The Murdaughs seemed untouchable.
They were wealthy, powerful and above all their name carried weight in the small county of Hampton, South Carolina, where they had founded a century-old legal dynasty.
That was until Richard Alexander “Alex” Murdaugh’s wife and youngest son were shot and killed at the family’s hunting lodge earlier this year.
The murders attracted national attention, setting off a chain of events that culminated in Alex Murdaugh leaving his family’s law firm amid allegations of missing money and revelations of an opioid addiction.
Just days after the spectacular collapse of his career, he claimed he was shot in the head by a mysterious assailant on a roadside.
As investigators started to pick through what happened, there was yet another stunning revelation.
Alex Murdaugh was accused of conspiring to arrange his own death so his surviving son could receive a $US10 million life insurance policy.
The bizarre details of the family’s alleged crimes have stoked an insatiable curiosity among the public, attracting media attention both in the US and abroad.
Alex Murdaugh’s fall from grace has inspired podcasts and even caught the eye of Hollywood, according to local outlet FITSNews.
But behind the tangled web of crimes, characters and conspiracies is a small community grieving over lost loved ones and grappling with a glaring and unwelcome spotlight.
The seat of Murdaugh power
The Murdaughs’ ties to South Carolina’s legal system stretch back decades.
For 86 years, Alex Murdaugh’s great-grandfather, grandfather and father were in charge of prosecuting all criminal cases. They served as solicitor or “district attorney” for five counties until Randolph Murdaugh III retired in 2006.
The family’s position not only amassed them wealth but granted them enormous influence. Their name carries weight in a state where tradition and legacy still hold value.
Outside of public service, the Murdaughs held a long association with a private law firm in the area, which eventually grew into a large practice.
But as Alex Murdaugh’s life began to unravel after the death of his wife Maggie and son Paul, the family faced questions over whether their power and status had been wielded to benefit themselves.
Eyebrows have been raised over the Murdaughs’ influence in the rural hamlet of Hampton.(AP: Jeffrey Collins)
“The unfolding Murdaugh saga … has given even lawyers and judges an uneasy feeling about South Carolina’s legal system,” The Post and Courier’s staff wrote in an editorial.
In particular, a boat wreck involving the youngest Murdaugh in 2019 has been attracting a great deal of interest.
The boating accident under the spotlight
On the night of February 24, 2019, Paul Murdaugh was driving his father’s motorboat with five friends when it struck a bridge on the narrow and winding Archer’s Creek.
Passengers were thrown overboard and a call was made to 911. But one woman never surfaced from the current: 19-year-old Mallory Beach.
Her body was found a week later.
A doctor who treated Paul Murdaugh after the boat crash reported the youngest son was “clearly intoxicated,” and was “unsteady on his feet”, according to a report from the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
Paul Murdaugh was charged with boating under the influence causing death, but he died before he could stand trial.
In the months since his murder, however, the case has received greater scrutiny amid allegations that Alex Murdaugh may have intervened on his son’s behalf.
Alex Murdaugh is currently facing two separate lawsuits over the boating accident. One involves Beach’s family, who are suing Alex Murdaugh, his surviving son Buster Murdaugh and the convenience store that sold alcohol to Paul, who was underage at the time.
The other has been lodged by Connor Cook, who was on the boat during the accident.
He has accused Alex Murdaugh and others of “orchestrating a campaign” to blame him for the crash.
According to his lawsuit, Alex Murdaugh approached Cook in the hallway of a hospital as he headed to get his jaw X-rayed after the accident, and told him everything would be alright if he would “keep his mouth shut”.
The State Law Enforcement Division has announced it is investigating whether Alex Murdaugh or other friends or family members tried to obstruct the investigation into the boat crash.
Maggie and Paul Murdaugh (centre) were shot and killed at their home in June.(Facebook: Maggie Murdaugh)
When Alex Murdaugh’s two brothers were asked in June if their connections were used to interfere to help Paul Murdaugh, the answer was no.
“We see words like ‘dynasty’ used, and ‘power’, and I don’t know exactly how people use those words, but we’re just regular people,” one of the brothers, Randy Murdaugh, said in an interview with ABC America’s Good Morning America.
But the mystery surrounding the Murdaughs has only deepened in the months since. And the boating accident is not the only case authorities are investigating after the deaths of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh.
A tangled web of new investigations and old cases
Two other investigations have since been opened into cases dating as far back as 2015.
One of the probes, launched by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, is investigating the death of the Murdaughs’ housekeeper Gloria Satterfield in 2018.
Her death had been attributed in court documents to a “trip and fall” accident, but the coroner in Hampton County said it was never reported to her office.
The coroner said the ruling of the death as “natural” was also inconsistent with injuries sustained in a trip and fall.
The other element is a lawsuit involving Satterfield’s sons.
Their attorney Eric Bland has claimed the brothers did not receive any money related to a wrongful death settlement over their mother’s death.
