Alex Murdaugh arranged for a man to kill him in a conspiracy to collect $10 million in life insurance for his son, authorities say
Madeline Holcombe, Gregory Lemos and Eric Levenson, CNN
(CNN) — A prominent South Carolina lawyer whose wife and son were shot and killed three months ago arranged for a man to kill him so that his surviving son could collect a life insurance payout of about $10 million, authorities and his attorney said.
Alex Murdaugh, 53, was shot in the head on September 4 but survived. He admitted to the fraud scheme on Monday, according to an affidavit to support charges against the alleged gunman, 61-year-old Curtis Edward Smith.
Murdaugh, an attorney, is described as a co-defendant in the affidavit, though no charges have been announced against him.
On NBC’s “Today” on Wednesday, Murdaugh’s attorney Dick Harpootlian acknowledged the scheme, saying his client was in a “massive depression” due to the deaths of his wife, son and elderly father, as well as his struggles with opioid addiction. Murdaugh contacted authorities to admit to the conspiracy, Harpootlian said.
In a statement to CNN, attorneys Harpootlian and Jim Griffin said their client “is not without fault” but added “his life has been devastated by an opioid addiction.”
“For the last 20 years, there have been many people feeding his addiction to opioids,” the attorneys said. “During that time, these individuals took advantage of his addiction and his ability to pay substantial funds for illegal drugs. One of those individuals took advantage of his mental illness and agreed to take Alex’s life, by shooting him in the head.”
According to the affidavit, Murdaugh allegedly provided Smith, of Colleton County, with a firearm and told Smith to shoot him in the head. The purpose of the scheme was for Smith to kill Murdaugh so that his son could collect the life insurance payout, according to the affidavit.
Smith admitted Tuesday to being present at the shooting of Murdaugh and to disposing of the firearm, the affidavit said.
Smith has been charged with assisted suicide; conspiracy to commit insurance fraud; pointing and presenting a firearm; and assault and battery of a high and aggravated nature, according to a South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, or SLED.
Additional charges are expected in the case, SLED said. Smith has also been charged with the distribution of methamphetamine and possession of marijuana, according to SLED.
It’s not clear if Smith has retained legal counsel at this time.
The affidavit provides authorities’ explanation of one part of a sprawling mystery involving one of the most powerful family dynasties in coastal South Carolina. Murdaugh’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather all served as the 14th Circuit Solicitor, which leads prosecutions for Allendale, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties in the state, and Murdaugh was an attorney for a powerful local law firm.
More recently, though, the family has been embroiled in a series of bloody tragedies, including the fatal shootings of Murdaugh’s wife Margaret and son Paul in June. The killings have not been solved. The investigation into their deaths also led authorities to reopen the 2015 unsolved death of 19-year-old Stephen Smith in Hampton County.
On September 3, Murdaugh resigned from his law firm amid allegations he had misappropriated funds, and he was shot in the head the next day. Authorities initially described the injury as a “superficial gunshot wound to the head,” though Murdaugh’s attorneys said his skull was fractured in the shooting.
Afterward, Murdaugh called 911 to report he had been shot on a road in Hampton County, according to SLED, and he was taken to a hospital in Savannah, Georgia. A family spokesperson then issued a statement saying an unidentified man had shot Murdaugh.
“Alex pulled over after seeing a low tire indicator light. A male driver in a blue pick-up asked him if he had car troubles, as soon as Alex replied, he was shot,” the statement said.
Murdaugh attorney says he was depressed and suicidal
Harpootlian, Murdaugh’s attorney, said on “Today” that the murders of his wife and son “took a tremendous toll on him,” as did the death of his father at age 81 the same week.
“Most people couldn’t get through that. He got through it with the use of opioids,” Harpootlian said.
The revelation roughly two weeks ago that Murdaugh had misappropriated funds from his law firm Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth and Detrick (PMPED) collided with a self-initiated detox, which Harpootlian said sent Murdaugh into “a massive depression.”
Murdaugh “realized things were going to get very, very, very bad and he decided to end his life,” believing his life insurance policy had a suicide exclusion, his attorney said. Harpootlian said Murdaugh’s scheme “was an attempt on his part to do something to protect his child,” Buster, his eldest and only living child.
Harpootlian said he and attorney Jim Griffin visited Murdaugh Monday in an out-of-state detox facility.
“We actually had the first conversation we’ve ever had with him where he wasn’t on opioids or oxy. And as a result of that, he clearly knew what he had done was wrong,” Harpootlian said.
Harpootlian was adamant Murdaugh had nothing to do with the murder of his wife and son and denied there was any connection with that incident and his being shot in the head on the side of the road.
“Clearly he is distraught about their deaths but he did not murder them,” Harpootlian said, adding he does not think Murdaugh knows who did.
Harpootlian said he and other family attorneys are looking at another suspect whose motive “is personal. The motive would be personal.” Harpootlian said he fully expects Murdaugh will eventually be charged in the conspiracy case, but his client’s hope is that authorities will stay focused on solving the murder of his wife and son.
How we got here
The day before the shooting incident, Murdaugh had resigned from Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick (PMPED), according to the firm.
Days later, the firm said Murdaugh’s resignation came “after the discovery by PMPED that Alex misappropriated funds in violation of PMPED standards and policies.”
His license was subsequently suspended, according to the South Carolina Supreme Court.
Randy Murdaugh IV, Alex Murdaugh’s brother and also an attorney at PMPED law firm, released a statement about the resignation acknowledging what attorney Jim Griffin would later specify as Alex Murdaugh’s opioid addiction.
“I was shocked, just as the rest of my PMPED family, to learn of my brother, Alex’s, drug addiction and stealing of money,” Randy Murdaugh wrote in the statement.
SLED announced Monday that it has opened an investigation into Murdaugh based upon the misappropriation fund allegations.
Two days after the shooting, Murdaugh released a statement saying he was entering rehab.
“The murders of my wife and son have caused an incredibly difficult time in my life. I have made a lot of decisions that I truly regret,” he said in the statement. “I’m resigning from my law firm and entering rehab after a long battle that has been exacerbated by these murders. I am immensely sorry to everyone I’ve hurt including my family, friends and colleagues. I ask for prayers as I rehabilitate myself and my relationships.”
On June 7, Alex Murdaugh called 911 and reported he found his wife Margaret, 52, and son Paul, then 22, shot dead outside of their home in Islandton, a small community about an hour north of Hilton Head Island, according to the SLED.
Both victims had multiple gunshot wounds, Colleton County sheriff’s deputies determined.
His brothers, John Marvin Murdaugh and Randolph “Randy” Murdaugh IV, soon after spoke to ABC’s “Good Morning America” about the killings and said they did not believe Alex was involved.
“My brother loved Maggie and loved Paul like nothing else on this earth, just like he loves (his other son) Buster,” Randy said. “So, there’s no possible way he could have anything to do with this, I can assure you.”
SLED asked the public to withhold judgment until the investigation is complete.
While investigating the mother and son’s deaths, SLED gathered information that prompted them to reopen an investigation into the unsolved death of 19-year-old Stephen Smith, whose body was found in the road in 2015 in Hampton County, the agency said.