Sins of the father: The pain and privilege of being Buster Murdaugh

It was impossible to know what Buster Murdaugh was thinking. After six weeks of testimony, a jury was preparing to deliver its verdict against his father, Alex Murdaugh, a prominent former attorney accused of murdering Buster’s mother and brother.

A Colleton County sheriff’s deputy who had accompanied the Murdaugh family throughout the trial placed her hands almost tenderly on his shoulders and bent her knees, as if preparing to hold him down.

As the clerk of court read out a guilty verdict, CNN cut live to Buster. His usually pale face was red. The stiff waves of his shocking orange hair were frizzy, and he rubbed his face. But if there was disbelief, rage or acceptance in the dark eyes he shares with his father, it wasn’t obvious.

In the chaos after the verdicts were read, Buster slipped out of the courtroom without a word.

Since his father’s trial grabbed international headlines, Buster has continued to puzzle followers of the closely watched case. “The normal part of me feels empathy for him. The cynic in me feels he’s a bad seed like his dad,” read one comment on a popular Reddit page dedicated to the Murdaugh case. Two years to the week since the murders were commmitted, the comment still appropriately sums up the conflict many feel toward the young Murdaugh.

In one view, Buster is a victim out of a Greek tragedy. His family has been decimated. His mother and only brother murdered by his father. His family name forever in tatters, torn apart by the greed, lies and sins of a father he loved and looked up to. To this day, he is dogged by unsubstantiated rumors that he was somehow involved in the death of Stephen Smith, a high school classmate who was killed in 2015.

A family photo of Buster, Paul, Maggie and Alex is shown during the murder trial of Alex Murdaugh at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro on Thursday, March 2, 2023. Andrew J. Whitaker/The Post and Courier/Pool

His entire life, Buster wanted nothing more than to hunt, fish, watch sports and, above all, be a lawyer. And then he was forced to watch from the sidelines as first his brother and then his father brought about the fall of his house and his family. At the beginning of his life, his name, which once opened doors and cleared the way to a certain future, now hangs like a weight around his neck.

But in another version, he is the privileged fifth generation heir to a legal and political empire in Hampton County that wielded its enormous power through manipulation and intimidation. He was kicked out of law school for cheating after being set up to succeed by a lavish life provided, in part, by millions of dollars his father admitted stealing.

Buster has become something of a Rorschach test. Both stories may be true, but which one you believe says more about you and what you think about the Murdaugh saga.

It’s a topic few people, including Buster, are willing to discuss. “I’m confident he won’t want to speak to you,” his uncle, John Marvin Murdaugh, said politely.

Guessing what Buster thinks is hazardous. “You have no right to presume anything,” he told a Daily Mail reporter who asked if he was supporting his dad.

Months after Alex Murdaugh was sentenced to live the rest of his natural life in prison, the reticence to talk still extends deep into his hometown. When asked what she thought of Buster, one town of Hampton business owner told The State, “the whole thing is tragic and let’s just leave it at that.”

The house of Murdaugh

If there is a reason why Buster receives no sympathy from some it is this: He grew up with privilege and wealth, some of it alleged to have been stolen, and for much of his life, he profited unconsciously from it.

“He’s basically just a guy who seems happy to have been born a Murdaugh and content to walk down the road that was laid for him from the beginning,” Liz Farell, a journalist and host of the Murdaugh Murders Podcast, said on episode 30 of the show that extensively covered the family.

Buster grew up in the small town of Hampton – “Anywhere in Hampton is close to anywhere in Hampton,” he testified during his father’s murder trial – in a handsome three-story house with genteel lamps, wood shutters and verandas on two floors.

The town is the seat of a poor county where the average income is barely $20,000 a year and almost a quarter of the population lives below the poverty line. In that environment, the Murdaughs enjoyed an almost feudal level of privilege through their historic control of the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, involvement in local politics and partnership in a law firm that dominated the civil court docket.

“Buster wanted the life his father had. He wanted to be a big name lawyer,” said Paul’s former girlfriend, Morgan Doughty, in an interview for a Netflix documentary. “He wanted to have the wealth and the power. He was following his father’s footsteps.”

