The Slatest

Let Me Say This With As Much Sensitivity As I Can: Wow, That’s a Lot of Dead People and Crime

Two sawhorses bearing KEEP OUT signs are seen in front of a brick gate, through which a dirt road is seen.
Keep out? Sure, no problem. Michael M. DeWitt, Jr./Augusta Chronicle/USA Today Network

On Wednesday, the New York Times and Today show covered the subject of Alex Murdaugh, a 53-year-old South Carolina lawyer at the center of an astounding web of criminal activity and suspected criminal activity, much of it fatal. The most recent development in the story is that police say Murdaugh admitted to asking a former legal client to kill him so that his son Buster Murdaugh could receive a $10 million life insurance payout. (Update: There have been even more recent developments since I began writing this post. They’re at the end.) The former legal client apparently did follow through with the attempt, but Murdaugh somehow only suffered a glancing wound. To really understand what’s happening, though, you have to go back somewhere between six and 111 years. Let’s unpack this.

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A hundred and eleven years?

Yes. In 1910—so long ago that true crime podcasts had not yet been invented—Alex Murdaugh’s great-grandfather became “solicitor,” or prosecutor, for South Carolina’s 14th Judicial Circuit, which covers five counties in the state’s southeastern corner. That’s the so-called low country that includes well-known leisure destinations like Hilton Head. Alex Murdaugh’s grandfather and father also served as solicitor, making for an 86-year stretch, ending in 2006, in which the family ran the office. Alex Murdaugh’s great-grandfather also founded a still-extant private law firm in which Alex Murdaugh was until recently a partner. The firm specializes in personal and vehicular injury cases. Alex Murdaugh had also worked part time at the prosecutor’s office his father once led.

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So they were prosecutors, but also personal injury lawyers?

Yes!

Wouldn’t that present potential conflicts of interest and generally create a situation in which everyone in a five-county radius was either indebted to, allied with, or subject to prosecution by one family?

That’s right. In fact, that’s where the 2015 part of the story starts. On July 8, 2015, the body of a 19-year-old named Stephen Smith was found with a fatal head wound on a road in Hampton County, South Carolina, which is part of the jurisdiction that had been run by the Murdaughs until 2006 and is where their law firm is based. Smith was gay, and his mother has said she suspects her son was, according to a local 2015 news article, killed in a hate crime “by several local Hampton County youths from prestigious families.” State highway police files include research into rumors that Alex Murdaugh’s son Buster was part of a group that may have killed Smith, and the files suggest investigators were worried that the Murdaughs’ prominence in the area was making individuals who may have had relevant information reluctant to talk. But they were unable to find solid evidence that Smith was killed in an attack committed by now–25-year-old Buster Murdaugh or anyone else, and no arrests have been made in the case … yet. (More to come!)

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That’s not really a “fun” kind of lurid local crime.

No, and neither is the next high-profile incident the Murdaughs were allegedly involved with. On Feb. 24, 2019, Alex Murdaugh’s other son, Paul—19 at the time—allegedly drove the family’s 17-foot boat into a bridge piling at high speed while drunk at 2 a.m., killing a young woman named Mallory Beach who was thrown from the craft. Paul Murdaugh was charged two months later with operating the boat while intoxicated, but a lawsuit filed by another man who’d been on board, Connor Cook, alleges that investigators (some with social and professional ties to the Murdaugh family) initially ignored evidence that Murdaugh had been driving in order to focus on Cook’s potential culpability. Paul Murdaugh’s father—Alex—and grandfather were present at the hospital where the crash survivors were treated, and Cook’s suit includes testimony from staffers there who say that Alex made efforts to enter other survivors’ rooms and speak with their family members. The suit also includes a truly impressive number of statements about how drunk, obnoxious, and belligerent Paul Murdaugh was even after arriving at the hospital. Alex Murdaugh, multiple outlets have reported, is being investigated by a grand jury for potential obstruction of justice charges related to his activities after the accident.

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What happened to the charges against Paul Murdaugh?

Before he could be tried, Paul Murdaugh and his mother, Maggie—Alex Murdaugh’s wife—were found dead at one of the family’s properties.

???

Yes. A local investigative outfit called FITSNews has reported that authorities believe Paul was killed with a shotgun and that his mother was killed with a semi-automatic rifle. When police arrived, they found the bodies near dog kennels a quarter-mile from a Murdaugh “hunting lodge.” The person who called 911 to report the deaths was Alex Murdaugh.

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!!!

Indeed. This happened on June 7 of this year. Alex Murdaugh hasn’t been charged in the crime and has reportedly provided police with an alibi about his whereabouts at the time that his wife and son are believed to have been killed. Obviously, questions remain nonetheless. And a lot more has happened since then. A lot!

