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The Murdaugh Family Murders: Why did Alex Murdaugh kill his wife and son?

Alex Murdaugh in court
Image: Associated Press / Alamy Stock Photo | Above: Alex Murdaugh (left) walks into court for his bond hearing on 16th September, 2021, in Varnville, South Carolina, USA

The bloody killings of a mother and son. The unexplained fate of millions of dollars. A member of a powerful American dynasty in the dock. Now that patriarch, Alex Murdaugh has been convicted of the slayings and sentenced to life in jail, we take a look at the background of a case that has fascinated and stunned people across the world.

Meet the Murdaughs

For well over a century, the Murdaughs have been one of the most eminent and influential legal dynasties in South Carolina. The family’s roots in law go back to 1910 when Randolph Murdaugh Sr. set up a law firm in the town of Hampton. A decade later, he was elected as the chief prosecutor for a five-county area and served in that position until his dramatic death, when his car was hit by a train in 1940.

He was succeeded by his son, who was in turn succeeded by his son as well. In all, a Murdaugh was chief prosecutor of this sprawling region between 1920 and 2006, an incredible feat for a family. Their reputation is formidable, with one local attorney telling People magazine: ‘You don’t cross the Murdaughs… because they’ll come down on you, hard… They have a lot of influence and power, and they’ll use it against their enemies.’

The murders

Alex Murdaugh, the 54-year-old son of the last Murdaugh to serve in the chief prosecutor position, is himself a well-known attorney who appeared to be living an enviable life with his wife and children. But several dramatic events have rocked the clan, the most notable and shocking of which were the murders of Alex Murdaugh’s wife and son.

It was on a June night in 2021 that a sobbing Alex Murdaugh reported discovering the bodies of 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh and 22-year-old Paul Murdaugh at the family’s hunting lodge. They had been shot multiple times by different weapons, in an attack so catastrophic that Paul’s brain was completely removed from his skull.

A frenetic police investigation ensued, while Alex himself announced a $100,000 reward for any information that led to the conviction of whoever killed his wife and son.

Then, in September, came the stunning news that Alex Murdaugh had himself been shot in the head. The non-fatal ambush allegedly occurred while he was changing a flat tyre on a country road. However, it wasn’t long before Murdaugh admitted that he had actually taken out a hit on himself, for his remaining son to collect a life insurance payout of around $10 million.

His lawyer told the press that Murdaugh had concocted the extravagant suicide fraud scheme because of his depression over the murders of his wife and son, and because he struggled with an opioid addiction. In the wake of these revelations, Murdaugh was arrested on charges of fraud and then released on bond.

The scandals mount up

Just days after his arrest, it was reported that Alex Murdaugh was facing a lawsuit over a fatal boating crash that had involved his murdered son, Paul.

It was back in February 2019 that a drunken Paul had allegedly been at the helm of a motorboat that struck a bridge, causing the death of his friend, Mallory Beach. The latter’s family had filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Murdaughs in 2019, but this latest suit was taken out by another passenger who’d been on the boat that night. He claimed Alex Murdaugh had used his influence to obscure the truth of what had happened and to divert blame away from his son.

Paul had been charged with boating under the influence and been awaiting trial at the time of his murder, leading to initial rumours that his killing may have somehow been connected to the incident.

September 2021 also saw police open an investigation into the death of Gloria Satterfield, who for many years served as a housekeeper for the Murdaugh family. Satterfield had died in what was regarded as a ‘trip and fall’ accident in February 2018, but no autopsy had been carried out and a coroner testified that her death certificate hadn’t been accurately filled out.

It’s not just the death itself that has raised questions. Satterfield’s family members also pursued Murdaugh over missing money from a wrongful death settlement relating to her apparent 'accident’. This led, in October 2021, to Murdaugh being arrested and placed into custody over allegedly misappropriating the settlement funds.

Murdaugh’s fate

As of February 2023, Murdaugh is facing lawsuits as well as more than 100 charges relating to the suicide scheme, money laundering, tax evasion, and schemes to defraud his law clients and colleagues. Most seriously of all, he’s also on trial for the murders of his wife and son, having been indicted in the summer of 2022 after a long homicide investigation.

Evidence against Murdaugh includes blood spatter analysis and phone camera footage that seemingly contradicts his alibi for the night of the murder. Rumours continue to swirl around his possible motives for committing a double murder. Some say he was trying to garner public sympathy in anticipation of his financial crimes coming to light. Or, he may have wanted to prevent the boating disaster trial of his son Paul, which would have opened up the family finances to scrutiny.