WALTERBORO, S.C. — When the first sheriff’s deputy arrived at the scene of a grisly double murder in South Carolina, Alex Murdaugh, whose wife and son had been slain, said right away that he knew the killer’s motive.
“This is a long story,” Mr. Murdaugh, then a prominent South Carolina lawyer, told the deputy, who had just stepped out of his squad car to investigate the bloody crime scene. “My son was in a boat wreck months back; he’s been getting threats.”
“Most of it’s been benign stuff we didn’t take serious,” he went on, adding, “I know that’s what it is.”
Mr. Murdaugh’s initial encounter with the police was heard publicly for the first time on Thursday in a courtroom where he is now on trial, accused of murdering his wife, Maggie, and the younger of his two adult sons, Paul, in June 2021.
Prosecutors played police body camera footage from the scene and suggested in court that Mr. Murdaugh had been trying to throw investigators off his trail when he offered up an explanation for the crime. He had also mentioned the boat crash in an earlier 911 call before the sheriff’s deputy arrived.
Mr. Murdaugh’s son was facing criminal charges at the time of his death, accused of drunkenly piloting a boat that crashed into a bridge after he had spent an evening partying in 2019, leaving one of its passengers dead.
Mr. Murdaugh has insisted he did not kill his wife and son, and his lawyers contend that the hypothesis he offered was a reasonable one. They have accused the police of zeroing in on Mr. Murdaugh instead of investigating a range of other possibilities.
Deputies from the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office who took the witness stand on Thursday were pressed by the defense over whether they might have contaminated the crime scene when they arrived that night, destroying evidence that could have helped clear Mr. Murdaugh or could even have helped catch a perpetrator.
Dick Harpootlian, the lead defense lawyer, got two deputies to admit that tire tracks at the scene had not been blocked off with tape and had then been driven over and stepped on, leaving it difficult to identify any other possible perpetrator.
Understand the ‘Murdaugh Murders’
A South Carolina mystery. The unraveling of the life of Alex Murdaugh, a prominent lawyer, is at the center of a sprawling saga of mysterious deaths — including the killing of his wife and son — and allegations of multimillion-dollar swindles. Here’s what to know about the case:
Two murders and an indictment. The fatal shooting of Maggie Murdaugh and Paul Murdaugh in 2021 rocked South Carolina’s Lowcountry region, where the Murdaugh family’s powerful legal dynasty originated. On July 14, the police charged Alex Murdaugh with killing his wife and son. Mr. Murdaugh pleaded not guilty.
The Murdaughs are powerful. The family has dominated the legal profession in a rural swath of the state for more than a century. For nearly 90 years, the post of chief prosecutor for a five-county region was held by a Murdaugh. And for even longer, the family’s law firm has been one of the state’s leading tort litigation firms.
There was a botched suicide plot. A day after he was forced out of his family’s law firm for misusing funds, Alex Murdaugh reported that he had been shot in the head. He soon admitted that he had actually asked a former client to kill him because he wanted to leave his older son, Buster, with a $10 million insurance payout. Mr. Murdaugh survived and was charged with fraud.
Other strange deaths revolve around the case. The case has brought new scrutiny to three other deaths in the region that may be tied to the family, including a young man found dead along a road in 2015 and a fatal boat crash in 2019.
Mr. Murdaugh has been accused of swindling millions. The lawyer was arrested on Oct. 14, 2021, and charged with stealing millions of dollars from a settlement intended for the children of a housekeeper who died at the family’s home in 2018 after falling on the front steps.
“So, if somebody had come in and left, who committed the murders, whatever tire tracks that were left were obliterated by your men, is that right?” Mr. Harpootlian asked Sgt. Daniel Greene, the first deputy who arrived at the scene.
“It’s possible,” Sergeant Greene responded.
Another deputy acknowledged, in response to Mr. Harpootlian’s questioning, that he had walked near one victim’s body without covering his shoes.
Later in the day, Capt. Jason Chapman of the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office said in response to prosecutors’ questions that Mr. Murdaugh had not appeared to have any blood on him when they arrived, even though he had told a 911 dispatcher that he had checked both victims’ pulses. Both victims were bloody, the police witnesses testified, and Captain Chapman said that it would have been particularly difficult to check Paul Murdaugh’s pulse without coming into contact with his blood.
Mr. Murdaugh’s lawyers have said that he returned from a brief visit with his mother that night to find his wife and son shot to death on the family’s rural hunting estate.
Prosecutors contend that Mr. Murdaugh killed them in a failed effort to keep anyone from finding out that he had stolen millions of dollars from his law firm and his own clients over the years. They say Mr. Murdaugh then tried to build an alibi by making a series of calls and visiting his mother before driving back to the scene and calling 911.
Portions of that 911 call had been released about a month after the crimes, but the entire recording was played publicly for the first time on Thursday, revealing that Mr. Murdaugh had also brought up the boat crash as he spoke to a police dispatcher.
“He’s been being threatened by — my son had a boat wreck,” Mr. Murdaugh said. He also told the dispatcher that he was going to drive from the crime scene, near the family’s dog kennels, to the main house about 500 yards away in order to grab a gun for protection.
That gun, a camouflage-print shotgun, was seized by the police and was shown to the jury in the courtroom on Thursday. The jury of eight women and four men looked attentive on the first day of testimony, leaning forward as the body camera footage was played. Many appeared shocked as they viewed the carnage at the scene, with two jurors taking deep breaths and one lowering his head briefly several times.
Mr. Murdaugh wept at points throughout the day as the videos and 911 call were played. The videos were not shown to the public because they contained graphic footage of the victims, but the audio permeated the courtroom. In the rows behind Mr. Murdaugh, his relatives — including one of his brothers, John Marvin Murdaugh, and his older son, Buster — comforted one another.
The murders have attracted intense attention over the past year and a half because of the Murdaugh family’s long and prominent history in the region. Mr. Murdaugh’s great-grandfather was the first elected prosecutor for a broad swath of the South Carolina Lowcountry, handing the job down to Mr. Murdaugh’s grandfather and then his father, and also founded a storied law firm.
That legal dynasty came crashing down in the months after the murders as Mr. Murdaugh was charged with a series of financial crimes and forced to resign from the law firm. Three months after the murders, he was also charged with insurance fraud in a bizarre case in which the police say he asked a distant cousin to fatally shoot him so that Buster Murdaugh could collect on his life insurance policy, but he survived the shooting.
Mr. Murdaugh, who has since been disbarred, has been held in jail since October 2021, when he was charged with stealing money from the family of his former housekeeper, who died after a fall on the steps of the Murdaugh family home. Her death is being reinvestigated following the filing of the financial charges against Mr. Murdaugh.