Two Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office deputies who responded to a fatal boat crash last February had direct ties to the influential family of the alleged boat driver, according to court documents obtained by FITSNews.
Staff Sgt. Jason Malphrus — who supervised the agency’s response on the evening of the crash — was actually represented by Richard Alexander Murdaugh, the father of alleged boat driver Paul Murdaugh, at the time of the accident.
Not only that, the elder Murdaugh was the owner of the boat — and is named in a wrongful death suit tied to the crash. Richard Alexander Murdaugh continued to represent Malphrus after the accident, according to court records.
The other deputy, Cpl. Jack Keener, also had connections to the Murdaughs’ law firm. In 2015, the firm, PMPED, helped Keener and his family win a $2.5 million settlement, according to court documents.
Keener was one of the first officers to respond to the scene and later wrote in his report that it was “unclear” who was driving the 17-foot center console boat, which crashed into a piling near the Archer’s Creek bridge just outside of Parris Island, South Carolina in the early morning hours of Feb. 24, 2019 with six people on board.
Keener offered this assessment even though Paul Murdaugh — who has since been charged with multiple criminal counts in connection with the crash — was the only person identified as a possible driver at the scene of the crash, according to reports.
These newly revealed details come one year after Murdaugh, of Hampton County, was charged in the crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach, also of Hampton County, and seriously injured two other passengers.
Beach’s body was found a week later by two men in a boat about five miles from the crash site. Beaufort coroner Edward Allen determined she died of blunt force trauma and drowning.
Paul Murdaugh is facing one count of boating under the influence resulting in death and two counts of boating under the influence causing great bodily injury. If convicted, he could face up to 25 years in prison on the first charge (with a minimum of a year behind bars) and up to 15 years in prison (with a minimum of thirty days in jail) on the two bodily injury charges, per the S.C. Code of Laws (§ 50-21-113).
Murdaugh — who was 19 years old at the time of the crash — was charged on April 18, 2019, which would have been Mallory Beach’s 20th birthday.
He has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges filed against him.
While there has been little to no movement in Murdaugh’s criminal case, the civil case (.pdf) filed by Beach’s mother is ramping up and inching closer to a trial date.
Renee Beach is seeking damages from Parker’s gas station, where the underage Murdaugh allegedly purchased alcohol prior to the crash, as well as from Murdaugh’s brother and father — who facilitated Murdaugh’s drinking, according to the lawsuit.
After FITSNews filed a Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) request last week, officials in the office of S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson confirmed they were possession of several depositions related to the responding officers in the case. Wilson’s office denied our request for these documents, however.
More on that in a moment …
While FITSNews has yet to obtain these bombshell depositions, we have learned more about the officers who responded to the crash and their ties to the Murdaugh family, which wields tremendous power and influence in the South Carolina Lowcountry.
From 1920 to 2006, three generations of Murdaughs determined who would be prosecuted in the South Carolina fourteenth judicial circuit, which includes Beaufort and Hampton counties. From the very beginning of this case, critics have questioned whether the Paul Murdaugh has received preferential treatment owing to his family’s firmly rooted influence in the region.
Unlike the vast majority of fatal BUI cases across the country, in this case the alleged driver, Murdaugh, was not given a field sobriety test at the scene, nor was he arrested that night — despite the belief that he was grossly intoxicated, according to officers on scene.
Authorities waited seven weeks to charge Murdaugh. Also, after entering his not guilty plea, Murdaugh was not handcuffed nor was he processed through the Beaufort County Detention Center — which would have been the protocol for most other people in his shoes. To this day, Murdaugh has not spent any time behind bars related to the charges filed against him.
Furthermore, he is not required to wear an ankle monitor or submit to regular alcohol testing. He is not barred from driving a boat. And even though it is common for judges to order underage defendants in similar cases not to drink alcohol while awaiting adjudication — Murdaugh was given no such additional restriction.
What Mallory’s Boyfriend Told Police
Officials at S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), the lead investigating agency in the crash, have said that confusion in determining who was driving delayed the investigation from the get-go.
But, according to written statements from four responding deputies, none of the other passengers ever told deputies that anyone besides Murdaugh was driving the boat.
In fact, Mallory Beach’s boyfriend, Anthony Cook, told police multiple times that night that Paul Murdaugh had been driving the boat at the time of the crash and that Murdaugh was heavily intoxicated.
Anthony Cook “begged Paul Murdaugh, who was driving the boat at the time of the incident, to please let him drive,” deputy Steven Domino wrote in his report.
Anthony Cook, who is first cousins with Connor Cook, the passenger identified by Keener as a possible second driver, told police Murdaugh had “refused to let him drive” and that “once they entered Archer’s Creek, he sat on the bottom of the boat and had Mallory sit on his lap to hold on because Paul was going too fast.”
Seconds later, the 17-foot center-console boat struck the piling. Beach and Cook were both flung into the dark water.
Only one of them resurfaced.
Who came up with the ‘two-driver’ theory?
