A Boat Crash, A Double Murder, And A Hit-And-Run: What The Heck Is Happening With The Murdaughs?

by Kristen Mae
Originally Published: 

In the latest in a tragic and bizarre series of events involving one South Carolina family, charges have been dropped against 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh regarding the February 24, 2019 death of Mallory Beach. Paul had allegedly been the one driving when a boat carrying six young adults crashed into a bridge piling, throwing the young woman from the boat. Her body wasn’t discovered until seven days later. According to police reports, the boaters, including Paul, were “grossly intoxicated” at the time of the crash, which occurred in the early morning hours.

The charges against Paul Murdaugh have been officially dropped though, because he — along with his mother, 52-year-old Margaret “Maggie” Murdaugh — is dead. On June 7, the two were shot multiple times at their 1,770-acre Colleton County hunting estate in South Carolina low country. It was Paul’s father, Alexander “Alex” Murdaugh, who discovered the bodies of his wife and son lying in front of the family dog kennels.

This is all horrific and bizarre in and of itself. But the additional complicating layer in all of this has to do with who the Murdaughs are. Alex Murdaugh is a prominent attorney in the area. His family has run a massively successful law firm for over a century, generations of Murdaughs growing the practice until it dominated local personal injury law. Three generations of Murdaughs also served as prosecutors in the 14th Judicial Circuit, prosecuting criminal cases across four counties.

In other words, the Murdaughs are an extremely wealthy, extremely powerful family.

This matters because, when the 19-year-old son of one of the most influential men in town crashes his family’s boat into a bridge piling while driving drunk and accidentally kills his friend, police responding to the scene may have this bit of information in their head — That’s the son of one of the most powerful men in the state. It took law enforcement two months to charge Paul Murdaugh.

In a perfect world, law enforcement officers responding to a crash of this nature would approach the situation with methodical, pragmatic precision. It wouldn’t matter whose family anyone belonged to. It would only matter who was at fault. But newly released video recordings of the aftermath of the crash indicate that this was far from the case.

In response to a Freedom of Information Act request from The Post and Courier, the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office released nine hours of video recordings from its deputies’ dashboard cameras. The video, combined with audio recordings from the officers’ microphones, provide insight into the first hours of the police investigation following the crash. The sheriff’s office had at first refused to provide the video.

The recordings revealed disturbing discrepancies between what was told to the officers at the scene and what the officers actually reported.

At one point, Mallory Beach’s boyfriend Anthony Cook clearly tells Department of Natural Resources officer Austin Pritcher that as far as he knew, Paul had been driving the boat. “Paul was driving?” the Pritcher confirms. “Yes sir,” Cook answers. “I begged and begged and begged and begged to let me drive.”

But Pritcher didn’t note this in his report — he wrote that Cook “wasn’t sure” who was driving. Pritcher later spoke with other passengers from the boat and then told his supervisor he thought someone else altogether had been driving.

The recordings caught another conversation between Paul Murdaugh and deputy Jack Keener. Paul asks the deputy if he can borrow his phone. Keener responds that he doesn’t have one, but he’d just seen Paul carrying one. Keener pointed out that Paul had just dropped his phone in the grass. Somehow the (deliberately?) dropped phone never made it into evidence. Keener admitted later during a deposition that if he were ever to witness a suspect throw their phone on the ground, he would collect it as evidence.

Keener in particular may have had a conflict of interest. The Murdaughs had represented his family after a 2012 car crash killed his father. Keener received over $750,000 in the settlement of the case.

But Paul Murdaugh’s friend Anthony Cook apparently feared that his friend’s name would protect him. “That motherf*cker needs to rot in f*cking prison,” he can be heard saying in the video, referring to Paul. “He ain’t gonna get in no f*cking trouble.” Then he screams, “You f*cking smiling like it’s f*cking funny? My f*cking girlfriend’s gone!”

Cook may have had reason to feel that way. Newly released court documents show that Paul’s father, Alex Murdaugh, allegedly prevented law enforcement from interviewing Paul at the hospital after the crash. Police didn’t give Paul (or any of the others) a field sobriety test at the scene, either, though his blood alcohol content when they did take a measurement was clocked at .286 percent — triple the legal limit.

The video also clearly demonstrates that the Murdaugh family name was the proverbial elephant in the room. Anthony Cook can be heard asking an officer, “Do y’all know Alex Murdaugh?”

“Oh yeah,” responds the officer. “I know that name.”

“That’s his son,” Cook says. “So good luck.”

Despite the early missteps in the investigation, Paul Murdaugh was eventually charged with three felony counts of boating under the influence, with one count including boating under the influence resulting in death — a charge punishable by up to 25 years in prison. But, again, it took two months for law enforcement to charge him.

Now, Paul and Maggie Murdaugh’s violent murders have many speculating about who could have been responsible.

For some, it seems too big of a coincidence that Paul was shot as he was awaiting a trial date, especially given that at so many points along the way, many believed he had received special treatment. The police have not named any suspects, but the Murdaugh family has offered a $100,000 reward to anyone who provides information leading to the arrest and conviction of whoever killed Paul and Maggie Murdaugh.

That’s not even the end of the story. As if all of the foregoing wasn’t wild enough, apparently, information gathered from the Murdaugh double murder investigation has prompted law enforcement to reopen a case regarding the 2015 death of 19-year-old Stephen Smith. The Smith case had originally been ruled a hit-and-run despite evidence from the coroner’s office suggesting Smith had a wound to the head consistent with a gunshot. The Murdaugh name had been floating around that case, but never came to anything.

To anyone who has ever witnessed the power behind a prominent name, that comes as no surprise.

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