ISLANDTON, S.C. — The killing of a mother and son. Millions of dollars in stolen funds. Fresh investigations into a fatal boat crash and a housekeeper’s deadly fall.
The tragic circumstances swirling around a lawyer and his family in South Carolina became only more perplexing over time, leading to several arrests, stunning twists and intricate theories arising from those following the case. At its center is the Murdaugh family, whose members have served in powerful legal positions in the southern part of the state going back 100 years.
It all began on the night of June 7, 2021, when Alex Murdaugh, a lawyer whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served as the top prosecutor across a wide area of the state, called 911 to report that his wife and one of their two sons had been shot to death.
A sense of mystery developed around their killings as more than a year passed without the authorities naming a suspect or identifying a motive for the slayings. Then, on July 14, 2022, Mr. Murdaugh, 54, was indicted on two counts of murder, with prosecutors saying he fatally shot his wife with a rifle and his son with a shotgun.
The initial investigation has spawned several more into three previous deaths in proximity to the family, and Mr. Murdaugh first ended up in handcuffs after concocting a bizarre scheme to stage his own suicide to look like a murder and being charged with stealing millions of dollars from a settlement fund.
Here’s what to know.
The fatal shooting of Mr. Murdaugh’s wife, Maggie, 52, and their son Paul, a 22-year-old junior at the University of South Carolina, rocked the state’s Lowcountry region, where the family had established its legal dynasty. The killings began to be known as the Murdaugh murders.
Few details were released about the attack, and no arrests were made for more than a year.
Mr. Murdaugh had told the authorities that he discovered their bodies when he returned to the family’s isolated home in Islandton, a rural hamlet about 65 miles west of Charleston.
In audio of his call to 911, which he placed just after 10 p.m., a distraught Mr. Murdaugh said he had arrived home and found their bodies on the ground “out at my kennel.”
“I’ve been up to it now, it’s bad,” Mr. Murdaugh told the dispatcher. He said that neither his wife nor his son was breathing, and he implored the emergency responders to hurry. “Are they close, ma’am?”
Officers with the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office wrote in reports that they had discovered several shell casings and had called a tow truck company to the scene. They also said they had looked for surveillance cameras from neighboring homes and businesses, though the heavily redacted police reports did not indicate whether they found any.
Mr. Murdaugh and his lawyers have steadfastly denied that he had any involvement in the deaths of his wife and son. After Mr. Murdaugh was charged, state police and the South Carolina attorney general, which are investigating the case, did not immediately release any new details or motive in the killings.
Nearly three months after his wife and son were killed, Mr. Murdaugh, was forced to resign from his family law firm, P.M.P.E.D. — named for the initials of its partners — after leaders at the firm said Mr. Murdaugh had misused millions of dollars of client and firm money, which his lawyers have not denied.
The next day, Sept. 4, Mr. Murdaugh called 911 and said he had been shot in the head on the side of a rural road not far from his home. He survived with only a minor wound and initially claimed that he had been shot by someone who pulled up beside him as he was inspecting a flat tire on his car. But the story quickly fell apart.
Mr. Murdaugh soon admitted that he had asked one of his distant cousins to shoot him in the head. Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers said he had come up with the plan to make his suicide look like a murder because he had falsely believed that his life insurance plan would not cover his death if it was ruled a suicide. He had wanted to leave his older son, Buster, with a $10 million payout.
Two days after the shooting, Mr. Murdaugh issued a statement apologizing to his “family, friends and colleagues” and said he was entering rehab. His lawyers said that he had been addicted for years to oxycodone and that his abuse of the painkiller had worsened after the death of his wife and son. Mr. Murdaugh’s law license was suspended and his law firm is suing him over the money they accused him of stealing.
His scheme to have his cousin kill him also ended in the arrest of both Mr. Murdaugh and the cousin, Curtis Edward Smith. Mr. Smith was charged with aggravated assault, assisting in a suicide attempt and insurance fraud. Mr. Smith told The New York Times that he did not shoot Mr. Murdaugh and that the gun had gone off as he grabbed Mr. Murdaugh’s arm to stop him from shooting himself.
