In what can only be described as truly impeccable timing, Netflix dropped their latest true-crime offering just hours before the main character in the case was called to the stand at his own double-murder trial.
Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal was released to the streaming platform Wednesday, one day ahead of disgraced South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh being called to give testimony in his own defence.
And while the title of the three-part documentary ostensibly references the 2021 killings of Alex Murdaugh’s son, Paul, and wife, Maggie, the episodes focus on series of tragic accidents, mysterious deaths, brutal murders and financial crimes that all converged to take down a family that seemed to believe they were above the law.
The case at hand
Alex Murdaugh is currently on trial for the murders of 52-year-old Maggie and 22-year-old Paul. He is accused of shooting Paul twice with a shotgun and Maggie five times with a rifle at the family’s hunting lodge on June 7, 2021.
On Thursday, he tearfully told the South Carolina courtroom that he maintains his innocence, but admitted that he lied about when he last saw his family members.
“I would never intentionally do anything to hurt either one of them,” Murdaugh said, tears running down his cheeks, mucous dripping out of his nose.
Taking the stand five weeks into his trial, Murdaugh admitted he lied to police about being at the hunting property’s dog kennels with his wife and son shortly before the killings, but he blamed his addiction to opioids for clouding his thinking and creating a distrust of state law enforcement agents.
Prosecutors contend that Murdaugh killed his wife and son because he wanted sympathy to buy time to cover up his financial crimes that were about to be discovered. He faces roughly 100 other charges — from stealing from clients to arranging his own shooting on the side of a highway.
And while Murdaugh’s trial will likely last at least another week, and it could be some time before the jury shares a verdict, the downfall of the Murdaugh dynasty began many years ago.
Where the story begins
For 86 years, the Murdaugh family were the unofficial rulers of South Carolina, with three generations controlling the local prosecutor’s office from 1920-2006 for the Beaufort, Jasper, Hampton, Allendale and Colleton counties.
Alex Murdaugh’s great-grandfather, grandfather and father all served as the region’s solicitor (known as a district attorney in other states), while the rest of the family ran a successful litigation firm in Hampton, making the Murdaugh family powerful on both sides of the law.
And while Alex Murdaugh was not appointed solicitor, the docuseries examines how the civil litigation lawyer used his power to influence and manipulate those around him.
The death of Mallory Beach
The documentary’s first episode takes a look at the events surrounding the death of Mallory Beach, the event which served as catalyst for the downfall of the Murdaugh family.
On Feb. 24, 2019, Paul Murdaugh, along with five friends, was travelling home by boat after a night of heavy drinking when he crashed into a bridge footing, throwing them overboard. One of the teens, 19-year-old Beach, went missing and her body was found washed up on shore five days later.
Murdaugh Murders interviews the other teens that were on the boat that night, including Paul’s girlfriend Morgan Doughty, Beach’s friends Miley Altman and Connor Cook, and Beach’s boyfriend Anthony Cook. They all say that Paul had been drinking excessively that night and detail how, after the accident, they witnessed Alex Murdaugh attempting to use his influence and power to protect his son.
The case gained so much attention that this was one situation the Murdaugh family could not control, and a month later Paul was indicted on charges of boating under the influence.
Paul pleaded not guilty to multiple felonies, and according to several documentary sources, tried to pin one of his friends as the boat’s driver that night. The documentary also explores how Paul was not given a field sobriety test, taken to jail for booking, or even handcuffed.
The Beach family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Murdaugh family and a hearing in the case was supposed to go ahead the first week of June 2021. If found guilty, Paul was facing 25 years in prison. However, he didn’t live long enough to face court.
On June 7, Alex Murdaugh called police to report that he found his wife, Maggie, and Paul shot dead at the family’s hunting property in Islandton, S.C. Murdaugh told investigators that he returned to the sprawling estate late at night after visiting his elderly mother and found the bodies of his wife and son.
A past case is reopened
Police began investigating Paul and Maggie’s deaths and, two weeks later, on June 22, announced that they were reopening an investigation into a 2015 death of a local teen, citing new information gathered while investigating the deaths of the slain Murdaughs.
On July 8, 2015, the body of 19-year-old Stephen Smith was found dead in the middle of Sandy Run Road in Hampton County. Investigators ruled the death of the openly gay teen as a hit-and-run, but his family doubted the ruling from the beginning.
The documentary reveals how, in early August 2015, shortly after Smith’s death, authorities received several tips that Smith and Buster Murdaugh, Alex’s eldest son, may have been involved in a secret romantic relationship. While there have been no recent updates from police in the reopened case, sources in the documentary allege that many in the area believe that the Murdaugh family may have had something to do with Smith’s death, and believe the Murdaughs wanted to cover up a homosexual relationship tied to the family.
An attempted hit job?
After Paul and Maggie’s deaths, things quickly began to fall apart for Alex Murdaugh.
On Sept. 3, 2021, partners at Murdaugh’s law firm, PMPED, accused him of misappropriating millions of dollars of clients’ funds and funnelling them into his own coffers. WJCL reports that the firm began investigating after they found a suspicious cheque on his desk.
