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ABC News
ABC News
North America correspondent Barbara Miller

With Alex Murdaugh behind bars for murder, a small South Carolina community comes to terms with his other crimes

Lawyer Alex Murdaugh was found guilty of the murder of his wife and son and sentenced to two consecutive life terms. (Reuters: USA Today Network/Andrew J Whitaker)

The media tents and trucks have packed up and the wall-to-wall cable network coverage of the six-week trial of South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh has ended.

But in rural Hampton County, it's a difficult, uneasy time.

Murdaugh has begun consecutive life sentences for killing his wife, Maggie, and son, Paul, in June 2021, but the residents of this small community still drive past his old law firm every day.

They do business in the bank he's alleged to have used to set up fake accounts and steal millions from his clients, and they might go to church with members of the extended Murdaugh family.

Residents say there's a whole lot of hurting and healing to be done as they process the spectacular downfall of a man once seen as a pillar of their society.

Gina Brock, a nurse from nearby Chapin County, watched the trial every day and came to court twice to see it for herself.

She said after she saw Alex Murdaugh go down and his prison mugshot issued, she thought: "Wow, he really fell a long way from grace."

After the trial wrapped up, she didn't quite know what to do with herself.

Eventually, she left the Facebook groups devoted to people discussing the trial because, "it was just kind of people arguing after the fact".

As for the rest of Alex Murdaugh's family, cracks are beginning to emerge after the high-profile verdict.

Buster Murdaugh came to his father's trial every day and testified for the defence.

Since it ended, the 26 year-old has complained about being followed and photographed.

Buster Murdaugh has reportedly complained to police about being harassed by the media after his father's sentencing. (AP Photo: The State/Joshua Boucher)

Alex's brother, Randy — also a frequent presence in court during the trial and a partner at the family law firm — has since claimed he didn't know if his brother killed his wife and son.

In an interview with the New York Times, Randy Murdaugh said he couldn't imagine his brother pulling the trigger, but "he knows more than what he's saying".

"He's not telling the truth, in my opinion, about everything there," he said.

Meanwhile, Alex Murdaugh still faces a slew of charges relating to financial crimes.

He's one of the remaining parties in a case connected to the death of 19-year-old Mallory Beach in a boating accident involving Paul Murdaugh.

And there are lingering questions about the death of his housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield.

The missing insurance payout

When Satterfield's sons first came to lawyer Ronnie Richter over a missing insurance payment, he thought there had been some mistake.

The Satterfield boys told the Charleston attorney that Alex Murdaugh owed them $US505,000 ($761,000) as part of a payout from a home insurance claim made on their behalf after their mother died in 2018.

It was claimed she had tripped down some stairs on the Murdaughs' sprawling country property, Moselle.

The court was taken on a tour of the crime scene during Alex Murdaugh's closely-watched trial. (AP Photo: The Post And Courier/Andrew J Whitaker)

"Our first reaction was disbelief, that what was being said to us was simply not true," Mr Richter said.

Alex Murdaugh, after all, was a very big fish in the small pond of the South Carolina legal fraternity.

For generations, his family had held the position of circuit solicitor, an elected official who oversees criminal cases.

And Alex Murdaugh was a partner at the firm, PMPED, founded more than a century ago by his great-grandfather, Randolph Murdaugh Sr.

"A bellwether law firm in that community, I mean, a true pillar of the community," Mr Richter said.

So when the Satterfields turned to Mr Richter, he says his first communication with Murdaugh and his firm was simple.

"There must be some mistake or there's something holding up the distribution of this money. Would you please go ahead and disburse the money to the boys," he says he told Murdaugh.

When his communication went unanswered, Mr Richter followed up with another one, a little sterner in tone.

Again, there was no response.

Mr Richter and his partner, Eric Bland, began to realise something was wrong, very wrong, in the house of Alex Murdaugh.

So they filed a lawsuit, which eventually led to the discovery that the payout Gloria Satterfield's sons should have received was not $US505,000 but a whopping $US4.3 million.

A messy list of crimes

A plethora of Murdaugh podcasts and documentaries — including from Netflix and HBO Max — have since helped fuel theories about whether the longtime housekeeper might not have tripped over the family dogs, as the story went, but been pushed down the stairs.

Countless podcasts and documentaries are devoted to uncovering the tangled web of the Murdaugh murders. (Supplied: IMDB/Murdaugh Murders Deadly Dynasty)

Mr Richter says that, while the Satterfield family does support moves to now exhume her remains, they don't buy into the murder speculation.

"The foul play began after her death when Alex Murdaugh saw this, bizarrely, as an opportunity for profit," he said.

The strongest argument against foul play Mr Richter suggested was the fact that Ms Satterfield survived for several weeks after she landed at the bottom of the steps.

"It sounds crass, and I apologise, but if it were your intent to kill someone, you would not allow them to survive for three weeks, for fear that they would regain consciousness and report what had happened to them," he noted.

Alex Murdaugh is also facing 99 charges related to allegations of embezzlement, fraud and forgery.

In sentencing him to a double life term, Judge Clifton Newman said those matters would now be scheduled.

"There are other victims whose cases deserve to be heard," he said.

A wrongful death case brought by the family of Ms Beach, a 19 year-old who died when the boat a drunken Paul Murdaugh was allegedly steering crashed into a bridge, has been scheduled for August this year.

Alex Murdaugh, as the owner of the boat, and a convenience store that allegedly sold his underage son alcohol are the remaining parties in that case.

