The mysterious shotgun and assault rifle murders of 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh and his 52-year-old mother, Maggie, members of one of the state’s most prominent legal families, is the kind of South Carolina happening likely to be discussed for years to come.
In the last 125 years across the Palmetto State, such attention-grabbing killings have erupted sporadically from the dark side of the state’s cultural DNA. They occur without warning among rich and poor, Black and white, in high society and low.
In these cases, the victims are dead, but their stories live on — especially in a case like the Murdaughs, members of a four-generation Lowcountry legal dynasty and a law firm known statewide for multi-million dollar verdicts.
“People are drawn to these crimes for a broad variety of reasons,” says Margaret Oakes, a former lawyer and Furman University professor of English who taught a class this year on true crime writing — an entire branch of nonfiction devoted to stories of lawless behavior, the victims and those who solve the crimes.
“For one thing, people want to see justice done — that’s a lot of it,” Oakes says. Another reason is admittedly voyeuristic — “People want to see what’s under the blue tarp in the car accident across the road. That fuels some interest, unfortunately.”
People are also curious about forensic technology and other methods used to track down perpetrators, Oakes says.
“And in general, people like the idea of closure. They want to see the bad guys in jail,” she says.
Closure may be a long time coming in the Murdaugh case. No suspects have been charged.
But enough is publicly known already, Oakes says, that the Murdaugh murders are the kind of event that may result in true crime books and streaming documentaries, trials broadcast on court television and network correspondents flocking to the Deep South.
Known facts are few; they are baffling.
After visiting his ailing elderly parents on Monday, June 10, Alex Murdaugh, a well-to-do attorney, returned to his family’s 1,700-acre estate in rural Colleton County around 10 pm. There, lying on the grass more than 100 yards from the main house, he found Paul’s body, severely disfigured by shotgun blasts. Some distance away, shot numerous times with an assault rifle, was Maggie’s body.
In 2019, Paul had been charged with boating under the influence in a nighttime crash in a waterway near the coastal city of Beaufor. A young woman, Mallory Beach, was thrown from the boat and drowned. One theory aired on social media posts was that Paul’s killing was some sort of retribution linked to the boat crash. Law enforcement has declined comment about possible suspects and motives. Adding to the mystery, officials have said there is no danger to the public.
The Murdaugh family is legendary in a five-county Lowcountry region. For more than 85 years, generations of Murdaughs were the elected solicitors, in charge of prosecuting all serious crimes in Beaufort, Hampton, Colleton, Allendale and Jasper counties. On the civil side of the law, their law firm for years has sued big corporations, especially railroads, winning tens of millions of dollars for plaintiffs and the lawyers.
Today, the Murdaughs know their recent tragedy is national news.
On Thursday, two members of the Murdaugh family bypassed South Carolina news media and gave the family’s first interview about the case to a national morning news show, ABC’s Good Morning America. They played down their prominence.
“We’re just regular people, and we’re hurting just like they (other regular people) would be hurting if this had happened to them,” said Randy Murdaugh, the uncle of the murdered Paul Murdaugh.
Regular people or not, even S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, not known for discussing individual crimes, has noted the Murdaughs’ stature and commented on the killings.
“It’s a tragic situation, tragic situation. The Murdaugh family is well-known and respected,” McMaster said on an NBC morning news program last week.
Unforgettable SC killings
Where does the case rank in the history of South Carolina crimes? Here are some of the state’s most notorious killings:
▪ March 1897, Will Thurmond, the father of longtime South Carolina U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, shot and killed a drunken heckler in broad daylight in Edgefield in front of numerous witnesses.
At the time, Will Thurmond was a popular elected state prosecutor. At trial, he claimed that the dead man appeared to be reaching for a gun, so he shot in self-defense. It took a jury just 35 minutes to acquit Thurmond, wrote Jack Bass and Marilyn Thompson in their 2005 biography of Strom Thurmond, called “Strom.”
▪ Feb. 22, 1898, a white mob shot and killed Frazier Baker, the African American postmaster of Lake City in Florence County. The mob also killed his 2-year-old daughter and set his house on fire. Baker had remained unmoved by white threats to give up his job and leave town
In that era, the dawn of the South’s rigid Jim Crow segregation codes which were to deprive Blacks for more than 60 years of equal rights and equal opportunity, “The community’s racial prejudice boiled over into anger and bitter resentment of an African American in a prominent job—a not uncommon reaction to the changing times in the South,” according to the Smithsonian National Postal Museum.
Thirteen white men were arrested, but no one was found guilty of the killing.
In 2019, the Lake City Post Office was renamed in honor of Baker, thanks to efforts by U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn, D-S.C. A historical marker to the killing, which is officially classified as a “lynching,” also stands in Lake City in Florence County. An official historical marker marks the event.
