The double homicide of Paul Murdaugh and his mother Maggie Murdaugh in rural Colleton County earlier this week sent shockwaves throughout South Carolina. Now, in the aftermath of their deaths, a cloud of unsettled air hangs above the Lowcountry — where the Murdaugh family’s power has loomed large over law enforcement and local courtrooms for nearly a century.
So many unanswered questions surround not only Monday’s shocking slayings, but several other suspicious deaths connected to the Murdaughs — one of the wealthiest, most prominent families in South Carolina. Three generations of Murdaughs served as the S.C. fourteenth judicial circuit solicitor from 1920 through 2006 — and the family exerted additional influence via the powerful law firm of Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth and Detrick (PMPED).
As the investigation moves forward and detectives attempt to unravel the complicated ties to the Murdaugh dynasty, several sources who spoke with FITSNews questioned whether this criminal inquiry would be tainted like the others before it.
This media outlet has been covering Paul Murdaugh since he was first accused in a fatal boat crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach in February 2019.
Over the years, we’ve spoken to over 100 people about the Murdaugh family – about the power they held over others, about their close ties to law enforcement, about their deep pockets, about their vast tracts of land, and about the disconnect between their private and public personas.
All of this is inextricably tied to the investigation — which is undeniably a murder investigation unlike any other.
Despite what his obituary says, Paul Murdaugh — who was described to FITSNews by several sources as an entitled sociopath with a short fuse — had a history that goes much deeper than the 2019 boat crash when he first caught the attention of the media.
Stephen Smith’s Death In 2015
Officials still don’t know who or what killed 19-year-old Stephen Smith six years ago — but his death has been widely associated with the Murdaugh family.
Like the probe of the 2019 boat crash, the 2015 investigation into Smith’s death was chaotic from the beginning — clouded by jurisdictional confusion and suspicions of investigative interference.
Smith was found dead just before 4:00 a.m. EDT on July 8, 2015 in the middle of Sandy Run Road in Hampton County, South Carolina.
Crime scene photos obtained by FITSNews are horrific — Stephen’s entire face was covered in blood that cascaded from a 7.25-inch gaping hole on the right side of his forehead. His head was misshapen by blunt force.
Someone just left him in the middle of the road to die …
Stephen’s massive head wound — along with the lack of other significant injuries on his body — stumped investigators on scene. His right shoulder was partially dislocated. Cuts and bruises dotted his right hand. His shoes were still on and clothes appeared untouched. His phone and keys were still in his pocket.
Investigators found his car three miles away on the side of Bamberg Highway. His wallet was inside the car. SCHP detectives noted that the gas cap was unscrewed and hanging outside of the gas cap door.
Officials couldn’t nail down a cause or manner of death. At first, they thought it was a hit and run. Then, the coroner ruled the death a shooting homicide — forcing investigators to search the rural road carved between a tree line and a corn field.
In their search, investigators from the South Carolina Highway Patrol, the Hampton County sheriff’s office, and the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) found virtually no evidence — no bullets, no gunshot residue, no tire marks, no pieces left from a vehicle. Nothing.
Hours later, a MUSC pathologist ruled that Stephen was killed in a hit-and-run accident – a decision that was met with confusion and skepticism by both investigators and those who knew Stephen. Investigators theorized that the mirror of a semi-truck hit Stephen’s head.
“Stephen was not stupid,” Stephen’s friend told FITSNews. “There is no way that would happen to him. He would not let a car, let alone a truck, get close enough to hit him. That did not happen to my friend. He doesn’t deserve that. He doesn’t deserve people to think that.”
Stephen was beloved. He was an openly gay young man in the small town of Hampton, South Carolina, which wasn’t easy, but he made the best of it, his friends told FITSNews. He was bright and determined to make a better life for himself. He was in school for nursing at the time of his death.
This decision to rule his death a hit-and-run appeared to skew the investigation by SCHP’s Multi-disciplinary Accident Investigation Team (MAIT) – who typically investigate accidents, not murders.
The Murdaugh name was mentioned over 40 times throughout the course of the investigation — which went cold less than a year after Smith was killed. According to SCHP documents, detectives were Buster Murdaugh as a possible person of interest in the case.
