Murders, million-dollar fraud and mystery deaths: The story of Alex Murdaugh’s spectacular fall from grace
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 20 months, Mr Murdaugh has experienced a spectacular fall from grace, culminating in what has been described as the “trial of the century” now taking place in a courtroom in Walterboro, South Carolina.
The 54-year-old stands accused of gunning down his wife Maggie, 52, and their son Paul, 22, in a savage double murder that sent shockwaves across the lowcountry 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, Mr 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 denies murdering his loved ones and has pleaded not guilty to the charges.
As far as he is concerned, the killer of his wife and son is still out there.
While the murder charges may mark the most damning and disturbing accusation against the disgraced attorney, it is far from the only scandal.
Beneath the surface of this powerful persona, law enforcement allege Mr Murdaugh is 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 has come to light.
It’s a sprawling saga that has captivated true crime enthusiasts the world over with Netflix releasing a documentary series on the case on 22 February.
Each scandal is wilder than the last, all with one man at the centre: Alex Murdaugh.
Now, a panel of his 12 peers will decide his fate.
Hundreds of journalists and internet sleuths have 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 are acquainted with the man standing trial (who bizarrely greeted one of the groups on the second day of proceedings).
One person said they know 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.
Others, meanwhile, revealed ties to law enforcement officials who spent more than a year investigating Mr Murdaugh’s slew of alleged crimes.
The witness list for the trial also reads like a who’s-who of Mr 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’s also the disbarred attorney’s former colleagues at law firm Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth, & Detrick (PMPED), former Palmetto State Bank CEO Russel Laffitte who was recently convicted for financial fraud connected to Mr Murdaugh, and Curtis Smith – the man accused of conspiring with Mr Murdaugh in his botched hitman plot.
Also on the list are representatives from Snapchat and Google to testify about video evidence found on Paul’s cellphone.
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 Mr Murdaugh 13 months on from the murders.
After four weeks of testimony, prosecutors have now rested their case which was largely focused on picking holes in Mr Murdaugh’s alibi on the night of the murders.
Key to this has been a video taken by Paul at the dog kennels not long before the murders.
The 22-year-old captured the footage on his cellphone from 8.44.49pm to 8.45.47pm – less than five minutes before prosecutors say Mr Murdaugh shot him dead at around 8.50pm.
Off-camera, three voices are heard – Paul, Maggie and a man prosecutors say is Mr Murdaugh.
Multiple witnesses have testified that they are “100 per cent sure” that the voice belongs to Mr Murdaugh.
This evidence contradicts Mr Murdaugh’s version of events.
He has denied ever being at the kennels that night – claiming he was napping at the family home and then went to visit his sick mother. When he returned home, he claims he found his loved ones already dead.
The defence began its case on Friday (17 February), as it seeks to paint Mr Murdaugh as a family man who could not have carried out the brutal murders because he loved his wife and son.
Yet, prosecutors claim that the murders are firmly entangled in the web of his other alleged 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.
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.
Mr 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, Mr 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”.
Mr 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.
Graphic details about their horrific injuries had been revealed in a court filing ahead of trial, including a diagram of the bodies as they were found at the kennels.
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.
One of the shots seemed to have been fired as she was “holding herself up on her knees and … her right hand with her shoulders and head down,” the report states.
She was found face down, yards from her son’s body.
Paul’s injuries were even more brutal with the first shot in the chest fired “from several feet away”.
The 22-year-old was still standing and was moving towards a door at the kennels when a second shot blew his brain out.
“Brain was severed and exited through the anatomical right side of (his) head. … Brain was completely detached from (his) head,” the document reads.
For more than 13 months, no arrests were made in their murders, no suspects were named and no charges were brought over their killings.
Mr Murdaugh’s attorney previously admitted that the husband and father was a person of interest in their murders but insisted that his client was innocent. No other persons of interest were ever named.
His family rallied around him, with his brothers appearing on Good Morning America insisting his innocence.
Then, in July 2022, Mr Murdaugh was charged with murder.
His brother John Murdaugh said at the time: “The entire family has been consistent that regardless of what goes on, we want the truth.”
At the time of the murders, Mr Murdaugh’s finances were secretly in tatters and prosecutors say that his multi-million-dollar fraud scheme was about to be exposed.
Botched hitman plot
Three months on from the murders – on 4 September 2021 – Mr 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, Mr 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, Mr 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.
Mr 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.
He told investigators that he had paid Curtis Smith, 62 – a former client, distant cousin and allegedly Mr Murdaugh’s drug dealer – to carry out the shooting.
Both men were arrested and charged over the incident. Mr 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.
In October 2022, Mr Murdaugh’s attorneys claimed that Mr Smith failed a lie detector test when asked about the murders of Maggie and Paul. He could be called as a witness in the murder case.
Mysterious death of housekeeper
In October 2021, Mr 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”.
Mr Murdaugh reached an agreement to pay her family $4m in a wrongful death settlement – but they never received a dime of the money. He is accused of siphoning off $3.4m of settlement meant for Satterfield’s sons to a fake company called Forge.
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 Mr 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.
Mr Murdaugh is now accused of swindling funds from his insurance company to help fund his drug habit.
‘Misappropriated funds’ charges
Mr Murdaugh is facing more than 100 charges from more than a dozen indictments around the murders, the suicide-for-hire plot, a scheme to defraud the Satterfield family and scams to defraud dozens of other victims out of millions of dollars. He is also facing numerous civil suits.
In total, he is accused of stealing nearly $8.5m from settlements from more than a dozen clients who he represented through his law firm.
The plots involved Mr Murdaugh negotiating wrongful death and other settlements for his clients and then stealing the money for himself, according to prosecutors.
The alleged schemes date back as far as 2011 – more than a decade before he was ousted by his law firm and slapped with charges.
One of the alleged victims was a man whose wife died in a car wreck in 2013, say prosecutors. Mr Murdaugh is accused of stealing 14 settlement checks totaling $1.3m from the man.
On 12 July 2021, the same day his family were informed murder charges were on the way, Mr Murdaugh was disbarred from practicing law in South Carolina by the state’s Supreme Court.
“Based on his admitted reprehensible misconduct, we hereby disbar respondent Richard Alexander Murdaugh from the practice of law in South Carolina,” the Supreme Court said in an order signed by all the court’s justices.
Other mystery deaths
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.
Decades-long opioid addiction
Mr Murdaugh’s attorney Richard Harpootlian dramatically revealed in the fall of 2021 that his client has struggled with a decades-long addiction to drugs and that this played a role in his attempted suicide.
“For the last 20 years, there have been many people feeding his addiction to opioids.
“During that time, these individuals took advantage of his addiction and his ability to pay substantial funds for illegal drugs,” Mr Harpootlian said in a statement.
“One of those individuals took advantage of his mental illness and agreed to take Alex’s life, by shooting him in the head.”
Who are the Murdaughs?
Prior to the dramatic fall from grace, Mr 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.
As the prominent family’s life unraveled, Mr 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 Mr 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, Mr 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, Mr Murdaugh was charged with Maggie and Paul’s murders.
Now, with Buster expected to be called to testify at the murder trial for his mother and brother, it remains to be seen whether he will still stand by his father.