Five deaths, millions in fraud, and 100 years of family power crumbling to ruin in South Carolina.
While the most gripping true crime stories take us into the darkest parts of the soul, rarely does a case open the ugly heart of the nation itself. The labyrinthine case that’s come to be dubbed “the Murdaugh murders” feels like one that could only happen in America — a tale of generational power and corruption. This is a Southern Gothic morality play about a wealthy but fading Southern family whose huge amounts of wealth and influence fueled a jaw-dropping spree of recklessness, greed, and murder.
What one article aptly called “a lot of dead people and crime” involves the Murdaugh (pronounced “Murdock”) family, which has amassed power and wealth in South Carolina for over 100 years. But that century of power has crumbled in just half a decade due to a long list of financial crimes and five suspicious deaths beginning in 2015: an alleged homophobic hate crime; a deadly boating accident; a mysterious fall and insurance scam; the double murder of the family matriarch and favorite son; and a bizarre roadside incident that may have been another insurance scam. The whole tangled web culminated in the recent indictment in a South Carolina county court of the floundering patriarch, Alex Murdaugh, for the 2021 murders of his wife and son — bringing the total number of charges he is facing to over 80.
Murdaugh pleaded not guilty to the murder charges on July 20, setting the stage for what will likely be a bombshell trial, scheduled to begin January 23, accompanied by a media circus. That’s due in part to a hit podcast that began as one local journalist’s attempt to bring attention to the case. Now the Murdaugh murders have become a national true crime obsession. The trial, expected to last about 10 weeks, will likely include even more headline-grabbing twists.
Ready to dive into the details? You might want an oxygen tank for this one; as you might expect from just this summary, these are dark waters.
Meet the Murdaughs
The Murdaughs have wielded power over South Carolina’s “Lowcountry,” the lush, mossy wedge at the bottom of the state, for over 100 years — ever since Randolph Murdaugh Sr. founded his law office in Hampton County in 1910.
The firm eventually grew into a large, powerful practice continued by his son, Randolph Jr., and his grandson, Randolph III. From 1920 to 2006, all three men also successively held the post of solicitor (a.k.a. prosecutor) for South Carolina’s 14th Circuit Court. The Murdaughs’ 86-year stretch serving as circuit solicitors was the longest such family legacy in US history. As you might imagine, it also gave the family an unprecedented amount of power and influence, not just over Hampton County but over the other four counties under the circuit’s jurisdiction.
Randolph IV and Alex, two of Randolph III’s sons, followed in their father’s footsteps and became lawyers. Because South Carolina eventually prohibited lawyers from serving in the conflicting dual roles of public prosecutor and private attorney, the men didn’t serve as solicitors — but still served as “volunteer” prosecutors assisting their father while continuing the family’s law practice. The solicitor’s office ultimately fired Alex, and the family law firm changed its name from Peters Murdaugh Parker Eltzroth and Detrick, usually shortened to PMPED, to Parker Law Group earlier this year, likely to escape the growing stigma of the Murdaugh name — especially its association with Alex Murdaugh.
Alex, pronounced “Alec,” was a golden child who sired golden children. Born in 1967, he followed in his family’s footsteps and studied law at the University of South Carolina, where he met athlete-turned-sorority-sister Margaret “Maggie” Branstetter. They married in 1993 and subsequently had two sons, Buster, born in 1996, and Paul, born in 1999. The family lived in opulence, dividing their time among a beach house, a couple of private islands, and a massive 1,772-acre estate known as Moselle — which, like the law firm, was renamed to escape its connections with the Murdaughs.
But the family also lived lives of hedonism; Alex and both of his sons would face accusations of drug and alcohol addiction and wild, out-of-control behavior in the lead-up to the series of crimes. In particular, Alex’s years of extravagant living led to a litany of alleged financial crimes including fraud, embezzlement, and multiple attempted insurance scams — all of it adding up to an alleged $8.5 million in theft and leading to multiple homicides.
The Murdaughs’ power arguably hindered the initial and follow-up investigations into these deaths, leading to accusations of cover-ups and corruption. Ultimately, what began as separate investigations into separate crimes would knot themselves into an interconnected web of tragedy. These deaths — all dramatically different but all potentially linked by the Murdaughs — reflected something of the chaos the Murdaughs brought with them, despite their stature and reputation.
2015: The death of Stephen Smith
On July 8, 2015, 19-year-old Hampton student Stephen Smith phoned his mother to tell her he’d run out of gas. Later that night he was found lying in the middle of the road miles away from his truck. He’d died of blunt force trauma, and his body had been “laid out in the middle of the road like a snow angel,” according to his mother.
