This is a news analysis based on more than three years of research, reporting and interviews related to the Murdaugh family.
In an interview published Sunday in The (Hilton Head, S.C.) Island Packet newspaper, John Marvin Murdaugh — the younger brother of disgraced Hampton County attorney Alex Murdaugh — said he recently had a “teaching moment” with his children.
One child had taken candy from another.
He told the Packet that he said to his kids: “This is where it starts.”
“You don’t take something that doesn’t belong to you. Look where Uncle Alex is. You don’t want to end up like that.”
As you likely know, “Uncle Alex” ended up at the Richland County Detention Center, where he has been held since mid-October. He faces 78 charges, most of them felonies related to alleged financial schemes, in which he’s accused of stealing nearly $9 million from clients so far.
He is also the only publicly named person of interest in the June 2021 murders of his wife and son.
Alex, as it turns out, is not just an alleged criminal, he is a cautionary tale.
From the moment of his birth, he has been propped up and propelled by the history of his forefathers — all prosecutors.
They are his origin story.
But the political and legal ecosystem that provided cover for Alex Murdaugh for so long — that he needed to survive — came from somewhere too.
If a child taking candy is a gateway to lifelong thievery, is the path to corruption equally as sweet?
Where does it start? What is the acorn that grows into the not so mighty oak of a good ol’ boy?
Perhaps it begins with ill-advised favors — both rendered and returned.
Maybe it’s a routine lack of accountability or consequence for some over others.
Or is it the ingrained expectation that the good ol’ boys’ “reality” is only what they tell us it is?
Turns out, John Marvin Murdaugh’s interview presents a “teaching moment” for everyone, especially those of us who have been hoping to learn what the 14th Circuit Solicitor Office’s investigators — Alex’s colleagues — were doing at the scene of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh‘s murders last June.
Let’s take a trip down memory lane first …
In 1956, a federal jury acquitted Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr. of liquor conspiracy charges. He was one of 30 to be indicted and 20 to be tried — including the Colleton County sheriff at the time, as well as two deputies and a magistrate judge.
Buster was one of three defendants to be found not guilty.
Soon after the trial ended, Murdaugh’s cousin, Alex G. Murdaugh, was indicted for tampering with the jury. He, too, was later acquitted.
After reading the verdicts in Buster Murdaugh’s case, the judge took a moment to share his thoughts on the testimony he’d heard over the previous weeks.
The honorable Walter E. Hoffman — who was NOT from South Carolina, as Buster would later point out to the press — had infuriated the already enraged former solicitor, who had stepped down right before the trial and was expected to resume his office via re-election within the month.
Hoffman called Buster “grossly unethical” and suggested he should be ashamed to face voters.
Testimony had revealed that Buster — who, again, was a prosecutor — was also serving in federal court as a paid defense attorney for bootleggers accused of moonshining in his circuit.
Buster basically told the judge, “This is how we do it here. Mind your business.”
In the case Hoffman was presiding over, Buster had been accused of taking part in a scheme that offered “friendly prosecution” to accused liquor runners in exchange for pay.
During the trial, it emerged that “badges” for volunteer law enforcement positions were coveted among the men running illegal whisky stills. One man testified that he tried to buy a badge so he could “bust” his competition.
Hoffman, according to news reports at the time, seemed aghast at these goings-on in South Carolina’s 14th Circuit.
“The practice of having special sheriff’s deputies without compensation,” he said, “leads to corruption.”
Volunteer positions in the world of law enforcement are still a thing in South Carolina.
Up until Sept. 7, 2021, Alex Murdaugh — then and now the only named person of interest in the June 2021 murders of his wife and son — was a longtime volunteer assistant solicitor for 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone’s office.
How long was he a volunteer assistant solicitor?
Wouldn’t that be nice to know …
Freedom of Information
The Murdaugh Murders crime and corruption saga was the subject of a Sept. 23, 2021, feature in The Wall Street Journal.
Within the first six paragraphs of that story, Alex Murdaugh’s position with the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office was deemed notable enough to mention.
“Mr. Murdaugh had long been a badge-carrying, part-time prosecutor himself, a volunteer role virtually unheard of elsewhere in the state.”
In an effort to get to the bottom of Alex Murdaugh’s role with the Solicitor’s Office, FITSNews news director Mandy Matney sent a Freedom of Information Act request to 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone’s office on Aug. 26, 2021, asking for the dates that Alex was “officially associated with the Solicitor’s Office as a volunteer.”
The answer came on Sept. 10, 2021: “There are no documents responsive to your request as to a beginning date.”
