On the evening of June 7, 2021, Alex Murdaugh called 911 to report that he’d just discovered the bodies of his wife, Maggie Murdaugh, and his youngest son, Paul Murdaugh. They appeared to have been shot to death near the dog kennels at the family’s hunting estate in rural South Carolina.
But, as investigators soon learned, the slayings were just one piece of a larger, more complicated web of lies, theft and drugs. A few months after the killings, Alex Murdaugh resigned from his family’s law firm over accusations that he’d spent decades stealing millions of dollars from the company and its clients. A day later, Alex Murdaugh called 911 to say he’d been shot in the head while changing a tire on a rural road. Police later revealed that Murdaugh had asked his distant cousin to shoot and kill him so his surviving son could get a life insurance payout.
While investigating the deaths of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh, investigators also decided to reopen two other mysterious cases—one involving the Murdaughs’ longtime housekeeper, who died while working at the hunting estate, and another involving the unexplained death of a young man on a rural road. Murdaugh checked himself into rehab and claimed he was addicted to opioids. Meanwhile, the family of Mallory Beach was still trying to get justice for their daughter, who had died in a February 2019 boating accident with a drunken Paul Murdaugh at the wheel.
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It all came to a head on March 2, 2023, when a jury convicted Alex Murdaugh of killing his wife and son. A judge sentenced him to life in prison, but he still faces more than 100 other charges, ranging from money laundering to tax evasion to embezzlement; he must also contend with nearly a dozen civil lawsuits. And Alex Murdaugh wasn’t just anybody. He was a respected attorney from a prominent family that had long held powerful political and judicial roles in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
Author John Glatt explores the many twists and turns in the Alex Murdaugh saga in his book, Tangled Vines: Power, Privilege, and the Murdaugh Family Murders. Glatt spoke with A&E True Crime about this complicated case—and shared why he thinks Alex Murdaugh thought he could get away with murder.
What was the reaction to the murders and the ensuing developments in the case in South Carolina’s Lowcountry region?
I spent about a month or so in Hampton, which is a very small, impoverished town in Hampton County [which is part of the Lowcountry]. Everybody knows everybody else, especially the Murdaughs—they were central figures. Everybody knew them, everybody liked them. This case hit Hampton like a ton of bricks. It really shocked everyone as it was unfolding—and it didn’t stop with Alex Murdaugh.
One of Alex’s best friends, Russell Laffitte, was running the local bank and was found guilty in a federal trial of helping Alex launder some of the money. And there may be other heads that are going to roll, too. So it just exposed this whole corruptness in the Lowcountry and that was the biggest shock to everyone.
Also, for a while, it was really a complete mystery. It took more than a year for Alex to be arrested, but the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) kept everything very close to their chest and didn’t give anything away. Everyone was in the dark about what was going on until the arrest.
Why is the Murdaugh family legacy so important to this case?
[Alex Murdaugh’s] family was basically the dominant legal force in five counties, the 14th Judicial Circuit of South Carolina, for several generations.
In 1920, Alex’s great-great-grandfather, Randolph, became the solicitor, which anywhere else is called the district attorney. He basically ruled that whole area. He was the law. He arrested people, he investigated them, he prosecuted them. And from there, it became like a family job.
Randolph Jr., known as Buster, took over and he was the solicitor for more than 40 years. Then his son Randolph Murdaugh III—Alex’s father—took over. Alex Murdaugh was primarily in private law, but he was also a volunteer solicitor, so he carried a badge. It was like a family tradition for the Murdaughs to rule this huge area of South Carolina.
There was an undercurrent of the Murdaughs’ influence throughout the whole investigation and trial. It was a big concern. In fact, there was a portrait of Buster, Alex’s grandfather, hanging on the back wall of the courthouse [where the trial took place] and the judge decreed that it should be removed because it could’ve influenced the jurors.
Who is Alex Murdaugh?
That’s the big enigma of this whole story: Who is the real Alex Murdaugh?
During the trial, some of the people closest to him—his lifelong friends, people he’s worked with for 20 or 30 years—they all admitted they didn’t know the real Alex Murdaugh. He was a people person, he was very personable, he got along with everybody. He knew how to pat a back to get what he wanted.
But I’ve never written about or investigated anybody as dark as Alex Murdaugh. It came out that he stole millions and millions of dollars from his clients. And, as the prosecutor pointed out at trial, to do that, he would have had to look them in the eyes, tell them he was on their side and then rob them blind. There was a part of Alex Murdaugh that baffles me, and baffles everybody.
