Nearly two weeks after two members of a prominent South Carolina family were shot dead in rural Colleton County, there are few signals the search for the killer is narrowing.
The limited public statements from police indicate the sweep is wide open, including an announcement eight days into the investigation that officers are manning a dedicated tip line.
In their first public appearance since the June 7 shootings, two members of the Murdaugh family told ABC News their nephew, 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh, had been threatened by strangers. Paul and his mother, Maggie Murdaugh, were found dead at their family’s hunting lodge, a place called Moselle, which sits near the Salkehatchie River along the border of Colleton and Hampton counties.
The case has drawn significant interest, in part, because police have said so little about what happened and because of the Murdaugh name. The vacuum of information has drawn interest from around the country and the world, with news reports reaching from the South Carolina Lowcountry to tabloids in India and the United Kingdom. The case has also renewed questions about Paul Murdaugh’s deadly 2019 boat crash and how the police handled it, with two attorneys questioning potential “improprieties” and missing evidence.
The Murdaugh family long held power over the state’s southernmost region, where it produced three generations of solicitors. Members of the family ran the prosecutor’s office for more than 80 years — from 1920 to 2005. And the family has accumulated significant wealth through its law firm, which has a reputation for winning major payouts from multinational companies from its headquarters in the small town of Hampton.
The family’s history of power and wealth, along with Paul’s 2019 boat crash, have fueled speculation about potential enemies, though police have not named any suspects.
“I didn’t think it was a credible threat. If it was, I would’ve tried to do something or notify someone,” John Marvin Murdaugh said in an interview broadcast June 17 on “Good Morning America.” “But I guess maybe I made a mistake.”
His brother, Randy Murdaugh, likewise expressed disbelief: “You hear of all this talk on the social media with regard to Paul, but I don’t know of anybody that would truly be an enemy or truly want to harm him,” he said.
Yet someone did. Paul and Maggie were each shot multiple times, the State Law Enforcement Division confirmed June 15. They were found by Alex Murdaugh — Paul’s father and Maggie’s husband — outside the family’s home.
In its broadcast of the Murdaugh brothers’ interview, ABC News reported that on the night of the shooting, Alex Murdaugh was visiting his mother and taking his dying father to the hospital. Randolph Murdaugh III died a few days after the shooting; his death was not related to the homicides.
Alex Murdaugh called 911 shortly after 10 p.m. on June 7. The way the investigation unfolded from there highlights the family’s close ties to the region’s criminal justice system.
Only about 20 minutes after his call came in, the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office requested backup from SLED. Local law enforcement often asks for the state’s help with big cases, but this request had an unusual twist: The sheriff’s office wanted SLED to take the lead because local law enforcement officials felt they had a conflict of interest with the Murdaugh family.
Like three generations of his family before him, Alex Murdaugh, the father and husband of the victims, does work for the prosecutor’s office, which tries the sheriff’s cases in court.
The family’s proximity to the local judicial system has come under scrutiny before, particularly after Paul Murdaugh was involved in a fatal boat crash in 2019.
Early on the morning of Feb. 24, 2019, Paul Murdaugh and five friends were boating from an oyster roast north of Beaufort to a Murdaugh family house on the Chechessee River south of town.
They had been drinking. Court records indicate that Paul stocked the boat’s cooler with a six-pack of Michelob Ultra Lime and cases of White Claw seltzer and Natural Light beer from a gas station nearby. His friends testified that Paul, who was 19 at the time, used his older brother’s ID. The cashier said she’d heard of his family growing up in Hampton County.
After the oyster roast, the group stopped in downtown Beaufort — at Paul’s insistence, friends said under oath — so that Paul and a friend could buy shots of liquor. His friends testified that he seemed inebriated, insisting on driving when others offered and taking off his shirt and jacket despite the cold. They had seen this type of behavior before; they even gave a nickname to his persona while drinking: Timmy.
“He turns into a completely — totally different person,” one of the passengers said in a deposition.
Another said, “He thinks he is invincible.”
On their way back to the family house, they cut through a creek that separates Parris Island from the rest of Beaufort County, and they slammed into the bridge that connects the two. All of the passengers were flung into the creek, but one, Mallory Beach, couldn’t be found that night. Her body was found a week later.
The 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office, which the Murdaughs once ran, recused itself from the case within days, and Paul Murdaugh was later charged with three counts of boating under the influence.
But the law enforcement investigation has recently come under fresh scrutiny, with questions and accusations of missteps that have recently resurfaced.
In separate statements this week, lawyers for Beach’s family and one of the boat’s other passengers indicated that SLED and the state Attorney General’s Office were reviewing the crash investigation.
