HAMPTON, SC — Curtis Edward Smith, a handyman and former lumberjack, had over the years done his fair share of odd jobs for Alex Murdaugh, a lawyer and scion of one of the most powerful legal families in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
But Mr. Smith said he was reluctant to do the last job Murdaugh asked for when the two men met on a Saturday in September by the side of a country road.
“I want you to shoot me in the back of my head,” Mr. Smith recalled that Mr. Murdaugh had told him. He said Mr. Murdaugh had a loaded gun in his hand.
The disturbing story got even weirder when, 10 days later, state law enforcement officers arrested Mr. Smith, 61, and accused him of collaborating with Mr. Murdaugh in a failed plot to kill him. Murdaugh came up with the plan to make his death look like a homicide, police said, in hopes that his oldest son would receive a $10 million life insurance benefit as Mr. Murdaugh’s life unfolded in spectacular fashion.
That unraveling is now at the center of a sprawling saga of mysterious deaths — including the unsolved murder of Mr. Murdaugh’s wife and youngest son — and allegations of multimillion-dollar fraud and abuse of trust and power. The drama has sent 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 that the personal trials of a small-town lawyer have such wide resonance. But Mr. Murdaugh, 53, was a well-connected player in the clubby South Carolina legal world for many years; Based in the small town of Hampton, the family law firm has long been considered a powerhouse in the state’s attorney’s bar.
In recent weeks, a dizzying array of criminal investigations and civil lawsuits have emerged, accusing Mr. Murdaugh of betraying friends, colleagues and clients. Police have previously opened closed cases, including one involving the death of a former classmate of Mr. Murdaugh’s son and another involving a housekeeper long believed to have stumbled fatally on the doorstep of the Murdaugh family’s home. had fallen.
They are also looking into allegations that Mr. 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, professor emeritus of law and ethics at the University of South Carolina. “You can’t talk to anyone in South Carolina who isn’t talking about this case and isn’t just amazed at what’s going on.”
Murdaugh has maintained through his lawyers that he had nothing to do with the deadly June shooting of his wife, Margaret, 52, and their youngest son, Paul, 22, whose bodies he discovered during the family’s 1,700-acre hunt. estate. Last month, however, he was arrested on charges of the fake suicide attempt. Before giving in to the plan, Mr. Murdaugh had claimed that a stranger shot him when he stopped to change a tire, with the bullet sliding through his crown.
He appeared in court on September 16 before being released to await trial. His body was curved, his signature red hair streaked with white. His attorney, Richard A. Harpootlian, a Democratic state senator, said Mr. Murdaugh was in rehab for an oxycodone addiction.
Mr Smith was also released. He continues to insist that he was not an employee, but an easy scapegoat – collateral damage from a powerful man’s out of control midlife slip.
“I don’t know if betrayed is the word for it,” Mr. Smith said recently, sitting on a love seat in his modest home outside of Walterboro, SC. “I saw him as a brother, you know, and loved him as a brother. And I would have 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 island character and traditions. It is a state where old surnames can still carry considerable weight.
To some, the name Murdaugh represents both power and public service. For nearly 90 years and three generations, the chief prosecutor for five counties around Hampton was held by a Murdaugh. And for some time now, the law firm associated with the Murdaugh family has been one of the leading law firms in the state. The Hampton headquarters, housed in a Colonial Revival red brick building, is second only to the nearby county courthouse.
For some here, the name Murdaugh has come to represent a domination of the justice system so pervasive that people, with or without justification, questioned whether it had the power to influence the course of justice in favor of the family.
That’s one of the questions investigators are now asking if they don’t just investigate the murder of Mr. Murdaugh, but also at least three other deaths that preceded that tragedy.
How much, have researchers tried to find out, did Alex Murdaugh use 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 in a rural road in 2015. He died of blunt force trauma to the head, but there were no signs of being hit by a car.
mr. Smith was a classmate of Alex Murdaugh’s eldest son, Richard Alexander Murdaugh Jr., who goes by Buster. The Smith family told police that Alex Murdaugh’s brother, a partner at the Murdaugh law firm, reached out and offered to represent the family for free, but he declined the offer. No connection to the Murdaugh family has ever been identified, although investigators say they are now taking a fresh look.
The second case under scrutiny took place in 2019 when, according to witnesses, Alex Murdaugh’s son, Paul, drunkenly crashed the family boat into a bridge and threw 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 charges of driving under the influence resulting in death, but he was killed before he had a chance to face trial.