That’s despite documents, cited by the Associated Press, which appear to show Alex Murdaugh’s insurance paid more than $US4 million in claims.
On Thursday, Alex Murdaugh was charged with stealing insurance settlements meant for the sons of his late housekeeper, state police said. His lawyers have said that he “intends to fully cooperate with this investigation”.
Authorities have also reopened a case involving 19-year-old Stephen Smith, whose body was found in 2015 on a rural road 12 kilometres west of the Murdaugh estate.
It was dubbed a hit and run, but no-one was ever charged.
It’s not known why authorities reopened that case, and no evidence has connected the Murdaugh family to Smith’s death.
Yet as more details of the family’s murky legal history have come to light, the shooting of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh remains a puzzle for authorities.
What happened to Maggie and Paul Murdaugh?
Known for its palmetto trees, sweet tea and old world charm, South Carolina has been home to the Murdaugh family for more than a century.
Their family’s hunting lodge sits on a sprawling 1,770-acre estate in Islandton, and it was there that Alex Murdaugh returned after visiting his sick father and checking on his mother on the evening of June 7.
Alex Murdaugh has been described as “not a man of significant means anymore”.(AP Photo/Mic Smith)
He discovered the bodies of 52-year-old Maggie and 22-year-old Paul lying in front of the family’s dog kennel just after 10:00pm.
In a desperate call to 911, Alex Murdaugh can be heard weeping as he reports what he found.
“I’ve been up to it now, it’s bad,” he tells the operator.
Maggie and Paul Murdaugh were shot multiple times. Police reports suggest an unknown number of shell casings were found at the scene.
But the killings remain unsolved. Police have not suggested that Alex Murdaugh is involved.
Dick Harpootlian, Alex Murdaugh’s attorney, has said his client is adamant he had nothing to do with their deaths.
Two of Alex Murdaugh’s brothers have claimed that Paul, their nephew, had been getting threatening messages since being charged in the boat accident.
Yet a cloud of uncertainty over who might have been responsible remains, despite a $US100,000 reward for information on the murders.
The prominent lawyer’s dramatic ‘fall from grace’
After his wife and son’s death, Alex Murdaugh’s personal and professional life appears to have spiralled.
“He is not a man of significant means anymore,” Harpootlian told a judge in Hampton County last month.
The scion has been forced out of his firm — Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth, Detrick — amid accusations he misappropriated funds, local outlet FITSNews reported.
“The murders of my wife and son have caused an incredibly difficult time in my life,” Alex Murdaugh said in a statement after he left.
“I have made a lot of decisions that I truly regret.”
Alex Murdaugh has been charged with insurance fraud after state police said he arranged to have himself shot in the head.(AP Photo: Mic Smith)
Alex Murdaugh’s lawyers admit he stole the money to fuel his decades-long opioid addiction.
State law enforcement has opened an investigation into the alleged embezzlement, and Alex Murdaugh’s licence to practise law has been suspended.
His old firm has also filed a lawsuit seeking to recover the money that it claims he took from the firm and client accounts.
But perhaps the most dramatic twist of all came when, just days after he resigned, Alex Murdaugh called 911 to report he had been shot in the head on the side of a rural Hampton County road.
According to a family spokesperson’s account released days later, Alex Murdaugh had pulled his vehicle over to change a flat tire.
While stopped, the spokesperson said he was shot in the head by a man in a pick-up truck. He was treated in hospital for a “superficial gunshot wound to the head”, a police statement said.
It was yet another strange development in the family’s story, but it turned out to be fake.
Instead of being shot by a stranger, authorities claim Alex Murdaugh allegedly conspired with an acquaintance, a man named Curtis Edward Smith, in the shooting.
Alex Murdaugh provided Smith with a firearm and “directed Mr Smith to shoot him in the head,” a South Carolina Law Enforcement Division affidavit said.
The plan was for Smith to murder Alex Murdaugh so that his son could collect a life insurance payout valued at approximately $US10 million, it said.
Yet again, Alex Murdaugh’s attorney cited his addiction to opioids and the onset of a “massive depression” as driving him to arrange for his own shooting.
He was arrested in September and charged him with insurance fraud, conspiracy to commit insurance fraud and filing a false police report.
His lawyer has claimed that Alex Murdaugh is “only a danger to himself”. But investigations into his links with other crimes continue.
The community caught in the middle
As journalists have flocked to the small community where the Murdaughs first made a name for themselves, residents have become unwilling participants in a nationwide hunt for answers.
The family might be the talk of the town, but the intense interest has taken its toll.
“New stuff comes out, and it just gets crazier and crazier. I think people are desensitised to it. I know I am,” a Beaufort native who asked to remain anonymous told a CNN reporter who had travelled to the town last month.
Even so, national interest does not appear to be fading in the Murdaugh family saga just yet.