by JENN WOOD
As the murder trial of disbarred South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh rapidly approaches, two huge questions remain in the minds of most everyone following this expansive crime and corruption saga: Where did all of the money go? And, who knew what, when?
The recent federal trial of Russell Laffitte – the former chief executive officer of Palmetto State Bank (PSB) and convicted co-conspirator of Murdaugh – shed new light on the financial crimes allegedly committed by Murdaugh in the years leading up to the brutal murders of his wife and son on June 7, 2021. Laffitte was found guilty of conspiracy, wire fraud, bank fraud as well as three counts of misapplying bank funds in U.S. district court in Charleston, South Carolina on November 22, 2022. He faces up to thirty years in prison and millions of dollars in fines in connection with those convictions.
As this news outlet has previously reported, Laffitte’s attorneys – Bart Daniel and Matt Austin – are appealing this conviction.
During the federal trial, prosecutors Emily Limehouse, Winston Holliday and Kathleen Stoughton made a compelling case against Laffitte on behalf of the government. In meticulous detail, they documented for jurors how he extended eight loans to himself in the amount of $355,000 from the conservatorship of Hannah Plyler, a former Murdaugh client who – along with her sister, Alania Plyler-Spohn – was represented by Murdaugh after her mother and brother perished in an automobile accident on Interstate 95 seventeen years ago.
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Laffitte served as conservator for the Plylers and allegedly repaid money taken from Hannah Plyler’s account with conservator and personal representative fees fraudulently obtained from other clients. In addition to these financial crimes, Laffitte also extended to Murdaugh nearly $1 million in “unsecured loans” from Hannah Plyler’s account.
In an interview posted to YouTube prior to the start of the trial, Laffitte claimed these loans were “just an investment vehicle … you know … they were earning a lot more than they were earning sitting in an account.”
The conservatorship for the Plyler sisters was filed in Hampton County probate court and overseen by probate judge Sheila Odom. Many were shocked when Odom was not called as a witness by prosecutors in the Laffitte trial – but sources familiar with the situation indicated the government did not want Laffitte’s attorneys to have the opportunity to cross-examine her.
As a result, Odom has remained a largely silent– but vitally important– voice in the ever-expanding web of corruption that is spreading throughout the Lowcountry.
Until now …
In August of this year, attorneys Eric Bland and Ronnie Richter of the Columbia, S.C.-based Bland Richter law firm filed a lawsuit against Russell Laffitte and PSB on behalf of Hannah Plyler and Alania Plyler-Spohn.
As part of this lawsuit, Odom was deposed on December 8, 2022. During her deposition – a copy of which was provided to this news outlet – she finally provided insight into the role of the Hampton County probate court in the financial fleecings allegedly orchestrated by Murdaugh and Laffitte.
Odom began her career with Hampton County in 1991 as a clerk under former probate judge Bessie P. Cope. She was elected to the post following Cope’s retirement in 1995 and has served seven consecutive terms since then. She is scheduled to retire on January 5, 2023 and be succeeded by recently elected Shannon Parker.
Hampton County’s probate court is responsible for a variety of cases including estates, conservatorships and guardianships. In her deposition, Odom stated the court typically has an average of 400 cases open at any one time – all of which are handled by her and her clerk. Approximately 70 percent of these cases are pro se— i.e. individuals filing without an attorney– while the remainder have an attorney of record. Due to the enormous workload and their small staff, Odom said the court relies on the offices and staff of attorneys to supplement resources on those cases.
When asked if the court also relied on the integrity of attorneys handling these cases – and the accuracy of the information they provide – she replied simply, “correct.”
The case Richter and Bland filed against PSB and Laffitte primarily revolves around conservatorships, so much of the questioning was related to the responsibilities the probate courts and judges in conservatorships.
Conservators are appointed by the court to make financial decisions for minors – or individuals deemed to be incapacitated. Conservators are typically relatives of the individual, but there are often circumstances in which non-relatives serve in the role. Given the stakes involved, the position requires a great deal of trust – as well as someone qualified to faithfully represent and protect the fiduciary interests of the individual. Most courts require conservators to obtain a bond – an insurance policy in case the conservator misappropriates or mishandles funds.
This bond is not mandatory – such a requirement is at the discretion of the judge. In small counties such as Hampton, this requirement is often waived by the judge. Odom admitted in Hampton County, judges “generally have some knowledge of the individual who’s petitioning to be conservator and whether or not it’s risky not to bond.”
