Money can’t buy happiness, but it can certainly buy you a lot of distance from the rest of the world. There’s the physical distance of a large estate or a gated community, hidden away from other people, and then there is the social distance it affords you, in which you see yourself (and others may see you) as “better” or “untouchable.” I don’t mean untouchable in the Hindu sense. I mean untouchable in the sense of the rules not applying to you in the same way they apply to others. This is what Alex Murdaugh’s privilege and money bought him. Thankfully, the state and a jury of his peers saw right through him and the many lies he told along the way.
Unless you’ve been on an extended safari or don’t own a television, you are probably aware of the 6-week trial of Alex Murdaugh, who was found guilty of first-degree murder of his wife and youngest son. Though he will appeal (and will likely exhaust all appeals available to him), he is currently going through processing and evaluation at a detention facility in South Carolina and will be there for about 90 days. After that, he will be sent to a maximum security prison for the rest of his life. (He was sentenced to serve two consecutive sentences of life without the possibility of parole.) He is a 54-year old disgraced and disbarred attorney who will never set foot outside prison confines without being in shackles and surrounded by armed guards. The state chose not to seek the death penalty, as the case was largely circumstantial, but even a circumstantial case can be won. In the end, the state was able to poke enough holes in the “two-shooter theory” and all other flimsy attempts to say why he didn’t do it. In the end, the jurors saw through the attempts to manipulate the truth.
To be clear, this man has been getting away with things for most of his life. He comes from a long line of lawyers or judges, men who were the law in South Carolina. People died around him and his family — particularly around him. You can read more about all of the lingering cases that are likely going to be reopened or reexamined in this New York Times article, but here’s the short version of the people who have died around him:
- In 2015, a young gay man (Stephen Smith) was killed by blunt force trauma to the head and was found lying in the road in Hampton County, SC. His death was initially ruled a hit-and-run, but nothing about the way he was found indicated that. He still had on his slip-on shoes and had no abrasions to suggest he had been hit and thrown by a car. Lots of people mentioned Richard Alexander “Buster” Murdaugh’s name in connection with the young man. Buster is Alex Murdaugh’s oldest son.
- In 2018, the 57-year old nanny and housekeeper of the Murdaughs (Gloria Satterfield) died after falling down the brick steps in front of the Murdaugh home on Moselle Rd. Her death was declared to be from “natural causes,” so an autopsy was not performed. Falling down a set of steps and cracking your head open is not a death from natural causes. The reach of the Murdaughs was wide, and we can only infer that it reached the coroner’s office. The family of Gloria Satterfield has granted authorization to exhume her body and reopen the investigation. (More on this later.)
- In 2019, Paul Murdaugh (the son killed by his own father in 2021), crashed his boat into the pilings of a bridge while having at least 3 times the legal limit of alcohol in his system. He had his girlfriend and two other couples on the boat with him. One of the girls (Mallory Beach) was thrown from the boat, suffered blunt force trauma and drowned. Her body was not found for a week. Paul was facing a trial and possibly a long prison sentence for the crime. The young woman’s family also filed a lawsuit against Paul Murdaugh, Alex Murdaugh, a convenience store that sold beer to Paul (who had used his older brother’s ID), and a bar that served shots to the teens.
- On June 7, 2021, Alex Murdaugh shot his son Paul with a shotgun — once to the chest, and once to the neck and shoulder area. The second shot literally blew his son’s brain out of the hole that opened up in his skull. Murdaugh then picked up an AR-15 Blackout rifle and shot his wife Maggie five times. She also had a gaping hole in her skull. This all took place at the dog kennels on his Moselle Rd. property. He almost got away with it, because he was crafty. If not for the Snapchat video his son had recorded five minutes before the murders, in which multiple people testified to hearing the voice of Alex Murdaugh on the video, he would be a free man. Paul solved his own murder by being such a frequent user of his phone and of social media. Murdaugh had told the police for nearly a year, over and over, that he had not been to the kennels and hadn’t seen his wife and son for at least an hour before they were murdered.
The lies that were spun around the murders were plentiful, but when so many witnesses testified to hearing his voice clearly on that Snapchat video, there was nowhere for him to go. He took the witness stand in his own defense and admitted to being there but not to killing his wife and son. Though he tried to manufacture an alibi, he was the only person without a valid one. His son, Buster, was in the Rock Hill/Charlotte area that night where he lived. That’s where he was when he was notified. The father immediately started influencing people, including Buster, with the story he wanted them to believe. In fact, one family friend who called Buster after she heard about the murders found it very odd that he told her, “It was premeditated and was vengeance.” People close to Alex Murdaugh also found it odd that he said his number one priority was to clear Paul’s name in the matter of the boat case, not saying anything about solving the murders.
