A law enforcement officer likely to figure prominently in the prosecution of a fatal boat crash involving one of South Carolina’s wealthiest and most influential families has been compromised by allegations of professional misconduct.
The only Beaufort County, South Carolina deputy who identified Paul Murdaugh as the driver in a fatal boat crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach last February has been fired for drug use.
Jake Shore of The (Hilton Head, S.C.) Island Packet first reported that deputy Steven Domino “was accused of unlawful use of a controlled substance” and of “making false or misleading statements to a law enforcement agency.”
Maj. Bob Bromage, spokesperson for the Beaufort County sheriff’s office, confirmed with FITSNews Wednesday that Domino was fired in relation to those accusations on July 31. No charges were filed against Domino.
Domino collected essential information in the chaotic aftermath of the February 24, 2019 boat crash near the Archer’s Creek bridge just outside of Parris Island, South Carolina. His firing on these grounds could potentially impact the state’s charges against Murdaugh — whose prominent family ties caused local lawmen, prosecutors and judges to recuse themselves from the case.
S.C. attorney general Alan Wilson‘s office is prosecuting the criminal case, with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR) and the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED) providing investigatory assistance.
Robert Kittle, spokesperson for Wilson’s office, told FITSNews that a trial date has not been set and the case is unlikely to happen anytime this year given the effective shutdown of the judicial branch of government in the Palmetto State since March. Sources close to the case have told FITSNews it could take years before Murdaugh stands trial.
While there has been little movement in Murdaugh’s criminal case (at least in terms of its progress through the court system), a civil case (.pdf) filed by Beach’s mother is ramping up and inching closer to a trial date.
Renee Beach, of Hampton County, 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.
In the meantime, we’re watching closely for any developments that could impact the case.
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).
He has pleaded not guilty to all of the charges filed against him.
As of this writing, Murdaugh has not spent any time behind bars related to the charges filed against him.
The Murdaugh family is an institution in the South Carolina Lowcountry. From 1920 to 2006, three generations of Murdaughs determined who would be prosecuted in the state’s fourteenth judicial circuit, which includes Beaufort and Hampton counties. Not surprisingly, this has led to allegations that Murdaugh has received preferential treatment — especially at the local level.
Officials at SCDNR, the lead investigating agency in the crash, have said that confusion in determining who was driving delayed the investigation from the get-go.
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 County deputies were not dispatched to investigate the crash because boat crashes are typically handled by SCDNR.
However, the Beaufort County deputies laid the groundwork for the investigation and Domino’s report was the only one that clearly stated Paul Murdaugh was driving.
FITSNews recently obtained documents showing that two of the responding deputies on the night of the crash had ties to the Murdaugh family’s law firm.
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 who responded to the scene. He 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 was the only person identified as a possible driver at the scene of the crash, according to reports.
In fact, Mallory Beach’s boyfriend — Keith “Anthony” Cook – told Domino multiple times that night that Paul Murdaugh had been driving the boat at the time of the crash and that Murdaugh was heavily intoxicated.
Take a look at Domino’s report below :
Anthony Cook “begged Paul Murdaugh, who was driving the boat at the time of the incident, to please let him drive,” Domino wrote in his report.
Anthony Cook — cousin of 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.”
RELATED: Murdaugh Slapped And Spit On Girlfriend Before Fatal SC Boat Crash, Court Records Say
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.
Beach’s body was found a week later by two men in a boat about five miles from the crash site. Beaufort County coroner Edward Allen determined she died of blunt force trauma and drowning.
What this means
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 clearly impacted the direction of the investigation.
Paul Murdaugh was not administered a breathalyzer examination at the scene, but authorities did obtain blood from him at the hospital according to SCDNR.
RELATED: SC Fatal Boat Crash Lawsuit: Is Parker’s Setting The Stage To Pin Blame Elsewhere?
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 they make any attempt to interview Murdaugh in front of a camera — as is protocol for other alcohol-related crashes.
Instead, Keener’s “two possible drivers” theory was passed onto SCDNR investigators as a starting-off point for their investigation.
With little evidence from the scene, the case against Paul Murdaugh would likely rely heavily on witness testimony.
Such muddying of the waters begs the question: Did officers with ties to the Murdaugh family influence this investigation from the start?
And now that Domino — the only officer at the scene of the crash who identified Murdaugh as the driver — has been fired and his reputation compromised, what does that mean for the case against Paul Murdaugh?
Columbia, S.C. attorney (and S.C. senator) Dick Harpootlian and Jim Griffin — two of the most prominent criminal defense attorneys in the Palmetto State — are representing Murdaugh in the criminal case.
Stay tuned… FITNews will continue to closely watch and cover both the civil and criminal cases as they unfold.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR..
Mandy Matney is the news director at FITSNews. She’s an investigative 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. Mandy also hosts the Murdaugh Murders podcast. Want to contact Mandy? Send your tips to [email protected].
Matney has been covering the Murdaugh case since the morning of the crash on Feb. 24, 2019 and has developed more than a dozen sources across the state in the last year.
WANNA SOUND OFF?
Got something you’d like to say in response to one of our articles? Or an issue you’d like to address proactively? We have an open microphone policy here at FITSNews! Submit your letter to the editor (or guest column) via email HERE. Got a tip for a story? CLICK HERE. Got a technical question or a glitch to report? CLICK HERE.