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Opinion Even behind bars, Alex Murdaugh keeps changing his stories

Alex Murdaugh stands before being sentenced to two consecutive life sentences for the murder of his wife and son on March 3 in Walterboro, S.C. (Joshua Boucher/AP)
5 min

When it comes to Alex Murdaugh, it isn’t over until, well, ever.

In a new development from a prison cell somewhere in South Carolina, the protagonist of South Carolina’s so-called trial of the century has changed yet another story. This time, he claims that he made up his original story about how his family housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, died from injuries sustained during an alleged fall at his country estate in February 2018.

Murdaugh has insisted for years that Satterfield tripped over the family dogs and fell down the front steps of the house. He basically sued himself on behalf of her two sons for wrongful death and collected $4.3 million that he decided to steal rather than notify the sons of their good fortune.

Now he says he doesn’t know how Satterfield fell and that he “invented” the story so that he could file the wrongful-death suit. The dogs’ role in the tragedy was also an invention, he said.

Murdaugh made these confessions in response to a lawsuit against him by the Nautilus Insurance Co., which is alleging that it was defrauded. The balance of the settlement funds were paid by a different insurance company. But because Murdaugh has no money that isn’t owed creditors, victims or his former law firm, his attorneys suggested in federal court documents filed Monday that Nautilus go after the Satterfield estate’s attorneys, the Bland-Richter firm, to retrieve more than $7.5 million that they collected from a lawsuit against Murdaugh and his law firm.

According to Murdaugh attorney Phil Barber, the money paid to Satterfield lawyers Eric Bland and Ronnie Richter was part of the original money Murdaugh stole, so they should be parties to the Nautilus lawsuit. But Bland says they never received any of the settlement money. The money they were paid came from the formerly named Murdaugh firm.

For now, Bland is publicly sanguine, tweeting that Murdaugh’s newest version of truth is meaningless. “This is nothing but noise,” Bland wrote. “Just gutless people trying to continue to victimize Gloria’s siblings and children.”

For anyone struggling with memory here, Murdaugh is the disbarred, legal-family scion who was convicted in March of murdering his wife, Maggie, 52, and his son Paul, 22, at their hunting estate near Hampton, S.C. He was sentenced to two consecutive life sentences, which he is serving in a South Carolina maximum-security prison.

Jailhouse confessions can be unreliable, especially when the so-called confessor is a “serial liar and fraudster,” as U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel referred to Murdaugh in another related matter. Murdaugh lied to nearly everyone in his orbit. During his murder trial, however, he confessed to several financial crimes that still haven’t been litigated. He admitted to stealing from clients and even his law partners, including one of his brothers, after presiding Circuit Court/ Judge Clifton Newman ruled to allow admission of financial indictments that include 99 charges.

Newman’s ruling probably will be the basis of an appeal that Murdaugh’s attorneys have promised to file, assuming they can raise the money. (Chortle, chortle.) Murdaugh lawyers Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin are seeking $160,000 from the court-appointed receiver to pay for the appeal.

At a hearing on Wednesday, Bland, one of the Satterfield attorneys, unsurprisingly argued against their request, even though they previously received for his murder defense $600,000 from the same fund, composed of Murdaugh’s liquidated assets. Without the funds, “Dick and Jim,” as they’re derisively referred to by Bland’s colleagues on their podcast, “Cup of Justice,” say Murdaugh will be forced to get a public defender. No gnashing of teeth from the gallery has been reported thus far, but I rather doubt Murdaugh’s lawyers will abandon him now.

So, what did happen to Satterfield? We’ll probably never know. The only two possible witnesses, Maggie and Paul, have been murdered. In a 911 call after the fall, Maggie told the operator that the housekeeper had fallen while walking up the stairs. Murdaugh claimed she told him the dogs tripped her. But Paul told the 911 operator that his former nanny was unable to talk. He said she was bleeding from her head and left ear. Nary a mention of dogs.

Apparently, Nautilus investigators subsequently learned that Satterfield, who lingered in the hospital for three weeks before dying of her injuries, told her doctor and hospital staff that she didn’t know how she fell, according to a Nov. 6, 2018, report conducted by a law firm for Nautilus. She seems to have never mentioned the dogs to anyone except, allegedly, Murdaugh.

Even so, as far as anyone knows, the dogs, four of which were loose that day, according to the report, conceivably could have been a factor. It’s also possible that Satterfield, given her extensive injuries, including a severe brain injury, couldn’t remember what had happened.

Murdaugh’s lie was certainly plausible. Moreover, the dogs were essential to his liability as a homeowner, according to the report. “The law applicable to this matter provides that the owner of a pet dog is strictly liable where the dog jumps on a visiting guest and causes injury,” it says. “Liability is probable.” In another part of the report, the author wrote: “I would characterize liability based on what is known at this point as probable but not clear and convincing.”

Assuming Murdaugh is finally telling the truth in this instance, why now? Only he and his lawyers know the answer, but the sudden discovery of a conscience often means a deal of some sort is in the making. Or maybe he’s trying to get right with his maker. Lord knows, he’s made enough deals with the devil.