Inside the toxic Murdaugh family of South Carolina
HAMPTON, S.C. — Maggie Kennedy Branstetter was a pretty blond sorority girl at the University of South Carolina in the late ’80s when she met and soon married Alexander Murdaugh, a scion of the state’s most powerful legal dynasty.
The couple would become the leading lights in otherwise mostly poor Hampton County, holding forth from one of their three estates. Maggie Murdaugh, who favored furs when the weather was cold enough, preferred to stay at the couple’s hunting lodge just outside the town of Hampton where their two sons, Buster and Paul, liked to shoot wild animals. In the summer the Murdaughs spent time on their 17-foot powerboat.
But marriage to her college sweetheart sealed Maggie’s doom. Two weeks ago, the bubbly 52-year-old “Mrs. Maggie,” as some friends and her servants called her, was shot to death near the dog kennels on the grounds of the family’s hunting lodge. Also gunned down was her and Alex’s troubled 22-year-old son, Paul.
Alex found the bodies at the lodge, called “Moselle,” around 10 p.m. on June 7. The victims were shot multiple times, the coroner said, reportedly with a semi-automatic assault rifle and a shotgun. He ruled the deaths a double homicide.
But some locals in this swampy, rural Lowcountry town, where the Murdaughs have ruled like kings for more than a century, whisper that the murders might be karmic retribution — for a variety of secrets, sins and tragic deaths tied to the family.
“Mrs. Maggie don’t deserve this,” said Gabby Thomas, 62, whose hunting club is adjacent to the Murdaughs’ lodge. “She’d give you the shirt off her back, that one. Wonderful woman. Them others? I don’t know. But she sure spoiled Paul. I heard him talk back to her once so bad in the beauty parlor once that I made him apologize.”
At the time of his death, Paul was facing trial on felony boat-driving charges in connection with a crash that killed a 19-year-old woman in 2019.
The mystery of the Murdaugh murders has exploded into a Netflix-ready Southern Gothic thriller that’s part Grisham, part Faulkner, with more than a dash of Capote’s “In Cold Blood.”
The untouchable family ran the prosecutor’s offices in the five counties that make up the Lowcountry while also, incredibly, operating a powerhouse litigation firm, Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, with tentacles in the highest echelons of the red state — despite being Democrats.
The story also features an apparently deranged heir in Paul Murdaugh, who allegedly had a dangerous alter ego — called “Timmy” by friends — when he drank.
The Murdaughs aren’t happy about their sudden notoriety. The family barred a Post reporter from entering the Murdaugh law firm in Hampton — only 65 miles but a world away from chic Charleston — last week before briefly sending out a lawyer who refused to say if Alex Murdaugh had official representation or comment.
“When you get so used to controlling the narrative and everyone around you for so long, you’re not prepared for this kind of scrutiny from the outside,” Todd Proctor, a former South Carolina Highway Patrol detective who investigated a death he believes may be connected to the Murdaugh family, told The Post. (No member of the family was ever charged or considered a formal suspect.)
“This is all new to them.”
Cops reportedly said early on that Alex was a “person of interest” in the investigation of his wife and son’s deaths, but now say he was not. The family has claimed he has a rock-solid alibi: He was visiting his dying father in the hospital at the time of the killings.
Though the murders happened June 7, neither police nor the Murdaugh family initially commented on them other than to say there was no risk to the public. There was no manhunt announced, no reward offered.
Then two of Alex’s brothers appeared on “Good Morning America” this week, suddenly calling for the public’s help in finding the killer.
Within hours of the TV appearance, police abruptly began dredging an area of swampland not far from the lodge and set up a dedicated tip line.
Local newspaper The Island Packet reported this week that investigators are looking into the possibility that Paul was the intended target. His uncles claimed on the show that the Paul had recently received death threats but also said “we really don’t know of any enemies” — though others in town seem to disagree.
“Paul’s daddy don’t look like Boss Hogg,” said an older resident of Hampton who did not want to be identified by name, “but that’s who he is.”
Around town, where the Murdaughs are both liked and feared, there’s no end to the rumors of whodunit — and a long list of potential enemies, from former employees to people they helped prosecute or sue. Many people are afraid to talk for fear they will now be considered suspects acting out of revenge.
Two of the most prominent families being gossiped about as having a possible motive are the parents of Mallory Beach, who died in the boating accident; and the mother of a young gay man who was found dead on a local road under mysterious circumstances in 2015.
