Former South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh has been indicted for double murder in the killings of his wife, 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh, and son, 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh, almost 13 months after he made an emergency call saying he had found them dead near a dog kennel at the family’s country home.
The charges mark a milestone in a case that encompasses seven separate investigations in the sprawling saga, each involving the 54-year-old attorney at their center.
Murdaugh was charged with two counts of murder and two counts of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime, after evidence was presented to a grand jury sitting in Colleton county. Court documents released on Thursday allege Murdaugh shot his wife with a rifle and his son with a shotgun.
The civil attorney, who was disbarred earlier this week, had told investigators he went to the property after visiting with his ailing father, and discovered the two bodies.
South Carolina attorney general Alan Wilson said in a statement: “All the efforts of our office and the law enforcement agencies involved in this investigation have been focused on seeking justice for the victims’ families.”
Wilson declined to offer more details in the case.
South Carolina state law enforcement division (Sled) chief Mark Keel said: “Today is one more step in a long process for justice for Maggie and Paul.”
On Tuesday, state police told family members that they planned to bring criminal charges against Murdaugh, and did not mention any other suspects in the case.
Murdaugh had reported finding his wife and son shot dead shortly after 10pm on 7 June last year. Investigators released little information on the killings, but word soon surfaced that they had been killed with different guns – an assault rifle and a shotgun. Investigators said no threat existed, prompting speculation that a suspect must already be known to them.
The killings also placed a spotlight on the prominent Murdaugh family, which has for almost a century represented wealth, power and privilege across the lowlands of South Carolina.
For three generations, a member of the Murdaughs has served as the chief prosecutor for the state’s southern tip, and the family law firm had made a fortune from corporate litigation, often against the railroad running through the area.
But interlocking investigations began to produce charges against Alex Murdaugh. Prosecutors accused him of diverting $8.5m in legal settlements from personal injury cases to a bank account he controlled.
Murdaugh is also facing 79 fraud-related charges. Two other people have been indicted in connection with the alleged financial crimes. A federal investigation into the Murdaugh empire is also under way, according to Fits News, a South Carolina news website.
The portfolio of alleged scams include a $3.5m insurance payout due to the family of his late housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, who died after a slip-and-fall accident at the Murdaugh home. Authorities are now preparing to exhume her remains.
Authorities have also opened an investigation into the unsolved death of 19-year-old Stephen Smith, whose body was found with blunt-force head trauma on a nearby county road in July 2015. Smith’s death was initially investigated as a homicide, then blamed on a hit-and-run.
But files with the state highway patrol showed that a Murdaugh family member – a personal injury lawyer – called Smith’s family on the day he was found, offering to represent them at no charge. The family told police they thought the offer was “weird”.
Smith had attended high school with Buster Murdaugh, Alex’s surviving son. “I do think it [his death] was because he was gay. I said that from the beginning it was a hate crime,” Smith’s mother, Sandy, said last year in an interview.
Separately, Paul Murdaugh, the son found dead last year, was awaiting trial on charges of boating under the influence. The charges stemmed from a 2019 crash in which 19-year-old Mallory Beach, a passenger in the boat, died after being thrown overboard in a collision with a bridge pier.
Beach family attorney Mark Tinsley told the Guardian last year: “The Beach family are incensed at the way the criminal investigation was conducted while their daughter’s body was missing and believe people were actively trying to cover up what had happened.”
The murder indictments have begun to clarify the chain of events that investigators believe may have led, three months later, to a fake suicide-for-hire plot, in which Alex Murdaugh was allegedly shot in the head by a cousin, Curtis Smith, on a country road, in what may have been a plot to give his surviving son, Buster, a $10m life insurance payout.
The apparent gunshot grazed Murdaugh’s head; a toxicology report found opioids and barbiturates in his blood. Smith claimed he was 1,000% certain Murdaugh was not shot. Ten days later, Murdaugh was arrested in connection with the country-road shooting. Curtis Smith has been charged with assisted suicide, insurance fraud and several other counts. He denies the charges.
Days later, Murdaugh checked into an addiction rehabilitation service to treat a long-standing opioid dependency and was later arrested at a second rehab location in Florida on charges that he diverted millions in wrongful death lawsuit settlement funds from the family of Satterfield, the housekeeper, in what prosecutors described as a scheme “to sue himself in order to seek an insurance settlement”.
At the bond hearing in October, assistant attorney general Creighton Waters said the Satterfield fraud “is the tip of the iceberg”. Outside court, family lawyer Ronnie Richter said that issues of class pervade the case.
“We have a problem in the country with the perception that power and influence, true or not, gets you a second tier of justice from rank-and-file,” he said.