The very next day, after being confronted by a longtime friend and fellow lawyer over the alleged theft, Murdaugh called 911 from the side of a road near his home, telling the dispatcher he had been shot in the head. A shooter, he claimed, had pulled up beside him while he was inspecting a flat tire. The bullet had grazed his head, causing only a superficial wound, and he was treated in hospital.
Two days after allegedly being shot at, Murdaugh issued a statement saying that he would be resigning from the law firm and entering rehab, citing an opioid addiction.
“The murders of my wife and son have caused an incredibly difficult time in my life. I have made a lot of decisions that I truly regret. I’m resigning from my law firm and entering rehab after a long battle that has been exacerbated by these murders. I am immensely sorry to everyone I’ve hurt including my family, friends and colleagues. I ask for prayers as I rehabilitate myself and my relationships,” read Murdaugh’s entire statement.
A major confession
One week into his rehab treatment, Murdaugh confessed to police that he was the mastermind of his own shooting. He told police that he had orchestrated his shooting as part of a botched assisted suicide plot.
On Sept. 13, 2021, Murdaugh told police that he had hired a former client, distant cousin and drug dealer, 62-year-old Curtis “Cousin Eddie” Smith, to shoot and kill him. The reason, he said, was so that Buster, his surviving son, could claim a $10 million life insurance payout. Police arrested and charged Murdaugh and Smith, but Murdaugh was released on bond and sent back to rehab to finish his program.
Smith, to this day, denies shooting Murdaugh. His lawyer, Aimee Zmroczek, told media last month: “I believe that when he (Alex Murdaugh) lured Eddie out to the side of the road, he was gonna kill him and blame (the deaths of Paul and Maggie) on him … I firmly believe that was what was gonna happen.”
Another mysterious death
Two days after sending Murdaugh back to rehab, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) announced they were opening a criminal investigation into the mysterious death of the Murdaugh family housekeeper.
Two-and-a-half years after Stephen Smith’s death on Feb. 26, 2018, longtime housekeeper for the Murdaugh family, Gloria Satterfield, died.
According to the Satterfield estate lawyer, Eric Bland, her death was described as a “trip and fall accident” at the Murdaugh home, where she had served for more than 20 years as an employee.
According to a pair of affidavits released on Oct. 16, 2021, Murdaugh allegedly went to Satterfield’s sons following her death, under the guise of altruism, and convinced them to sue his insurance companies with the promise he would admit fault so they would get a large settlement. The sons said they didn’t see a dime of the money and claimed Murdaugh conspired with two fellow lawyers to have the insurance payout diverted to his own account.
A month later, on Nov. 19, 2021, Murdaugh was charged with almost 30 counts over the Satterfield wrongful death settlement. His bond was set at $7 million and he remained in jail.
At a hearing the following month, Murdaugh’s lawyer said his client agreed to pay $4.3 million to the Satterfield family.
The documentary speaks with Satterfield’s family, who believe her death was not investigated properly and have suspicions of foul play by the Murdaugh family.
Last year, authorities announced plans to exhume Satterfield’s body. (As of this writing, it’s not publicly known if this was ever completed.)
“The decedent’s death was not reported to the Coroner at the time, nor was an autopsy performed. On the death certificate the manner of death was ruled ‘Natural,’ which is inconsistent with injuries sustained in a trip and fall accident,” the coroner’s request to the law enforcement division said.
Murdaugh’s eventual murder charges
Through December of 2021 and into January of 2022, dozens more criminal charges piled up against Murdaugh, all relating to allegations of defrauding clients of millions of dollars. By the end of January 2022, Murdaugh faced 71 charges stemming from accusations that he defrauded victims of nearly $8.5 million in various schemes.
Between January and June of 2022, things were quiet. Murdaugh was indicted on four more crimes related to a scheme to defraud multiple insurance companies in March. While all of this was happening, Murdaugh remained in prison.
During this time, investigators told media that Murdaugh was a person of interest in the murders of Paul and Maggie, and no additional suspects had been named.
On July 12, the South Carolina Supreme Court announced that Murdaugh had been disbarred and two days later, on July 14, Murdaugh was indicted on two counts of murder and two weapons counts in connection with the killings of his wife and son.
What’s happening now?
Between last summer’s charges and now, Murdaugh has been charged with further financial crimes related to tax evasion, money laundering and computer crime.
On Jan. 23, Murdaugh’s trial for the murders of his wife and son began in Walterboro, S.C.
This week, Buster Murdaugh took the witness stand for the defence and testified that his father was “destroyed” by the deaths of Paul and Maggie.
Meanwhile, the docuseries’ filmmakers, Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, say they have uncovered additional crimes since they began putting the series together in the fall of 2021 — and they’re hoping Netflix greenlights a second season of the show.
“There is so much more to tell in this story,” Furst told Vanity Fair. “There are additional crimes that have occurred that we have the scoop on — corruption that goes far wider than Hampton, South Carolina. That goes to the state and to the federal level.”
— With files from The Associated Press