In a statement, Mark Tinsley, who is representing the Beach family, said the family hoped the attorney general would “prosecute any improprieties related to any attempts by any member of law enforcement to influence the original criminal investigation.”
Joseph McCulloch Jr., who is representing passenger Connor Cook, said he was encouraged that the state was looking into “the inexplicable disappearance of important evidence and other lapses by the initial investigating authorities.”
The statements did not specify what evidence was missing or which agency was responsible for securing it.
SLED did not respond to questions about that review.
The Attorney General’s Office said the criminal charges against Paul Murdaugh would be dropped as soon as the agency received official documentation of his death, yet Robert Kittle, a spokesman for the attorney general, confirmed that the overall investigation into Beach’s death is still ongoing. He declined to discuss it in detail.
The state Department of Natural Resources, which led the crash investigation, declined to say whether it was aware of such a review. The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office, which first secured the crash scene, hasn’t been notified of an investigation into its deputies’ handling of the case, according to Maj. Robert Bromage, the department’s spokesman.
In the hours after the crash, Paul Murdaugh’s father and grandfather arrived at the hospital where the boat’s passengers were being treated and encouraged Paul not to speak with investigators, The Post and Courier reported in 2019, citing a DNR spokesman. One of the boat’s passengers said in a deposition that the father told him in the hospital hallway that he didn’t have to tell police who was driving the boat.
Even so, in the ABC interview that aired June 17, John Marvin and Randy Murdaugh denied that their family had influenced the crash investigation. Asked if they believed family members had interfered, both men shook their heads no.
“I see words like ‘dynasty’ used. Or ‘power.’ And I don’t know exactly how people use those words but we’re just regular people,” Randy Murdaugh said on ABC. “We’re hurting just like they would be hurting if this had happened to them.”
History of influence
The family law firm, Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, was founded in 1910 by Randolph Murdaugh, who in 1920 became the first in the family’s line of prosecutors. He served as solicitor until July 1940 when a freight train plowed into his car near Varnville as he was returning from a friend’s house one night. He died instantly, according to news reports at the time.
He was succeeded by his son, Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr., a prosecutor who would occupy the solicitor’s office for most of the next 48 years. The only gap in his service came in the mid-1950s when he briefly resigned after being accused of helping rural moonshiners sidestep the law.
Though a federal judge labeled him “grossly unethical,” Buster Murdaugh shrugged off the slight, won an acquittal on a liquor conspiracy charge and reclaimed his seat as the circuit’s chief prosecutor. He went on to preside over several high-profile cases, including a number that carried the death penalty.
In fact, he was rebuked repeatedly by the S.C. Supreme Court for the over-the-top arguments he sometimes employed in such proceedings. In one rape case, he warned jurors that if they acquitted the defendant he would drop the charges against other accused rapists.
When Buster Murdaugh finally stepped down in 1986, his son, Randolph Murdaugh III, quickly stepped in to fill his seat. Randolph III, who died last week, was the first four-letter athlete in the history of Wade Hampton High School when he achieved the mark in 1957. But he made no secret of where his future lay.
“I would like to follow in my father’s footsteps and work toward a law degree,” he told The News and Courier at the time. He attained that goal, and went on to serve as solicitor until 2005.
The courts also created a pathway for the Murdaughs to accumulate considerable wealth: The family’s century-old law firm has extracted such large payouts from its litigation that the Hampton County courthouse has a national reputation as a hostile venue for big corporations.
The family owns more than 1,700 acres of woodlands and swamps in Colleton and Hampton counties — an expanse the size of downtown Charleston. It includes the hunting lodge called Moselle, where the double homicide took place.
The details of what happened at Moselle on June 7 are still largely unknown to the public, and investigators have refused to release even the most basic records related to the killings.
The Post and Courier sued SLED and the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office on June 17 for violating the state’s Freedom of Information Act. That law requires police to release their reports on recent incidents to any member of the public who comes to their offices.
When the newspaper’s reporters visited the sheriff’s office in Walterboro and SLED headquarters in Columbia, the agencies would not release the reports. The sheriff’s office deferred to SLED, and SLED would not open its doors.
While law enforcement agencies are allowed to redact certain information to protect their investigations, SLED has refused to release even redacted reports.
The newspaper’s lawsuit also seeks recordings of any 911 calls reporting the shootings.
Separately, Colleton County Coroner Richard Harvey has not released his office’s reports on the case, even after The Post and Courier sent a FOIA request for them. Harvey, a Republican who has been coroner for nearly three decades, said only that both victims died of multiple gunshot wounds, and that their deaths were being handled as homicides.
“This is all my office is releasing at this time,” Harvey said in response to the FOIA request.
For any other information, Harvey said, the newspaper should contact SLED.
Glenn Smith and Gregory Yee contributed reporting.