The Murdaugh family’s law firm has represented Keener’s family in at least three lawsuits in the past six years, according to court documents obtained by FITSNews. In one of those lawsuits, his family received more than $2.5 million. Malphrus, the other Beaufort deputy, was represented by Paul Murdaugh’s father in another lawsuit at the time of the crash.
Three weeks after the boat crash, the sheriff’s office recused itself from the investigation due to its “long-standing relationship” with the Murdaugh family. Still, its involvement prior to this recusal likely shaped the direction of the investigation.
At the time of the crash, the sheriff’s office had said it was merely assisting the Port Royal, S.C. police department, which had initial jurisdiction that night over the scene. Beaufort deputies were not dispatched to investigate the crash because boat crashes are typically handled by SCDNR.
Still, Keener’s report paints a somewhat different picture of what he thought his role was that night. In this report, he appears to be trying his hand at reconstructing the crash and offering his opinions on what may have caused the accident.
“After looking at the damage of the boat, it appeared that the boat struck the dolphin ‘navigation aid/ cluster of pilings spaced out from the bridge to mark the channel,’ due to leaving a white scuff mark on it,” Keener wrote.
This is confusing as Beaufort County was merely supposed to be providing emergency response at the scene. If the sheriff’s office was not investigating the crash, why would its deputies be focused on such details?
Because they did not consider themselves the investigating agency on the case, neither Keener nor any other responding Beaufort County officer appears to have secured evidence at the scene. Nor did any attempt to interview Murdaugh in front of a camera — as is protocol for other alcohol-related crashes.
What’s more, sources familiar with the case affirm that Keener’s statement about it being unclear who was driving the boat was merely his opinion.
Law enforcement officers are taught to stick to the facts in their reports and avoid offering theories. If an officer does find it necessary to offer his opinion in a report, they are told to label it as such.
(Click to view)
(Via: Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office)
Keener clearly failed to do that …
Instead, his “two possible drivers” theory was passed onto SCDNR investigators as a starting-off point for their investigation.
Such muddying of the waters begs the question: Did officers with ties to the Murdaugh family influence this investigation from the start?
One would hope not … but it’s a question clearly worth pursuing as the attorney general’s office continues to investigate Murdaugh’s criminal case. In fact, here are just a few of the questions we believe need to be asked …
- What influence —if any — did the Murdaughs have over the investigation? Is the attorney general’s office looking into the Murdaughs’ phone records during the time period in question?
- Did law enforcement allow any member of the Murdaugh family access to the boat —which was technically a crime scene — or access to any of the evidence in the days following the crash?
- On the night of the crash, Richard Alexander Murdaugh and his father Randolph Murdaugh ) Paul Murdaugh’s grandfather and the former solicitor) — allegedly kept investigators from interviewing other passengers on the boat in connection with the crash. Is the attorney general’s office looking into allegations of obstruction related to these two men?
- Agents with the S.C State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) said they were in charge of investigating where the boaters obtained the alcohol that was consumed prior to the crash. Do we expect charges to be filed in connection with that investigation?
- It has been suggested Mallory Beach and Anthony Cook attempted to disembark from the boat prior to the crash. Has the investigation found any evidence to support this contention? And if so, could it lead to additional charges?
- Did the deputies’ legal connections to the Murdaugh family affect the conduct of the investigation? And did either of them disclose these conflicts to their superiors or the agencies with jurisdiction over the investigation?
We will keep our readers posted as answers to these questions become available.
As mentioned earlier, assistant attorney general Susannah Cole denied FITSNews’ FOIA request for depositions related to the civil case. Cole indicated her office was in possession of documents responsive to our request, but said the agency exempt from disclosure pursuant to two South Carolina statutes.
However, the law states that FOIA is “remedial in nature and should be liberally construed to carry out its purpose.”
Furthermore, FOIA law “is vital in democratic society that public business be performed in an open and public manner so that citizens shall be advised of the performance of public officials and of the decisions that are reached in public activity and in the formulation of public policy.”
“Toward this end, provisions of this chapter must be construed as to make it possible for citizens, or their representatives, for citizens, or their representatives, to learn and report fully the activities their public officials at a minimum cost or delay to the persons seeking access to public documents or meetings,” the S.C. supreme court has ruled.
Since any deposition taken or obtained from a civil matter does not fall under voluntary exemption, according to law, we believe the public has a right to obtain the depositions in the Murdaugh case under FOIA laws.
This is a news analysis by Mandy Matney of FITSNews. Matney has been covering the Murdaugh case since the morning of the crash on Feb. 24, 2019 and has developed many sources across the state in the last year.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Mandy Matney is the news director at FITSNews. She’s an award-winning journalist from Kansas who has worked for newspapers in Missouri, Illinois, and South Carolina before making the switch to FITS. She currently lives on Hilton Head Island where she enjoys beach life. Want to contact Mandy? Send your story ideas, comments, suggestions and tips to [email protected].
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