By Phil Helsel and Elisha Fieldstadt
South Carolina lawyer Alex Murdaugh arranged for another man to kill him earlier this month so that his son could collect on a $10 million life insurance policy, authorities said Tuesday.
Murdaugh, 53, survived the Sept. 4 shooting, which happened months after the unsolved slayings of his wife and adult son. Police say that Murdaugh told 911 that he was shot in the head while changing a flat tire and that the shooting caused only a “superficial” wound.
His attorney, Richard Harpootlian, told NBC’s “TODAY” show on Wednesday that his client was trying to get off opioids he was taking to get over the death of his son and wife when he became depressed. Believing his insurance policy had a suicide clause, Murdaugh enlisted a man to kill him during a “fake car breakdown,” according to the attorney.
The scheme was an “attempt on his part to do something to protect his child,” Harpootlian said.
In a written statement, Harpootlian and Jim Griffin, another attorney for Murdaugh, said it had become “clear Alex believed that ending his life was his only option. Today, he knows that’s not true.”
“For the last 20 years, there have been many people feeding his addiction to opioids. During that time, these individuals took advantage of his addiction and his ability to pay substantial funds for illegal drugs,” the statement said. “One of those individuals took advantage of his mental illness and agreed to take Alex’s life, by shooting him in the head.”
On Tuesday, Curtis Edward Smith, 61, was arrested on charges of assisted suicide, assault and battery of a high aggravated nature, pointing and presenting a firearm, insurance fraud, and conspiracy to commit insurance fraud, according to the South Carolina State Law Enforcement Division (SLED).
Officials with the agency said that Smith, of Walterboro, was also arrested on charges of distribution of methamphetamine and possession of marijuana.
Smith was being held in jail Tuesday night, officials said. It was not immediately clear if he had an attorney. Colleton County records show Murdaugh had been Smith’s lawyer in a 2013 speeding case, The Associated Press reported.
Additional charges were expected in the case, according to SLED.
Murdaugh allegedly gave Smith a gun and directed Smith to kill him, documents released by investigators Tuesday stated.
Murdaugh allegedly admitted to the law enforcement agency that the plan was for Smith to kill him, so that Murdaugh’s surviving son could collect a life insurance policy worth approximately $10 million, according to the documents.
“Alex is totally cooperating,” Harpootlian said Wednesday. “We called SLED; they didn’t call us.”
He “didn’t want law enforcement to spend time on this fake crime instead of on Maggie and Paul.”
Earlier this summer Margaret and Paul were found dead near dog kennels on the family’s hunting property in Colleton County, west of Charleston. Their deaths have been classified by state investigators as a double homicide.
Alex Murdaugh, a personal injury attorney, called 911 at 10:07 p.m. June 7 and told a dispatcher that his wife and son were on the ground and not breathing, according to records released by authorities.
He said he had just returned and asked the dispatcher to “please hurry.”
Harpootlian said Murdaugh had nothing to do with the murders.
“He is totally distraught,” the attorney said. “He did not murder them.”
Alex Murdaugh’s father, family patriarch Randolph Murdaugh III, died at 81 just days after Paul and Margaret were killed.
Murdaugh, who is part of a prominent South Carolina legal family, has not been charged with any crime. Harpootlian said Wednesday that he fully expects him to be arrested soon.
“I think he will be charged,” he said, reiterating that Murdaugh doesn’t want this case diverting resources from the investigation into the murders of Murdaugh’s wife, Margaret, and adult son, Paul.
Harpootlian said Murdaugh’s law team is pursuing their own investigation and said they have zeroed in at least one suspect. “The motive would be personal,” he said.
Days after the Sept. 4 shooting, Murdaugh said in a statement that he resigned from his job at a law firm to enter rehab. He said he “made a lot of decisions that I truly regret” and that the murders of his wife and son have caused an incredibly difficult period.
The law firm said that Murdaugh resigned only after the partners discovered he had allegedly misappropriated funds. On Monday, South Carolina law officials announced that it was looking into accusations that Murdaugh “misappropriated” money from the firm.
Murdaugh’s law license was indefinitely suspended.
Murdaugh’s father, a grandfather and a great-grandfather all held the top prosecutor’s position in South Carolina’s 14th Circuit, which covers a coastal region of the state known as the Lowcountry, totaling more than 80 years.
The family’s powerful legal connections were in the spotlight after Paul Murdaugh was indicted in a boat crash in 2019 that left 19-year-old Mallory Beach dead. A police report said people on the boat were “grossly intoxicated.”
Local reports after the crash said that the Murdaugh family did not initially cooperate with law enforcement agencies’ investigation and that officers never gave Paul Murdaugh, who was believed to have been driving the boat, an alcohol breath test, according to the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, which led the investigation.
Murdaugh 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 of his death. As a matter of protocol, the charges were dropped last month.