A murder-for-hire scheme and a lawyer who tried to fake his own death

Reporter Mandy Matney scrutinised a US family until they became impossible to ignore

Real-life villains don't come more sharply drawn than Alex Murdaugh, a greedy and ghoulish personal-injuries lawyer who casts a haunting shadow over South Carolina. For nearly a century his father and grandfather were the prosecutors for a five-county district while also running a powerful private law firm in the American state.

But it wasn't until the small hours of February 24th, 2019, that the dark veil over the Murdaugh family's dealings began to slip. That's when Alex's son Paul is alleged to have ploughed the family's 5m bay boat into a bridge abutting Parris Island, the United States marines' largest training camp for new recruits. Among the three people cast overboard was an ebullient 19-year-old former high-school soccer player named Mallory Beach. She was found dead in the murky tidewaters near the crash site after a seven-day search.

Before an investigation could prove whether Paul was at the tiller and boating under the influence or confirm witness testimony that Alex obstructed the crash investigation, Paul, who is 19, and his 52-year-old mother, Maggie, were found shot to death at the family’s 725-hectare hunting estate on June 7th.

In less than three years Alex Murdaugh has gone from legal spectre to leading man in a whodunnit that's only just beginning to unfold

Three months later the narrative was further confounded by conflicting reports that Alex had been shot in the back of the head and left for dead on the side of the road. He has since admitted the scene was staged to grease a $10 million, or almost €9 million, insurance payout for his other son, Buster – himself rumoured to be involved with the unexplained death of a 19-year-old nursing student named Stephen Smith in 2015.

This was all before Alex's partners cut ties amid allegations that he had embezzled the family law firm out of millions, allegedly to fund an opioid addiction. After that bombshell dropped, Alex was charged with stealing millions more from a settlement meant for the children of his former housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, who died in a 2018 alleged trip-and-fall accident on their property.

Shockingly, these are just the highlights.

Today Murdaugh sits in a maximum-security jail cell in Columbia, South Carolina, where he faced 53 charges for the faked shooting attempt and for defrauding his clients and could be sentenced to 508 years in prison if convicted on all counts. He also had his law licence suspended and remains a named party in six related lawsuits and the focus of at least seven investigations – one led by the FBI and another exploring possible ties to a drug-trafficking scheme that was prosecuted by the current South Carolina governor, Henry McMaster.

All the while the mystery of the murder of his wife and son still hangs over Murdaugh – a person of interest, according to his attorney; Murdaugh denies any involvement in that crime. No weapons have been recovered (although police have confirmed that Paul and Maggie were killed with different guns), and no attackers charged or identified. Most troubling: Murdaugh’s profound influence on the South Carolina legal system casts considerable doubt on the prospects for a fair trial.

At a hearing on December 13th, where a $7 million, or €6 million, bond was set, Murdaugh finally spoke. “Things were moving really quickly and really negatively,” the 53-year-old said, explaining the murder-for-hire scheme. “My world was caving in as much as it had three months prior to that particular day ... I was in a very bad place.”

In less than three years Alex Murdaugh (his name is pronounced as if it were spelled Alec Murdoch) has gone from legal spectre to leading man in a whodunnit that's only just beginning to unfold. And there's no question that the scrutiny on him would be nowhere near this intense if it weren't for Mandy Matney, the meddling reporter who kept a harsh spotlight trained on the Murdaugh family until they became impossible for anyone to ignore.

Murdaugh she wrote

"My life turned upside down on June 7th," Matney tells me on the chilly November evening we meet in the South Carolina town of Beaufort. The Friday night begins with dinner at Luther's, the pub where CCTV cameras caught Paul Murdaugh downing lemon drops and Jaeger shots just before taking to the water (ostensibly to circumnavigate roadside DUI checkpoints) and ends with digestifs and coffee on a twinkling restaurant deck off Waterfront Park – the last place those same cameras spied Mallory Beach alive.