Mrs. Beach’s family is suing Mr. Murdaugh and the grocery store that sold a minor Paul the alcohol. Connor Cook, a lifelong friend of Paul’s who had also been on the boat, filed another lawsuit last month, accusing Mr. Murdaugh and others of framed him for the boating accident. Mr Cook said Mr Murdaugh had told him to “shut up” and told investigators he did not know who was driving.
According to that lawsuit, Mr. Murdaugh’s family of Mr. Cook convinced to hire a lawyer named Cory Fleming, a friend and former roommate of Alex Murdaugh, and the godfather of Paul Murdaugh.
After the murder of Alex Murdaugh’s wife and son, investigators once again began to investigate another mysterious death linked to the family: that of Gloria Satterfield, the housekeeper and nanny who had worked for the Murdaugh family for a quarter of a century.
Early in the morning in February 2018, Mrs. Satterfield fell on the front steps of the Murdaughs’ isolated home. Maggie Murdaugh found her bleeding and called 911, according to Eric Bland, an attorney for Mrs Satterfield’s two adult sons. He said the Murdaughs told the family she had tripped over their dogs.
Mrs. Satterfield had lost most of her ability to speak and died a few weeks later.
Despite the Murdaugh family’s story, her death was deemed “natural” on her death certificate, the result of a brain hemorrhage. No autopsy was performed and the coroner was not contacted.
Hours after Mrs. Satterfield’s funeral, her sons say, Mr. Murdaugh said he would assume responsibility and referred them to an attorney who would help them file a lawsuit to force Mr. Murdaugh’s insurers to pay damages. Pay.
The lawyer was again Mr. Murdaugh, Mr. Fleming – who they later thought was not their interests, but Alex Murdaugh’s.
Fleming, the sons said in a subsequent lawsuit, advised them to transfer management of their mother’s estate to a director of a local bank where Mr. Murdaugh had done business.
Five months later, court records show, a judge approved a settlement to pay the sons $2.8 million from Mr. Murdaugh’s insurers and award more than $1 million in attorneys’ fees. But the sons say they’ve never heard of the deal.
It turned out that Mr. Fleming had sent the money to Mr. Murdaugh, according to copies of the checks and other documents recently submitted to the court by Mr. Bland.
The sons haven’t seen it yet, Mr. Bland said.
Mr Fleming said in a statement that Mr Murdaugh had also cheated on him and that he thought the sons would get the money. Last week, the office of Mr. Fleming agreed to refund all attorneys’ fees received from the settlement and the malpractice insurers agreed to pay the sons full policy limits.
But that wasn’t the only money that seemed to be missing. Last month, Mr. Murdaugh’s colleagues at the law firm said they discovered he had raised millions of dollars from the firm, and they asked him to resign. Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers said he had spent huge sums of money on his addiction to oxycodone pills, but they have not given any explanation as to where the rest of the money went.
“He has fallen from grace,” said Mr. Harpootlian at the hearing last month. “If someone wants to see the face of what opioid addiction does, you look at it.”
A meeting on a lonely road
A day after the company announced it was ending its relationship with Mr. Murdaugh would break up, he and Mr. Smith on the road out of town, haggling, says Mr. Smith, about Mr. turn into.
Mr Smith, who is now facing charges including assisted suicide, assault, insurance fraud and sale of methamphetamine, said he had no intention of participating in any settlement over insurance money. He said Mr. Murdaugh, who is a distant cousin, called that morning and asked him to drive his work truck to Hampton, without discussing why.
Soon, he said, Mr. Murdaugh drove past and honked for Mr. Smith to follow.
Outside town, Mr. Murdaugh parked on the side of the road, and Mr. Smith stopped nearby. As he got out of his truck, Mr. Murdaugh pulled out a gun and asked Mr. Smith to shoot it.
“It’s not going to happen,” Mr. Smith told him. When Mr. Murdaugh moved as if to shoot himself in the head, he said, Mr. Smith grabbed his arm and twisted it behind his back. The gun went off.
Mr. Murdaugh sank to the ground, Mr. Smith said, his hand on his head, his legs spread.
Mr. Smith, left with the gun, asked if Mr. Murdaugh was okay. mr. Murdaugh indicated that he was.
The handyman cursed the lawyer, jumped back into his truck and drove off.
Sheelagh McNeill and Kitty Bennett research contributed.