A painting of former solicitor Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr. is currently hanging in the courtroom where Alex Murdaugh is to be tried. The painting will be removed for the January Trial.

In addition to the house in town, the Murdaughs had a beach house in Edisto and a boat, and they enjoyed family houses around the Lowcountry. Some years Alex took home over a million dollars from his law practice. Buster and Paul had apartments in Columbia. They golfed and hunted, vacationed in Key West and flew around the country to watch University of South Carolina sports teams. In 2014 they bought the 1,700-acre Moselle estate in Colleton County at a discount from one of Alex’s business partners.

Before everything fell apart, it was local lore that the Murdaughs always got their way and that those who crossed them did so at their own risk. The Murdaugh name carried weight, and the family was not shy about wielding it, even, as one story goes, on something as mundane as their son’s high school baseball team.

Buster failed to make the varsity team at Wade Hampton High School in 2011. In the fall of that year, the school district announced that Wade Hampton High School’s much loved baseball coach and athletic director, Steve Kemmerlin, was being terminated. Buster’s grandmother, Libby, was chairwoman of the school board at the time.

The Hampton County Guardian, the town’s local paper, reported “unconfirmed rumors of backroom dealings and nepotism,” which the district and Libby Murdaugh denied at the time. When reached recently by The State, Kemmerlin said that ten years ago he might have talked all about it, but he no longer had any desire to discuss the events surrounding his firing.

Buster played varsity baseball for the Wade Hampton Red Devils his sophomore year, according to the school’s 2012 high school yearbook. The theme for that year was “Caught Red Handed.” His grandfather, Randolph, eventually helped coach the team when Buster was an upperclassman.

Loris High School’s Desmond Dozier dives back to first base and was called safe as Wade Hampton High School’s Buster Murdaugh catches the ball on Friday, May 16, 2014. Loris ost the first game of the night. Photo by Janet Blackmon Morgan /

“You’ve heard the analogy, big fish in a small pond? That’s what the Murdaughs were,” said Michael DeWitt, the editor of the Hampton County Guardian. “You hang out with the Murdaughs and you don’t have to worry about getting a ticket or you weren’t going to get pulled over for drinking and driving. It was just kind of an unspoken thing, they just got what they wanted and nobody really bothered them.”

After graduating from Wofford College in 2018, Buster was kicked out of the University of South Carolina School of Law the next spring for what court records show were low grades and reported plagiarism.

From inside his jail cell in the fall of 2021, an undeterred Alex Murdaugh schemed to get his son back into law school. On the phone, Alex reminded his son that after his second chance he wasn’t going to get another one. He encouraged him to hang around the dean’s office and stay in close touch with Butch Bowers, an attorney and well-connected Columbia fixer who the elder Murdaugh paid $60,000 to get Buster readmitted to law school.

Don’t feel bad about bothering Butch, Alex tells his son. “He’s been paid very well for all of this.”

The trials of Buster Murdaugh

What Buster has endured is nearly unimaginable. Since 2018 his life has been in freefall. On the stand he described how that Christmas they had to send Alex to a detox facility for oxycodone. In February 2019, his family came under national media scrutiny after his brother, Paul, was accused of drunkenly causing the boat crash that killed his friend, Mallory Beach.

That spring Buster was kicked out of law school.

Over the next two years he was dragged into the vortex of litigation following the boat crash when it was revealed that Paul had used Buster’s driver’s license to buy beer before the fatal crash. In court filings, Buster has said he doesn’t know how Paul got the ID.

“It was definitely an uneasy feeling,” Buster testified during his father’s trial, describing the mounting financial, legal and media pressure on his family.

And then on June 7, 2021, his mother and brother were brutally murdered at his family’s home. Just three days later his grandfather Randolph Murdaugh III died after a long illness. Within months, his father was in jail, charged with the first of more that 100 financial crimes.

How then has he reconciled that the architect of his misery might be his own father? In a statement to the Daily Mail reporter two months before the trial, he said, “I don’t want to see it written anywhere that I’m supporting my father.”

