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Is Peter Strauss The Man Behind Alex Murdaugh’s Missing Millions?

Case of suspended South Carolina attorney eyed in connection with missing money of notorious convicted killer, confessed fraudster …

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For months, our media outlet has been focused on the financial fallout from convicted killer Alex Murdaugh‘s myriad fleecings of his former clients, friends, family members and law partners. We have also been seeking clarity as to the broader context of those fleecings – specifically whether those purporting to be “victims” of Murdaugh were, in fact, among his many co-conspirators.

And, if possible, to discern what the aim of those conspiracies may have been …

The central question, you see, is not necessarily where Murdaugh’s money went – but whether Murdaugh was (or is) involved in broader criminal enterprises potentially tied to drug trafficking, money laundering and other illicit schemes.

In the ongoing effort to locate Murdaugh’s missing millions, though, there is no shortage of theorizing. Some say cash was stuffed in PVC pipes and buried around his former Colleton County hunting property, Moselle. Others say Murdaugh blew the money he stole on his oxycontin habit (although the math on that claim has never added up). Still others insist Murdaugh gambled the money away.

More recent theories suggest Murdaugh stashed stolen funds in offshore accounts … or untraceable cryptocurrencies.

Our audience will recall that very early on in this saga, Murdaugh’s own attorney – state senator and veteran trial lawyer Dick Harpootlian – described his most infamous client as being part of an “Ozark situation,” a reference to the hit Netflix drama about drug trafficking and money laundering.

Did Harpootlian know at the time how close his comment may have been to the mark?

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All we know for certain at the moment is that fifteen individuals with claims against Murdaugh amounting to more than $160 million are vying for a comparatively modest $1.76 million – the total amount located and preserved for victims by a court-appointed receivership established to disburse his assets.

Meanwhile, the hunt for the missing millions is still on. From the court-appointed receivers to attorneys at Murdaugh’s former law firm – no one appears to have given up on the search.

As our founding editor Will Folks reported last month, many aren’t buying Murdaugh’s claims that the money he stole was spent on his drug addiction.

“They don’t believe that opioid bullshit for a second,” a source tracking the cash told us. “They believe he is a lot smarter than everyone gives him credit for. They believe he has it stashed.”

How would Murdaugh have gone about stashing the money, though? Their theory holds that he placed it in offshore shell companies…

“He could have very easily set up offshore companies in the Caribbean – in countries like Dominca – and deposited the assets into BOC,” referring to the Bank of China.

BOC has a history of refusing to cooperate with the federal government on asset seizures tied to fraud cases – and has branches conveniently located in both Grand Cayman and Panama. Also worth noting? Macroeconomic trends continue pushing Caribbean countries away from U.S. banks and into the arms of Chinese lenders – facilitating the ability of American money launderers to park their assets in accounts federal authorities cannot touch.

The recent suspension (.pdf) of Hilton Head Island, S.C.-based attorney Peter J. Strauss first reported by this media outlet – brought the offshore theory of Murdaugh’s missing millions back to the spotlight. Sources have indicated Strauss’ suspension is tied to a broader investigation of corruption in the Lowcountry – one possibly connected to the Murdaugh criminal enterprise.

And one linked to a mushrooming federal inquiry …

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WHO IS PETER STRAUSS?

Strauss — a high profile lawyer and the founder and chief executive officer of Strauss Global — is an expert in captive insurance management. He obtained his law degree in 2005 from the New England School of Law and after passing the South Carolina Bar, joined Novit & Scarminach in Hilton Head as an associate attorney in June of 2006.

That same year he married his now ex-wife, Mackenzie Strauss. It was during his time working at Novit & Scarminach that Strauss crossed paths with attorney Cory Fleming of Beaufort, S.C. – and became entangled in one of the highest-profile (and still unsolved) missing persons case in Beaufort County history, the disappearance of 45-year-old attorney Elizabeth Calvert of Savannah, Georgia and her husband, 47-year-old businessman John Calvert of Atlanta.

The Calverts went missing on March 3, 2008, from Harbour Town in Sea Pines, where The Yellow Jacket – a 40-foot yacht where they lived part-time – was moored. The couple managed a local marina and more than 100 rental units on Hilton Head Island, where they were active in the local community and its upscale social scene.

Three days after the Calverts’ disappearance, their accountant – Dennis Gerwing – hired Fleming to represent him, telling an ex-girlfriend he was the last person to see the couple alive. It was later discovered that Gerwing — chief financial officer for The Club Group, a property management company — had embezzled millions of dollars from the Calverts and other clients.

At the time of their disappearance, the Calverts were in the process of extricating themselves from The Club Group – and from Gerwing. Indeed, Gerwing was said to have been “negotiating” that exit at the March 3, 2008 meeting.

On March 11, 2008 – eight days after the Calverts vanished into thin air – Gerwing committed suicide. His death has been the subject of much speculation; and rumors persist he was entangled in something far more nefarious than simple theft.