Authorities with the South Carolina Highway Patrol initially assumed Stephen was the victim of a hit-and-run after leaving his truck and walking to get gas, and closed the case accordingly, despite numerous observations by police that suggested Smith’s death was a homicide. But police also later noted that the scene looked staged, and town gossip began to swirl that Smith, who was rumored to be dating Buster Murdaugh at the time, had been the victim of a hate crime or that the Murdaugh brothers had a role in his death.
In June 2021, while the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, or SLED, was investigating the other murders related to the Murdaugh family, authorities reopened the investigation into Smith’s death, issuing a statement implying they were somehow connected. So far no charges or indictments have been issued, but the investigation is still open, and Smith’s mother has stated that the latest indictments into the other murders give her “hope that we will get justice.”
2018: The death of Gloria Satterfield — and a whole lot of fraud
On February 2, 2018, the Murdaughs’ longtime housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, suffered a severe head injury at the Moselle estate and died on February 26 of complications including a stroke. The cause of her death is unclear, since the coroner was never notified and Satterfield’s body was never autopsied; authorities later paradoxically described her death as both “natural” and resulting from an accidental trip and fall.
Still, Satterfield’s death might not be exactly suspicious had it not been for what came next: According to multiple criminal indictments and multiple lawsuits, Alex Murdaugh and two other men, banker Chad Westendorf and fellow attorney Cory Fleming, then conspired to steal Satterfield’s $4.3 million insurance policy by misleading Satterfield’s sons and diverting all the funds to Alex himself through a phony business Alex created called “Forge” — an irony, since Murdaugh would later be charged with multiple counts of forgery. As part of the scam, Alex convinced Satterfield’s sons to sue him for liability so that they would be able to receive a hefty liability settlement. But he then kept all the money for himself.
The Satterfield insurance scam was just one of a laundry list of instances where Alex embezzled and defrauded money from clients at his law firm, usually by settling their cases for large sums of money and then failing to tell them about it while he spent the client’s settlement payout on himself. He repeated the same pattern with, among others, Hakeem Pinckney, a college football player who became quadriplegic following an auto accident. Pinckney died in 2011, and his family never saw the more than $750,000 payout.
In Satterfield’s case, Alex evinced additional suspicious behavior around her death, including arriving on the scene before the EMTs and insisting he heard Satterfield say his dogs caused her fall, contradicting her own statement later that she had no idea what caused it.
Satterfield’s sons were ultimately able to recover more than $6.5 million from subsequent lawsuits; meanwhile, authorities received permission to exhume Satterfield’s body in June 2022 in order to continue the criminal investigation into her death.
2019: The death of Mallory Beach
Mystery still surrounds the death of Mallory Beach, but one thing is clear: Without the events of February 24, 2019, we might not even be talking about the Murdaughs today.
That evening, 19-year-old Paul Murdaugh and a group of friends were returning to the Murdaugh estate by boat after a night of partying. According to nearly all witnesses present, Paul insisted on piloting the boat himself despite being extremely intoxicated. He was reportedly in a belligerent, angry state and refused to give up the wheel, driving erratically and too fast along one of the area’s many twisting waterways. At some point during the early morning hours, Paul crashed the boat into Archers Creek Bridge, ejecting multiple passengers from the boat, including 19-year-old Mallory Beach. It took a week for authorities to recover Beach’s body.
Despite the clear signs of intoxication, however, authorities failed to record his intoxication levels at the scene; at the hospital later that night, multiple witnesses confirmed that Paul was still drunk and uncooperative. They also observed that Alex Murdaugh arrived at the hospital and began to threaten and attempt to coerce witnesses there, encouraging them to stick to a version of events that cleared Paul of wrongdoing; one witness described the atmosphere as “a weird, corny teen drama.”
Mallory Beach’s death led to a flurry of lawsuits and a criminal investigation focusing on Paul Murdaugh. The Beach case also coincided with growing financial troubles for Alex Murdaugh and suspicion about his many fraudulent activities, and later court documents revealed a man who seemed desperate to shift blame away from his son. Instead, in 2019, Paul was charged with three criminal counts of felony boating under the influence; he eventually pleaded not guilty.
Beach’s family sued the entire Murdaugh family, more or less, for her wrongful death, alleging that Alex Murdaugh and his brother Randolph, and Paul Murdaugh and his brother Buster, had conspired to cover up the cause of her death. Community members also accused the Murdaughs of using their power and influence to delay the trial. In the lead-up to the trial, no less than three different law officials recused themselves because of their close ties to the Murdaugh family.
In June 2021, Paul Murdaugh was just days away from what would have been a costly and expensive trial for Beach’s death. He would never make it to the court date.
