As recently as a year ago, Alex Murdaugh’s life was the stuff of Southern fantasy.
A father of two and partner at a successful law firm founded by his great-grandfather over a century ago, the 53-year-old seemed virtually untouchable. The former president of the state trial lawyers association, he was sitting atop a legal dynasty that produced three successive elected solicitors—or local prosecutors—in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
The family image wasn’t exactly free of blemishes, even then. Murdaugh’s youngest son, Paul Murdaugh, had been charged with boating under the influence in connection with an accident that killed a teenage girl. But the perception was widespread in the community that the 22-year-old would likely duck any criminal liability. The family was that powerful.
Then the redheaded lawyer’s life went off the rails.
On June 7, 2021, Murdaugh reported finding his wife, Margaret, and Paul fatally shot near the dog kennels at their home in Islandton, a hamlet inhabited by fewer than 100 people.
The case remains unsolved. But Murdaugh himself has since been ensnared in a stunning array of civil lawsuits and criminal cases. Perhaps most prominent of the investigations swirling around him is that of a botched assisted-suicide insurance scheme to benefit his surviving son Buster. Police say Murdaugh confessed to taking part in the scheme, ostensibly in the throes of a drug addiction.
It doesn’t stop there.
From the mysterious death of a housekeeper on his property—and an alleged scheme to siphon some of the millions in settlement money to his “drug dealer”—to the unsolved murder of a 19-year-old nursing student, Murdaugh’s troubles often seem boundless.
Seth Stoughton, an associate professor of criminology and criminal justice at the University of South Carolina Law School, told The Daily Beast that the Murdaughs have captivated America because “the story of a powerful man brought low by his own hubris is about as familiar as it gets, going back to the Greek tragedies.”
“After three generations as elected prosecutors, the Murdaugh family had deep connections in law enforcement, in the legal community, among political officials, and in social circles,” Stoughton added. “A prominent family with a long history in the area has contacts, access, and influence that most people simply don’t have.”
But Murdaugh is now facing two criminal trials, 12 state grand-jury indictments that could mean a sentence of over 500 years behind bars, and a handful of lawsuits. His family has also been tied, one way or another, to at least five state investigations.
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“My head is on straighter, I’m thinking clearer than I have in a long, long time,” Murdaugh said during a Dec. 13 hearing, the first time he has spoken out since the murder of his wife and son. “I want to deal with these charges appropriately and head-on. I want to repair as much of the damage that I’ve done as I can. I want to repair as many of the relationships as I can.”
The allegations surrounding Murdaugh are all the more remarkable given his family’s power in South Carolina once appeared unassailable. But even as police have begun to chip away at the dynasty’s armor, the saga has only spurred new questions into the strange deaths and missing funds that surround him.
Who Killed Maggie and Paul Murdaugh?
While the 2019 boat crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach and eventually produced criminal charges against Paul Murdaugh thrust the family into the spotlight, the Murdaughs were forced on the national stage for good after Alex’s wife and son were murdered at their home.
The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) says Murdaugh called 911 around 10:07 p.m. on June 7 after discovering the two near the dog kennels outside their 1,770-acre estate in Colleton County. In the seven-minute 911 call, Murdaugh frantically tells a dispatcher his “wife and child have been shot” and that neither of them were breathing.
“I’ve been up to it now. It’s bad,” Murdaugh said while dogs barked in the background, later adding that he had arrived home from visiting his ill father to discover the bloodshed.
While Colleton County deputies responded to the scene, SLED quickly took over the case—and has been tight-lipped about the investigation since. A $100,000 reward once offered by Murdaugh’s former law firm expired without any apparent takers, and no suspects have ever been publicly named.
Murdaugh’s lawyer did reveal in October that SLED has been investigating Murdaugh “from the get-go” as a person of interest in the double homicide. Attorney Jim Griffin, however, insisted that they were not worried about the investigation because Murdaugh has an alibi for the time of the murders and “had no motive to kill them.”
“You would think that if Alex was the one who did it, that SLED would have been able to establish that pretty easily that night,” Griffin told Fox Carolina. “You would think they would have searched his house and found blood somewhere. You would think they would have found the murder weapons on the property. You would think they would come up with something to link Alex to the murders, forensically or independent evidence. To my knowledge, they have not done that.”
Griffin denied reports Murdaugh and his wife were having marital troubles prior to the murder, previously telling The Daily Beast that his client “loved his wife and son.” He added that he reviewed Murdaugh’s text messages with his wife and found nothing out of the ordinary.
In the legal drama that has surrounded Murdaugh since June, including the failed orchestration of his own murder for a $10 million insurance payout for his surviving son, the scion has remain consistent that his biggest priority is finding out who killed his family. During his December bond hearing, Murdaugh said he only devised the wild scheme amid intense grief over the shootings—and withdrawal from a two-decade addiction to opioids. (The Murdaugh cousin also charged in the failed insurance plot has denied being a drug dealer, though he has been charged with drug offenses in the past.)
The question of who might have targeted Alex Murdaugh’s closest loved ones in such brutal fashion is perhaps the most befuddling thread in this twisted family soap opera. It’s a mystery for which the chief agency investigating the case—the SLED, which did not respond to a request for comment on any updates—does not appear to have answers.
How, if at all, are the Murdaughs connected to Stephen Smith?
