Disgraced South Carolina legal scion Alex Murdaugh will remain behind bars pending trial — at least for now — on charges connected to the alleged theft of millions of dollars earmarked for the family of his former housekeeper.
Acquiescing to a request from Murdaugh’s alleged victims and not from prosecutors themselves, Judge Clifton Newman denied requests from both prosecutors and from Murdaugh’s own defense team to allow the former attorney to again remain free on some form of bond.
Prosecutors sought a surety bond of $200,000, GPS monitoring, the surrender of any Murdaugh firearms, and a requirement that Murdaugh seek approval from the state before embarking upon any travel.
“We do believe that Mr. Murdaugh is a danger,” the state argued. “A man who’s a danger to himself is a danger to others.”
Murdaugh’s defense sought a personal recognizance bond with no money involved but did concede that Murdaugh should be required to submit to random drug tests.
Though the purpose of the hearing was to determine whether the recently re-arrested Murdaugh would be released on bond, the hearing veered considerably into the facts of the new allegations against the heir to a legal dynasty.
Murdaugh is charged with obtaining property by false pretenses in the death of Gloria Satterfield. He was previously charged in mid-September with filing a false police report of a felony, insurance fraud, and criminal conspiracy to commit insurance fraud in connection with an alleged plot to have a former client kill him by the side of the road. The former client, Curtis Edward Smith, has denied involvement. Months before the roadside incident, Murdaugh said he found his wife Margaret “Maggie” Murdaugh, 52, and son Paul Murdaugh, 22, shot dead on the family’s property (an attorney for Alex Murdaugh acknowledged last week that his client is considered a person of interest in the double homicide).
“She was their housekeeper for twenty plus years,” the prosecutor said of Satterfield. “She helped raise those children,” he added with reference to Murdaugh’s two sons — one of whom is now dead.
Despite the kinship between the Murdaugh and the Satterfield families, authorities allege that Gloria Satterfield’s fatal Feb. 2, 2018 fall at Murdaugh’s property on Moselle Road in Colleton County, S.C., turned into an excuse for Murdaugh to enrich himself. Satterfield died in the hospital on Feb. 26, 2018 as a result of the fall.
Murdaugh approached Satterfield’s family at her funeral and allegedly blamed his family’s dogs for causing the incident, prosecutors said in court. Authorities have previously alleged that Murdaugh invited the family to initiate legal proceedings against him. Murdaugh allegedly recommended the lawyer the Satterfield family would use to handle the matter on their own behalf.
“He absolutely used his position, his prestige, his reputation as a lawyer to steal from this family,” a prosecutor said after Murdaugh’s own attorneys claimed their client never functioned as an attorney for himself or for the Satterfield family in connection with the wrongful death claim. “They trusted him because they knew his reputation as a lawyer. They listened to him when he took them to Mr. Fleming.”
Attorney Cory Fleming was involved with the alleged scheme, prosecutors said in court. The state supreme court recently suspended Fleming’s license.
Prosecutors said Murdaugh concocted a scheme whereby his various insurance policies — a core slip-and-fall policy and a broader umbrella policy — would fork over settlements which Murdaugh eventually hid. First came a $500,000 settlement under the former, which prosecutors said Murdaugh pocketed via a phony bank account which Murdaugh set up bearing part of the name of what otherwise was a legitimate company which engages in structured settlements in South Carolina.
“It appears this account was nothing more than an illusion, a fabrication in order to create the illusion that these checks that he was getting in various settlements were going to a legitimate settlement consultant when in reality they were going into an account that he controlled,” prosecutors said of Murdaugh and his suspicious bank account.
From the phony account, Murdaugh drew the money back into his own account, prosecutors alleged.
After the initial $500,000 settlement, Fleming negotiated a $3.8 million settlement from Murdaugh’s umbrella policy, prosecutors continued. They calculated the total at play as being somewhere around approximately $4,305,000.
“$2.7 million is supposed to go to these boys back here,” a prosecutor said while gesturing toward Satterfield’s heirs and relatives.
However, the prosecution noted that “the disbursements make no sense whatsoever” and that the case was still under heavy investigation.
“The reality is — is that $2.9 million went into that forged account that Mr. Murdaugh controlled; and within a few months he had transferred all of that money for personal use,” the state continued.
In other words, Murdaugh is accused of sparking a legal action, steering the plaintiffs to one of his close friends, and gleaning millions from insurance companies for himself — not for the family of the woman who was harmed.
Murdaugh is alleged to have used the money to pay off a $100,000 credit card debt, to give $300,000 to his father, and various amounts to himself — including one check for $610,000 and another for $125,000.
“Not a dime goes to this family back here,” the prosecutor said, again pointing to Satterfield’s heirs. “He had . . . almost three million dollars that should have gone to this family.”
“He had all that money,” the prosecutor continued. “He absconded with that money. He transferred into this personal accounts, and he used it for his own personal use.”
Prosecutors then referenced a questionable $118,000 check that Fleming allegedly sent to Murdaugh’s phony account that is not the subject of a current criminal case. However, that check remains under close review by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED).
“This is the tip of the iceberg,” the prosecutor told the judge. “This is an ongoing investigation, and I think there’s going to be far more that we’re going to reveal as we review these records.”
Authorities made clear, however, that they were entirely comfortable moving forward with the current two charges Murdaugh faces given their faith in the evidence they so far claim to have unraveled.
The defense balked at the level of detail the prosecution provided.