▪ Jan. 15, 1902, Lt. Gov. James Tillman shot and killed N.G. Gonzales, the editor of The State newspaper, in broad daylight in front of the State House as Gonzales was walking home for lunch. Tillman claimed Gonzales was reaching for a gun, but Gonzales — who had written editorials critical of Tillman — was unarmed, according to onlookers, who included a police officer.
“Shoot again, you coward,” a mortally wounded Gonzales told Tillman as he lay dying on the sidewalk.
A Lexington County jury acquitted Tillman, wrote University of South Carolina historian Walter Edgar in his 1998 book, “South Carolina: A History.” This year, an advanced English class at Heathwood Hall school did a podcast on Gonzales’ killing.
▪ Jan. 15, 1921. The last generation of Florence County’s Bigham family — the mother, Dora, and her two adult children, Smiley and Marjorie — were found shot to death around their large estate near Pamplico, along with two friends of the family.
For five generations, the Bighams had been noted “for their superior intelligence and power — and their lack of scruples,” wrote Katharine Boling in her 1972 book on the Bigham murders, “A Piece of the Fox’s Hide.”
The sole remaining Bigham, Edmund Bigham, was tried three times for murdering his mother, two siblings and two acquaintances and sentenced to death. When, after appeals and new trials, he was offered a life sentence, he took it. Edmund Bigham was paroled in 1960 and died two years later at age 81. “The state got all my useful life,” he said.
▪ 1940-1943. Over three years, a feud between the Logue and the Timmerman families in Edgefield County resulted in nine deaths, including three executed for murder. The feud involved a spat over a cow, a hit man’s assassination of a Timmerman in 1941 and the fatal shootings of a sheriff and his deputy who were trying to arrest a Logue.
In the end, two Logues and an accomplice were tried for the killings of the sheriff and his deputy. After being found guilty, they were put to death on Jan. 15, 1943, in state prison.
One of those executed was Sue Logue, the first woman to be executed in South Carolina’s electric chair and a former girl friend of longtime Sen. Strom Thurmond, according to an account of the feud by Bass and Thompson in their book, Strom.
▪ Feb. 17, 1947. In Pickens County, a white mob stormed the local jail and seized Willie Earle, a Black man who had been charged with the murder of a white Greenville taxi driver. The mob shot, stabbed and beat Earle to death.
Twenty-one white men were arrested and put on trial. They were acquitted by an all-white jury. But then-Gov. Strom Thurmond had launched a vigorous investigation with the fledgling State Law Enforcement Division and the FBI that is credited with being one of the state’s first serious prosecutions of a Black lynching. Up until then, whites had tolerated most of the more than 100 lynchings of Blacks in South Carolinia.
Later in 1947, famed writer Rebecca West, who had attended Willie Earle trial, wrote an article in The New Yorker magazine titled “Opera in Greenville.” West noted that one of the defendants had tattooed the 10 letters “Love to Hate” on the backs of his fingers and wrote that because of the trial publicizing the ugliness of lynching, “wickedness itself had been aware of the slowing of its pulse.”
▪ 1960s-early 1970s. Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins of Florence County became the state’s most notorious multiple murderer. The exact number of Gaskins’ victims is not known, but he is believed to have killed at least 15 people in society’s lower strata.
Gaskins, who The State newspaper once described as “a little (5-foot-3, 130 pounds) man, a squeaky voice, dead eyes and a black heart,” buried his victims in unmarked shallow graves in three Pee Dee-region counties. Once caught, he confessed to killing people by poison, drowning, beating, shooting and knifing.
Because the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the death penalty unconstitutional in 1972, South Carolina authorities allowed Gaskins to plead guilty and get life sentences if he would lead them to the graves of his victims.
▪ Sept. 12, 1982. The assassination of Rudolph Tyner. Tyner was an inmate on South Carolina’s death row awaiting execution for the murders of two Horry County storekeepers, William and Myrtie Moon.
Tyner was holding a radio to his ear when it blew up, an initial investigation showed. After weeks of further investigation, authorities discovered a tape of a phone call that incriminated inmate Donald “Pee Wee” Gaskins, who lived in the supposedly highly secure death row wing, to being a hit man who killed Tyner with C-4 explosives smuggled into the prison. Tony Cimo, the son of Tyner’s victims, had hired Gaskins to kill his parents’ killer.
Tyner was Gaskins’ last victim. In 1991, Gaskins was executed. He was the first white man in South Carolina in the 20th century put to death for the killing of a Black man. Several books were written about Gaskins and a documentary and fictionalized made-for-television movie were made.
“In my 45 years of cases, this is the most heinous, callous, unconscionable human I ever met — a killing machine,” said state Sen. Dick Harpootlian, who was one of the prosecutors who sought and won the death penalty for Gaskins.
▪ 1985. For two months in mid-1985, residents of central South Carolina lived in fear after a young Lexington County woman, Shari Faye Smith, 17, and a young Richland County girl, Debra Mae Helmick, 9, were snatched from their driveways, kidnapped and murdered.
