The roots of the Murdaugh family crime saga run deep through these coastal towns. But no one wants to talk about it
By Eliott C. McLaughlin, CNN Photographs by Elijah Nouvelage for CNN
(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."
At a local pool hall that night, people scrolled through their phones for the latest details on Smith's arrest. A gentleman who declined to share his name agreed to call and text "Eddie," promising to tell him I was an "all right fellow." Eddie apparently was not convinced.
The next day at a pizza joint in Beaufort, phones dinged and buzzed with the latest Murdaugh updates. A bartender and waitress perused the waitress' phone, playfully arguing over whether to trust "conspiracy sites" or the hard reporting from journalists at FITS News and The State newspaper.
A similar scene unfolded that night at a Beaufort restaurant when word spread that Connor Cook -- another passenger injured in the 2019 boat crash -- had announced he was suing Alex Murdaugh, alleging the former lawyer tried to pin the crash on Cook when it was actually his son, Paul, driving the craft. Two nights later, the restaurant's bar manager excitedly greeted me with word that a local news outlet had just broken a story on the former housekeeper's lawsuit.
The pace and shock value of the stories is exhausting. After a couple of days, it became clear why folks here are reticent. It's a damned wonder they can keep up.
Before touching down in the Lowcountry, it was clear from social media residents were fatigued from the constant press inquiries. Perhaps, I thought, they'd talk with a reporter working to amplify the legacies of those lost.
Nope. Fatigue is fatigue, and to be fair, many in the international media have not exhibited the best decorum.
One writer penned a humor column about the deaths. Another mocked the depressed economic conditions in Varnville, a town where half the households pull in less than $35,000 a year. The word "hillbilly" has been tossed around as a standard adjective rather than a childish pejorative. This is not counting the nonsense on Facebook.
Yet the story doesn't require embellishment. No one doubts a movie will be produced, though many struggle to conceive how the sprawling tale could fit into a tidy two or three hours.
Everyone seemed to have heard the same rumors
Paul Murdaugh was Alex's youngest child. In June, Alex Murdaugh found his wife, Maggie, and 22-year-old son fatally shot near the kennels on the family estate in Islandton.
To call the area hosting the hunting grounds sleepy is an undersell. For 30 or 40 minutes, as CNN's photographer flew a drone over the property trying to get the lay of the land, not a single car passed on the soft-shouldered state road. Love bugs, as they're known, flew so thick it was difficult at times to avoid breathing them.
Alex Murdaugh's acquaintance in Beaufort said the killings left the community stunned. He had only nice memories of Alex and Maggie. The onetime law lion's wife, 52, was sweet as can be, he said, and Alex always reminded him of Andy Griffith, the way he was so polite and made people feel at ease.
"He was always up for doing the right thing," he said. "That's something you would've never guessed now."
The killings led a local prosecutor to drop charges against Paul Murdaugh, who stood accused of drinking to the point of slurring before driving his dad's boat into the bridge's buttresses. But it didn't mean the Murdaugh family's legal troubles were over. Quite the opposite.
Authorities announced instead that they were opening an investigation into Satterfield's 2018 death. The probe was announced after an attorney for her estate said he was suing the Murdaughs because the housekeeper's family hadn't received a cent from a $500,000 settlement in the case.
State police also said information gathered while investigating the slayings of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh led them to reopen the death investigation on Stephen Smith. The 19-year-old nursing student was found dead near a soybean field in 2015 after possibly running out of gas on his way home from class in Orangeburg.
Official information on Smith and his death is thin. But from Crocketville to Beaufort, everyone seems to have heard the same handful of rumors linking the Murdaughs to the alleged crime, even though authorities haven't announced any connection.
A teenager's headstone whispered hints of her legacy
Smith's grave sits a couple miles down the road from the Sandy Run Baptist Church, which held the funeral services for Smith, Satterfield and Beach. It provides few clues to who he was. A nondescript marker sits adjacent to a similar marker for his father, who died a few months after Stephen did. On the other side of the teen's grave is the headstone for his brother, Joseph James Smith, who passed in 1992, two and a half months after birth. "Walk softly. Our dream lies here," the infant's headstone says.
Satterfield's grave was more elusive. An hourlong search of the Johnson-St. Paul Cemetery in Hampton turned up no resting place. It is much easier to find info on the alleged bad actors than the victims.
Beach rests across the street and down the road from the church. She loved animals, as evidenced by the paw prints sauntering across her white marble gravestone. A stone pup sleeps in front, with other animal tributes.
Her penchant for critters is what drew us to the Beaufort boutique to begin with. Two sources, both of them mothers conveying their daughters' words, independently told me Beach worked at It's Retail Therapy, and that after her death, the boutique had sold T-shirts for an eponymous nonprofit created in her honor: Mal's Palz, which raises money for animal shelters
We hadn't banked on encountering Doughty, and it's easy to see why she was so perturbed by our visit. Foolish doesn't begin to describe how I felt upon figuring out who she was.
Of course, you don't just bounce back from a devastating boat wreck that steals your friend and becomes a puzzle piece in state and federal investigations involving your dead ex-boyfriend's powerful family. Residents linked only geographically are reeling. Imagine being one degree of separation.
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