Defense attorney Dick Harpootlian reminded the judge that Murdaugh was presumed innocent and that the state’s theory contained mere allegations; however, he admitted that the defense “anticipated further charges” and made a plan for Murdaugh to surrender himself while he was undergoing drug rehabilitation out of state.
“They did not take us up on to have him come up on his own steam and surrender himself,” Harpootlian said while scoffing at SLED’s decision to arrest his client “without giving us heads up.”
“He’s really got nowhere to go” and has lived in South Carolina “his entire life,” Harpootlian said while arguing Murdaugh wasn’t a flight risk.
The defense blamed the allegations on a decade-long addiction to “Oxycontin and other opioids” and said some of the money Murdaugh is accused of stealing went to “fuel” that addiction.
“He is off of those,” Harpootlian said of the drugs and his client. “He has just completed almost six weeks of detox and treatment at an addiction center — two different centers.”
He said Murdaugh hoped to continue treatment but was arrested instead. He admitted his client suffered from an “opioid-addled mental condition” and had “asked somebody to shoot him in the head.”
But when it came time to discuss bond, the defense said the government’s request for a surety bond would “waste some of those assets” the state was so worried about.
“He regrets his conduct,” defense attorney Jim Griffin said of Murdaugh.
Eric Bland, an attorney for Satterfield descendants and heirs, slammed Murdaugh when given a chance to speak.
“Alex Murdaugh stained our profession,” Bland said. “He also put a black eye on this state.”
Bland refuted the defense’s attempt to incessantly characterize the well-heeled Murdaugh as a drug addict:
If he’s an opioid addict for 20 years, how is it that he tried cases? How is it he appeared before judges like you? How is it that he worked with his partners in representing clients? I do not believe that is the case. He his a clear and present danger to the citizens of this state and to my family. This is a man that used a gun on Labor Day weekend. This is a man that used a pen to steal $3.3 million with another $118,000 that’s potentially going to be charged. It’s no different that somebody walking into a bank and using a gun. We need to make sure that when somebody steals with a pen it’s the same as if they’re stealing with a gun.
“He is a financial risk to the victims of his crimes as well as to the citizens of this state,” Bland continued.
“Today is the day that Alex Murdaugh needs to get comfortable getting uncomfortable,” Bland said in another argument in favor the defendant’s culpability. “This is a crime of a lawyer stealing money. My partner and I have been doing legal malpractice for 30 years, and we have never seen such a breach of trust. A man who stole money from the very family of the housekeeper that helped raise his kids. This is a crime that we’ve never seen before.”
“I want him not to have a bond,” Bland said when asked by the judge precisely what should be done at this juncture in the case. “I would love it if this man was locked up and he couldn’t harm anybody else.”
Bland said that if Murdaugh were to be allowed out on bond, he would request the court ban Murdaugh from performing financial transactions without the court’s permission and a court order that would allow the Satterfield estate from serving Murdaugh with legal processes on his property.
“He stole,” Bland said in conclusion. “He’s a liar, and he’s a cheat.”
Another attorney for the Satterfield heirs accused Murdaugh of moving money connected to the death settlement “in open violation” of a previous court order. That attorney also said Murdaugh surrendered his financial attorney to his surviving son Buster Murdaugh — thus complicating the matters further.
The attorneys for the Satterfield heirs then noted that Murdaugh was accused of stealing $10 million “more or less” from his own law firm — and yet the firm claimed on its website that its clients had been made whole from the losses. The lawyers said they had not been made whole — suggesting that the firm’s statement was inaccurate — and suggested that Murdaugh’s high-profile friends stepped in to pay off those from whom he stole money.
Harpootlian countered that Murdaugh was not a lawyer in the Satterfield matter but rather was a defendant. The defense blamed the lawyers who did handle the case for anything that went wrong.
“He was not active as an attorney,” the defense said of Murdaugh.
That led from a powerful rebuke from prosecutors who alleged that Murdaugh concocted and directed the alleged scheme. Bland then said that certain settlement documents were signed by Murdaugh himself, not by an attorney on Murdaugh’s behalf. He also alleged that Murdaugh dictated to the Satterfield family’s original lawyer — presumably Fleming — how to handle the case.
The South Carolina Supreme Court suspended Murdaugh’s law license.
When it came time to issue a decision, Judge Newman noted that under South Carolina law, a defendant is entitled to a bond unless he is a danger to himself or to the community. Among the issues a judge may consider are a defendant’s mental condition.
Newman called Murdaugh’s financial transactions “reckless” while outlining the alleged attempt by Murdaugh to end his own life and the defendant’s alleged lengthy use of drugs.
The judge said the “safety issues” that were “present” in this case made the defense and the prosecution requests for some form of bond too lenient. He insinuated that the myriad schemes Murdaugh has been accused of committing made him a danger to the community at large. For that reason, Murdaugh needed to be incarcerated for the time being.
“There’s no way this court can set a bond a this time,” Judge Newman said. “I am therefore denying bond.”
He also required a psychiatric evaluation for Murdaugh to be provided by the defense.
After court, Harpootlian said the defense hoped to have a report for the judge “sometime next week.” The judge’s bond determination may be reconsidered from there.
Harpootlian said accusations that Murdaugh was selling off property to hide assets were inaccurate. He again lashed out at Fleming for mishandling the process — claiming Murdaugh is not the only person who should be examined closely by authorities.
[Image via WYFF screengrab]
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