Seems like Duffie Stone’s office doesn’t know when Alex Murdaugh started either.
What did Alex Murdaugh do with this badge that he had for who knows how long?
Multiple sources have shared stories with FITSNews about how Alex allegedly used his badge. For instance, he allegedly used his badge to get seated at restaurants and to receive special treatment; he allegedly used it to intimidate people, just in case they were thinking about talking out of order about him or his family; and he and his son Paul allegedly used the blue lights on his truck (a fun perk of the badge) for reasons extremely unrelated to the prosecution of crimes.
Speaking of … did he use this badge to prosecute crimes?
Matney also asked Stone’s office for a list of all cases — as well as the dates of those cases — that Alex “worked on/assisted with/volunteered for the 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor’s Office between 2006 and 2021.”
Alex Murdaugh’s father, Randolph Murdaugh III, retired as solicitor at the end of 2005. Stone, according to sources, was “hand-picked” to take over Murdaugh’s term in 2006 and has been re-elected to the office ever since.
The response to Matney’s question?
“We do not track instances when a lawyer (including Alex Murdaugh) provides assistance or works on a case to assist the lead attorney, which is primarily what Alex Murdaugh did. Our records indicate that in October 2019, Alex Murdaugh acted as lead counsel in a guilty plea in Colleton County in the case of State v. Emmanuel Buckner. Indictment number 2016GS1500829. The charge was failure to stop for a blue light.”
Yes. They could only cite one case.
Failure to stop for police? That’s the one case they have a record of Alex working on? Well, that’s unremarkable.
Oh wait … Buckner appears to be an accused drug trafficker in Walterboro.
Those following the Murdaugh stories closely will recall when the state’s mainstream newspapers printed a story about how “sources familiar with the investigation” had told them that the state grand jury was looking into a trail of money from Alex Murdaugh to a “Lowcountry gang based in the Walterboro-area and believed to be called the ‘Cowboys.’”
This neatly packaged narrative blazed onto the scene shortly after attorney Mark Tinsley — who is representing the family of Mallory Beach, the Hampton teen killed in a 2019 boat crash allegedly caused by Paul Murdaugh — asked a court to freeze Alex’s assets and assign a receiver to comb through and account for his finances.
The gang story was largely dismissed as a red herring promoted by Murdaugh’s camp in an attempt to explain the odd checks the receivers were about to discover and perhaps even hint that these Cowboys had something to do with Maggie’s and Paul’s murders.
Here’s what The Island Packet and The (Columbia, S.C.) State wrote about the subject on Nov. 1, 2021:
More than $200,000 worth of checks were written between early June, when Murdaugh’s wife, Maggie, and son, Paul, were shot to death at the family home, and in early September when Murdaugh allegedly staged a botched suicide attempt, sources said.
The murders are still unsolved. Prior to the June 7 deaths of his wife and son, Murdaugh had been writing checks of only about $10,000 to $20,000 a month or so to the go-between, the sources said.
“The checks make the money trail very easy to follow,” one source said.
Back to Murdaugh’s one citable case …
According to a report in Walterboro Live, Emmanuel Buckner did not plead guilty to failure to stop for a blue light as the solicitor’s office said. He was found guilty.
Not mentioned by the solicitor’s office were Buckner’s cocaine- and meth-trafficking charges.
Those ended in mistrial.
Alex Murdaugh’s one shining moment on the prosecutorial stage ended in success … for the defendant.
Rest assured, we are looking into this case and how it ended up with Alex Murdaugh.
The solicitor’s office’s answer about not knowing how many cases Alex Murdaugh worked on as a volunteer might make sense … if Matney had been asking about private-practice lawyers who occasionally assist the solicitor’s office. Even then, though, it seems like a risky practice not to track the instances in which outside attorneys are helping with cases, given the potential conflicts of interest that could arise.
But Matney wasn’t asking Stone’s office about private-practice attorneys. She was asking about Alex Murdaugh — who appears to be the only volunteer assistant solicitor with a badge granting him the full authority of that office.
Something that, as the Wall Street Journal story pointed out, is “virtually unheard of elsewhere in the state.”
The day before the South Carolina Supreme Court suspended Murdaugh’s license to practice law in this state, Stone fired Murdaugh, putting an end to the arrangement.
“Effective immediately, you are no longer authorized to prosecute cases on behalf of the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office,” the notice read.
And that was that.
Except we have more questions.