Around these parts Matney, who turned 31 three days before the Murdaugh double homicide, is our Jessica Fletcher – steadfastly connecting all the dots at FITSNews, the Carolina news hub where she is editorial director. Her hit podcast, Murdaugh Murders, has enthralled the US and has Hollywood scrambling to spin off its own versions of this epic true-crime story.

When I ask her about the podcast’s weekly production process, she likens it to “putting a puzzle together in a hurricane. I go into my office thinking I’m gonna do a deep dive on the Stephen Smith investigation. And something with the Satterfield [the housekeeper] will pop up. Or something with the boat crash.”

The boat crash is how Matney landed on the Murdaugh beat. In February 2019 she was working as the breaking-news editor for the 16,000-circulation Island Packet, the reluctant paper of record of South Carolina’s coastal “Lowcountry”, owning the story even as the Packet’s executive editors failed to see the point. “I’ll never forget being in a meeting in March 2019 and my boss saying, ‘I’m sick of the boat-crash stories,’” she says. “And what was crazy about that was the boat-crash stories were bringing in way more pageviews than anything else.”

Matney thought that her editors’ lack of interest in pursuing the Murdaugh case stemmed largely from the paper’s online business model of chasing low-effort clicks, but in retrospect it’s hard not to wonder if, at best, the paper was cowed by the powerful family or, at worst, simply didn’t get it. Now that the story is unavoidable, its coverage has been noticeably sympathetic to the Murdaughs.

A different journalist might have kept churning out stories about shark sightings (another Matney specialty at the Packet) or bolted for a larger market. But for Matney, a Kansas City native who joined the Packet in March 2016, lured by the prospect of working from the beach, local reporting was an opportunity to set down roots. "It wasn't like she was here for a few years," says Liz Farrell, a former Packet editor and Day 1 collaborator of Matney's on the Murdaugh beat. "She embraced the community."

But after a demotion to reporter in 2019, despite leading the paper in pageviews, with a 200,000 monthly average, Matney was finally forced to consider the unthinkable: giving in to her bosses and leaving the Murdaugh story behind for the sake of her career and sanity.

Connecting the dots

"It became pretty clear to me early on that Mandy not only had a heart for the truth of the story but also was not intimidated by these powerful people," says Will Folks, an unlikely ally. A South Carolina politico with a reputation as a hell raiser, Folks was a spokesperson for the former governors Mark Sanford and Nikki Haley – with whom he admitted to having an "inappropriate physical relationship" during her 2010 gubernatorial campaign. (Haley, who went on to be Donald Trump's ambassador to the UN, has forcefully denied Folks's claims.)

In 2006 Folks launched FITSNews, a kind of subscription-based local Drudge Report that has blossomed into an all-purpose read. On the Murdaugh beat Folks found himself competing with Matney for scoops so often that he would kiddingly offer to hire her away. After her Packet demotion they stopped joking. She signed on in January 2020, lured by a commitment she never got at the Packet: free rein.

“I pride myself on being the first person to openly say that there are three deaths connected to this family,” Matney says, referencing the cases of the nursing student Smith, the housekeeper Satterfield, and boat-crash victim Beach. “That was a scary thing to do, and I got shit for it immediately.” Subsequent investigations didn’t just prove her right; they thickened the plot.

Matney was first to publish case file from the South Carolina department of natural resources that provides the most complete picture of the events surrounding the boat crash. She tag-teamed with Folks to break the roadside-shooting story and on the subsequent twist that police had traced the knife used to disable Murdaugh’s car back to him, upsetting the alibi his legal team was scrambling to establish.

Matney also was first to report the reopening of the Satterfield death investigation and the family’s claims of insurance fraud, which led to yet another news break on 27 new charges against him. Meanwhile, she has owned every recent development in the unsolved death of Stephen Smith, which his mother connects to his being gay. Among other scoops, Matney reported the 40 times the investigation file mentions the Murdaughs.

Besides shoe-leather legwork and an indefatigable work ethic, the thing that truly distinguishes Matney is empathy. When she was seven her nine-year-old brother died suddenly from brain complications related to the flu, a loss that still smarts. A botched appendectomy nearly stole her life at 23. Three years later she was diagnosed with basal-cell carcinoma, the less-serious form of skin cancer – and all because “I was a stupid teenager who tanned a lot”, she wrote in 2017. And this after her mother had beaten melanoma two years earlier.

