COLUMBIA, S.C. — A once-prominent South Carolina lawyer now faces 71 charges that he stole nearly $8.5 million in wrongful death and wreck settlements from more than a dozen people after another round of indictments against Alex Murdaugh were handed up Friday.
The 23 new charges issued by the state grand jury covered new victims but similar schemes, prosecutors said.
Murdaugh, 53, would negotiate settlement money for his clients without telling them what they earned, then deposit the checks meant to pay for their pain and suffering or the anguish of the death of a loved one into his own personal accounts — paying off loans or debts or in ways prosecutors have not detailed.
The new indictments extend Murdaugh’s crimes back more than a decade to 2011 and add a new mystery. Several of them said Murdaugh used money orders given to an unnamed family member to get his hands on the cash, prosecutors said.
Murdaugh has been in jail since October for the ever-growing list of breach of trust, forgery, money laundering and computer crime charges. A judge set his bail at $7 million and refused to reduce it, even as Murdaugh’s lawyer argued his bank accounts were seized in civil lawsuits and he could barely afford to buy underwear at the Richland County jail. He has blamed his problems on years of drug addiction.
Murdaugh’s professional career began to unravel after his 52-year-old wife, Maggie, and 22-year-old son, Paul, were killed in a shooting at the family’s home in June. Murdaugh’s lawyers have adamantly said he had nothing to do with it and repeatedly said they hope investigators are working as hard to find their killers as they are untangling Alex Murdaugh’s finances.
Murdaugh is the fourth generation of a prominent legal family in tiny Hampton County. His great-grandfather, grandfather and father were all elected prosecutors and his family helped run the biggest law firm in the county for a century.
Friday’s indictments include charges for Murdaugh’s handling of the aftermath of a wreck that caused a deaf man to end up quadriplegic.
Murdaugh took a $309,000 check he was supposed to give to Hakeem Pinckney’s family and instead bought money orders that went to cover money he took from the accounts of other clients, to pay down a loan and get cash for himself and an unnamed family member, according to the indictment.
Then when Pinckney died in a nursing home from the lingering effects of his injuries, Murdaugh got an additional $89,000 settlement on Pinckney’s behalf, but deposited that check in his account without ever telling the man’s family, prosecutors said.
The lawyer for the Pinckney family said the transactions are complex and hard to follow and even more money may have been stolen. Prosecutors have suggested at Murdaugh’s bond hearing that they still haven’t gotten to the bottom of his shady practices.
Pinckney was black, and most of the people Murdaugh stole from were like him — minorities and not well off, family attorney Justin Bamberg said.
“Alex gave them just enough money so they would drop on their knees and say ‘thank you, Jesus’ and took the rest,” Bamberg said.
Bamberg said Murdaugh’s longtime law firm, which fired him after learning he was stealing money, his banker friends and other professionals whom Murdaugh used as personal representatives for hurt victims and grieving families or who played other roles in helping his schemes go on so long should face consequences, too, because even if they aren’t criminally responsible, they should have asked questions.
“We are coming for your pockets. We’re going to get all the money these people were supposed to get,” Bamberg said.
Another indictment Friday details how starting in 2013, Murdaugh collected 14 settlement checks totaling more than $1.3 million for a man whose wife died in a wreck and stole all the money for himself.
Other victims have included a state trooper, family friends and an immigrant living in the country illegally, according to previous indictments.
At his bond hearings, Murdaugh’s lawyers blamed years of addiction to opioids for his behavior, saying he has sought counseling and wants to make things right for the clients he hurt.
Murdaugh’s law license has been suspended since his arrest in September after state agents said he tried to arrange his own death so his surviving son could collect a $10 million life insurance policy.