Why was Murdaugh a volunteer assistant solicitor in the first place? What need did this fill in Stone’s office? How did this arrangement serve taxpayers? What role did Randolph Murdaugh III play in securing this badge for Alex? Why was the arrangement a cause for Stone’s immediate recusal in the 2019 boat crash case but not the 2021 murders?
And why — WHY — given this relationship to Duffie Stone’s office were Stone’s investigators lurking about the crime scene last June shortly after Maggie and Paul were killed?
Thanks to John Marvin Murdaugh’s interview with the Packet, we have a little more insight about what they did.
On Feb. 25, 2019 — one day after Alex Murdaugh’s boat was driven into a bridge in Beaufort County, injuring passengers and killing Mallory Beach — Duffie Stone sent a letter to South Carolina attorney general Alan Wilson asking him to take the case.
“SCDNR is currently investigating a boating incident which occurred Sunday, Feb. 24, 2019. One of the occupants of the boat is still missing. Two of the other occupants are related to persons employed by my office. As there is a possibility that charges may be brought and SCDNR may need legal assistance with their investigation, I am asking that you either assign someone from your office or another Solicitor’s Office to this case. Please let me know if you will accept this case and I will notify SCDNR.”
As Stone said, no one was charged at the time of his recusal.
When he wrote this letter, investigators had indicated in their reports that it was not clear who was driving at the time of the crash. Was it Alex’s son Paul? Or was it Paul’s friend, Connor Cook?
By June 2021, Duffie Stone’s threshold for recusal had changed — though the conflicts appeared to remain the same.
In fact, they appeared to be even more acute now, given that Stone’s volunteer assistant solicitor was — along with members of his family and law enforcement — under investigation by the state grand jury for obstructing or hindering the boat crash investigation.
One more reason Stone might have had to recuse himself in 2021 that he didn’t have in 2019? One of Paul Murdaugh’s attorneys — who is now one of Alex’s attorneys — is state senator Dick Harpootlian. According to multiple sources, Harpootlian was a mentor to Stone at the beginning of his career.
In a statement early on, Stone explained to the public that he wasn’t recusing himself from the double-homicide case because “there is no clear suspect.”
“Conflicts of interest,” he wrote, “are a matter of legal ethics.”
He quoted a former dean of the University of South Carolina School of Law as saying “the mere fact that the Murdaugh name is closely associated with the solicitor’s office doesn’t cause me any concerns at this point.”
Stone’s reasoning was a stark reversal from his 2019 recusal, as well as his official stance as president of the National District Attorneys Association in 2020, when he wrote this:
“A prosecutor’s job is to objectively find the truth. If a prosecutor has a conflict of interest, then he or she cannot objectively analyze the facts and the law. A prosecutor with a conflict of interest should not provide advice to law enforcement or to other prosecutors on whether there is probable cause for an arrest.”
In the two months it took for Stone to recuse himself from the double-homicide case, FITSNews founding editor Will Folks and news director Mandy Matney wrote a series of articles about Stone’s “unusual involvement” in the case.
Early on, Folks called for Wilson to step in and remove the “rogue” solicitor.
“Duffie Stone has consistently attempted to steer investigators away from any theory which might implicate members of the wealthy, influential Murdaugh family, multiple sources familiar with the ongoing double homicide have told me.“
Folks also wrote about a purported “shadow investigation” Stone’s investigators allegedly thought they were running alongside the official inquiry into the murders — which is being run by the S.C. State Law Enforcement Division (SLED).
“Stone and his investigators appear to be unwilling to explore any theory related to the double homicide that might implicate the Murdaugh family in any way. In fact, there are even reports that Stone and his investigators are conducting a ‘shadow investigation’ which will seek to duplicate SLED’s findings in an effort to hold the statewide law enforcement agency ‘accountable’ for the results of its probe.“
To be clear, not only does a solicitor’s office not have the authority to run a “shadow investigation” at an active crime scene, Stone unequivocally denies that this is what his office was doing.
On Sunday evening he told Folks, “We were not conducting an independent, shadow or parallel investigation. I told our guys to do whatever SLED asked. Any questions about the investigation or evidence should be referred to SLED or the attorney general.”
Stone recused himself from the murder case on August 11, a few days after Alex Murdaugh was in town for the South Carolina Association of Justice convention (and parties). It’s also one day after stories were circulating on Hilton Head Island that SLED had been flashing pictures of Stone and Murdaugh at various restaurants asking if employees had seen them together.
Which brings us to the photographs of Stone’s investigators …
Caught on Camera
A day after the murders, The (Charleston, S.C.) Post and Courier published several photos taken by one of its photographers at Moselle — the Murdaugh family hunting property where Maggie and Paul were murdered.