Fleming was the first one to recognize Gerwing was not answering his phone on the day his body was discovered. He called The Club Group’s attorneys at Novit & Scarminach to alert them. Mark King, Gerwing’s boss and the owner of The Club Group, accompanied Strauss and attorney Dan Saxon to the timeshare where Gerwing had been staying. The 54-year-old accountant from Louisville, Kentucky had moved into the small Sea Pines villa because investigators had torn apart his house in their search for forensic evidence.

Gerwing had reportedly been “uncooperative” with local law enforcement, and had been listed as a “person of interest’ in the Calverts’ disappearance.

The men were able to enter the timeshare, but not the bathroom.

Saxon called 9-1-1.

(Click to View)

Dennis Gerwing (Bill Littell/ IWL Photography)

Gerwing was eventually discovered naked in a bathtub lined with a comforter and pillows. According to police, he bled to death after inflicting six slash wounds on his own neck and legs using a cheap, serrated steak knife. Two suicide notes were found at the scene – one on a bedsheet, the other on a piece of paper. In one of the notes, Gerwing is said to have acknowledged his role in fleecing the Calverts.

In 2009, Strauss left Novit & Scarminach and created The Strauss Law Firm. It was during this time he got involved in the captive insurance business through his relationship with a business associate, John Ivsan, a tax attorney based in Charlotte, North Carolina.

According to documents filed in the contentious divorce between Peter and Mackenzie Strauss, Ivsan set Strauss up as a “so-called expert legal authority on captive insurance by ghost-writing a book he could claim he wrote” while funding Strauss’ travels to various conventions to serve as an expert speaker on the complicated topic.

Strauss was building a successful business in Hilton Head and all was proceeding according to plan … until John Ivsan was indicted by the U.S. atttorney in Philadelphia on federal charges relating to a $200 million dollar tax fraud scheme in 2012.

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WHAT IS CAPTIVE INSURANCE?

Captive insurance can be a complicated concept, but to break it down in the most simplest manner, it is a type of self-insurance where a company creates a subsidiary insurer to provide insurance coverage for itself. It may also provide insurance to other companies that join the captive as members.

In recent years, captive insurance has captured the attention of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS). Specifically, the agency highlighted certain Puerto Rican/ offshore captive insurance arrangements as a “high-priority enforcement area.”

According to a 2022 press release:

“In these transactions, U.S owners of closely held entities participate in a purported insurance arrangement with a Puerto Rican or other foreign corporation with cell arrangements or segregated asset plans in which the U.S. owner has a financial interest. The U.S. based individual or entity claims deductions for the cost of ‘insurance coverage’ provided by a fronting carrier, which reinsures the ‘coverage’ with the foreign corporation. The characteristics of the purported insurance arrangements typically will include one or more of the following: implausible risks covered, non-arm’s-length pricing, and lack of business purpose for entering into the arrangement.”

IR-2022-113, June 1, 2022

Yes, it’s confusing; but the details matters because Strauss’ business operates using offshore companies based in Panama, the Bahamas and the Cook Islands. Upon taking over Ivsan’s business, Strauss set up two Bahamas-based companies. One was called Worldwide Property & Casualty Ltd – which acted as a parent company. Underneath it was Port Royal Insurance Ltd which acted as a “reinsurance” company. According to court filings, Strauss’ companies would serve as a parent/ umbrella company for his clients who would each have their own individual “captive segregated accounts” under the umbrella of the parent company.

Strauss’ clients were typically wealthy doctors and small business owners – and perhaps other attorneys. Strauss would sell the concept of captive insurance to his clients by emphasizing the tax shelter benefits they offered. Strauss charged an average of $42,500 to set up each account for his clients and then collect a 10 percent management fee on the annual premium each client paid.

There is big money in captive insurance – and great potential for abuse – which is what led the IRS to begin cracking down on these incorporations by creating enforcement teams whose primary objective is to investigate abusive structures. In recent years, the agency has built up its task force and adopted cutting-edge technology to identify and audit complex tax abuse schemes by using new funding available under the Inflation Reduction Act.

“These tax avoidance strategies often target high-income individuals seeking to reduce or eliminate their tax obligation,” IRS commissioner Danny Werfel said in April of this year. “Sometimes taxpayers are conned into believing they can participate in these schemes. People should always look for advice from an independent, trusted tax professional, not a promoter focused on aggressively marketing and pushing questionable transactions.”

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COULD STRAUSS BE TIED TO MURDAUGH’S MILLIONS?

In discussing Murdaugh’s missing millions, those in Lowcountry legal and business circles have always quietly mentioned Strauss as the “go to” guy for attorneys looking to move money into offshore accounts. His name and the names of his companies appear throughout offshore data leak databases – and are set up using sophisticated structures.

In South Carolina alone, Strauss has over 400 companies registered in his name.

The documents from Strauss’ divorce – which is currently under appeal – and a legal malpractice lawsuit filed by his wife in Beaufort County read like a Shonda Rimes‘ series. According to the lawsuit (.pdf), Strauss allegedly obtained his wife’s agreement to transfer their marital assets into a trust without informing her that his involvement was a conflict of interest – or of his intention to withhold assets from her if they divorced. A curious clause of the trust agreement Strauss allegedly compelled his wife to sign indicated that if he committed adultery which led to a divorce the trust language would allow the him to claim his wife was no longer a beneficiary of the trust containing their joint assets.