Psychopath is a word I’ve heard bandied about, and I wouldn’t argue with that. But I don’t think anybody knows who the real Alex Murdaugh is. It’s a mystery.
Why did he think he could get away with the murders?
He got away with everything his whole life. The Murdaughs were brought up entitled, with this ‘I can do anything I want’ attitude. You could see that with his father, his grandfather—they were all brought up like that. They all did whatever they wanted and there were never any repercussions. Alex always thought he could talk his way out of any situation. Anytime it looked like he was getting into trouble, his name would smooth the way. I’m sure he thought, with murder, that he could get away with that too.
And at trial, he testified, which was probably not a good move. Even then, he thought he could persuade the jury to find him innocent. But it backfired on him—they found him guilty pretty quickly, within three hours.
How did police investigate and ultimately solve the murders?
They used a lot of digital evidence. Alex Murdaugh had been driving his wife’s [car] the night of the murders, so they got GPS data from that. They also got a lot of information from Alex, Paul and Maggie’s phones. Prosecutors put together this very compelling visual diagram of everything Alex had done that afternoon leading up to the murder and afterward, which was very damning.
What do you think convinced jurors to find him guilty?
About a year and a half after the murders, police finally managed to unlock Paul’s [phone] and they found a Snapchat video of him, his mother and Alex that he’d recorded five minutes before the murders.
Alex had always claimed he hadn’t seen Paul and Maggie, that they’d gone to the stable and he hadn’t seen them for two or two and a half hours before the murders. But this, in fact, proved that he was at the kennels at the scene of the murders just five minutes before. That was the total smoking gun, which investigators only revealed at the trial. They kept it very well hidden.
What role did substance abuse play in this case?
According to Alex, he got hooked on opioids around 20 years ago after he had a knee injury. At trial, he testified that he claimed to be spending $60,000 a week on them, and that was why he stole from his clients and his law firm. Now that’s what Alex said, but I spoke to people who knew him. He was a constant presence in the courtroom, and nobody ever had any suspicion he was ever under the influence of anything. There was some talk about whether he was actually that hooked on opioids, or whether that was just a good excuse for him.
And then there was Paul’s boat crash. On February 23, 2019, Paul had gone off with some friends to a party, and he ended up getting totally drunk. Paul was driving a boat back from the party and he crashed. Unfortunately, one of his friends, Mallory Beach, died in the accident. Paul’s [blood alcohol level] was three times over the legal limit when he was later tested at the hospital. This boating accident was the beginning of the fall of the house of cards for the Murdaugh family.
At Alex Murdaugh’s murder trial, prosecutors painted the picture that he had gunned down his family to save the Murdaugh reputation because there was a civil hearing [related to the death of Mallory Beach] where her family’s attorneys were going to get the judge to make Alex Murdaugh reveal all his money. Everything he had—every pension, his income—it was all going to be laid out. And he knew that if it came out, he’d be ruined. It was going to come out that he’d robbed his clients blind.
Prosecutors portrayed it as…what led to him committing these murders. They called it the perfect storm.
What happened with some of the other mysterious deaths related to the Murdaughs?
Gloria Satterfield was a housekeeper and worked for the Murdaughs for over 20 years. In fact, she brought up [the two brothers] Paul and Buster—she was probably closer to them than their mother because she was there all the time looking after them.
In 2018, she was walking up the steps to [the family hunting lodge], and somehow she tripped and died. At her funeral, Alex took her two sons aside and said, ‘Look, I feel responsible,’ and he claimed that some of his dogs had maybe tripped her. So he offered to sue himself to get them some insurance money.
They thought it was a great idea, but then they didn’t hear anything about it. Unknown to them, he did sue himself, with one of his best friends, Cory Fleming, and he got a payout of more than $4 million without ever telling the sons. He had it deposited into his bank account. Eventually, it emerged that Alex had stolen everything that should’ve gone to Gloria’s sons.
The other is a man called Stephen Smith. He was a very good looking young guy who went to high school with Buster. In 2015, his body was found in the middle of a long, rural road, and it was a total mystery how it got there. His skull had been beaten up and bashed in, and investigators really didn’t do much, [ruling it a hit-and-run accident], although his mother was convinced he’d been murdered. It was never taken too seriously, until Alex was arrested, and then suddenly, they reopened the investigation, which is still ongoing.
It’s really quite a labyrinth of litigation. It just never stops.