The photos depicted John Marvin Murdaugh standing, walking and talking with three of Stone’s investigators: Donnie Hutto, Dylan Hightower and JoJo Woodward, the latter of whom has since resigned from his position in a second bid to become Beaufort County sheriff.
Footage of John Marvin walking with Stone’s investigators also appeared on Good Morning America — and Woodward’s appearance in the photos became an immediate campaign topic when he announced his candidacy for sheriff earlier this year.
Incumbent sheriff P.J. Tanner — who is seeking re-election — said of Woodward: “If he can explain why he’s running again, then he should be prepared to debate this time, where he can explain to people why he was caught hanging out at the Murdaugh murder scene.”
In a story that ran shortly thereafter in The Island Packet, Woodward gave this explanation for his presence at the crime scene: “It would be unethical for me first of all to talk about what I was doing at a crime scene, based on that an investigation is still active.”
John Marvin Murdaugh, however, was able to talk about it.
In his interview with the Packet, John Marvin explained what was happening in the photos with Stone’s investigators.
It’s simple, he said. He was helping them — “them” being Alex Murdaugh’s colleagues who had no reason to be on the scene as opposed to SLED, who had assumed jurisdiction over the case the night before.
Paul’s phone was found by his body, but Maggie’s phone was missing.
John Marvin helped them find it.
Mind you, Alex Murdaugh was an immediate person of interest in the case. To date, there have been no arrests in the murders, nor any other publicly named persons of interest.
On the day after the murders, investigators would be — one would think — treating everyone as a potential suspect and exercising caution in how they engaged the family, rather than collaborating with the brother of the only person of interest in the case.
John Marvin says that he helped Stone’s investigators “ping” the phone using the phone of Alex’s surviving son, Buster.
Maggie’s phone was soon located in a wooded area outside of the family’s 1,700-acre property.
According to John Marvin Murdaugh’s account in the Packet, he drove with Stone’s investigators to what was — and this should have been very clear to them at the time — a secondary crime scene, which would require a crime scene unit to process for forensic evidence.
This also means that — and again, this should have been clear to them at the time, especially because Hutto and Woodward both have law enforcement experience — the last person to touch her phone was very likely the suspect.
When Stone’s investigators retrieved the phone, John Marvin called Alex or Buster to get the code to unlock Maggie’s phone.
“They were able to open the phone on site,” John Marvin told the Packet of Stone’s investigators. “Of course, none of this is disclosed to me as far as, it wasn’t like I was sitting there peeking over their shoulder while they’re doing this.”
It was then, according to the Packet on Sunday as well as in a story that ran June 23, 2021, that the phone was given to SLED.
Murdaugh’s narrative of events — at least the version of events he relayed to the Packet — has been challenged by multiple sources familiar with the status of the ongoing investigation.
While no one would discuss specific items of evidence on the record, according to these sources, SLED agents — not investigators from Stone’s office — were responsible for retrieving and processing Maggie Murdaugh’s phone.
One source with direct knowledge of the inquiry even hinted that any “assistance” provided by Stone’s men would ultimately accrue to the detriment — not the benefit — of Alex Murdaugh.
What does this all mean?
SLED has said from the beginning that the presence of Stone’s investigators in and around Moselle in the aftermath of the murders has not affected the integrity of its investigation.
And SLED is likely right.
Maggie’s phone is just one piece of a very large puzzle. And her phone records were obviously obtainable through her cellular provider, so probably there is no harm no foul there.
But here is the reality of how this looks to the public right now: The only people who truly stood to benefit from Stone’s investigators being on the scene were Alex Murdaugh and his defense team.
Regardless of how this might ultimately shake out, there is no good argument in favor of Stone’s investigators being on scene.
SLED’s agents belonged there. Stone’s boys did not.
Here are just a few reasons why:
— John Marvin says he didn’t get a peek at Maggie’s phone. We would love to take that at face value because his friends tell us he’s a really great guy, but we’re also told (counter to what John Marvin told Good Morning America last summer) his phone records showed that on the night of the 2019 boat crash he was in touch with officers from the S.C. Department of Natural Resources. Sources also say SCDNR gave John Marvin access to the boat — which was evidence — the day after the crash. This is a problem when one considers that “missing evidence” is one of the post-boat crash accusations that have come from attorneys.
— But it’s great that John Marvin cleared this up because any peek he might have gotten at Maggie’s phone — or any peek a colleague of Alex might have gotten — would naturally raise questions about what they might have seen and who they might have shared this with. Knowledge is power, right? When it comes to homicide investigations, investigators are notoriously tight-lipped. Why? Because the most minor of details leaking from the investigation could help a suspect craft a plausible narrative or reasonable explanation in favor of his innocence. It gives the bad guys a head start.
