged with two counts of murder and two counts of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime.

The 54-year-old denied murdering his loved ones – a denial who maintains to this day, months after he was convicted of all charges.

Alex Murdaugh in court during jury selection for his double murder trial
— (2022 The State Media Company)

While the murders may mark the most damning and disturbing crimes carried out by the disgraced attorney, they are far from the only scandal.

Beneath the surface of his powerful and privileged persona, Murdaugh has been exposed as an entirely different man:

A husband and father who murdered his wife and son to try to cover up his other crimes.

A fraudster who embezzled millions of dollars from his legal clients who were already dealing with the deaths of loved ones.

A conspirator who paid a hitman to shoot him dead so that his surviving son would land an insurance windfall.

A opioid addict who left his family’s finances in tatters.

And the man at the centre of a series of mysterious deaths.

Ever since Maggie and Paul’s deaths, a bizarre and ever-evolving web of unexplained deaths, hitman plots and multi-million-dollar fraud schemes have come to light. Each scandal has proven wilder than the last, all with one man at the centre: Alex Murdaugh.

It’s a sprawling saga that captivated true crime enthusiasts the world over with a whole host of Netflix and Dateline shows springing up both before, during and after the trial. Hundreds of journalists and internet sleuths descended on Colleton County Courthouse with the local tourism board enlisting food truck businesses to set up shop in the parking lot to cater to the sudden demand.

The sheer power and dominance that the Murdaugh name wields over the lowcountry became instantly apparent as soon as the trial began, with every single prospective juror on day one of jury selection standing when asked if they had heard of the case. Several potential jurors also told the judge that they know of or were acquainted with the man standing trial (who bizarrely greeted one of the groups on the second day of proceedings).

One person said they knew Paul’s former girlfriend Morgan Doughty, who also survived a 2019 boat crash where Paul was behind the wheel. Another person identified themselves as a cousin of Mallory Beach, the teenager who died in the crash and whose family sued the Murdaughs over her death. A third said that Murdaugh had sued his father.

Maggie and Paul Murdaugh were killed at their Islandton estate in June 2021
— (Handout)

Others, meanwhile, revealed ties to law enforcement officials who spent more than a year investigating Murdaugh’s slew of alleged crimes.

The witnesses at the trial also read like a who’s-who of Murdaugh’s once-powerful inner circle.

On the list was the suspect and victims’ family members including Buster Murdaugh – Maggie and Paul’s only surviving son. There was also the disbarred attorney’s former colleagues at law firm Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth, & Detrick (PMPED) and victims of his financial fraud schemes.

Despite the high-profile nature of the case, prosecutors had largely kept their cards close to their chests, revealing little about what evidence led them to arrest Murdaugh 13 months on from the murders until the trial.

Then, during four weeks of testimony, Murdaugh’s alibi on the night of the murders fell apart.

He confessed that he lied about his whereabouts.

Video shows Paul Murdaugh minutes before he and his mother were murdered

He confessed to stealing millions of dollars from law firm clients.

But, he denied all involvement in the murders – a denial he continues to maintain several months after a jury convicted him on all charges as he now fights for a new trial.

Yet, as jurors heard at his trial, the murders are firmly entangled in the web of other crimes.

According to the state, Maggie and Paul were killed to distract from the downward spiral all around him.

Ultimately, this was a man who saw his life unravelling before his eyes – and whose family, friends and the authorities were about to find out everything.

What happened to Paul and Maggie Murdaugh?

The twisted tale all began back on 7 June 2021 when Maggie and Paul were found shot dead at the family’s sprawling hunting lodge in Islandton.

Murdaugh claimed he discovered their bodies, placing a dramatic 911 call where he cried and sobbed on the phone.

He said he’d returned home from visiting his elderly mother and dying father to find his wife and son by the kennels on the property, both suffering from multiple gunshot wounds.

The call, previously released by investigators, was made at 10.07pm local time.

Prosecutors say that the murders took place at around 8.50pm.

In the audio, Murdaugh is heard sobbing as he tells the dispatcher “it’s bad” and “my wife and child have been shot badly”.

When asked if his loved ones were still breathing, he responds “no” and urges them to “please hurry”.

Murdaugh also tells the dispatcher that he hasn’t seen anyone on the property.

