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Murdaugh shootings yield misconduct claim, conflicting accounts and more questions

Events unraveling around two unsolved slayings in South Carolina only scratches the surface of a winding saga embroiling the Murdaughs, a prominent legal family.

In the wooded darkness, deputies in South Carolina's coastal Lowcountry cut across the sprawling hunting lodge property known by locals as Moselle. There, on the night of June 7, they uncovered a grisly murder scene: a mother and son shot multiple times, their lifeless bodies lying on the ground near the family's dog kennels.

A frantic 911 call had been placed by Alex Murdaugh, a personal injury attorney, at 10:07 p.m. His voice quivered as he told a dispatcher that his wife, Margaret, and son, Paul, were not breathing.

"I've been gone," Alex Murdaugh said. "I just came back."

"It's bad."

The incident, later classified by state investigators as a double homicide, remains unsolved three months later. Furthermore, the unanswered questions around the slayings have only scratched the surface of a winding saga embroiling the Murdaughs, a well-connected and prominent legal family that exerted power for nearly a century in southeastern South Carolina, and put a deeper focus on scion Alex Murdaugh.

From left, Paul, Margaret and Alex Murdaugh.via Facebook

Adding to the tragedy was the death — just days after Paul and Margaret "Maggie" Murdaugh were killed — of Alex Murdaugh's 81-year-old father, family patriarch Randolph Murdaugh III, a retired top prosecutor of the state's 14th Circuit.

After weeks of intrigue, the case drew fresh scrutiny on Saturday, when Alex Murdaugh called 911 to say he had been shot in a roadside attack in rural Hampton County. Another investigation was opened and it was revealed this week that Alex Murdaugh's own law firm is accusing him of mishandling money, leading to the indefinite suspension of his law license.

That's only part of a story that remains as murky and mysterious as the Lowcountry's swampy waters.

'What the hell is going on'

The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division has given no indication that the shootings of Margaret Murdaugh, 52, and Paul, 22, are directly connected to that of Alex Murdaugh, 53.

Investigators have shared few details and named no suspects or persons of interest or a possible motive in either of the incidents, saying they don't want to jeopardize the cases.

The apparent narrative has only grown more convoluted since police are remaining tight-lipped.

Initially, Jim Griffin, a family friend and attorney, told news outlets that Alex Murdaugh was driving his late wife's black Mercedes-Benz SUV when he pulled over because of a flat tire and a pickup truck passed by, turned around and approached him. Then someone inside opened fire.

Griffin said he spoke with Alex Murdaugh's brother, Randolph Murdaugh IV, who works for the same law firm founded by the family's patriarch, and told him that his brother was able to make a phone call and continued to use his phone from his hospital bed in Charleston.

"It makes you wonder what the hell is going on," Griffin said.

The following day, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division clarified that Murdaugh's injury was a "superficial" gunshot to the head and he was actually flown to Memorial Health University Medical Center in Savannah, Georgia. A family spokesperson said he was expected to recover.

On Monday, Alex Murdaugh released a vague statement that he was resigning from his job at the law firm Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick to enter rehab.

"The murders of my wife and son have caused an incredibly difficult time in my life," he said, adding, "I am immensely sorry to everyone I've hurt including my family, friends and colleagues."

Hours later, the law firm released its own statement, clarifying that Alex Murdaugh had only resigned after the partners discovered he had allegedly misappropriated funds. It’s unclear how much money Murdaugh is accused of taking and how it was used, and the law firm declined further comment.

Randolph Murdaugh IV said in a statement that he was "shocked" along with his colleagues to learn of his brother's drug addiction and the accusations of stolen money.

Conflicting accounts emerged Thursday when the Hampton County Sheriff's Office initially released a report of the roadside shooting that indicated police saw "no visible injury" to Alex Murdaugh.

But following questions over the inconsistency, the agency said it corrected the report to specify that an injury was visible.

In addition, Griffin provided further details to The Island Packet on Thursday, telling the newspaper that Alex Murdaugh was driving when he noticed an indicator light showed he had a low tire on his car, he got out and encountered a man in a blue pickup truck who ended up shooting him.