The lawsuit also claimed that once the trust was created, Strauss treated these assets and businesses as if he had legal title to them — including signing a $10 million loan, “signing mortgages, using the equity in those assets to develop real estate, purchasing real estate, deciding on income distributions from the businesses allegedly owned by the trust, and purchasing jet airplanes.”

In a footnote of one document, Strauss was described as “extremely dishonest” by his former wife. The small print that some readers may scroll past describes an allegedly fraudulent mortgage he took out on his home in January of 2013.

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RELATED | HUNT STILL ON FOR MURDAUGH’S ‘MISSING MILLIONS’

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The mortgage was purportedly provided by a now dissolved New Zealand-based company named Lighthouse Savings Limited. According to the document, the mortgage was a scam initiated by Strauss to make himself appear “judgement proof” if he were to ever be sued. No money was ever loaned to Strauss by Lighthouse and the director of Lighthouse Savings Limited was none other than his friend and mentor, John Ivsan.

After being confronted about the fraudulent filing – which is still on file with the Beaufort County Register of Deeds – Strauss submitted an affidavit claiming he never received the money for the mortgage.

A motion for summary dismissal was recently filed by Strauss and his legal team – and quickly opposed by his ex-wife’s attorneys. They stated substantial discovery was necessary to oppose Strauss’ motion for summary judgment. What that substantial discovery might be is anyone’s guess, but given Strauss’ penchant for offshore accounts – and his known skills and knowledge of money management – things could certainly get interesting.

Aside from his obvious ties to Murdaugh co-conspirator Cory Fleming is there anything else connecting Strauss to Murdaugh and his missing millions?

Just this week, attorney/ podcaster Eric Bland hinted the suspended attorney “might hold some of the answers as to where Alex Murdaugh stashed his stolen money.” Bland has yet to elaborate on that assertion, however.

Clearly, though, Strauss’ name is on the tip of several tongues as the hunt for the Murdaugh money continues …

And given the unprecedented number of recent sealed federal indictments in recent months – sixty-one in the last month alone – is it possible that hunt is expanding?

Keep it tuned to this outlet as we keep tabs on this key component of the broader ‘Murdaugh Murders’ saga …

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR …

Jenn Wood (Provided)

Jenn Wood is FITSNews’ incomparable research director. She’s also the producer of the FITSFiles and Cheer Incorporated podcasts and leading expert on all things Murdaugh/ South Carolina justice. A former private investigator with a criminal justice degree, evildoers beware, Jenn Wood is far from your average journalist! A deep dive researcher with a passion for truth and a heart for victims, this mom of two is pretty much a superhero in FITSNews country. Did we mention she’s married to a rocket scientist? (Lucky guy!) Got a story idea or a tip for Jenn? Email her at jenn@fitsnews.com.

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5 comments

Goody3 Top fan December 20, 2023 at 11:52 am

LORDY!!! That was about as clear as mud ………NOT a comment re Jenn’s reporting – it’s just so damned complicated! I’ll need to re- re- re- read this one! AND make some Venn diagrams of my own.

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VERITAS Top fan December 20, 2023 at 2:33 pm

We all know that AleX Murderer was a career criminal since right out of law school. He had good teachers: his father and grandfather. I believe Murdaugh’s crimes are expansive and involve attorneys, judges and law enforcement; that he does have millions in hiding; and, his wife and sons were nothing more than props and became disposable. If/when more is discovered, it will be shocking the extent of his crimes and why he was able to do what he did in South Carolina and beyond. AleX Murderer is a predator with no conscience and can never be released back out into society.

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Anonymous December 21, 2023 at 12:16 pm

um ok

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MICHELE HOLLEY Top fan December 21, 2023 at 6:41 pm

What I question is why anyone stealing money would use this financial arrangement to hide funds. Most individuals stealing or obtain monies by illegal means are not reporting these funds to the IRS, thus they would not have a need for a tax shelter to avoid paying taxes. As to the aspects of using these structures to offshore monies the necessity to establish and register a USA business entity would in my opinion only serve to draw attention to yourself.

Funds can only leave the US by wire transfer or physical transport of cash, gold,etc. Wiretransfers are easily traceable and On the other hands if you have smuggled cash out of the US why not just go ahead and deposit in Swiss accounts or the like.

Captive insurance structures are a perfectly legal loophole to avoid taxes if there use adheres to the criteria in your article. It is the misuse or fraudulent use to evade taxes that is a problem.

In that Alec was not reporting the stolen funds to the IRS why would he need a tax shelter type company that would only draw attention to himself which would be plain stupid in my opinion I think this is just another rabbit hole.

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Anonymous January 24, 2024 at 4:39 pm

We were on hhi when Calverts went missing.Right from the beginning the idea of Dennis committing supposed suicide to the way they haphazardly seemed to look for the Calverts was suspect.
The sherrif seemed to be doing nothing.
Somet bad things going on in HHI

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