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Yes—there’s the matter of the hit man and the life insurance?

That started on Saturday, Sept. 4, when Alex Murdaugh called 911 again, this time reporting that he’d been shot in the head, allegedly while changing a tire on the side of a road.

A person involved in all of the things above just happened to get shot in the head … and then was able to call 911 … despite having been shot in the head.

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That’s right.

Suspicious!

That’s what literally everyone else in the world thought, especially given that state police described Murdaugh’s head wound as “superficial” and that, two days later, his law firm—the one his great-grandfather founded—announced that he’d resigned the day before the shooting (on Friday, Sept. 3) after being confronted with evidence that he’d embezzled an amount of money that the Times reported as allegedly being “in the millions.” (FITSNews says it “could eclipse eight figures,” i.e., more than $10 million.)

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OK.

On the same day that his firm disclosed the alleged embezzlement—Monday, Sept. 6, two days after the purported side-of-the-road murder attempt—Alex Murdaugh was discharged from the hospital (classic two-day head-shooting recovery) and said in a statement that he was going to rehab for what his attorney described as an oxycodone addiction.

So what actually happened?

What police said Tuesday was referenced above. They say that Alex Murdaugh told them this week that he asked a former client, 61-year-old Curtis Smith (no relation to Stephen Smith) to shoot him so Buster would be given an insurance payout. Alex Murdaugh’s attorneys say Smith sold oxycodone to Murdaugh and that Murdaugh was under the mistaken belief Buster would not receive the payout if his father died by suicide. The latter claim was made by Murdaugh attorney Dick Harpootlian—also a major South Carolina Democratic Party figure who has been covered in Slate a bunch of times for that reason—on Today. Harpootlian says that so-called suicide exclusions typically only apply to life insurance policies that were taken out less than two years before the death in question, but wouldn’t have applied to Alex Murdaugh’s policy. (Another Murdaugh lawyer says Murdaugh will turn himself in on Thursday to face charges related to the murder-for-hire plot.)

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Alex Murdaugh, a lawyer whose firm specialized in the kind of injury and accident litigation that probably involved insurance claims in 99.999 percent of cases, didn’t understand his own life insurance policy?

That’s what Dick Harpootlian says.

Yeah?

We’re now entering the realm of pure speculation, but your author—speaking, to be clear, mainly as a consumer of noir entertainment and the Dateline television program, but also as a journalism professional with experience following stories about malfeasance involving people who are not completely forthcoming—is not convinced that Alex Murdaugh ever really meant for Curtis Smith to kill him, rather than (say) for Smith to wound him in a way that would create sympathy, buy time, and give the impression that someone who was not Alex Murdaugh was trying to kill members of the Murdaugh family. His current “admission” could be an effort to seem cooperative and head off other investigations into his activities.

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Going back, why would Alex Murdaugh have killed his wife and son, though?

No one in a position to know has publicly speculated about that. But, perhaps relatedly or perhaps not, there are, somehow, still more ongoing developments in the low country that may implicate Alex Murdaugh in yet more crimes. For one, in late June, South Carolina’s state police agency announced that it had begun actively investigating the 2015 death of Stephen Smith “based upon information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh.” (Recall that the investigating body that had previously suspected that a crime was committed but been unable to prove it was the state Highway Patrol.) Then, on Wednesday—Wednesday of this week!—the same state police agency said it is also investigating the 2018 death of a Murdaugh housekeeper named Gloria Satterfield.

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Another one—no way, it’s not possible.

Yes. It may also involve fraud: According a report in FITSNews, a 2018 wrongful death suit that was filed on behalf of Gloria Satterfield’s sons stated she died in a “slip and fall” accident at a Murdaugh home. That suit was settled for $500,000, which was reportedly paid by one of Alex’s Murdaugh’s insurers. But attorneys representing Satterfield’s sons now say that 1) they never got any money and 2) the lawyer who ostensibly filed the 2018 case on their behalf was introduced to them by Alex Murdaugh. The Times also spoke to Hampton County’s coroner, who says Gloria Satterfield’s death was never reported to her office and that her death certificate says her death was “natural.”

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Well!

That’s correct. And:

That’s a crime reporter at the State newspaper, which is based in Columbia, South Carolina. [Update, Sept. 16, 2021, at 1:58 p.m.: FITSNews reported earlier this morning that Alex Murdaugh has now been taken into custody.]

One more thing: The other son’s name is “Buster”? As if this is all an extremely dark real-life version of the comedy series Arrested Development, which is about a criminal patriarch who’s involved in various forms of fraud, including embezzlement from the family firm, and who has an adult son named Buster that needs to be provided for because he’s unable to do so on his own?

It’s one oxycodone addiction and tightening circle of criminal investigations, Michael—how much could it cost, $10 million?

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