Alex Murdaugh gives his son Buster Murdaugh a pat during a break in testimony during trial at the Colleton County Courthouse in Walterboro, Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2023. Grace Beahm Alford/The Post and Courier/Pool

The most intimate look into Buster’s life comes from a series of phone conversations he had with Alex while Alex was jailed in Richland County while awaiting trial.

Throughout the hours of taped conversations, Moselle, Maggie and Paul hang like a specter. When Alex asks if his son is OK, Buster rarely says anything other than a dismissive “fine.” He refuses to return to Moselle, where his mom and brother were killed, and flatly rejects Alex’s suggestion that he give his girlfriend, Brooklynn, a keepsake of Maggie’s for Christmas.

“She’s like mom, you can always just look at her and know when she’s got the biggest buzz,” Alex said to Buster on a call around Christmas 2021. “You know how mom used to smile?”

“I do,” Buster replies shortly, letting silence hang in the air.

Eventually Alex breaks the silence. “So what else is going on?” And the conversation moves on.

Over Alex’s six-week trial, Buster watched as the prosecution never presented forensic evidence that conclusively linked his dad to the murders. But he also watched his father admit to lying about being at the scene shortly before the killings.

On the stand, Buster was an enigma in a navy blazer and college ring. Over nearly two hours of testimony, he leaned forward on the stand with an empty, forlorn expression. Occasionally he appeared confused and admitted to not knowing details like his dad’s birthday.

Mostly, he looked dejected as he licked his lips, and his eyes darted around as if someone could walk through the courtroom doors and tell him the last four years had been a bad dream.

Buster Murdaugh, center, receives a hug in the pouring rain at the funeral service for his brother, Paul, and mother, Maggie, on June 11, 2021.

His testimony was immediately dissected online and in the media. One generous TV presenter called him “stoic” while body language experts took to YouTube to dissect the “red flags” he displayed.

Reviewing Buster’s testimony, Dr. Robyn Koslowitz, a clinical psychologist, told News Nation that she thought he displayed what she called the “anesthesia of trauma.”

“People in the aftermath of extreme tragedy do talk in that very logical, detached way.” Koslowitz said.

But online commenters accused him of being everything from empty, inauthentic and coached.

“Buster seemed just as detached to reality as his father. There’s something else this young man knows,” read one Reddit comment.

While PTSD, anxiety and depression have complex roots in genetics, experience and family history, the more stressors someone experiences the more likely they are to develop long term effects following traumatic events, said Dr. Anna Baker, an assistant professor of psychology at Clemson University.

“That’s the loss of basically his entire family in a very short period of time. Added to that you have the stressors of the media and his name… Maybe 10 or 20 years ago you wouldn’t have had this inability to escape it but it’s at a level that you wouldn’t have seen previously,” Baker said.

“Whatever you think of him he has been through a lot.”

You can’t go home again

By his own account, Buster has not spent a single night at Moselle since the murders. He’s stopped going to Hampton, the town his family has lived in for generations and where he once believed that he would practice law in the county courthouse across the street from a law firm that used to bear his family’s name.

“He hasn’t been around. I don’t think he’s going to be around anymore,” one florist said last month as she wrapped graduation bouquets. “He’s got a hard road to hoe ahead of him.”

If those around him are protective, who can blame them? During the trial, Daily Mail photographers followed him to his mother’s grave. After his father was convicted of the murders, a New York Post photographer snapped pictures of Buster through a crack in the blinds of his girlfriend’s condo.

The couple filed police reports after a suspicious car loitered outside their home and they were followed by an SUV. Police who pulled over the SUV for speeding and improper lane changes reportedly saw a camera bag on the passenger seat.

Buster Murdaugh, the son of Alex Murdaugh, listens to prosecutor John Meadors give his closing arguments in Alex Murdaugh’s trial for murder at the Colleton County Courthouse on Thursday, March 2, 2023. Joshua Boucher/The State/Pool

Just days before the trial, Buster Murdaugh reached a settlement with the Beach family and other survivors of the 2019 boat crash. In March, Moselle was sold to neighbors. The proceeds from the sale of the property and other Murdaugh family assets mostly went to benefit plaintiffs in the boat crash litigation, but Buster was given $530,000 from the proceeds and released from the lawsuit.