— Let’s talk a moment about the forensic evidence. Were Stone’s investigators wearing gloves? Even if they were, touch DNA is fragile. Touching the phone before the crime scene unit can process it might have affected SLED’s ability to extract DNA from the phone. Was the phone geotagged? Do investigators know absolutely with certainty where the phone was when they found it? Was the surrounding area isolated, taped off and searched? By the time they located the phone, the area was crawling with media and onlookers. How does this all factor into the sacred chain of custody? Why didn’t Stone’s investigators engage SLED in this search?
— But maybe they did, right? Maybe a SLED agent was there with them. If this were the case, the question then becomes: Why? What possible justification could there be for Stone’s investigators to be involved? Isn’t their presence at the scene redundant? Or did Stone’s team have specialized training that allowed them to open phones using the code they just got from a family member?
— Was there a search warrant that allowed Stone’s investigators to unlock the phone? Sure, one could argue “exigent circumstances,” but I think Harpootlian and Murdaugh’s other “bulldog” lawyer Jim Griffin would have something to say about that. What if Stone’s investigators had found incriminating information when they unlocked the phone? Now that we’re seeing the skeletons in Alex Murdaugh’s closets, we know there was much more than met the eye in June 2021. Without a search warrant, critical information could have been rendered unusable.
In 2019, I began reporting on the upcoming anniversary of an in-the-line-of-duty shooting of a Beaufort County sheriff’s office deputy.
The now-former deputy, Mark Cobb — who was shot delivering a warrant in 2015 on Lady’s Island — wanted answers about why his aggressor still had not faced adjudication in Beaufort County. He wanted attention brought to the case so the solicitor’s office couldn’t drop the charges.
The assailant was convicted in federal court on drug charges. As part of his sentencing, the judge took into consideration the deputy’s shooting and gave him additional years in prison for it.
But still, the former deputy felt strongly that if a law enforcement officer gets shot in Beaufort County, he or she should have the full support of the solicitor’s office. A message should be sent.
He noted that Duffie Stone hadn’t even come to the scene of the shooting that day.
I asked Stone about this at the time. He told me that it was a bad idea for employees of the solicitor’s office to come to crime scenes because it could potentially turn members of the prosecution into witnesses.
Additionally, he mentioned his office’s caseload and said he has to allocate his resources accordingly. Cobb’s assailant will be in prison for a very long time. Anything he would do on the state level would be superfluous and therefore not a good use of taxpayer money.
Before the murders of Maggie and Paul, Stone told Beaufort County that because of COVID his office — which was already at the bottom of the state in the number of cases it deposes annually — would now be six-and-a-half years behind in prosecuting cases.
A lot can happen in six and a half years. Memories fade, law enforcement officers quit or get fired or get disciplined, victims leave town, victims move on. All of this affects the ability to put criminals behind bars and get justice for those they hurt. It’s a dangerous situation, actually.
How then, one must ask, was it a smart use of resources for Stone’s investigators to be at the Murdaugh scene? At the end of the day, Stone is, as he stated in the Cobb case, responsible for the allocation of his staffing. How many man hours were devoted to the Murdaugh case?
Finally, what about the family members of Adam Said, Rashad Lamar Delaney, Jeremiah Lamont Terry, Donta Mikel Williams, Lawrence Shukee Burgess, Shamar Ricardo Anderson, Marcus Nyliek Graves, Reginald Demetrius Chaplin, Clinton Lenard Robinson or Malik Shane Spencer — just to name a few.
Every one of those men was killed in the 14th Circuit over the past few years.
Their cases remain unsolved.
How much manpower did Stone devote to their families in their search for answers? How many investigators from Stone’s team were sent to the scenes of their murders? What made the Murdaughs’ murders any different from that of those men?
That’s yet another question Duffie Stone and now his investigator turned sheriff’s candidate JoJo Woodward are going to have to answer.
As the world now knows, residents of South Carolina’s 14th Circuit have a 100-year-old, not-so-mighty oak to cut down.
We can’t do that without having difficult conversations and challenging the ever-shifting realities that the good ol’ boys want us to accept and believe.
And this is where it starts.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Liz Farrell is the new executive editor at FITSNews. She was named 2018’s top columnist in the state by South Carolina Press Association and is back after taking a nearly two-year break from corporate journalism to reclaim her soul. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or tweet her @ElizFarrell.
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