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What to Know About the Multiple Criminal Investigations into Alex Murdaugh

8 minute read

Murder investigations, embezzlement allegations, a drug addiction and hitman-for-hire: in recent months, a series of bizarre criminal incidents surrounding a prominent South Carolina family—and its patriarch, attorney Alex Murdaugh—have received national attention.

It was the June deaths of Margaret and Paul Murdaugh that first received widespread coverage in the media as well as within true crime circles. On June 7, at around 10 p.m., Alex Murdaugh called police to report that he had found his 22-year-old son, Paul, and his 52-year-old wife, Margaret, shot outside their home in Colleton County. According to a Colleton County Sheriff’s Office report, authorities arrived at the scene and found the two victims with “multiple” gunshot wounds.

“I urge the public to be patient and let the investigation take its course,” police chief Mark Keel said in a June 21 statement on their killings. “This case is complex, and we will not rush this or any investigation. Investigative decisions we make throughout this case must withstand the scrutiny of the criminal justice process.”

And as developments in the weeks and months since then have made clear, Keel’s describing the situation as “complex” is perhaps an understatement. An HBO Max documentary series into the family, with the working title Murdaugh Family Mysteries, is already in the works.

Who is Alex Murdaugh?

Mother And Son Killed
Alex Murdaugh in a Sept. 16 booking photo provided by the Hampton County Detention Center.AP

Alex Murdaugh, 53, was most recently an attorney at the civil law firm Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick (PMPED), which was founded by his great-grandfather Randolph Murdaugh Sr. Until then a “fourth-generation lawyer” at the firm, Murdaugh resigned from PMPED on Sept. 3. (His brother Randolph Murdaugh IV still works there.)

Murdaugh’s family has long had considerable influence over the small South Carolina region. “You don’t cross the Murdaughs,” an unnamed source told People in a cover story for the magazine’s Sept. 16 issue. “They’ll come down on you, hard… They have a lot of influence and power, and they’ll use it against their enemies.”

“Few [locals] wanted to talk—and if they did, they didn’t share names,” CNN reported of attempts to learn more about the family’s history, and influence, in a Sept. 26 report. “Parents, children, siblings, lawyers, friends and pastors didn’t answer phones or doors. Strangers politely declined to speak or outright kept walking.”

The Murdaughs have controlled much of the legal bureaucracy in southern South Carolina for generations; a Murdaugh family member across multiple generations served as the state’s 14th Circuit Solicitor from 1920 to 2005. (The solicitor is the head of prosecutions for Allendale, Colleton, Hampton, Jasper and Beaufort counties in South Carolina.)

PMPED operates in several of those same counties.

Read more: ‘Real People Keep Getting Re-traumatized.’ The Human Cost of Binge-Watching True Crime Series

What crimes and incidents are being investigated?

A 2015 killing: The investigation into the (as-yet unsolved) July 2015 murder of 19-year-old Stephen Smith, the victim of an apparent hit-and-run, in Hampton County was reopened by South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) on June 22. The police department said they opened an investigation into the death “based upon information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh.”

In an interview after her son’s death with The Augusta Chronicle, Smith’s mother said she believes her son was targeted due to his sexuality. She “[feels] strongly that she knows exactly who killed her child,” the Chronicle wrote, and alleged the involvement of “several local Hampton County youths from prestigious families” (The Chronicle did not identify any of these individuals by name, or confirm if Smith’s mother had named them.) Police have not made any charges in the case, nor identified a suspect.

A 2018 fatal fall: The Murdaugh family’s former housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, died in Feb. 2018 after what her sons have said they were told was an accidental “trip and fall” down stairs at the Murdaugh home. (A lawyer acting for Satterfield’s sons has also claimed he was told she had tripped over Alex Murdaugh’s dogs.) On Sept. 15, the investigation into her death, which was initially described as being from “natural causes,” was also reopened by SLED. Here, too, police have made no charges nor identified any suspect.

A 2019 boating accident: In Feb. 2019, a boating accident killed a 19-year-old woman, Mallory Beach, and injured several other people. The boat, owned by Alex Murdaugh, was being driven by his now-deceased son Paul Murdaugh (a fact that court documents have also alleged Alex Murdaugh tried to cover up). Paul Murdaugh, then 19, was indicted and charged with boating under the influence—he pled not guilty and was still awaiting trial at the time of his death.

Beach’s mother has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Alex Murdaugh and his surviving son, Richard “Buster” Murdaugh.

A 2021 shooting—in which Alex Murdaugh was both victim and orchestrator: Just a day after his resignation from PMPED, Alex Murdaugh called police and reported that he had been shot. “Officers were informed that the victim, a 53-year-old male, had a gunshot wound to the head, and was being flown out from a landing zone on Charleston Highway for further treatment,” a Hampton County Sheriff’s Office statement said on Sept. 7.

The Sheriff’s Office has since charged a man with Murdaugh’s shooting, but also alleges Murdaugh was involved himself and had planned his death so that a $10 million life insurance policy would be paid out to his surviving son Buster. Alex Murdaugh has confessed to this plan.

In an Oct. 12 interview with the New York Times, Curtis Smith, the man charged in the shooting, claimed Murdaugh had asked him to shoot him, and that he refused. “When Murdaugh moved as if he was going to shoot himself in the head,” the Times reported, Smith says he “grabbed [Murdaugh’s] arm and twisted it behind his back. The gun went off.”

Multiple money crimes: In addition to this alleged attempt to commit insurance fraud, PMPED has claimed that Alex Murdaugh’s resignation from their firm was because it was discovered that he misused funds from the law firm. “This is disappointing news for all of us. Rest assured that our firm will deal with this in a straightforward manner. There’s no place in our firm for such behavior,” PMPED said in a Sept. 7 statement.

And Murdaugh has also been investigated for allegedly stealing the insurance settlements he helped negotiate for Gloria Satterfield’s children.

What is Alex Murdaugh charged with?

It’s charges related to these insurance settlements arising from Satterfield’s death that are the most recent to be filed against Murdaugh. On Oct. 14 he was arrested in Orlando, Fla. for two felony counts of obtaining property under false pretenses. Murdaugh had been staying at a rehab clinic in the city, but agreed to return to South Carolina to face the charges.

“Today is merely one more step in a long process for justice for the many victims in these investigations,” Chief Keel said in a press statement. The charges “stem from a SLED investigation into misappropriated settlement funds in the death of Gloria Satterfield” the statement read. Prosecutors claimed Murdaugh used the monies—around $3 million—”to pay off his father, personal credit card bills and checks to himself.” (Murdaugh’s father, Randolph Murdaugh III, died on June 10, after what has been described as “extended health problems.”)

On Oct. 19, Murdaugh was denied bail with regard to the charges.

He had previously been arrested for felony insurance fraud charges (as well as filing a false police report) related to his Sept. 4 staged shooting and was then released on a recognizance bond.

How has he responded to the allegations?

Murdaugh had announced on Sept. 6 that he would be checking into a rehab facility. His lawyer Dick Harpootlian—who is also a South Carolina State Senator—has said Murdaugh has, for two decades, been addicted to opioids. In a statement released on Sept. 6, Murdaugh acknowledged that “battle” with drugs, and said that the murders of his wife and son had “caused an incredibly difficult time in my life. I have made a lot of decisions that I truly regret.”

Harpootlian has also said that Murdaugh accepts the financial wrongdoings and that he knows he will likely spend time in prison as a result.

Murdaugh maintains his innocence regarding the murders of his wife and son, and has not commented on the other incidents. No arrests have been made with regards to any of the deaths.

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Write to Josiah Bates at josiah.bates@time.com