Paul Murdaugh was awaiting trial on charges of boating under the influence when his father shot him dead in June 2021.

Paul (left) was involved in a case about a boat accident before his death. (Facebook: Maggie Murdaugh)

It was arguably the Beach case that was the beginning of Alex Murdaugh's downfall.

"It was always a house of cards … at some point in time, you run out of new people to steal from," Mr Richter said.

"But when Mallory Beach died and the lights turned on in Hampton County, scrutiny was bearing down on Alex Murdaugh."

Authorities are also looking again at the death of Stephen Smith, a former classmate of the surviving Murdaugh son, Buster, who turned up dead back in 2015 on a road in Hampton County.

Police at the time reported his injuries as blunt force trauma to the head, but noted there was no vehicle debris nearby.

How the Murdaugh empire was built

It was yet another mysterious Murdaugh death back in 1940 that helped build the family's legal empire.

Investigators uncovered dozens of alleged crimes during a 13-month probe of the Murdaugh murders. (Facebook: Maggie Murdaugh)

On a dark and humid July night, Randolph Murdaugh Sr, Alex Murdaugh's great-grandfather, was on his way home from a poker game when his car stopped on a rail crossing just east of Varnville.

According to news reports from the time, the train driver reported Murdaugh Sr raising his hand and waving at the oncoming train, but not making moves to get out of its way.

When the train hit, the 52-year-old was killed instantly.

The story was unearthed by Michael Dewitt Jr, who has been delving deep into the Murdaugh family history for his work covering the trial and all its related twists and turns, as well as for two forthcoming books, Wicked Hampton County, and Fall of the House of Murdaugh.

"This family dynasty kind of has a theme that runs through the whole history, of tragedy and trains," he said.

After the patriarch's death, his son Buster (Alex Murdaugh's grandfather), sued the railroad.

The case settled but that was just the beginning of the Murdaugh family's lucrative connection to the Charleston and Western Carolina Railroad, now CSX.

Over the next decades, the Murdaugh law firm established itself as the go-to shop for a personal injury case.

"If you're going to get $10 million in a lawsuit in another county, you come to Hampton," Mr Dewitt Jr said.

"And, not only are you almost guaranteed to win, you're [also] liable to get $50 million, instead of $10 million."

The firm's growth was propelled by a relatively lax law in South Carolina around where cases could be tried.

A loophole meant that anyone suing a company that owned property or did business in Hampton County, could have the case heard there, even if the personal injury happened elsewhere in the state.

It turned the PMPED into a lawsuit factory, lending them a reputation as personal injury sharks.

The Murdaugh family founded a lucrative law firm over 100 years ago in tiny Hampton County. (AP Photo: Jeffrey Collins)

"That's kind of a glimpse at where Alex Murdaugh came from and how he was … created," Mr Dewitt Jr said.

"Generations of wealth and privilege, generations of entitlement, of benefiting yourself and your family or your law firm, often to the detriment of others in your town or your community."

There were huge wins for some clients, with juries who personally knew the Murdaughs and the other law partners sympathetic to their cases.

But the dynamic also came at a cost to the wider community.

Supermarket chain Wal-Mart cancelled plans in the early 2000s to build a store in Hampton after getting advice that they would be at risk of being sued for anything that happened to an employee at any store in the whole state.

Where did the money go?

Among the many mysteries surrounding Alex Murdaugh is why, given he was raking in money, he needed to steal from clients, and what happened to the missing millions.

Alex Murdaugh has undergone a dramatic fall from grace since his arrest. (AP Photo: The State/Joshua Boucher)

In addition to the $US4.3 million he took in the Satterfield case, he's been charged with embezzling around $US9 million from his firm and clients.

"The money never makes sense. There was always adequate money for his lifestyle and whatever needs he could possibly want," Mr Richter said.

"It's just hard to contemplate the depth of breaches of trust that this man committed over such a long period of time."

It's also hard to understand where the money went.

Hampton County has a population of fewer than 20,000 and nearly one-in-five people there live in poverty, compared to just over one-in-10 nationwide.

"It's very rural. It is frankly very poor," Mr Richter said.

"It's impossible to make that much money go away in Hampton County and not accumulate wealth."

Prosecutors alleged in court filings for Alex Murdaugh's murder case that he had accrued substantial debts over a period of years.

Murdaugh admitted to the court during his trial that he had stolen from his clients because of an expensive opioid addiction.

But Mr Richter is sceptical that alone could account for his apparent need for money.

"He professed at one point to having an opioid problem, for which he spent up to $US50,000 a week," he said.

"Well, that can't be true. I mean, that if an OxyContin pill has a street value here of $US15, you know, $US50,000 a week is 3,333 pills. It's 496 pills a day. It's humanly not possible."

A receiver has been appointed to try to recover any assets for the victims waiting for their turn to take Alex Murdaugh to court.

In Hampton, the community remains deeply divided over their views on the whole saga and the Murdaugh family.

"You know, we talk about it amongst ourselves at a family dinner table or in the beauty parlour or the hardware store. But, when outsiders come in, they tend to hush up a little bit," Mr Dewitt Jr said.

"We can't escape it."

He believes it's going to be a long time before the story is over in "this little neck of the woods".

"This, I guess, is still our dirty laundry."

Alex Murdaugh will likely spend the rest of his life in jail after his conviction. (AP Photo: The Post And Courier/Andrew J Whitaker)
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