Crime & Courts

Powerful SC family faces scrutiny following boat crash that killed 19-year-old woman

Note: Austin Crosby is the Murdaugh law firm attorney involved in a Saluda River environmental case. An earlier version of the story was incorrect.

The night 19-year-old Mallory Beach died in a boat crash near Beaufort, investigators arrived at the hospital to interview two teens suspected of driving the boat while drunk.

The father and grandfather of one suspect suddenly showed up, telling officers they were lawyers. They stopped all interviews and prevented the teens from taking any sobriety tests.

The father and grandfather weren’t average citizens. They were members of one of the most powerful legal families in South Carolina.

They were the Murdaughs.

For nearly a century, the Murdaugh name has stood for three things throughout South Carolina: power, justice and big money.

Three generations of Murdaughs have been state prosecutors, putting thousands of people in prison and sending more than a dozen to death row in a five-county, low-lying region of swamps, Spanish moss and forests where moonshiners once plied a thriving trade. And year after year, the family law firm in Hampton has won millions of dollars in civil lawsuits, relentlessly pursuing those at fault in fatal collisions.

But in an odd twist of fate, four members of the Murdaugh dynasty are now implicated in the fatal boat crash, exposing the youngest to possible criminal charges, and two older generations to civil liability. The powerful family is in the spotlight like never before.

It started like this: on a cold, foggy February night in a creek near Beaufort, a 17-foot Triton boat slammed into a piling below a bridge that connects to the main entrance of the U.S. Marine base at Parris Island. All six passengers, between 18 and 20 years old, were ejected. One never made it back to shore.

Mallory Beach.jpg
Mallory Beach File Photo File Photo

The body of 19-year-old Mallory Beach, carried away by tides and currents, was found seven days later, in a marsh five miles from the crash site. The coroner said she received a blow to the head from the crash and then drowned.

The five survivors were described as “grossly intoxicated,” a police report said. But none were given sobriety tests — the lack of which has sparked outrage and questions in the community. The boat is owned by Alex Murdaugh, 50, who is a fourth generation member of the dynasty, partner in the family law firm and part-time prosecutor for the 14th Circuit that covers Allendale, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties.

Alex Murdaugh’s son, 19-year-old Paul Murdaugh, is a possible driver, police reports show. A video posted to social media appears to show him driving at some point that night. Connor Cook, 19, was also named as a possible driver. The case is now being investigated by S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

Paul Murdaugh’s father and grandfather, former chief prosecutor Randolph Murdaugh III, are the ones who went to the hospital that night and prevented the teens from cooperating with law enforcement, according to DNR Capt. Robert McCullough.

Paul Murdaugh has since retained two high-profile criminal lawyers — Jim Griffin and Sen. Dick Harpootlian, D-Richland, both of Columbia. Connor Cook has retained attorney Joe McCulloch of Columbia. None of them will comment.

Meanwhile, the young woman’s mother, Renee Beach, filed a wrongful death lawsuit March 29 against three other members of the Murdaugh family for allegedly turning a blind eye to underage drinking. Paul Murdaugh is referred to in the lawsuit but not mentioned by name. His older brother, father and grandfather are, however.

The Murdaughs had no comment about the lawsuit or the boat crash and its aftermath. The family firm issued a blanket statement for all questions about the boating incident: “Our thoughts and prayers have and will continue to go out to the Beach family, and all the families and friends affected by this tragedy.”

Alex Murdaugh
Alex Murdaugh, fourth generation of a powerful S.C. dynasty and owner of a boat involved in a fatal accident, leaves a hearing in a personal injury lawsuit at the Richland County Courthouse. John Monk

“It has been 38 days since the fatal boat crash and no charges have been filed ...,” said the weekly Hampton County Guardian in a front page story this week. The Guardian’s stories to date have noted “no one has stepped forward to claim responsibility as the driver of the boat.”

Some kind of action should have been taken, said Laura Hudson, executive director of the S.C. Crime Victims’ Council.

“I’m surprised that nothing has taken place,” she said.

The case would normally be prosecuted by the 14th Circuit, where three generations of Murdaughs were chief prosecutors for 85 years. But Solicitor Duffie Stone has requested that the case be handled by the state Attorney General’s Office or another solicitor because two members of the Murdaugh family — Alex Murdaugh and Murdaugh III — still work for Stone’s office as part-time prosecutors. If DNR decides to bring criminal charges, S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson will decide whether his office will prosecute or whether to give the case to another solicitor’s office.

Even so, in rural Hampton County and beyond, people question whether anyone in the boat will be held accountable for Mallory Beach’s death. Many have taken to social media about the incident, pointing to the Murdaugh family’s long history and sharing conspiracy theories about them.

It marks the second time that this small, rural community is left to wonder what really happened to one of its young people and whether justice will be served.

