But few can rival the shocking events of summer 2021 and the unfolding saga of the Hampton, S.C., Murdaugh family, a powerful legal dynasty featuring generations of prosecutors who’ve tried seemingly every case in a five-county area for nearly a century.
Today, the family is deeply embroiled in two mysterious homicides, allegations of massive theft and a multidimensional tragedy, no matter what happens next. Throughout the state, and apparently elsewhere, one can hardly wait for the next turn of the screw.
Local curiosity isn’t driven by morbid fascination — or even the schadenfreude that the Murdaughs have invited upon themselves. Two people are dead, after all. It’s The Story itself that has people obsessed — and I don’t use that term lightly. The Story has assumed a life of its own.
At the center of it all is Alex Murdaugh, 53, the now-resigned lawyer whose wife, Maggie Murdaugh, 52, and 22-year-old son, Paul, were murdered on June 7 at the family’s hunting compound a few miles from town. Alex said he discovered their bodies upon returning to the compound. Both had been shot multiple times. In a recording of his 911 call, Alex said that his wife and son needed urgent attention and had been shot “badly.”
“Badly” doesn’t cover it. Death, especially by violence, tends not to be coy. The police reports gave rise to questions in the papers, online and at about every Carolina dinner table from the coast to the foothills. “Wild” has been the only way to describe it.
We’d just about reached the point of wondering who would play the characters in the film version when things got even wilder: In a 72-hour period last weekend, Alex’s law partners informed Alex that he was suspected of misusing firm funds (reportedly in the millions, according to the New York Times), and suggested he resign, which he did with “regret and sorrow,” according to his lawyer.
Then, on Saturday, while allegedly changing a tire on his black Mercedes SUV on Salkehatchie Road near Varnville, S.C., Alex again called 911 and claimed that someone in a passing truck had shot him. Alex was airlifted to a Savannah, Ga., hospital and released with a “superficial” head wound. No charges have been filed.
On Monday, Alex declared that he had an addiction and checked into an undisclosed rehab center.
What?! Where? I checked with an attorney close to the case, who said: “If he’s smart, he’s in South America.” Since that call, I’ve confirmed that he’s in a clinic somewhere “in the South.”
This all may sound fevered to outsiders, but the fact is that some rural areas in this state (and likely elsewhere, as well) are still run very much as they were 100 years ago. There’s one sheriff in town, so to speak, and in Hampton County, his name was Murdaugh, in one form or another, going all the way back to 1920. Several normally well-informed folks here, all lawyers, tell me that they typically settle rather than try cases in Murdaugh country. “Rigged” is a word you hear a lot.
People with power and money in such tribal regions can retain their hold on their ways — and their communities — for a long time. But corruption never strays far from the prideful and the powerful, especially among those who inherit privilege. Observation confirms that the qualities that lead to Great Families often diminish with each subsequent generation. Some scions, sad to say, seem eager to prove the point.
Though we can’t be sure, the tragedy unfolding here may have begun on Feb. 24, 2019, when Paul allegedly plowed his father’s boat into a bridge piling, resulting in the death of 19-year-old Mallory Beach, also of Hampton County. Paul’s blood-alcohol concentration tested at roughly three times the legal limit, according to reports taken by police.
Paul was charged with three felony boating-under-the-influence charges and faced up to 25 years in prison. But three days before he was to appear in June at a hearing — in a wrongful-death suit filed by Beach’s mother — Paul was shot and killed at the family hunting lodge.
You can’t make this stuff up, but that doesn’t mean you can make sense of it, either. As things stand now, Alex Murdaugh is a person of interest in his wife’s and son’s deaths, according to multiple sources, and remains under investigation for allegedly mishandling his law firm’s funds. On Wednesday, the state Supreme Court issued an order suspending Alex from the practice of law until further notice. He is out of work and detoxing. His wife and one of his sons are dead. Whatever his role in events here, he is a candidate for the saddest man in America. He may or may not have a target on his back. Justice could hardly be harsher.