2021: The deaths of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh — and a bottomless fallout
During the summer of 2021, more and more public interest grew around Paul Murdaugh’s upcoming trial. After 30 years, Maggie Murdaugh was estranged from her husband Alex, living at the family’s beach house and reportedly looking into divorce. Alex was neck-deep in fraud schemes whose payouts were dwindling, facing a costly divorce and potentially steep legal fees for his son. He also claimed to be battling what he later described as a 20-year opioid addiction.
On June 7, 2021, Alex Murdaugh reportedly lured Maggie to Moselle, prompting her to text a friend that Alex was acting “fishy”; “he’s up to something,” she allegedly wrote to her friend. Upon arriving at the estate, Maggie met her son Paul at the family’s dog kennels. While they were there, mother and son were gunned down with two different weapons — Maggie with an assault-style rifle, Paul with a shotgun. Alex appeared on the scene shortly afterward and called 911 to report the deaths. An autopsy later confirmed both died of multiple gunshot wounds.
The double homicide of the Murdaughs caused Alex Murdaugh’s house of cards to collapse. He immediately fell under suspicion for the murders, and the case made national headlines. Three days after the murders, his father, Randolph III, died. On September 3, 2021, Murdaugh resigned from the family’s law firm after the firm confronted him over his years of suspected embezzlement. The firm later sued him, and law enforcement opened its own criminal investigation into the alleged fraud.
The following day, on September 4, 2021, Alex called 911 to report a strange roadside incident in which he claimed to have blown a tire. When a stranger stopped to help him, Alex reported, they shot him in the head instead. Though someone clearly shot and grazed Alex in the head, even witnesses at the scene didn’t believe his story; “it kind of looks like a setup, so we didn’t stop,” one 911 caller reported.
On September 14, Alex gave up the real plot: He’d intended to have a friend shoot and kill him so that his surviving son, Buster, could receive Alex’s $10 million life insurance payout. Authorities promptly arrested Murdaugh and his accomplice, Alex’s alleged drug supplier and former client Curtis Smith, charging Smith with assisted suicide and both men with conspiracy to commit insurance fraud. Alex’s law license was immediately suspended, and he was later disbarred.
Alex posted bond and checked himself into a drug rehab center, only to be arrested for felony fraud charges in the Satterfield case when he emerged. This time, his bail was denied and his assets were frozen.
By now, the case was a national sensation making regular mainstream headlines — in large part thanks to one local journalist. Mandy Matney had allegedly alienated her former news outlet by pursuing the Murdaugh case in more depth than her editors wanted. In 2020, she joined the South Carolina website FITSNews.com just so she could cover the Murdaughs. Days after the murders of Maggie and Paul, Matney and FITS launched the Murdaugh Murders podcast, which broke down the voluminous case piece by piece — starting with what she dubbed “South Carolina’s Chappaquiddick.”
The podcast was so successful it reportedly ranked among the world’s top podcasts in 2021; it’s currently being developed as a true crime drama series for a division of Universal. HBO Max is also developing a true crime documentary series about the case. The more attention Matney drew to the case, the more investigators appeared to ramp up their own work. Between November 2021 and July 2022, dozens of indictments were doled out against Alex Murdaugh and his co-conspirators. Community accusations leveled against the family for abusing its influence continued too, as yet another solicitor recused himself from the case, and evidence allegedly connecting Alex to the double murders was suppressed from the public. “You’ll know a Murdaugh did it if no one is arrested,” ran one apocryphal Facebook comment.
On July 14, 2022, however, Alex Murdaugh was indicted for the double homicide of his wife and son. “Today is one more step in a long process for justice for Maggie and Paul,” said Mark Keel, head of South Carolina’s State Law Enforcement Division.
But Alex Murdaugh apparently doesn’t intend to make the process easy. On July 20, he pleaded not guilty, in what will likely be the first of many controversial court proceedings. With attorneys filing for gag orders in the case and the community arguing for transparency, the spectacle about to unfold may give onlookers a glimpse into what that century of accumulated power has really achieved. Will Murdaugh, with his high-powered state senator attorney, be able to convince a jury of his innocence? What would that say about South Carolina’s small-town political landscape?
The murders surrounding the Murdaugh family already seem to have revealed a justice system that turned a blind eye while Alex Murdaugh committed felonies for years — to say nothing of murder. For so long, the Murdaughs were allowed to rule their corner of the world because they knew that system in a way most people don’t, even as their exercise of those privileges drove themselves and those around them to ruin. Questions still remain regarding the deaths of Stephen Smith and Gloria Satterfield, along with the extent and full nature of Alex Murdaugh’s long list of fraudulent activities. Though the murders of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh may be headed toward resolution, they’re just one aspect of a case that will likely have many twists and turns to come.
Update, January 17, 2023, 11 am: This story was originally published in August 2022 and has been updated with new details about Alex Murdaugh’s trial.