Eventually, a 36-year-old Lexington County electrician, Larry Gene Bell, who lived with his parents, was arrested and tried. Before his arrests, he telephoned Smith’s parents and had tormented them with stories of what he did to their daughter.
Bell died in the electric chair in 1996. His killings were made into a television movie, “Nightmare in Columbia County,” and a television docudrama.
▪ January and September 1994. Two infants died in separate incidents at a Richland County daycare operation run by Brenda Gail Cutro. Although the case was originally believed to have been sudden infant death syndrome, autopsies showed the children died of shaken baby syndrome.
After two trials, a Lexington County jury eventually convicted Cutro of the deaths of Parker Colson and Ashlan Danie, both 4 months old. State’s evidence showed she had a mental condition that caused her to harm children in order to seek sympathy for herelf. She was sentenced to two life sentences for homicide by child abuse, sentences upheld by the S.C. Supreme Court, and is eligible for parole in 2023.
Johnny Gasser, a Columbia attorney who prosecuted Cutro three times before winning a conviction, said last week, “The murder of a child is the most malicious act of evil any person can commit. To intentionally kill multiple children for the purpose of seeking attention for oneself elevates that evilness tenfold.”
▪ Oct. 25, 1994. Susan Smith, a 24-year-old mother, drowned her two young sons in a Union County lake. Her case quickly attracted national attention when Smith, a white woman, told authorities her boys had been kidnapped by a Black man who had also made off with her car. After a week, Smith eventually confessed.
Put on trial, Smith was defended by nationally known death penalty defense lawyers David Bruck and Judy Smith, who won Smith two life sentences after convincing a Union County jury she suffered from severe mental problems. She is eligible for parole in 2024. The case has been the subject of several books.
▪ April 13, 2012. Brett Parker, a well-to-do bookie who ran an illegal sports betting operation in Irmo, told Richland County sheriff’s detectives he came home and found his best friend, Bryan Capnerhurst, had fatally shot his wife, Tammy Jo Parker. Then, Parker told detectives, he shot and killed Capnerhurst in self-defense when the two fought.
Weeks passed before investigators arrested Parker and charged him with two counts of murder.
After a three-week trial involving numerous pieces of scientific and technical evidence, a Richland County jury found Parker guilty of murdering his wife and best friend and setting in motion an elaborate scheme to hide the truth. The case was the subject of an episode on NBC “Dateline” in 2013. Parker is serving two consecutive life sentences.
▪ August, 2014. Tim Jones, a mentally-troubled software engineer who earned $80,000 a year, killed his five school-age children — Merah, 8; Elias, 7; Nahtahn, 6; Gabriel, 2; and Abigail Elaine, 1 — at the family’s Red Bank home in rural Lexington County. Then he loaded their bodies into his SUV and drove around the South for days before being arrested.
Five years later, a Lexington County jury recommended the death sentence for Jones. He is now on South Carolina’s death row.
▪ In June, 2015, a 21-year-old white supremacist from Columbia, Dylann Roof, attended a Bible study class at a downtown Charleston African-American church, then proceeded to execute nine parishioners, including popular state Sen. Clementa Pinckney, the church’s pastor. President Obama came to Pinckney’s funeral and sang “Amazing Grace” during the eulogy.
Roof, who had been radicalized on the internet and revered the Confederate flag, had hopes of starting a race war. But the reaction against his racism was such that it led to the removal of the Confederate flag from State House grounds. Roof is now on federal death row in Indiana.
▪ 2015-2016. Todd Kohlhepp, a Spartanburg County real estate agent, killed three people. and buried two of them on his 100-acre property. Kohlhepp was arrested after police used cell phone signals to help them locate a woman he had kidnapped and was being held on his property. The woman knew about Kohlhepp’s three murders, and he was arrested.
Police also charged Kohlhepp with killing four people at a motorcycle shop near Spartanburg in 2004.
In May, Kohlhepp pled guilty to seven murders in a plea deal that let him escape the death penalty. He is serving seven consecutive life sentences.
True crime writer sums it up
Brad Willis, 47, a former television investigative reporter based in Greenville, is the author of a popular podcast, Murder Etc., which concerns unanswered questions around the 1975 slaying of a Greenville County sheriff’s narcotics detective.
“We don’t understand how someone could be so cruel, how violence can happen in such a way when we lead fairly routine lives,” Willis said. “It fascinates us because we don’t understand.”
Tragedy should not be entertainment, but “people want to know the truth, want to know the answers and why something happened. We don’t understand how such violence exists, and we seek out answers of how things came to be. That’s why true crime is so compelling to people,” he said.
Will the Murdaugh case continue to fascinate people for years to come?
Pointing to the wealth and prominence of the Murdaughs, the mystery surrounding the killings and the possibility of vengeance being a motive, Willis said simply, “Yes, in every way.”