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They’re Already Making a TV Show About the Bizarre Murdaugh Family Mysteries

An image of the conspiracy board from 'It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia'

If you are a true crime aficionado, you are living through one of the absolute strangest and wildest sagas that continues to unfold in real-time. What’s happening with the Murdaugh family of South Carolina and their surrounding Lowcountry community is so off the wall its events sound far-fetched even for a TV drama.

But as the media frenzy grows and public curiosity intensifies—and new revelations seemingly come every day—a TV show it shall be. Deadline broke the news that HBO already has a Murdaugh documentary in the works with Campfire Studios, the folks behind the WeWork and Heaven’s Gate docuseries. The production intends to “embed” itself amongst the region’s locals and record the ever-evolving events, and it has the snappy working title of Murdaugh Family Mysteries.

I think it’s only a matter of time before we also see the Murdaugh cases spring up in more fictionalized movies, TV dramas, and books. I can already hear the tap-tap-tapping of screenplays and literary proposals at keyboards across the country.

You may be new to the Murdaugh drama, or perhaps only saw it after the truly mind-boggling events over Labor Day weekend. As someone who’s been following this a bit obsessively for months, I’ll summarize the main points if you’re just joining us. You may want to sit down, because we’re in for a bumpy ride.

The Murdaugh family is a hugely influential “legal dynasty” in South Carolina whose family members served as solicitors (the chief prosecuting agency) for the 14th Circuit for more than 100 years. In that time, they appear to have cultivated massive amounts of power and influence—and by some accounts, fear—not to mention making a lot of money. I’ve seen the five-county circuit of courts the Murdaughs had an iron grip over referred to as “Murdaugh country,” with lawyers allegedly scrambling to move their cases elsewhere or fast settling because of the Murdaughs’ perceived sway.

While it’s clear there were some apparent longstanding issues with the Murdaugh clan—as will be the case in many a century-spanning “dynasty”—events began to move swiftly toward tragedy and chaos for one branch of the family: Richard Alexander “Alex” Murdaugh, a 53-year-old lawyer in the family firm, his wife Maggie, and their two sons Buster and Paul.

In 2019, Paul Murdaugh, then 19, was allegedly drunkenly driving a boat that crashed into a bridge and resulted in the tragic death of passenger Mallory Beach, also 19. Outcry arose thereafter over perceptions that Paul was escaping consequences and allegations that his family was using their influence with law enforcement to deflect the blame from Paul, obstruct justice, and cast suspicion onto others. Paul was eventually charged with three felony counts, plead not guilty, and was set to face a trial. There was also a pending civil case from the Beach family, and a hearing for that had been scheduled for mid-June 2021.

This was scandalous enough, although sadly all too par for the course as to how “justice” can work in America when it comes to money and power. But then on June 7th, 2021, three days before the Beach wrongful death hearing was set to take place, Paul Murdaugh and his mother Maggie were found murdered by firearm at the sprawling family hunting estate. They were killed with different guns, a detail many armchair sleuths have latched upon as curious, and their bodies were discovered by Alex Murdaugh, Paul’s father and Maggie’s husband. Adding to the Murdaugh family sorrows, less than a week after the shocking murders, Alex’s father Randolph Murdaugh III died of natural causes at 81.

For months thereafter, almost no official information about the double murders was disclosed and outside of local circles, the case was often presented as a haunting, dead-end mystery. There was seeming speculation that Paul and Maggie Murdaugh could have been killed as revenge for alleged past actions by Paul or other Murdaughs. Everything seemed set to full-on maximum “Southern Gothic” overdrive, and imaginations ran wild, even though much of this eerie speculation seemed baseless.

But the mysteries and connections to further deaths kept growing. The police announced they were reopening the investigation into the death of Stephen Smith, 19, who died in 2015 by a roadside in a “controversial homicide” eventually ruled a hit and run. Authorities had apparently discovered some kind of connection between Smith’s death and the Murdaugh murders.

Also allegedly looked at further was the 2017 death of 57-year-old Murdaugh housekeeper Gloria Satterfield, who died after a “trip and fall” accident at a Murdaugh house. The Murdaughs settled a wrongful death case (Alex was named as the defendant) with her family.

And finally, in late August 2021, 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone (who holds a role previously held by Murdaughs for generations, and worked under Murdaughs himself) recused himself for undisclosed reasons from the case of the Murdaugh killings. He had previously resisted calls to do so.

Needless to say, the questions and tragedies surrounding one of the most well-known families in South Carolina produced much ongoing interest and media coverage.

Then, last weekend, things got really weird. It was widely reported that Alex Murdaugh told police he had been shot in the head by an unknown assailant while he was working on a flat tire on a rural country road. Alex relayed that a truck had driven past him, then returned; he was asked if he was having car trouble, and then by his account, someone shot him in the head.

Alex was airlifted to a Georgia hospital, where his wound was later found to be “superficial.” It’s now reported that there may not have even been a wound, as the police report initially said there were “no visible injuries” (this was then rescinded as a mistake). By contrast, Alex’s lawyer asserts that his client’s injuries were substantial and also that an unidentified “Good Samaritan” helped him thereafter. He denies speculation that the injuries could have been self-inflicted. Further unconfirmed reports have alleged that the knife used to slash the car tires was tied to Alex Murdaugh.

But wait, there’s more! A lot more. After the shooting story made headline news, it emerged that Alex had resigned as a partner the day before from P.M.P.E.D., the law firm his family founded, after the firm told him he was suspected of stealing funds. The firm has now reported those allegations to the police. By some unconfirmed reports, the amount of money Alex is alleged to have embezzled numbers in the millions, even tens of millions of dollars.

Following this news becoming public, Alex Murdaugh (through his lawyer) issued an apology for his behavior and anyone he may have hurt, announced that he was suffering from an addiction “exacerbated” by the murders, and checked himself into rehab. On Wednesday, the S.C. Supreme Court officially suspended his ability to practice law.

Given this rapid-fire series of events, intense national speculation is now directed at Alex Murdaugh. On Murdaugh mystery-centric forums on sites like Reddit, many wonder as to the extent of his possible criminality and whether these newly revealed aspects of his life could be tied to the murder of his family members or other deaths.

The police in charge of the investigation(s) are staying tight-lipped and refusing further comment. This makes sense, due to what’s no doubt a sensitive, confusing, and all-but-unprecedented set of circumstances. But some of law enforcement’s recent actions have further fueled speculation and theoretical frenzy from Internet denizens.

Much of the internet chatter goes like this: Did Alex’s car have special “run-flat” tires that can actually drive on a flat, and if so, why did he stop on the road? If Alex was really shot as he claimed, why was no description of the alleged shooter and their vehicle released for the public? One would imagine if there was a verifiable report of an apparent armed vigilante in a pickup truck out to kill Alex Murdaugh, we would at least have heard what color truck it was. But trying to make sense out of what is happening with the Murdaughs feels like a losing game at this point; the playing field and all the rules keep shifting.

It’s hard to discuss the Murdaugh case without feeling like the Always Sunny conspiracy meme featured above, and it’s likely going to get even more complicated from here on out.

The only thing that’s crystal clear is we have an unraveling situation with at least five tragic deaths in the mix that involves an old and monied family. Now, even more complicated financial matters, and possibly substance abuse, are entering in. No matter the eventual outcome of the Murdaugh saga, it seems inevitable that it will go down as one of the most notorious crime stories in modern American history. We should probably expect to see a lot of it on our screens moving forward.

(image: FX)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.