Alex’s great-grandfather, Randolph Murdaugh Sr., started the family law firm as a sole practitioner in 1910. Ten years later, he also became the local prosecutor. His son was elected to take his place in 1940. And Randolph Murdaugh III, Alex’s father, was the solicitor until 2005 when Duffie Stone, a Murdaugh ally, was elected to the position.
Many local residents are connected to the Murdaughs — personally, professionally or, often, both. Even Tommy Crosby, the spokesman for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division or SLED, which is handling the murder investigation, grew up in Hampton and knows the family.
Although Alex Murdaugh serves part-time as a prosecutor for the 14th Judicial Circuit, he’s also a personal-injury lawyer with his family’s law firm. Stone, the 14th Circuit Solicitor, which is local parlance for district attorney, has not recused himself from the double-homicide investigation.
Mysterious deaths linked to the Murdaugh family
“Yes it’s a conflict of interest,” attorney Mark Tinsley, himself a longtime friend of the Murdaughs, told The Post. “It’s a little absurd.”
Tinsley also represents the family of Mallory Beach, the 19-year-old woman who was killed after being thrown from the Murdaugh family speedboat in February 2019.
Paul, 20 at the time, was driving and was indicted on three felony charges, including boating under the influence.
According to depositions released last summer, Paul was among a group of six underage people who bought alcohol with fake IDs before getting into the boat to go to an oyster roast on Paukie Island near Beaufort, SC.
Anthony Cook — Mallory’s boyfriend and Paul’s childhood friend — testified that Paul got in a fight with his girlfriend on the way home, not long before the crash, and slapped her. Paul allegedly later plowed the boat into a bridge piling, causing Mallory to be thrown from the craft.
Her body was found in the water a week later. Local media reports at the time claimed that Paul was never given a sobriety test at the hospital after the crash because his father and uncle showed up to prevent it.
Cook said friends started calling Paul’s drunken alter ego “Timmy” as far back as 2015, when Paul would have been 16. “Timmy” was reportedly known for stripping down to his boxer shorts.
“It started one night at Mr. Alex’s house in Moselle,” Cook said. “I don’t remember who came up with the name but it’s … because he turns into a completely different person. So somebody will say, when they can tell he’s drunk, ‘All right, here comes Timmy. We got to go.’”
Cook testified that Paul had stripped down to his boxer shorts on the boat, despite the 40-degree weather.
In addition to the felony charges Paul was facing, Mallory’s mother, Renee Beach, filed a civil suit against the family patriarch Randolph Murdaugh III — who died from cancer on June 10, just three days after the murders — as well as Alex and Buster Murdaugh, Paul’s older brother. The suit alleges that Buster allowed Paul to use his ID to buy alcohol before the crash.
A hearing had been scheduled for June 10 but is now postponed.
The civil suit came shortly after Alex had settled another wrongful death claim. In February 2018, 57-year-old Gloria Satterfield died as a result of a “trip and fall,” according to documents obtained by Mandy Matney at FITSNews. Her family settled for $500,000.
Court documents don’t make clear where Satterfield died but local reporting indicates she was a housekeeper for the Murdaughs and that her obituary mentions the family.
The Murdaughs have also been relentlessly targeted around town and on social media, without proof, in the haunting death of 19-year-old Stephen Smith. Early on the morning of July 8, 2015, the young gay man from Hampton was found dead in the middle of a rural road outside town. His skull was partially crushed and bloodied. There was a gaping hole in his forehead, and his shoulder had been dislocated.
Stephen’s mother Sandy Smith, 55, who lives in a trailer at the end of a dirt road, told The Post she’s been fighting publicly for six years to find out what happened to her son. “I’ll never stop fighting to find out what happened to Stephen,” she said. “He was my rock star.”
The Post reviewed part of a thick police file on the case at her home.
Documents obtained by Matney from the South Carolina Highway Patrol reveal that police received at least one anonymous tip connecting a member of the Murdaugh family to the Stephen Smith case.
Sandy and Todd Proctor, a former South Carolina Highway Patrol detective who was part of a team that investigated Stephen’s death, believe the Murdaughs had some involvement, but the two have no evidence. No one in the family was charged or considered a formal suspect in the case.
Despite her tenacity, few think Sandy will ever find out the truth about what happened to her son.
“When you’re talking about that area of the state,” Proctor said, “it’s a place time has left behind.”
Maybe. But the Murdaughs’ comfortable life out of the spotlight may be over forever now that the outside world — including network TV reporters doing live shots outside SLED offices last week — has intruded.
Still, locals don’t count them out.
“These are good ol’ boys but they’re really smart good ol’ boys,” Gabby Thomas said. “And they’re not all bad, neither. They got a lot of support here. There’s no way we seen the last of them.”