Alex Murdaugh, the powerful lawyer who asked a handyman to kill him, had a spectacular fall from grace. Five people in his family’s orbit have died in recent years, and investigators are looking for connections.
Curtis Edward Smith, a handyman and former logger, had done his share of odd jobs over the years for Alex Murdaugh, a lawyer and scion of one of the most powerful legal families in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
But Smith said he was reluctant to do the last job Murdaugh asked for when the two men met at the side of a rural road one Saturday in September.
“I want you to shoot me in the back of the head,” Smith recalled Murdaugh telling him. He said Murdaugh had a loaded gun in his hand.
The unsettling tale grew stranger still when, 10 days later, state law enforcement agents arrested Smith, 61, accusing him of collaborating with Murdaugh in a botched scheme to kill him. Murdaugh hatched the plan to make his death look like a murder, the police said, in the hope that his elder son would receive a US$10 million life insurance payment at a time when Murdaugh’s life was unravelling in spectacular fashion.
That unravelling is now at the centre of a sprawling saga of mysterious deaths — including the unsolved killing of Murdaugh’s wife and younger son — and allegations of multimillion-dollar swindles and abuses of trust and power. The drama has sent a shock through South Carolina, where Alex Murdaugh and his family have dominated the legal profession in a rural swath of the state for more than a century.
It is rare for the personal travails of one small-town lawyer to resonate so broadly. But Murdaugh, 53, was for years a well-connected player in the clubby South Carolina legal world; the family law firm, based in the tiny city of Hampton, has long been considered a powerhouse on the state plaintiff’s bar.
In recent weeks, a dizzying series of criminal investigations and lawsuits has emerged, accusing Murdaugh of betraying friends, colleagues and clients. The police have opened previously closed cases, including one involving the death of a former classmate of Murdaugh’s son and another involving a housekeeper who had long been thought to have fatally tripped and fallen on the front steps of the Murdaugh family’s home.
They are also looking at allegations that Murdaugh stole millions of dollars from his law firm and millions more from a settlement intended for the housekeeper’s children.
“Where does it stop?” said John P. Freeman, an emeritus professor of law and ethics at the University of South Carolina. “You can’t talk to anybody in South Carolina who isn’t talking about this case and is not just astonished by what’s going on.”
Murdaugh, through his lawyers, has insisted that he had nothing to do with the fatal shootings in June of his wife, Margaret, 52, and their younger son, Paul, 22, whose bodies he discovered on the family’s 1,700-acre hunting estate. Last month, however, he was arrested on charges related to the faked suicide attempt. Before admitting to the scheme, Murdaugh had claimed that a stranger shot him as he stopped to change a tire, with the bullet skidding through the top of his head.
On September 16, he appeared in court before being released to await trial. His body was stooped, his trademark shock of red hair streaked with white. His lawyer, Richard A. Harpootlian, a Democratic state senator, said Murdaugh was checking into rehab for an oxycodone addiction.
Smith was also released. He continues to insist he was not a collaborator, but a convenient scapegoat — collateral damage from a powerful man’s midlife skid out of control.
“I don’t know if betrayed is even the word for it,” Smith said recently, sitting on a love seat in his modest home outside of Walterboro, South Carolina. “I thought of him as a brother, you know, and loved him like a brother. And I would’ve done almost anything for him. Almost.”
A name synonymous with power
Despite a recent influx of newcomers, South Carolina retains some of its old Southern insularity and traditions. It is a state where old family names can still carry significant weight.
To some, the Murdaugh name has represented both power and public service. For nearly 90 years and across three generations, the post of chief prosecutor for five counties around Hampton was held by a Murdaugh. And for even longer, the law firm associated with the Murdaugh family has been one of the state’s leading tort litigation firms. Its Hampton headquarters, housed in a red-brick Colonial Revival building, is second in grandeur only to the nearby county courthouse.
To some here, the Murdaugh name has come to stand for a domination of the legal system so pervasive that people, with or without justification, asked whether it had the power to skew the trajectory of justice in the family’s favour.
That is one of the questions investigators are asking now as they examine not only the killing of Murdaugh’s wife and son, but at least three other deaths that preceded that tragedy.
How much, investigators have been trying to learn, did Alex Murdaugh wield his powerful connections to protect his family and amass his own fortune?
One of the cases now being re-examined is the death of Stephen Smith, 19, whose body was found on a rural road in 2015. He died of blunt force trauma to the head, but there were no signs to suggest that he had been hit by a car.
Smith had been a classmate of Alex Murdaugh’s older son, Richard Alexander Murdaugh Jr., who goes by Buster. The Smith family told the police that Alex Murdaugh’s brother, a partner in the Murdaugh law firm, had reached out and offered to represent the family for free, but the family did not take him up on the offer. No connection to the Murdaugh family was ever identified, though investigators say they are now taking a fresh look.
