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Fatal shooting of mother, son highlights legacy of powerful South Carolina dynasty

The swift losses of three members of the Murdaugh family have left a community reeling and investigators searching for a motive for why two of them were killed.
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For nearly a century, fathers of three generations of the Murdaugh family wielded power as South Carolina's top prosecutor for a cluster of counties in a swampy coastal region known as the Lowcountry.

But their name recognition and long-standing esteem came under scrutiny two years ago, when one of the younger family members, Paul Murdaugh, was indicted and was awaiting trial in connection with the death of a teenage woman killed in a boat crash.

Then, tragedy unfolded last week on the Murdaughs' rural estate and hunting lodge in Colleton County: On the night of June 7, the bodies of Paul, 22, and his mother, Margaret, 52, were found shot to death and left near dog kennels on the property. The Colleton County coroner said Monday that they were struck multiple times; state investigators classified the case as a double homicide.

Paul Murdaugh and his mother, Margaret "Maggie" Murdaugh.
Paul Murdaugh and his mother, Margaret "Maggie" Murdaugh.via Facebook

Three days later, the family patriarch, Randolph Murdaugh III — Paul's grandfather and Maggie's father-in-law — died at his residence at 81. His law firm, Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, gave no cause of death and did not immediately respond to a request for comment. A state lawmaker said last week that Murdaugh had been in intensive care when she asked for prayers for the family on the Senate floor before his death was announced.

The swift losses of three members of such a prominent and well-connected legal dynasty have left a community reeling and investigators searching for a motive for why they became apparent targets now. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, which is overseeing the case, has released few details, and it did not immediately respond to a request for comment Monday.

The family's fingerprints have been on countless cases tied to the legal system in the Lowcountry. The State newspaper of Columbia noted in 2019 that they helped to put thousands of people in prison and sent more than a dozen to death row and that "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."

Randolph Murdaugh III's dedication to public service and the family's lineage were celebrated at his funeral Sunday, including how he; his father, Randolph "Buster" Murdaugh Jr.; and a grandfather, Randolph Murdaugh Sr., carried on a legacy as lawyers and were all elected to the same office of solicitor.

"For 87 consecutive years, three generations of the Murdaugh family served as Solicitor of the 14th Circuit," his funeral program said, according to The Island Packet newspaper of Hilton Head. "This 87 years of service in one office, by the same family, is the longest in the history of the United States."

A vehicle sits in the driveway of a home on June 8, 2021, in rural Colleton County, near Islandton, S.C.
A home in rural Colleton County, near Islandton, S.C., on June 8. A woman and her son from a prominent South Carolina legal family were shot dead on the family's land.Andrew J. Whitaker / AP

Randolph Murdaugh III served five terms as solicitor, running unopposed, before he retired in 2005 and returned to his law practice, which includes two of his sons.

"In three years, I'd be too damn old," Murdaugh said when he announced that he was stepping down.

In 2018, Gov. Henry McMaster bestowed one of the state's highest civilian honors, the Order of the Palmetto, on Randolph Murdaugh III.

"I am a fortunate man, there is no question about that," Murdaugh said during the ceremony, joined by his wife, Elizabeth, and other family members. "If I have had any success in my life it is because I had good help and support."

McMaster, appearing Tuesday on Fox News, said authorities were "working around the clock" to follow all leads. "It's just tragedy after tragedy and we hope to get to the bottom of it and find those responsible for these two slayings," he said.

Randolph Murdaugh III oversaw trials for serious crimes, including rape and murder. Those who knew him said he was a likable and loyal family man.

"I do not know anyone in my life who loved their family more than Randolph Murdaugh," Perry Buckner, a retired 14th Circuit judge, was reported to have said at his funeral.

Buckner said Murdaugh once told him how much he enjoyed having his grandchildren stay at his residence while his son Alex, a part-time prosecutor in the solicitor's 14th Circuit office, and his daughter-in-law Margaret were remodeling their home.

The family's powerful connections and accusations of special treatment were in the spotlight in early 2019, when one of their own was accused of causing a death during a night of underage drinking.

Six people were on a boat owned by Alex Murdaugh, including his son, Paul, who is believed to have been driving at some point, according to police records. The boat slammed into a piling below a bridge, and the passengers, ages 18 to 20, were ejected.

One of them — Mallory Beach, 19 — was not immediately found. Her body was discovered seven days later.

A police report said the teens were "grossly intoxicated." Beach's family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the Murdaughs and the convenience store chain that was alleged to have sold the alcohol. The suit was continuing as of last week.

Local reports after the boat crash said that the Murdaugh family did not initially cooperate with law enforcement agencies' investigation and that officers never gave Paul Murdaugh an alcohol breath test, according to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, which led the investigation. Murdaugh pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of boating under the influence. He had been out on a personal recognizance bond of $50,000 at the time of his death.

The State Law Enforcement Division acknowledged in a statement last week that "everyone has questions and rumors are abundant" in the deaths of Paul and Margaret Murdaugh, but it said, "We cannot and will not do anything that could jeopardize the integrity of this investigation and thus feel it is inappropriate to comment on specifics while this investigation is ongoing."

An attorney for the Beach family also extended their sympathies to the Murdaughs — noting how tragedy had intertwined both families yet again.

"Having suffered the devastating loss of their own daughter, the family prays that the Murdaughs can find some level of peace from this tragic loss," a statement said. "It is their most sincere hope that someone will come forward and cooperate with authorities so that the perpetrator of these senseless crimes can be brought to justice."