The case of 19-year-old Stephen Smith is often mentioned in the same sentence on social media. In July 2015, the young man’s body was found in the middle of a Hampton County roadway with his head bashed in. Investigators reported he was the victim of a hit-and-run accident, despite police reports showing no evidence that ever took place.

Sandy Smith, the young man’s mother, said the boat crash brought renewed focus to her son’s death. But some questions may never be answered.

“There would never be justice for Stephen in Hampton County,” she told The State.

Despite discussions on social media, no evidence links the Murdaugh family to this case.

The Murdaughs declined to comment on discussions about their family posted to social media, calling it “an outlet for unfortunate fabrications and unfounded comments based not on fact but based on speculation.”

David Lauderdale, a longtime columnist for The Beaufort Gazette, wrote the boat crash and Beach’s death have “gripped the Lowcountry like little we’ve ever seen ... everyone’s watching.”

With the Murdaugh family’s deep connections, Lauderdale wondered if anyone would be held accountable.

“Can justice be done, under these circumstances?”

DNR spokesman McCullough said his agency’s investigation continues.

“I would expect charges to be brought at some point.”

Murdaugh law firm
The headquarters of Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick in Hampton, S.C. It’s known around town as “the House CSX Built.” Cody Dulaney

The Firm

In the 1920s and ‘30s, the family’s namesake and first generation, Randolph Murdaugh, was both a lawyer in private practice and the solicitor, overseeing prosecutions in Hampton, Jasper, Beaufort, Colleton and Allendale counties in the state’s southeast corner.

In the early morning hours of July 19, 1940, Randolph Murdaugh climbed into his car after a night of playing cards and set out for home, according to reports. He didn’t get far.

A portrait of Randolph Murdaugh Sr., Solicitor for the 14th Circuit 1920-40 which hangs in the General Sessions Courtroom A in Hampton, SC. Staff photo

Ever since then, sudden death and injuries have been part of the Murdaugh legal DNA. So has money.

Over the years, the Murdaughs and their law firm have raked in millions, suing corporations, governments and individuals who kill or injure others. Today, the firm’s sprawling three-story brick headquarters building in the heart of downtown Hampton is often referred to as “The House that CSX Built” — a quip referring to the millions the firm has won suing CSX railroads.

The little town of Hampton, population 2,000, seems an unlikely spot for a legal juggernaut. Generations of close-knit families have worshipped together in its picturesque churches, raised children in modest homes and celebrated at the county’s Watermelon Festival, an annual highlight of the summer — and about the only time a parking space is hard to find. About 20 miles from the closest interstate, big industry has been hard to attract to the sleepy town, named for a Confederate general. A cookware distribution center and a federal prison are among the top county employers.

It is in this quiet corner of the state, the Murdaughs have flourished. The family law firm has grown to 70 employees, including 11 partners and five associates. A spokesman said the firm helps numerous people free of charge and “has thousands of open case files at any given time, and we practice law in all 46 (S.C. ) counties.“

The firm’s success stems from a quirk in S.C. law that allowed people with a grievance against a railroad to file a lawsuit in any county in the state. For years, people flocked to Hampton, where the Murdaugh name reigned supreme and, in part because of the firm’s influence with juries, large awards against railroad companies were common.

Hampton County was known as a “site of pilgrimage” for people suing railroads, according to a story published in The State newspaper in 2000. The firm had won $5 million the year before from CSX in five different lawsuits. At that time, the firm had 15 lawsuits against CSX.

“These cases are being valued at between two and three times what they would elsewhere,” CSX attorney Jim Lady complained at the time.

On the other hand, John E. Parker, who handled most of the CSX lawsuits for the firm, told The State that CSX didn’t want to pay any claim.

“Our job is to try to make them pay what legally they should pay,” Parker told a reporter at the time.

In 2004, a national public interest group named Hampton County the third biggest “judicial hellhole” for defendants in the U.S., citing the Murdaugh law firm’s success.

In 2005, the Legislature changed the law concerning where lawsuits can be filed, sharply limiting plaintiffs from other parts of South Carolina from suing in Hampton County unless the incident happened in that county.

By then, the firm had raked in millions and made some of its clients, if not rich, better off then they were before.

Hampton County Courthouse
Hampton County Courthouse. Cody Dulaney

Results and Influence

The firm declined to give yearly totals of its verdicts and settlements. But some results are prominently displayed on the firm’s website. They include:

  • Randolph “Randy” Murdaugh IV, a great grandson of the original Murdaugh and partner of the firm, is billed as successfully representing “hundreds of injured railroad workers” in claims across South Carolina.
  • Ronnie Crosby is credited with winning more than 250 cases worth more than $1 million each, including “numerous cases with recoveries greater than $10 million.”