One of the things we learned during the trial is that no one knew the real Alex, something the prosecutor characterized as “chilling”, but they all agreed he was cunning and knew how to manipulate people.
Something that also went to his character was the fact that he was accused of embezzlement (from the firm his own family started), money laundering, fraud, and stealing money from clients. He had gone so far as to set up a bank account at Bank of America as “Forge.” His firm used “Forge Consulting” to set up structures (annuities) for clients who chose to get their money that way rather than in a lump sum, for taxation purposes. So he started writing checks off the firm to “Forge” and would sign the checks “Alex Murdaugh, DBA Forge.” It was a long time before something happened which brought the financial irregularities to the attention of the CFO at the firm. Alex’ brother Randy was another partner at the firm and was stunned when he found out what his brother had been doing. During the trial, it was revealed that Murdaugh had been accused of 99 such financial crimes. (Another was added this week.) One of the many people he defrauded was his best friend, Chris Wilson, an attorney at another firm who had worked on many cases with his friend Alex. The partners at PMPED (Alex’ firm) had to come out of their own pockets to make clients whole, because one of their partners had stolen the money. Imagine finding out that you have to come up with hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay back money that someone you trusted had stolen from others.
Oh, and after his firm fired him for the financial crimes? He was suddenly shot by a stranger on a remote road while he attempted to change his tire. I see many problems with his story (which he has since admitted was an attempt to hire his cousin to murder him so that his son Buster could collet a $10 million life insurance policy). First, privileged people do not change their own tires. Second, he had run flat tires (though he had slashed one of them to make the flat tire story more believable). Third, it was terribly convenient that he was shot in such a way as to garner sympathy but not to die.
But back to the financial crimes. One of the clients he stole from was the family of Gloria Satterfield, the nanny and housekeeper who died after falling down his brick steps. At her funeral, he approached her sons and told them that they should sue him for wrongful death, and that his firm could handle it. Basically he sued himself. His insurance company paid out $4.3 million dollars. Every cent went into Alex’ pocket. The boys never saw a penny. It’s not a big leap to think he could have had something to do with her death, planning ahead to do this legal handstand in order to collect on her death.
His excuse for the financial crimes? Opioids. He said he had been addicted for ten or twenty years (no more specific than that). Part of his testimony was that he would take 10, 20, 50, 60 pills a day or more. He claimed to have taken up to 2,000 milligrams of oxycodone a day (which the prosecutor pointed out would have been incompatible with life, much less with being a practicing attorney who was constantly spinning schemes).
One of the things I noticed during the trial is that he could fake cry immediately when he thought it was necessary, but that whenever he denied killing Maggie and Paul, he nodded as he said it. He often rambled on and on and rarely answered a direct question with a direct answer.
I admit I was on the fence about Alex’ guilt before I watched the trial. I didn’t get to watch a lot of it while it was happening, but I got the daily summaries and have since watched much of the recorded testimony. Murdaugh’s two days on the witness stand were a jaw-dropping mess. He tried his best to spin stories on the spot. He was crystal clear on details of things he thought would make him look innocent, and on other things – things that should have made those snapshot memories that we get when something significant or traumatic happens – he could remember nothing, particularly where it would reflect badly on him. By the end of the trial and by the time the verdict came back, I knew the jury had gotten it right. Still, it was mind-boggling to think anyone could be so cold, calculated, and cunning as to kill two people he supposedly loved in cold blood and with no remorse. He still maintains that he is innocent (like most people rotting in prison cells).
* * *
Another story was revealed after the trial was over. One of Alex Murdaugh’s great-grandfathers, prominent attorney and man-about-town Randolph Murdaugh, Sr., was killed in a train accident in 1940, under mysterious circumstances. The conductor of the train stated that Murdaugh waved to him from one side of the tracks and then sped onto the tracks, stopping his car right in front of the oncoming train. His son Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh, Jr., then sued the railroad for the wrongful death of his father. He won the case and his father’s estate received $100,000, an unreal sum in the waning days of the Great Depression. It seems that mental illness and cunning run in the genes. The money from the settlement gave the family the seed money to grow the law firm Buster, Sr., had started. This fueled the power of the family, eventually leading to their being untouchable in South Carolina.
Some say that they think Murdaugh has hidden away all the money he stole over the years. No one (and I mean no one) believes that he used all that money for opioids. One assessment said he could have bought enough drugs to last for 141 years. It is likely he thought he was going to get away with the money and the murders and would go live abroad on his ill-gotten gains. He had never been held accountable for anything in his life.
I hope he is getting comfortable in prison. And I hope he is haunted by all the people he hurt. But somehow I think he’s too soulless and godless to think much of anyone but himself.
If you want to get the thumbnail sketch about the twisty road from 2015 to now, you can check out these limited series’ on streaming:
- “Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal” – Netflix
- “Low Country: The Murdaugh Dynasty” – HBOMax
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