It later emerged that two different weapons were used to kill the victims, with Maggie shot multiple times with an automatic rifle and Paul shot twice – once in the head and once in the chest – with a shotgun.

The gates to Alex Murdaugh’s estate in Islandton, South Carolina
— (AP)

Graphic details about their horrific injuries emerged in the courtroom.

Maggie was shot five times in the chest and head, with the last two shots likely to have been fired after she had already fallen to the ground, according to a forensics report by Chief Kenneth Kinsey, an expert at the Orangeburg County Sheriff’s Office.

Paul’s injuries were even more brutal with the second shot blowing his brain out of his skull.

For more than 13 months, no arrests were made in their murders, no suspects were named and no charges were brought over their killings.

Then, in July 2022, Murdaugh was charged with murder.

Why did Alex Murdaugh kill his family?

According to prosecutors, Murdaugh’s greed played a key role in the motive for the violent murders of his loved ones.

At his trial, jurors heard that his colleagues at PMPED were closing in on his multi-million-dollar fraud scheme with a colleague confronting him about $792,000 in missing money on the morning of the murders.

His finances were also coming under intense scrutiny in a lawsuit brought by the family of Mallory Beach – a 19-year-old woman who died in a 2019 crash in the Murdaugh family boat. A hearing for the boat crash lawsuit was scheduled for 10 June – three days after the murders.

After Maggie and Paul were gunned down on the family home, questions about his finances fell by the wayside.

At the time of the murders, Murdaugh’s finances were secretly in tatters and prosecutors say that his multi-million-dollar fraud scheme was about to be exposed.

What is the ‘roadside shooting’ plot?

Three months on from the murders – on 4 September 2021 – Murdaugh was shot on the side of a road in Hampton County.

He survived and called 911, claiming he was ambushed in a drive-by shooting while he was changing a tire on his vehicle.

He was treated at a hospital for what police called a “superficial gunshot wound to the head,” but his story quickly unravelled.

One day after the shooting, Murdaugh entered rehab for a 20-year opioid addiction and announced he had resigned from his law firm PMPED.

Just one day before the shooting, Murdaugh’s law firm partners accused him of stealing millions of dollars from its clients going back years and had confronted him about the allegations. They ousted him from the firm that day.

Murdaugh’s version of events rapidly fell apart and, on 13 September, he confessed to police to paying an alleged hitman to shoot and kill him in an assisted suicide plot so that his surviving son Buster could get a $10m life insurance windfall.

Curtis Smith is accused of shooting Alex Murdaugh in a botched hitman plot
— (Colleton County Sheriffs Office)

He told investigators that he had paid Curtis Smith – a former client, distant cousin and allegedly Murdaugh’s drug dealer – to carry out the shooting.

Both men were arrested and charged over the incident. Murdaugh was then released on bond on the promise that he enter rehab for his opioid addiction.

Mr Smith was later also accused of helping Mr Murdaugh with a drug and $2.4m money laundering ring.

Mr Smith is awaiting trial on charges of assisted suicide, assault and battery of a highly aggravated nature, pointing and presenting a firearm, insurance fraud, and conspiracy to commit insurance fraud.

What happened to Gloria Satterfield?

In October 2021, Murdaugh was released from rehab only to be dramatically arrested on charges of stealing funds from the wrongful death settlement over the mysterious trip and fall death of the family’s longtime housekeeper Gloria Satterfield in 2018.

Satterfield worked for the influential Murdaugh family for more than 20 years when she was found at the bottom of some stairs at the family’s home. She died weeks later from her injuries.

At the time, her death was regarded as an accidental fall – though her death certificate cited her manner of death as “natural”.

Murdaugh reached an agreement to pay her family $4m in a wrongful death settlement – but they never received a dime of the money. Instead, Murdaugh siphoned off the settlement meant meant for Satterfield’s sons to a fake company called Forge.

Gloria Satterfield died in a ‘trip and fall’ at the Murdaugh home in 2018
— (Provided)

Questions have been swirling around Satterfield’s death ever since and investigators reopened a probe into her death.

The Hampton County coroner Angela Topper asked the SLED to reopen an investigation into her death when Murdaugh’s name began to hit headlines.