(Click to view)
To be fair, police appeared to be pursuing other persons of interest as well and never named anyone as a suspect.
According to the investigation file, Buster was rumored to have been linked to Stephen — intimately — but detectives never proved this connection. It’s also unclear if the MAIT team ever examined Stephen’s phone, which was tossed between agencies before it was finally unlocked by the FBI several years after his death.
After interviewing several sources who knew the Murdaugh brothers, SCHP detective Todd Proctor made some significant assessments of the family. FITSNews obtained all audio from the investigation file.
“I think it’s a situation when you grow up and your family is kinda high-profile and you get away with some things because of your family name,” Proctor said in 2015. “You become invincible in a way and you get a little liquor and you think you’re untouchable.”
Keep in mind, this is years before Paul Murdaugh was charged with three felonies in the boat crash that killed Mallory Beach.
At another point in the investigation, Proctor appeared frustrated that local sources were hesitant and scared to speak of the Murdaughs to police.
“The Murdaughs, as big and powerful and rich as everyone thinks they are … they’re going to go on living their lives like nothing (happened),” Proctor said. “So they can play that card like they care about everyone else. No they don’t… they care about protecting themselves.”
In September 2016, Stephen’s mother — Sandy Smith — wrote a letter to lawmakers and police agencies pleading for help and claiming corruption in the investigation.
“It has been apparent from the first week of the investigation that authorities are covering up critical evidence and we no longer know who to trust,” Smith wrote.
In the letter, she said that they were told that the Murdaugh brothers were involved in her son’s death. She also said she believed that the Murdaughs’ influence extended to all realms of the investigation and was initially tainted when it was ruled a hit-and-run incident (see below for part of Sandy Smith’s letter).
There appeared to be missing evidence in the case — such as the DNA under Stephen’s fingernails, the clothes he was wearing, and the rape kit.
“The case was mysteriously bounced from investigator to investigator without reasons or notification,” Sandy Smith wrote in the letter. “It would repeatedly get to a certain point, then the assigned investigator would bow out, perhaps not wanting to take on Solicitor Murdaugh.”
Almost six years have passed since Stephen Smith was killed, but Sandy Smith hasn’t given up hope. She still has outgoing Freedom Of Information Act (FOIA) requests on the investigation. She said no one returns her calls when she tries to get updates, but she still tries anyway.
“I just want to know the following: Did my son suffer? Did he beg you for his life? Did he have the chance to fight back? How long did he live after the first blow to his head? Where did he die? Was he still alive when you placed him in the middle of the highway? Where did he take his last breath? I know he took his first January 29, 1996 at 7:05 a.m,” Sandy Smith said. “I have lost a child before and I knew all the answers, Stephen’s death is different because I don’t know anything: The Who? The Why? The Where? I forgive you for what you did to my sweet baby boy, I just want this pain in my heart to stop.”
FITSNews obtained the entire investigative file on this case and will publish a more in-depth story about Stephen Smith’s death at a later date.
If anyone reading this report has any information about this case, call SCHP at (843)-953-6010 or Crime Stoppers at 1-888-CRIME-SC.
Gloria Satterfield’s 2018 Death
In December 2018, just a few months before the fatal boat crash, Paul’s father Alex Murdaugh settled a separate wrongful death claim. In that case, 57-year-old Gloria Satterfield died after a “trip and fall” in Hampton county on February 26, 2018, according to a court documents (below).
The documents do not say where the woman fell – or how she knew the Murdaughs – but several sources familiar with the case have said that she was the Murdaughs’ family maid/ housekeeper.
Alex Murdaugh was the only defendant listed in the settlement.
Cory Fleming, a family friend of the Murdaughs, represented Satterfield’s family in the wrongful death settlement, which was approved by Judge Perry Buckner, another friend of the family.
Murdaugh’s insurance provider paid $500,000 for personal liability in a wrongful death and $5,000 for medical payment from the accident, according to court documents.
Fleming’s law firm – where Alex Murdaugh previously worked – received $177,500 of the total sum from Murdaugh’s insurance company, according to the settlement.