The second case under scrutiny happened in 2019, when, witnesses said, Alex Murdaugh’s son Paul drunkenly crashed the family boat into a bridge, throwing several of his friends into the water. The body of one of them, Mallory Beach, 19, was found a week later.
A grand jury indicted Paul Murdaugh on a charge of boating under the influence causing death, but he was killed before he had an opportunity to stand trial.
Beach’s family is suing Alex Murdaugh and the convenience store that sold an underage Paul the alcohol. Connor Cook, a lifelong friend of Paul’s who had also been on the boat, filed another lawsuit last month, accusing Alex Murdaugh and others of trying to frame him for the boat crash. Cook said Murdaugh had told him to “keep his mouth shut” and to tell investigators that he did not know who was driving.
That lawsuit said Murdaugh had persuaded Cook’s family to hire a lawyer named Cory Fleming, a friend and former college roommate of Alex Murdaugh’s, and Paul Murdaugh’s godfather.
After the killing of Alex Murdaugh’s wife and son, investigators began re-examining yet another mysterious death associated with the family: that of Gloria Satterfield, the housekeeper and nanny who had worked for a quarter-century for the Murdaugh family.
Early one morning in February 2018, Satterfield fell on the front stairs of the Murdaughs’ isolated house. Maggie Murdaugh found her bleeding and called 911, according to Eric Bland, a lawyer for Satterfield’s two adult sons. He said the Murdaughs told the family that she had tripped over their dogs.
Satterfield had lost most of her ability to speak, and died several weeks later.
Despite the Murdaugh family’s account, her death was ruled “natural” on her death certificate, the result of a brain bleed. No autopsy was done and the coroner was not contacted.
Hours after Satterfield’s funeral, her sons say, Alex Murdaugh told them he would take responsibility and referred them to a lawyer who would help them file a lawsuit to force Murdaugh’s insurers to pay compensation.
The lawyer was again Murdaugh’s longtime friend, Fleming — who they later came to believe was not looking out for their interests, but Alex Murdaugh’s.
Fleming, the sons said in a subsequent lawsuit, advised them to sign over the management of their mother’s estate to an executive at a local bank where Murdaugh had done business.
Five months later, court records show, a judge approved a settlement agreement to pay the sons US$2.8 million from Murdaugh’s insurers and award more than US$1 million in lawyers’ fees. But the sons say they never heard about the deal.
It turned out that Fleming had sent the money to Murdaugh, according to copies of the checks and other documents recently filed in court by Bland.
The sons have yet to see any of it, Bland said.
Fleming said in a statement that Murdaugh had deceived him, too, and that he thought the sons would get the money. Last week, Fleming’s firm agreed to pay back all the lawyers’ fees received from the settlement and its malpractice insurers agreed to pay the full policy limits to the sons.
But that was not the only money that seemed to be missing. Last month, Murdaugh’s colleagues at the law firm said they had discovered that he had siphoned millions of dollars out of the firm, and they asked him to resign. Murdaugh’s lawyers said he had spent vast sums of money on his addiction to oxycodone pills, but they have offered no explanation about where the rest of the money went.
“He has fallen from grace,” Harpootlian said at the bond hearing last month. “If anyone wants to see the face of what opioid addiction does, you’re looking at it.”
A meeting on a lonely road
A day after the firm announced it was severing its relationship with Murdaugh, he and Curtis Smith ended up on the road outside of town, haggling, Smith says, over Murdaugh’s plan to exit from the mess his life had become.
Smith, who is now facing charges including assisted suicide, assault, insurance fraud and sale of methamphetamine, said he had no plans to participate in a scheme over insurance money. He said Murdaugh, who is a distant cousin, had called that morning and asked him to drive his work truck toward Hampton, never discussing why.
Soon, he said, Murdaugh drove by and honked his horn for Smith to follow him.
Outside town, Murdaugh parked on the side of the road and Smith stopped nearby. When he got out of his truck, Murdaugh produced a gun and asked Smith to shoot him with it.
“It ain’t going to happen,” Smith said he told him. When Murdaugh moved as if he was going to shoot himself in the head, he said, Smith grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back. The gun went off.
Murdaugh sank to the ground, Smith said, his hand over his head, his legs splayed.
Smith, left holding the gun, asked if Murdaugh was OK. Murdaugh indicated that he was.
The handyman swore at the lawyer, jumped back in his truck and drove away.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Written by: Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs and Richard Fausset
Photographs by: Travis Dove
© 2021 THE NEW YORK TIMES
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