A spokesman says the firm’s lawsuits have saved lives. Railroads now routinely clear vegetation around railroad crossings so people can see oncoming trains, the spokesman said.

One client, Danny Whaley, of Due West, suffered a heat stroke in 2000 while working for CSX in Laurens. He credits Randy Murdaugh with saving his life.

Aside from litigating his case in court, which ultimately ended in a nearly $1 million verdict, Randy Murdaugh fought to get Whaley the medical attention he needed. It turned out Whaley, who had fainting spells, has a condition that prevents his body from cooling itself. He needed a pacemaker to keep his heart going.

“It has changed my life. I haven’t passed out since,” Whaley said. “If it hadn’t been for Randy going through the trouble … just to figure out what was wrong with me, I probably would have been dead.”

The success of these big-money cases made the Murdaughs and their firm celebrities in Hampton.

Last year, Gov. Henry McMaster awarded 79-year-old Randolph Murdaugh III, the grandson of the first Murdaugh, with the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor, for his work as an attorney and his 19 years as solicitor.

A portrait of Randolph Murdaugh III, Solicitor for the 14th Circuit 1987-2006, which hangs in the General Sessions Courtroom A in Hampton, SC. Staff photo

And in June, Murdaugh III will be the Grand Marshall of the town’s weeklong Watermelon Festival, one of the biggest outdoor festivals in southern South Carolina.

“It’s because the Murdaughs and their firm do a lot for the town,” festival organizer Jimmy Polk said.

While it declined to say how much, the firm said in a statement it has given “substantial financial support, as well as in-kind donations,” to charities, schools and local governments. Its lawyers have done “thousands of hours” of free legal work for individuals and groups, the firm said. One partner, John E. Parker, gave $1 million in recent years to upgrade the courthouse, as well as land for a county nature trail, according to reports.

In addition, the Murdaughs have spent more than $200,000 on state and local politics in the last decade, according to the S.C. State Ethics Commission, and the law firm has donated $87,000 to political action committees.

More than a dozen lawyers interviewed by The State have praised the Murdaugh law firm, saying its lawyers are well-respected with influence throughout the state. Austin Crosby, a member of the firm, is involved with a lawsuit in Richland County state court against an alleged polluter of the Saluda River.

Yet some claim the Murdaugh name has hurt Hampton County’s chances to lure big business.

Years ago, Walmart was planning to open in Hampton. But the big box store was warned that if the plans were completed, the Murdaugh law firm would be able to sue over alleged incidents that happened anywhere in South Carolina, according to a 2002 Forbes magazine article.

“Walmart never built,” the article noted.

“I think that’s just propaganda,” said Hampton County council member Ronald “Breeze” Winn. “The Murdaugh firm has helped a lot of people who didn’t have money but who needed a lawyer.”

The firm supports economic development, a spokesman said, but chooses to represent “injured individuals, local governments, farmers and those who have otherwise been damaged but could not afford representation.. We do not believe the efforts of our law firm has had an adverse effect on economic development.”

Many people declined to comment on this story, pointing to the power and influence of the Murdaugh name.

“They are known for suing people. That would be the last place you would want to find yourself — in court, with those folks suing you,” said a longtime Hampton-area resident who didn’t want his name used. “The Murdaughs know everyone, they are well-liked and they make it a point to stop and talk to people, just like politicians. They never know who might be on a jury.”

Archer’s Creek Bridge
Archer’s Creek Bridge, where Mallory Beach was thrown in the water on Feb. 24 after the boat she was in crashed into a piling John Monk

Fear and Prejudice

Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr., who became solicitor in 1940 following the death of his father, was known across South Carolina for his love of chewing tobacco, his courtroom prowess and his flair for acting out murders before spellbound juries.

“He was a legend, a bigger than life presence,” recalls Columbia defense attorney Jack Swerling, 72, who battled Buster Murdaugh Jr. in criminal trials.

He had a booming voice that could cycle through the range of human emotions — outrage, ridicule and grief. And like a master dramatist, he could make jurors’ imaginations run wild with the horror of the crime, Swerling said.

“Once, in a murder case, he drew an imaginary box with his finger in front of the jury box and said, ‘This is where Johnny is laying in his grave right now’,” Swerling said. “And when the jury came back with the guilty verdict, they all avoided stepping on that imaginary box Buster had drawn.”

John Blume agrees that Buster Murdaugh Jr. had legendary status. Blume is a nationally known capital punishment defense lawyer who worked on appeals for several defendants Murdaugh Jr. sent to South Carolina’s death row. But Blume views him through a darker lens.

“He was a win-at-all-costs solicitor. He cared about getting convictions in a capital case, and he did not care if it was reversed on appeal. He repeatedly did things he had to know were improper — primarily in his closing arguments, where he could not keep himself confined to the rules,” said Blume, a professor at Cornell Law School.