Mr. Murdaugh turned himself in to the police on Sept. 16 and was charged with insurance fraud, conspiracy to commit insurance fraud and filing a false police report — all felonies.
In a courtroom in Hampton County, Mr. Murdaugh wept behind a face mask as he sat handcuffed and in a jail jumpsuit as one of his lawyers described his “fall from grace.” He was released without having to forfeit any money, though he was arrested about a month later on financial crimes and has been held in jail ever since.
In July 2022, Mr. Murdaugh and Mr. Smith were indicted on conspiracy charges for what prosecutors said was years of money laundering related to distributing oxycodone.
In February 2018, Gloria Satterfield, who had worked as a nanny and housekeeper for Alex Murdaugh and his family for more than 20 years, fell at their home and died from her injuries several weeks later.
After her funeral, Mr. Murdaugh introduced her two adult sons to a lawyer who he said would take care of them, but the sons said in a recent lawsuit that they did not know that the lawyer, Cory Fleming, was a close friend of Mr. Murdaugh’s. Mr. Fleming reached a $4.3 million settlement with Mr. Murdaugh and his insurers that was supposed to send about $2.8 million to Ms. Satterfield’s sons after lawyer’s fees, but the sons said in September that they had learned about the deal only recently and never got any money.
Mr. Murdaugh admitted last month that he owed her sons $4.3 million.
In addition to the settlement, the police are also looking into the cause of Ms. Satterfield’s death. Her family had long thought, based on the Murdaugh family’s accounts, that she had tripped over their dogs and fallen down the front steps of their home, but the local coroner was not notified about her death and no autopsy was ever completed. Her death is also listed as “natural” on her death certificate, which is at odds with an accidental fall.
The police said in June 2022 that they planned to exhume Ms. Satterfield’s body after receiving permission from her family.
At the time of his death, Paul Murdaugh, the son who was killed, was out on bail after being charged in 2019 with drunkenly crashing a boat in an accident that killed one of his passengers, 19-year-old Mallory Beach, and injured several others.
Documents and videos released since his death have raised questions about whether the police were sloppy or gave him favorable treatment. One of the boat’s six passengers told a Department of Natural Resources officer shortly after the crash that Paul Murdaugh had been driving the boat, but the officer wrote in a report that the passenger had said he was not sure who was driving.
The South Carolina attorney general is still investigating the crash, in which Paul Murdaugh faced a charge of boating under the influence causing death and two charges of boating under the influence causing great bodily injury — all felonies. The authorities have not made any ties between the boat crash and the double killing of Paul and his mother.
In June 2021, two of Alex Murdaugh’s brothers appeared on the ABC program “Good Morning America” and said in one of the few public comments from the family that Paul, their nephew, had been getting threatening messages since being charged in the boat accident.
The housekeeper’s death is not the only one to receive fresh scrutiny.
In June 2021, a few weeks after the death of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division announced that it was opening a new inquiry into the death of Stephen Smith, a 19-year-old man whose body was found on a road about 10 miles from the Murdaugh home.
His death has never been fully explained, and no arrests were made. It was initially investigated as a possible shooting, then it was considered to be a hit and run. Police files have suggested that Mr. Smith ran out of gas on the side of the road several miles away from where his body was found.
The police have not accused the Murdaugh family of wrongdoing in the case, and they have not said what — during their Murdaugh investigation — led them to open an investigation into Mr. Smith’s death.
The Murdaugh legal dynasty goes back to Randolph Murdaugh, who ran a one-man law office before he was elected, in 1920, as the first chief prosecutor for a five-county region that covers 3,200 square miles.
He served in the position for two decades before he was killed in a train crash. Then his son, Randolph Murdaugh Jr., who was known as Buster, took over his father’s role in the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office. The younger Murdaugh was in the position for 46 years and, when he retired, his son, Randolph Murdaugh III, who was Alex Murdaugh’s father, was elected, serving until 2006.
Alex Murdaugh never ran for the prosecutor job, but he did serve as a volunteer prosecutor and sometimes helped his father with cases. He was officially removed from that volunteer role in September, The Island Packet newspaper reported.