“The decedent’s death was not reported to the Coroner at the time, nor was an autopsy performed,” Ms Topper wrote.

“On the death certificate the manner of death was ruled ‘Natural,’ which is inconsistent with injuries sustained in a trip and fall accident.”

In early 2022, officials announced plans to exhume her body.

Did Alex Murdaugh steal millions of dollars?

The Satterfields were far from the only victims of Murdaugh’s multi-million-dollar fraud schemes.

For more than a decade, Murdaugh stole over $8.5m from clients at his law firm, the law firm itself, and the state and federal government.

Prosecutors said the convicted killer worked with his co-conspirators and friends ex-attorney Cory Fleming and ex-Palmetto State Bank CEO Russell Laffitte to swindle clients out of millions of dollars.

The scheme involved filing lawsuits on behalf of vulnerable clients – and then pocketing the money themselves.

Among the other victims were the family of Hakeem Pinckney – who he represented through his law firm Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick (PMPED). Pinckney was a deaf man who became a quadriplegic after being involved in a horror car crash in 2009. He died two years later.

Murdaugh was hit with more than 100 federal and state charges on the slew of financial crimes.

During testimony at his murder trial, Murdaugh admitted to stealing millions from clients, claiming he did it to fund a 20-year opioid addiction.

In September 2023, he pleaded guilty to 22 charges in the federal case. Two months later, he also reached a plea deal with state prosecutors and is awaiting sentencing.

What other mystery deaths is Alex Murdaugh tied to?

At the time of Paul’s killing, the 22-year-old was due to stand trial over the death of 19-year-old Mallory Beach in a 2019 boat crash.

Paul was allegedly drunk driving a boat when he crashed it, throwing his friend Beach to her death.

He was charged with boating under the influence and faced up to 25 years in prison but was killed before his trial. Rumours instantly swirled that the incident was in some way connected to Paul’s death.

Following Maggie and Paul’s death, an investigation was also reopened into a third mystery death connected to the Murdaugh family.

Stephen Smith, 19, was found dead in the middle of the road from blunt force trauma to the head in 2015.

His death was officially ruled a hit-and-run but the victim’s family have long doubted this version of events and said that there were murmurings in the community that a “Murdaugh boy” may have been involved.

Smith’s death has since been ruled a homicide and his body was exhumed in spring of 2023.

Who really is Alex Murdaugh?

Prior to the dramatic fall from grace, Murdaugh was a powerful figure in Hampton County.

For almost a century, his family members have reigned over the local justice system with his father, grandfather and great-grandfather all serving as the solicitor in the 14th Judicial Circuit solicitor’s office.

His father died just three days after Maggie and Paul’s murders.

Disgraced legal scion Alex Murdaugh laughs that he has ‘allegedly done illegal stuff’ in jailhouse phone call

As the prominent family’s life unraveled, Murdaugh’s now only surviving son Buster initially stood by his father.

Chilling audio from a jailhouse phone call with Buster emerged in June 2022 where Murdaugh laughed that he has “allegedly done illegal stuff”.

In the phone call, Buster is heard acknowledging that his father has done “illegal s***” as they discuss a search warrant that he believes was improperly served on Mr Murdaugh while he was behind bars.

“Well, I think it does matter, man… I mean, something’s got to give,” he says in the call.

“I understand that you’ve done illegal s***. But it doesn’t mean you can just, you know, turn a cold shoulder to the laws of the United States.”

At that point in the call, Murdaugh – who is also facing charges for allegedly orchestrating a botched hit on himself – makes an unsettling joke about his alleged crimes.

He laughs and says to his son: “Allegedly done illegal stuff.”

One month on from the leaked call, Murdaugh was charged with Maggie and Paul’s murders.

Buster testified in his father’s defence at the murder trial as the family put on a show of support.

But, in the aftermath, even Buster appeared to agree with one thing.

When asked in a FOX Nation documentary if he believes his father could be a psychopath, he said: “I’m not prepared to sit here and say that it encompasses him as a whole, but certainly, I think there are characteristics where you look at the manipulation and the lies and the carrying out of that and such, and I think that’s a fair assessment.”

This story was originally published before the start of Murdaugh’s murder trial in January 2023. It was last updated in November 2023.

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