“The Beach family feels like Buster had suffered enough, and it was important to get Buster out of the lawsuit,” said Mark Tinsley, the Beach’s attorney said at the time.

In May, Brooklyn and Buster purchased a house for $445,000 in a quiet subdivision not far from Hilton Head where Brooklynn works as an attorney at an all-woman law firm. No one could tell the newspaper what Buster was doing for work these days.

Whether you see Buster Murdaugh as a victim or a villain may depend on what rumors you’ve heard — rumors Buster has refuted — about the death of Stephen Smith.

Smith’s body was found on a rural Hampton County road in 2015. A medical examiner determined that Smith, a 19-year-old openly gay nursing student, was the victim of a hit-and-run. But earlier this year the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division ruled the case a homicide.

A month after Smith’s body was found, a South Carolina Highway Patrol investigator wrote in his notes that someone named Brandon had been asking if Stephen and Buster Murdaugh had ever had any kind of a relationship. Four days later, Brandon told the investigator that the text “was just what he heard from others. Just rumors,” according to the report.

While Buster’s name comes up multiple times in the investigative file, he wasn’t the only person who authorities investigated. But rumors about Buster and Smith’s death became entrenched as Hampton County lore and then took on a life of their own.

A recent Netflix series on the Murdaugh family featured actors dressed in red and white baseball uniforms, the colors of Wade Hampton High School, menacingly cruising dark country roads in a pickup truck and swinging baseball bats over interviewees describing rumors of what happened the night of Stephen’s death.

“It’s just stuff that’s not true,” Buster can be heard complaining to his dad on a taped phone call after the news program 20/20 aired a segment on the family.

“The situation that Buster found himself in was, the longer he stayed quiet the more this story got legs,” attorney Jim Griffin, who represented Alex, told Chris Cuomo on News Nation.

In his only public statement, Buster denied any connection to Smith’s homicide. “These baseless rumors of my involvement with Stephen and his death are false. I unequivocally deny any involvement in his death, and my heart goes out to the Smith family.”

Lawyers for Stephen’s mother, Sandy, have also disavowed the Murdaugh connection. “This case has never been about the Murdaughs,” said Eric Bland, the lawyer for Stephen’s mother.

As the Smith case shows, the frenzied appetite for all things Murdaugh has not dissipated for those who follow the saga as if it was their favorite television show, and much of that attention falls on Buster.

So where can Buster go? Widespread coverage and his distinctive appearance have made him an unwilling national figure. “I guess you’re going to have to wear a hat and s---t when you go places,” Alex suggested on a phone call. In Hampton, DeWitt believes that Buster could find peace again in his hometown, where everyone knows what he endured.

“He would be accepted. You know, time heals all wounds. It’d be something that we talked about less and less until, one day, to our grand kids it would just be another Murdaugh legend,” DeWitt said.

The front porch where a pot with the name Buster is seen at the Murdaugh Moselle property on Wednesday, March 1, 2023 in Islandton. Andrew J. Whitaker/The Post and Courier/Pool

In the meantime, members of Facebook groups still breathlessly report on his whereabouts and breathlessly share sightings. In one detailed report, a Facebook poster described watching Buster get hassled by a group of girls at a bar called Roosters in Knoxville. “But anyways, just sad that he can’t go anywhere to let off some steam or enjoy himself!”

Shortly after his father was arrested in the fall of 2021, more than half a year before Alex would be charged with murdering Maggie and Paul, Buster began being confronted by strangers. In one encounter, he told his dad about being heckled by some “redneck”who told him that a local TV station was looking for him.

That the case would attract so much attention appeared to be news to Alex.

“You don’t run into any of these people in public,” Buster told his dad on a taped jail phone call. “But I get stopped and yelled at all the time. I got cussed at in the gas station the other day.”

“You’re kidding,” Alex replied, incredulous. “For what?”

“Being who I am, I guess,” Buster said.