For another reporter, tarrying in so much morbidity might exact a psychic toll. For Matney "it's kind of therapy," she says. "Hearing from grieving mothers like Sandy Smith. I see my mom in her all the time. I feel like I can approach the story in a way that a lot of other people don't with the level of sensitivity that I do."

With Matney leading on the Murdaugh beat, FITSNews has grown to a robust 1.5 million monthly visitors. Still, Matney couldn’t shake the sense that there was much more story to tell.

David Moses, Matney's fiance, needled her to start a podcast. Matney initially scoffed at the idea of hard journalism as a production. But he was undeterred and forged ahead. He set her up with a mic at their kitchen table, surrounded by a nest of files and their chatty rescue dog, Luna. While Matney focused on the narrative, Moses taught himself how to use free audio-editing software. On June 22nd, absent of fanfare or cover art, the Murdaugh Murders debuted with an episode titled South Carolina's Chappaquiddick (referring to the 1969 incident in which a young Senator Ted Kennedy drove off a bridge in Massachusetts, resulting in the death of his passenger, Mary Jo Kopechne, who was trapped inside the car). By episode nine it was the No 1 podcast on Apple.

A southern gothic

"I just always go back to some time this summer when we were top 100 of all podcasts," Matney says. "I thought we were peaking then." The Murdaugh story has always had the elements of a southern gothic. So it figures that Matney's turf has been crowded by Good Morning America, the high-profile legal journalist Nancy Grace and others in the US mainstream media who can't help but ask if she'd mind "getting us up to speed".

When those newcomers aren't angling to copy her homework, they're getting spun by Murdaugh protectors like Bakari Sellers – the CNN contributor, Democratic Party prodigy and longtime friend of the family – which he described as "salt of the earth" in an interview with People magazine, one in the horde of outlets racing to develop Murdaugh content for the screen.

Before a September bond hearing, Dick Harpootlian, the South Carolina state senator and Democratic Party operative leading Murdaugh's defence, wondered aloud to a court gallery that largely consisted of reporters if Matney – who was not present – was Folks's "alter sexual ego", drawing big laughs. "Forget about what he said," Folks says. "Focus on what he was trying to do. He was trying to knock her down a peg."

In addition to the assaults on her credibility, Matney absorbs regular abuse from listeners whinging about everything from her “vocal fry” to the FITSNews paywall to her habitual reminders that much of what we know about the Murdaughs is because of her.

“People think she’s saying only she can cover this news,” Farrell says. “But so many [competitors] shortcut their work based on what Mandy had done. It is very frustrating for her to see media that had ignored this story and, suddenly now that it’s profitable for them, they’re going after it. Her whole point is to say, I was doing this when it meant nothing ... because we need to keep corruption from happening.”

The constant churn of the story has had its affects. “The summer got dark,” says Matney, always flirting with a full-on burnout. “I remember telling Liz that I don’t give a shit if I get money off of all this. It’s just too hard and not worth it. And then to have to channel all that to create a podcast ... It was hard to get motivated.”

It also wasn’t worth the increasing risk to Matney’s personal safety, something she hadn’t considered until receiving a terse email from a friend of Buster Murdaugh’s over the summer.

“The investigation keeps getting scarier,” she says. And even though she has taken measures to protect herself – such as not posting her whereabouts on social media in real time any more – the legion of fans who spring for coffee and mimosas to keep her going still worry about her oversharing. But what they might not appreciate is that “documentation and being in the public eye are my biggest safety net”.

Even as the adversities on the Murdaugh beat increase, Matney is determined to stick with this story. For Matney, the proud moments are the small ones that come when the waitress who "got out of" Hampton County thanks her for shining a light on the corruption there, or when a victim's relative calls to check in.

Accountability journalism wasn't something Matney ever thought she'd fall into. "I was always so afraid of it," she says.

Now it's the corrupt among South Carolina's power brokers who should be afraid of her. – Guardian