The roots of the Murdaugh family crime saga run deep through these coastal towns. But no one wants to talk about it
Updated 11:54 AM ET, Sun September 26, 2021
Beaufort, South Carolina (CNN)The store clerk asked, "Can I help you?" But it sounded more like, "What the hell are you doing here?"
A "closed" sign still hung from the door of the boutique. Taped next to it was an image of the beaming Mallory Beach, who once worked here, selling and modeling chic clothing and jewelry. Alongside her photo read a quote: "Be strong in the Lord and never give up hope. He's gonna do great things, I already know," a twist on a lyric by the Christian band, Sidewalk Prophets.
But the message of hope rang vacant here in the window of It's Retail Therapy, 31 months nearly to the day after Beach was killed when a boat struck a bridge piling north of Marine Corps Recruit Depot, Parris Island. She was 19 years old.
Now, her death has become part of a rolling drama that has gripped South Carolina's Lowcountry: murder, drug addiction and alleged financial crimes surrounding the influential Alex Murdaugh, whose family is part of a local legal dynasty stretching back to the early 1900s.
Since Murdaugh's wife, Maggie, and son, Paul, were found fatally shot in June on the family's Colleton County hunting estate, the surname has earned national notoriety. Yet for the deluge of details spilling into headlines, so little is known about the others whose deaths in recent years almost always are mentioned with a reference to their Murdaugh connections: Gloria Harriott Satterfield, Stephen Nicholas Smith and Mallory Madison Beach.
Wanting to learn more about Beach, a photographer and I showed up at the boutique at opening time -- hoping to beat the clientele -- only to find the "closed" sign. As the photographer leaned in to take photos of the window memorial, the store door swung open and a blond woman in her early 20s stepped into its frame.
"Can I help you?" she asked, glaring.
It was awkward, not how we'd planned it. I removed my sunglasses and explained we didn't care about lawsuits or criminal allegations. We wanted to tell Beach's story. Might she help us, beyond the photo in the window?
The woman, I soon realized, was Morgan Doughty, a friend of Beach's who had been with her the night the boat crashed.
Doughty had been dating the now-deceased Paul Murdaugh at the time and suffered a nasty hand injury that chilly 2019 night when the vessel crashed, throwing Beach and two other passengers into Archers Creek. Her dear friend's body wasn't found for a week, in a marsh near the Broad River about 5 miles away.
"Y'all can't be doing this," Doughty snapped at us.
Leave or she'd call the police, she threatened as we stood on the public sidewalk, the law on our side if not karma. We weren't welcome. Our mere presence as journalists was traumatizing, she said, not just for her but for Miley Altman, who also worked at the store and had been on the boat that night.
Doughty stormed back inside, taking the "closed" sign with her.
Dogs were hushed, but no one opened the door
Over four days last week, I burned through three tanks of gas trying to unearth with sparse success the stories of those whose deaths are intertwined with the Murdaugh saga. From the palm trees and moss-draped live oaks of Beaufort to the pine thickets of Hampton, Moselle, Islandton, Crocketville, Yemassee, Brunson and Walterboro, few wanted to talk -- and if they did, they didn't share names.
Along with Beach, I wanted to know more about Satterfield, the longtime Murdaugh housekeeper whose family filed a $500,000 wrongful death claim against Alex Murdaugh after she died following what her estate's attorney termed a "trip and fall accident" at their home. And what about Smith, whose 2015 death on a lonely Hampton County road was ruled a hit-and-run over his mother's protestations? His death investigation was reopened this summer, following the killings of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh.
Parents, children, siblings, lawyers, friends and pastors didn't answer phones or doors. Strangers politely declined to speak or outright kept walking. A gas station attendant claimed he had just moved to the area. A pair of barbers said they weren't from around Hampton. A man in a home near Crocketville, a short walk from a blue wooden memorial to Smith, ordered his dogs to shut up but wasn't compelled to open his door. Local reporters who know the story best were in no mood to bring outsiders up to speed.
In their silence weighed the longtime sway of a towering, ruddy man whose family controlled prosecutions across five counties for almost nine decades: Alex Murdaugh. Until recently, he was a partner at one of the state's top law firms. Its brick offices stand like a fortress amid the old-timey downtown of Hampton, many of whose storefronts, including the local newspaper office, are shuttered or empty.
"I think people are just kind of tired," said a Beaufort native and acquaintance of Alex Murdaugh's who asked to remain anonymous. "New stuff comes out, and it just gets crazier and crazier. I think people are desensitized to it. I know I am."
Crazy's a good word. Just this month, Murdaugh reported being shot in the head and entered rehab for an opioid addiction. He's resigned from his law firm, which says it's opening an investigation into his misappropriation of funds -- also the subject of a state investigation.
Authorities later alleged Murdaugh, now stripped of his law license, conspired with his former client, Curtis Edward Smith, provided him a gun and instructed Smith to kill him so his other son, Buster Murdaugh, could collect about $10 million in an insurance settlement. Alex Murdaugh now faces insurance fraud and other charges and remains in rehab on $20,000 bail. Smith also faces charges and is out on bail.
Adding another layer of OMG, Smith told the New York Post, "I've never hurt anyone" and that Alex Murdaugh had called him for help -- for what, he didn't know -- and when he arrived he found Murdaugh waving a gun as if he might shoot himself. He wrestled the gun away from Murdaugh and took off, Smith told the paper.
New Murdaugh updates sent the pizza joint atwitter
When I visited Smith's Walterboro home, he was no longer in a talking mood. Two notes and business cards left on his mailbox were removed, but no call came. Phone calls and emails went unreturned. A "No Trespassing" sign sat along the driveway. Another sign on a nearby tree read, "Trespassers will be shot -- survivors will be shot AGAIN!" Many of his neighbors posted similar sentiments, including one in crude spray paint: "If U are passed this no trespass sign U are no longer trespassing U are a target."