The S.C. Supreme Court has rebuked Buster Murdaugh Jr., who sent 14 men to death row, for egregious jury arguments in several death penalty cases.

A portrait of Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr., Solicitor for the 14th Circuit 1940-87 which hangs in the General Sessions Courtroom A in Hampton, SC. Staff photo

Buster Murdaugh Jr. had already made “an almost identical” improper jury argument in a rape case 20 years earlier, warning jurors that if they acquitted the defendant, he would turn loose other accused rapists.

And he once found himself in criminal trouble.

In June 1956, Buster Murdaugh Jr. was indicted by a federal grand jury for allegedly telling a local bootlegger to move his whiskey still to nearby Colleton County so he wouldn’t be arrested by local police, according to the indictment. He resigned his post for several months until a jury acquitted him of the charges, and he managed to continue holding the position soon after.

The law firm appears to ignore those several months that Buster Murdaugh was out of office and facing criminal charges. It cites “the Murdaugh family’s 85 consecutive years as solicitor of the 14th Circuit” touting it as “one of the the longest consecutive terms for a family holding that office in the country.”

Buster Murdaugh Jr. had a reputation as a law-and-order solicitor. But several Hampton County residents told The State that he could also look the other way.

“As a little girl, I remember Daddy saying, ‘Go to Buster Murdaugh, he’ll make it disappear.’ It was always that good ol’ boy system,” said a woman with deep roots in Hampton County who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution.

In 1969, a S.C. blue law prohibited sporting events on Sunday. But a much-anticipated golf tournament, The Heritage, had already been scheduled on Hilton Head Island. Murdaugh Jr. vowed to “look the other way” and allowed the inaugural tournament to continue, according to Bill Carson, a former tournament director who shared the story with The Island Packet in 2011.

Buster Murdaugh, who was solicitor 46 years, died in 1998 at the age of 83. There’s no telling what he might think about the scrutiny his descendants are facing.

As columnist Lauderdale wrote, many people fear that the Murdaugh family’s connections will allow officials to look the other way in the death of Mallory Beach.

And victims’ advocate Hudson says no criminal charges “would be a disservice to the community, the state and the victim. Surely they just aren’t going to let it go by.”

The attorney for the Beach family, Mark Tinsley, has filed his lawsuit implicating four Murdaugh family members in the boat crash death in Hampton County — the spot where the Murdaugh name has reigned supreme for more than 100 years. And he fully expects the case to be tried in Hampton’s main courtroom, where paintings of the Murdaughs hang above all courtroom proceedings.

That doesn’t worry Tinsley, who believes that a Hampton County jury can be fair and trusted to sort out the facts. After all, he said, the Beach family lives in Hampton County, and Mallory Beach was known and loved by many.

Justice will be done, Tinsley said. At Mallory Beach’s visitation, Tinsley said, “I stood in line for an hour, and when I came out, the line was twice or three times as long as when I went in.”

From the judge’s bench in the Hampton County Courthouse, two portraits of Murdaughs can be seen. Members of the family served as solicitors for 85 years. Drew E. Martin

Murdaugh Family History

1910: Randolph Murdaugh started a law firm in Hampton, S.C. It would later become Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick.

1920: Randolph Murdaugh is elected 14th Circuit Solicitor, becoming the first person to hold the post since it became elected.

1940: Randolph Murdaugh was killed in a train wreck. He was succeeded by his son, Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr., who also ran the family law firm.

1956: Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr. was indicted for tipping off a local bootlegger. He resigned his post for several months until he was acquitted.

1986: Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr. retired as 14th Circuit Solicitor. He was succeeded by his son, Randolph Murdaugh III.

2005: Randolph Murdaugh III does not seek re-election, instead focusing on the family law firm full-time. He remains a paid, part-time assistant solicitor. His son, Alex Murdaugh is a volunteer solicitor, helping his dad prosecute cases.

2018: Gov. Henry McMaster awards Randolph Murdaugh III with the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian honor.

2019: Four members of the Murdaugh family are implicated in a fatal boat crash, exposing one member to possible criminal charges and the others to civil liability.

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John Monk has covered courts, crime, politics, public corruption, the environment and other issues in the Carolinas for more than 40 years. A U.S. Army veteran who covered the 1989 American invasion of Panama, Monk is a former Washington correspondent for The Charlotte Observer. He has covered numerous death penalty trials, including that of the Charleston church killer, Dylann Roof, and that of child killer Tim Jones.
The State’s project reporter Cody Dulaney has covered issues facing law enforcement in South Carolina and Florida for six years, earning him three statewide awards for his work. He received a degree in journalism from the University of South Florida, where he also studied criminology.