Who gave former Murdaugh family housekeeper Blanca Simpson the authority to pursue legal action on behalf of a Mexican national versus Alex Murdaugh, Russell Laffitte, Palmetto State Bank (PSB) and multiple other parties in this still unfolding Southern Gothic true crime saga?
Seemingly no one …
That’s according to the latest filing in this case, which brings to light significant details regarding the origin and authenticity of this civil suit.
As this news outlet previously reported, Manuel Santis-Cristiani – a resident of Chiapas, Mexico and former client of Murdaugh and the Hampton, S.C.-based law firm formerly known as Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick (PMPED) – sued the firm and its former attorneys, Ronnie Crosby and William F. Barnes III.
Murdaugh, Laffitte and PSB were also named in the complaint (.pdf).
Santis-Cristiani hired PMPED to represent him after a vehicle in which he was a passenger crashed while traveling along Interstate 95 in Colleton County on November 4, 2008. Santis-Cristiani’s original lawsuit was filed by PMPED on August 30, 2011. It was settled on September 24, 2013 for a “sum amount unknown to the plaintiff,” according to Santis-Cristiani’s October 7, 2022 pleading. Upon the settlement of the suit, PMPED “deposited (Santis-Cristiani)’s settlement funds” with Palmetto State Bank (PSB).
Laffitte – in his capacity as former president of PSB – acted as the conservator for these funds.
It remains to be seen, though, whether this filing will hold up in court. Why wouldn’t it? The lack of written documentation directing Simpson to pursue disbursement of a perceived shortage of settlement funds owed to Santis-Cristiani.
The latest document in this case – filed in Hampton County on July 7, 2023 – is a response from Santis-Cristiani’s counsel to a filing from PMPED’s attorneys. It included statements provided by PMPED lawyers as well as responses in the form of admissions or denials provided by Santis-Cristiani’s attorney, Glenn Walters.
Walters and attorney Korey Williams filed the civil action on behalf of Blanca Simpson as attorney-in-fact for Santis-Cristiani. It alleged Crosby, Barnes and PMPED “aided and abetted Laffitte and (PSB) in the breach of fiduciary duties by participating in a scheme through which (Santis-Cristiani) would not receive any proceeds of any settlement(s)” in the aftermath of a 2008 motor vehicle accident.
The lawsuit sought a full accounting and recovery of funds paid to PMPED intended for Santis-Cristiani. All told, the lawsuit involved three PMPED attorneys – Murdaugh, Crosby and Barnes – representing five plaintiffs whose individual claims were eventually combined into one and settled. The plaintiffs in the case were Santis-Cristiani, Gregorio Cristiani, Mario Cristiani, Samuel Lopez Morales, and Fernando Santiz.
The defendants in the original action were Hilario Garcia, Ford Motor Company and Michelin North America.
PMPED attorneys denied any wrongdoing. They insisted Santis-Cristiani had been paid everything he was due, although the lawsuit did bring to light a matter of $70,000 – a portion of the settlement funds intended to pay for Santis-Cristiani’s medical bills at the Medical University of South Carolina (MUSC). Inexplicably, these funds were never disbursed.
PMPED remained in possession of this $70,000 until earlier this year when the court ordered it held in escrow at the Hampton County clerk of court’s office pending the outcome of the lawsuit. Evidence has yet to reveal whether any additional funds are due to Santis-Cristiani – and it seems highly unlikely Simpson initiated the lawsuit so MUSC could recover the amount it is owed for medical bills.
So what is behind this strange legal action?
The latest filing does nothing to clear up the financial mystery. If anything, it casts a shadow of doubt on the very foundation of the case – the power of attorney which purportedly granted Simpson the authority to act on behalf of Santis-Cristiani.
(Click to view)
This power of attorney document was filed in Hampton County on June 24, 2022. However, the legal document itself was signed on May 19, 2022 – with witnesses using Mexican addresses alongside their endorsements. The document was notarized on May 19, 2022 under the seal of Erasmo Castro of Texas.
Attorneys representing PMPED detailed alleged issues with Erasmo Castro and his wife, Alicia Castro, who are facing serious consequences for practicing law without a license. Last year, the pair were ordered to pay $500,000 in damages and found themselves the subject of a permanent injunction prohibiting them from performing immigration work.
The Castros – who are residents of Texas – have an income tax accounting business and offer notary services. In lawsuits documenting a history of infractions going back to 1999, they are accused of performing various legal services related to immigration matters without a license to practice law. They have been found to have participated in misrepresentation, negligence, and obstruction. PMPED attorneys specifically pointed to a 2017 case titled Patricia Jaramillo Barrera v. Castro Notary Public et al.
As if that were not enough to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the Power of Attorney, the filing raises the issue of whether Santis-Cristiani actually signed or initiated the POA. It appears he did not.
Here are the key points from the filing:
- Blanca Simpson served as interpreter at the 2013 mediation of the lawsuit.
- PMPED contends Santis-Cristiani signed a Power of Attorney prior to the settlement granting the authority to handle his funds to Russell Laffitte. (However, this news outlet has been unable to locate any such Power of Attorney in Colleton County or Hampton County.)
- PMPED states Santis-Cristiani was wired funds from the settlement in November 2016 and that both Blanca Simpson and Russell Laffitte participated in this action.
- During the process of wiring the funds to Santis-Cristiani in November 2016, Simpson, who is referred to as attorney-in-fact, saw the disbursement sheet as Laffitte walked away from the desk at the bank and determined that the amount Santis-Cristiani was due was not consistent with the amount wired.
- No Spanish translation of Blanca Simpson’s 2022 Power of Attorney exists.
- Santis-Cristiani did not sign Simpson’s 2022 Power of Attorney.
Other key questions about the case remain unanswered. When asked to confirm the supposition that Santis-Cristiani had no direct contact with the attorneys filing the complaint, Walters refused to answer – citing attorney-client privilege. Also, when asked to confirm there was no Spanish translation of the complaint, Walters again refused to respond – citing a rule which held that the total allowable number of requests had been exceeded.
Considering Santis-Cristiani appears to have not authorized the filing of the suit – or even been in communication with the attorneys who filed the complaint on his behalf – it is possible (perhaps even likely) the Mexican plaintiff has no knowledge of the very specific claims made in his name in a South Carolina court of law.
THE FILING …
(Via: S.C. Fourteenth Judicial Circuit)
ABOUT THE AUTHOR …
Callie Lyons is a journalist, researcher, and author whose investigative work can be found in media outlets, publications, and documentaries all over the world – most recently in the Parisian newspaper Le Monde and a German documentary for ProSieben. Lyons also appears in Citizen Sleuth – a 2023 documentary exploring the genre of true crime.
WANNA SOUND OFF?
Got something you’d like to say in response to one of our articles? Or an issue you’d like to proactively address? 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.