Griffin had also told NBC News that Alex Murdaugh had gotten a good look at the shooter and met with a sketch artist. He told The Island Packet he would meet with investigators again once he completes a first phase of detox.

Griffin pushed back at rumors that the gunshot wound was self-inflicted.

"I don't think you choose to have a flat tire or stage a flat tire to commit suicide. That makes no sense," he said. "There are many things (being reported) that are incongruent."

A family spokesperson remained adamant Friday that the shooting was not staged, saying there was an entry and exit wound and Alex Murdaugh's skull had been fractured.

"We know that [the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division] is continuing to work diligently to find this person and the person or people that murdered Maggie and Paul Murdaugh," the spokesperson said.

The agency did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday about the latest in its investigation.

'Rumors are abundant'

At the time of Paul Murdaugh's killing, he was facing trial in connection with the death of a teenage woman in a boat crash in early 2019.

Six young people, including Paul Murdaugh, were on a boat owned by Alex Murdaugh when it slammed into a piling below a bridge near Parris Island in Beaufort County at 2:20 a.m. Paul Murdaugh was believed to have been driving, according to police records.

One of the passengers — Mallory Beach, 19 — was reportedly sitting on her boyfriend's lap when she was flung off the boat from the impact.

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.

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.

Paul Murdaugh had 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.

In the aftermath of Paul and Margaret Murdaugh's killings in June, as people began tying together the threads connecting the family with Beach's death, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division acknowledged in a statement that "everyone has questions and rumors are abundant."

It's unclear whether investigators believe there are any links between the fallout from Beach's death and the shootings.

Last month, state prosecutors officially dropped all charges against Paul Murdaugh as a matter of protocol. The wrongful death suit remains ongoing.

Beach's death led some to ask if a member of the Murdaugh family accused in a crime could be held accountable — or would they manage to evade responsibility.

It's "a sad case," David Lauderdale, a longtime columnist for The Beaufort Gazette, wrote in 2019, "because it immediately raised a jarring question: Is justice possible?"

'Stephen's had no justice'

Following the unsolved slayings of Paul and Margaret Murdaugh, state law enforcement officials also said they were opening an inquiry into the death of another young person "based upon information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation."

Stephen Smith was 19 when he was found dead on a rural road in Hampton County in 2015.

Investigators had said at the time that it appeared Smith was hit by a vehicle while standing outside of his car when it had run out of gas, reported NBC affiliate WCBD in Charleston.

But initially, according to an investigator's report obtained by The Island Packet, Smith was found with a "defensive wound" on his hand and a homicide investigation was opened. However, the case became jumbled when a medical examiner later wrote in a report that Smith's cause of death was actually being struck in the head by a car mirror, part of an apparent hit and run.

But no glass or debris from a car was found where Smith's body was or in the immediate area, The Island Packet reported.

Meanwhile, South Carolina Highway Patrol investigators said they received tips that Paul Murdaugh's older brother, Buster, may have been connected. One investigator attempted to contact Buster Murdaugh, but it's unclear the extent of any conversations and state investigators have declined to discuss the case.

Buster Murdaugh and Smith reportedly graduated in 2014 from the same high school. His body was found about 15 miles from the Murdaugh's Moselle estate.

No member of the Murdaugh family has been directly named as being involved in Smith's death. A family spokesperson did not immediately respond Friday to a request for comment.

But Smith's mother, Sandy, has long maintained there's more to the story and believes her son was beaten and the victim of foul play.

"The way his body was laying in the road, with his arm dislocated and bent back behind his body, I just don't believe that he was struck by the mirror of a vehicle," she said in 2015.

News of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division's new investigation was heartening, she told ABC affiliate WCIV in June.

"We've been waiting on this forever," Sandy Smith said. "Stephen's always been put on the back burner. It's like nobody's looking for answers. Stephen's had no justice."

Anthony Cusumano, Haylee Barber, Allison Burstein, Alan Cohen and Carol Gable contributed.