Perhaps the most under-the-radar investigation tied to the Murdaugh family is that involving the 2015 death of 19-year-old Stephen Smith. On June 23, authorities announced that they would open an investigation into the unsolved homicide “based upon information gathered during the course of the double-murder investigation of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh.”
At the time, a SLED spokesperson told The Daily Beast the investigation was opened to provide a “fresh set of eyes” on the case—and noted that it would include evidence and interviews from previous probes from other agencies. The spokesperson, however, declined to comment on what information from the double homicide spurred the new look at the Smith case, or how the Murdaughs might have been connected to the teenager.
Smith was found dead on a rural backcountry road in Hampton, South Carolina, on July 8, 2015. While his death was immediately deemed suspicious, a medical examiner ultimately concluded the teenager died from a hit-and-run despite his head wound being consistent with a gunshot. Nobody has been charged in his death, and other than SLED’s investigation announcement, the Murdaughs have never been publicly linked to it.
According to South Carolina Highway Patrol records obtained by the Island Packet, however, investigators probing Smith’s death tried—in vain—to chase tips tying the Murdaugh family to the case.
The records reportedly show that witnesses suggested Murdaugh’s older son, Buster, was somehow tied to the accident, though authorities never corroborated the claims. He has never been charged.
“The Murdaughs know that,” then-SCHP Lance Cpl. Todd Proctor said in a Sept. 2, 2015, interview with a tipster, according to the records reviewed by the Packet. “They know that [Buster’s] on our radar.”
Meanwhile, in a July 17, 2015, interview, Stephanie Smith indicated that Randolph “Randy” Murdaugh, Alex Murdaugh’s older brother and himself an attorney, called her family shortly after they learned the news about her twin brother’s death. “The day that Stephen passed away, Randy Murdaugh was the second person to call my dad after the coroner,” she said, according to the investigation’s records, as reported by the Packet. “And he said he wanted to take the case, and it would be free of charge and everything.”
For Mike Hemlepp, an attorney representing the Smith family, the main obstacle to solving the teenager’s death is that “everything about it is a question mark.” While Hemlepp stressed he could not provide The Daily Beast with details of SLED’s ongoing investigation, he did note that his clients and law enforcement were working together to solve the case.
“Hampton is a small community, but this case is far from being solved,” the lawyer told The Daily Beast. “With a community this small, there are people that know what happened. There are a lot of blank spaces and we are focused on answering them.”
Randolph Murdaugh did not respond to The Daily Beast’s requests for comment. SLED declined to comment on any update in the case. Attempts to reach Buster Murdaugh for this story were unsuccessful.
What Happened to Gloria Satterfield?
As the fallout over Alex Murdaugh’s botched assisted-suicide spiraled this fall, SLED dropped another bombshell on the embattled attorney: an investigation into the death of his former housekeeper.
Gloria Satterfield, a 57-year-old longtime nanny, died on Feb. 2, 2018, from injuries sustained at the Murdaugh family’s Hampton County home. In a 911 call from the incident released last month, a man is heard saying that Satterfield “cracked her head and there’s blood on the concrete and she’s bleeding out of her left ear,” though the details of what led up to that remain unclear.
About 11 minutes after the call, Satterfield was en route to the hospital, where she died days later from a stroke and cardiac arrest.
Murdaugh has not been charged with any crimes—nor even named as a person of interest—in connection with Satterfield’s death.
In a September letter to SLED asking for the new probe, Hampton County Coroner Angela Topper revealed that an autopsy was never performed for Satterfield. “On the death certificate, the manner of death was ruled ‘Natural’, which is inconsistent with injuries sustained in a trip and fall accident,” Topper added.
The mystery behind Satterfield’s death is indirectly tied to criminal charges laid out against Murdaugh, as prosecutors allege the scion funneled millions of dollars meant for Satterifeld’s sons in a wrongful-death lawsuit for his own enrichment. Satterfield’s family has also filed a lawsuit against Murdaugh for the misappropriation of those settlement funds.
“We may never know what happened to Gloria Satterfield that day,” Eric Bland, an attorney representing the Satterfield family, told The Daily Beast. “But we do know what happened after her death—and what Alex Murdaugh did to her family.”
Murdaugh allegedly encouraged Satterfield’s two sons “to sue [him] in order to seek an insurance settlement.” But even though the pair was set to receive a chunk of the $4.3 million settlement, Murdaugh allegedly pocketed the cash for his “own use,” according to the Satterfields’ lawsuit.
Dick Harpootlian, one of Murdaugh’s lawyers, read a statement from his client during the December hearing acknowledging “mishandling” the $4.3 million from Satterfield’s two sons, along with an apology.
To date, that nod to his role in the disappearance of the Satterfield money represents just the second time the scion has appeared to admit to wrongdoing, along with the insurance scheme.
That leaves dozens of alleged financial crimes prosecutors say Murdaugh committed. In two separate indictments, he is accused of stealing over $6 million from clients and his former law firm.
Even those indictments might not be the end to Murdaugh’s legal troubles. Bland, the attorney representing Satterfield’s surviving sons, told The Daily Beast he knows of “many victims of Murdaugh’s that were not included in the grand-jury indictments” and pointed to the prospect of more charges coming down the pike.
“All I will say is that I think that in the next couple of months, we will see many more charges against Alex Murdaugh,” Bland told The Daily Beast in December. “Our state grand jury only meets once a week a month. This month alone they indicted Murdaugh with almost 50 charges. I expect the same thing will happen next month.”