Due to recent circumstances, though, “now that’s all thrown in the wind, so bond is pertinent in all cases.”
In the matter of Hannah and Alania Plyler, their father Rickie Plyler was unable to serve as conservator for reasons unknown to Odom, so Murdaugh put Laffitte forward to serve in this role on behalf of the sisters.
Odom’s responses to Richter’s questions indicated a number of flaws in the filing of the Plyler estate documents, including:
- The listing of Russell Laffitte as the applicant: Typically, petitions are filed by individuals with statutory standing – asking the court to appoint someone as conservator – not by the applicant themselves.
- An address located outside the court’s jurisdiction: The Columbia, S.C. address listed on the petition for Hannah Plyler is located in Richland County. A conservatorship’s jurisdiction is supposed to be in the county where the ward resides – yet Laffitte’s petition falsely claimed Hannah Plyler lived in Hampton County. A box was checked attesting to this as fact – and was signed by Laffitte on the petition as a sworn verification.
(Click to view)
Odom was asked during the deposition about her process for approving expense requests on behalf of a conservatorship. In the matter of the Plyler’s, she stated that she agreed to a $1000 per month allowance and approved additional expenses as they arose to ensure that a record of expenditures was maintained on their behalf.
The restrictions placed on the conservatorship stated that no disbursements should be made without court approval.
What about the loans Laffitte made from the account?
“Loans should not have been done,” she said.
Throughout the deposition, Odom repeatedly asserted her position that at no point during Laffitte’s time serving as the Plylers’ conservator did she ever receive a request to approve a loan from their account – which obviously directly conflicts with Laffitte’s public statements and sworn testimony.
Odom did recall a telephone conversation with Laffitte in which he inquired generally as to whether he was authorized to make loans from a conservatorship account. She advised him that while the statute indicated it was permissible, she was not able to legally advise him about it and that she would feel uncomfortable approving one. In fact she stated that in her 31 years working at the probate court, she had never received such a request.
Richter proceeded to read Odom a portion of the transcript from Laffitte’s testimony during his federal trial.
“I said, I will have to talk to the judge. So I went over, walked across the street to the courthouse, went to Judge Odom, sat down and talked with her, and she said it wouldn’t be a problem.”
“Did that happen?” Richter asked the judge.
“It did not,” she replied.
Odom further explained that in addition to being uncomfortable approving a loan from a conservator account, she would have never approved these loans due to the clear conflict of interest – namely that Murdaugh was the attorney for the girls and Laffitte was their conservator.
“(Laffitte)is the conservator entrusted to handle this … child’s monies, and surely, obviously, unequivocally, it’s a conflict for him to be making a loan from this child’s money,” she said.
Odom never wavered from her original story during the nearly three-hour deposition. When it was brought to her attention that it seemed like she had learned a lot of things that she didn’t know during the deposition, she sounded a defeated tone.
“This is the second time I felt like I have been kicked in the gut.” she said. “I didn’t ever feel like I loosely placed trust in people. And for those reasons, I just don’t feel like I can go forward with my career because it’s — it’s essentially down to my character. How could it go on that long and I not have caught it?”
How, indeed …
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Jenn Wood is the director of research at FITSNews. She is also a producer on our Cheer Incorporated podcast and our resident expert on the ‘Murdaugh Murders‘ crime and corruption saga. Wood is a wife and mother of two residing in Louisiana, but she will be in the Palmetto State for the duration of the upcoming double homicide trial.
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How did the judge get deposed? Typically they have immunity from being required to testify regarding matters they oversee.
Odom started as a clerk under Probate Judge Bessie Cope? Any relation to Lee Cope of PMPED? I don’t believe in many coincidences in this case.
The fact that South Carolina allows non lawyers with only a high school education to be probate judges is a crime itself, very easy for unethical attorneys to take advantage of. Shady dealings happen in many of the probate courts, judges appoint close attorney friends over estates in lieu of family members and these attorney friends profit financially. Some have been known to restructure or completely do away with trusts to allow attorney friends to benefit financially at the expense of the actual beneficiaries
Shadyjudges, you quiet nicely state the obvious….
I was wondering the same thing. How did a clerk of the court become a probate judge with no law degree. What a shadey system SC has in place.