CHARLESTON, S.C. (CN) — South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh was drowning in debt even as he stole millions of dollars from law clients and occasionally earned seven-figure bonuses from his family’s century-old law firm, according to witnesses.
The 54-year-old defendant’s dire financial straits were detailed in testimony from former colleagues and a bank official, among others. State prosecutors claim the disbarred attorney gunned down his wife and son in a desperate bid to avert professional disaster as colleagues at his family’s firm raised questions about missing legal fees.
Jurors have not learned about the alleged motive, however. The witnesses testified Thursday and Friday outside the jury’s presence as Colleton County Judge Clifton Newman decides whether the evidence is admissible in the double-murder case.
The judge did not make a decision as the second week of trial came to a conclusion. Murdaugh’s defense attorneys argue the testimony will prejudice their client while further complicating an already dizzying case.
Maggie Murdaugh and her 22-year-old son, Paul, were shot to death the night of June 7, 2021, near a dog kennel at the family’s 1,772-acre hunting estate in unincorporated Colleton County.
A shotgun slug to Paul’s head splattered his blood and brains across the kennel’s feed room. The 52-year-old mother was shot five times with a .300 blackout rifle, a powerful weapon common for hunting wild hogs.
Murdaugh called 911 shortly after 10 p.m. to report finding the bodies. He cradled a shotgun when Colleton County sheriff’s deputies arrived on the scene. He said he grabbed the weapon from the main house after finding the bodies.
Murdaugh told investigators he last saw his loved ones alive when they ate dinner together. He said he took a nap and then drove to his parent’s house, but a cellphone video recovered from Paul’s phone undermined the attorney’s alibi.
The video was recorded at 8:44 p.m. at the kennels — only minutes before the victims stopped answering their text messages, evidence shows. Family friends testified Wednesday that the defendant can be heard in the recording talking about a bird one of the dogs killed.
Another video Paul Murdaugh recorded shortly before 8 p.m. showed Alex Murdaugh wearing different clothing than what he wore when deputies arrived on the scene 2 ½ hours later, suggesting he changed his clothing.
Murdaugh told investigators he went to his Hampton law office the day of the murders, but he was vague about what he did there. On Thursday, the firm’s chief financial officer, Jeanne Seckinger, testified that she confronted the defendant that day about a nearly $800,000 legal fee that was supposed to have been deposited in the firm’s account.
At the time, Seckinger said she was concerned Murdaugh was trying to hide the money from attorneys suing the family in connection to a 2019 boat crash. Seckinger said the conversation about the missing fee ended when Murdaugh got a phone call learning his father was terminally ill.
She continued to investigate, however, and learned that Murdaugh’s friend and co-counsel in the case, Chris Wilson, wrote the check payable to Murdaugh rather than the law firm. By September, the firm learned the missing legal fee was only the tip of the iceberg. An investigation revealed Murdaugh stole nearly $9 million from clients over at least a decade.
“Whenever there was an opportunity, he did it,” the witness affirmed.
Wilson testified his former college roommate told him the firm knew he was taking the money to place into an annuity. The Bamberg attorney wasn’t familiar with the investment instrument,, but he trusted his longtime friend, he said.
On Sept. 3, Murdaugh’s brother, Randy, and another partner in the firm confronted him about the thefts, Seckinger said. He initially asked to be placed on leave, but eventually agreed to resign from the firm.
Wilson said he confronted Murdaugh on Sept. 4 outside his parent’s home after he learned about the thefts. Murdaugh broke down in tears, Wilson said, and confessed he “shit up” his friend, among many others, to feed a 20-year opioid addiction, Wilson testified.
“I loved the guy for so long,” he said. “I probably still love him a little — but I was so mad.”
Hours later, Murdaugh would be shot in the head and flown to a hospital in Savannah, Georgia. Wilson assumed his friend tried to kill himself, he testified. Seckinger told the judge she was scared it was retaliation.
“Was he involved in something bigger that was going to get more of us in trouble?” she said.
Authorities say the truth was stranger. Murdaugh initially claimed someone shot him as he changed a tire on a rural road, but he confessed days later he hired an associate to shoot him in a botched insurance fraud scheme. Murdaugh wanted to die so his surviving son, Buster, could collect from his life insurance policy, he told investigators.
Wilson said his friend was well-respected at the family’s law firm and regularly involved in big cases. Seckinger testified that partners at the firm earned a base annual salary of $125,000 on top of a year-end bonus based on the fees they earned that year. In some years, Murdaugh earned bonuses exceeding $1 million, she testified.
Murdaugh’s finances were deep in the red even as he racked up wins in the courtroom. Jan Malinowski, CEO and president of Palmetto State Bank, testified Friday the institution began to investigate its relationship with Murdaugh in August. At that time, the attorney owed the bank $4.2 million, he said.
Despite his perilous finances, Murdaugh had a friend at the bank: Russell Laffitte. The bank’s former president was convicted in November of violating federal banking laws for shifting money between accounts to hide his favorite client’s thefts.
After the bank began investigating Murdaugh’s finances, Laffitte deposited more than $400,000 into Murdaugh’s bank account to cover a $350,000 overdraft, Malinowski said.
“Perhaps the most generous overdraft policy I’ve ever seen,” state prosecutor Creighton Waters said.
“Quite possibly,” Malinowski responded.
Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian argued Thursday there was no logical connection between Murdaugh’s disastrous financial situation and the murders. Rather than disrupt the investigations into his finances, the murders put his client in “the bullseye’s circle.”
Waters said Murdaugh's fear that the financial crimes would be exposed, as well as his profligate spending, helped explain how a man could commit such heinous crimes. His back was against the wall when he staged his own murder — just as it was when his wife and son were gunned down.
“When Hannibal’s at the gate for Alex Murdaugh – violence happens,” he said.
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