Court documents did not specify how Alex Murdaugh was connected to Satterfield’s 2018 death.
In her obituary, it was stated that Satterfield loved Alex and Maggie Murdaugh as her own family.
This news outlet is continuing to investigate Satterfield’s death …
Mallory Beach’s 2019 Death
In the hours after Paul Murdaugh crashed his father’s boat near the Archer’s Creek bridge just outside of Parris Island, S.C. on February 24, 2019, there was already speculation that the investigation into the crash was being bungled and detectives on the scene had been influenced by Paul’s powerful family.
Officials at the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (SCDNR), the lead investigating agency in the crash, have said confusion in determining who was driving delayed the investigation from the get-go. As a result, it took prosecutors almost two months to charge Paul with three felony boating under the influence (BUI) charges in connection with the fatal crash.
Last year, FITSNews obtained documents showing that two of the responding deputies on the night of the crash had ties to the Murdaugh family’s law firm.
Adding to the speculation, the only Beaufort county sheriff’s deputy who identified Paul as the driver of the boat that crashed – Steven Domino – was later fired from his job for drug use.
Paul Murdaugh was not administered a field sobriety test at the scene – a move that was highly criticized by the public.
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.
Paul pleaded not guilty to all three charges. At his hearing in July 2019, he was granted a generous bond – which was later modified to allow him to move across the state of South Carolina without an alcohol or GPS monitor.
He never spent any time in jail.
Before Paul’s death, there had been little-to-no movement in the criminal case against him – but a civil case (.pdf) filed by Mallory Beach’s mother had ramped up and was inching closer to trial.
Renee Beach, Mallory’s mother, is seeking damages from Parker’s Corporation – which owns the Parker’s gas station where Paul Murdaugh allegedly purchased alcohol illegally prior to the crash. Beach also seeks damages from Paul Murdaugh’s brother and father — who facilitated Murdaugh’s drinking, according to the lawsuit.
Paul Murdaugh and his mother Maggie were not named in the lawsuit, but depositions filed in the case revealed chilling details from the night of the crash.
In the final moments before impact, Murdaugh is alleged to have shoved, spit on and slapped his then-girlfriend — and refused to let anyone else have the wheel, according to multiple witnesses.
(Click to view)
RELATED | Boat Crash Lawsuit: Murdaughs Refuse To Settle, Withhold Financial Records From Victim’s Family
Just moments before Mallory Beach died, she told others in the boat she was scared of Paul’s erratic driving, according to multiple depositions. Mallory yelled at Paul to stop.
“He turned and pointed at her, and I could tell he was about to say something and I told him not to make that mistake and he stared at me for a second and went to the steering wheel,” Anthony Cook, Mallory’s boyfriend, said in deposition.
Anthony Cook “begged Paul Murdaugh, who was driving the boat at the time of the incident, to please let him drive,” deputy Steven Domino — the deputy who was fired last summer — wrote in his report.
But Paul allegedly refused and accelerated the boat …
After entering Archer’s Creek, Anthony Cook sat on the bottom of the boat, clinging to his girlfriend Mallory in his lap because the boat was going too fast, depositions say.
Seconds later, the 17-foot center-console boat struck a piling at Archer’s Creek Bridge – flinging Beach and Cook into the cold, dark water.
Beach’s body was found a week later about five miles from the crash site by fishermen.
Like Stephen Smith, Mallory was described by friends as a kind soul with a bright future who was taken from her friends and family far too soon.
Paul never had to stand trial for the death of Mallory Beach, but barring a settlement his brother Buster and father Alex will likely face a jury in the civil case.
While there were no proceedings scheduled in the criminal case, a hearing was set for Thursday in the civil case. That hearing was delayed due to the double homicide.
As noted, SLED is in charge of the double homicide investigation, which has been full of wild twists and shocking details.
While SLED continues its investigatory work, concerns are being raised over which agency will handle the criminal charges filed in the aftermath of the slayings, FITSNews exclusively reported today.
Will there be justice and a clean investigation in this case, unlike the others before it?
Stay tuned for any and all developments with this saga….
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].
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.