From DNA testing to the Dixie Mafia, we bring you new stories of true crime in American history. Join writer & host Benjamin Morris for exclusive interviews with authors from Arcadia Publishing, writing the hottest books on the most chilling stories of our country’s past.
The Murdaugh Murder Trial with Author Michael DeWitt Jr.
Join Crime Capsule for a detailed account of the recently concluded Alex Murdaugh trial. Author Michael M. DeWitt Jr. was on hand for the trial and provides insights into the case.
Hampton County was carved from Beaufort County during the turmoil of Reconstruction and named for Gov. Wade Hampton, who personally laid the cornerstone for the county courthouse in 1878. The county's rich soil, abundant rivers, and lush pine forests make it a paradise for farmers and sportsmen. Locally manufactured products from Plywoods-Plastics Corporation were used on World War II battlefields, in Navy atomic submarines, and even in NASA space missions. The Hampton County Watermelon Festival, which has been held annually since 1939, is the state's oldest continuing festival, and it boasts the longest parade: 2.4 miles that encompasses two towns. The vintage photographic collection of Hampton County captivates readers with the history, hard work, natural beauty, and Southern charm of this Lowcountry community.
Author Michael M. DeWitt Jr., an award-winning journalist, humorist, and columnist, is currently the editor of the 135-year-old Hampton County Guardian. He is the humor columnist and a contributing writer for South Carolina Wildlife magazine and has volunteered as a co-playwright for four seasons of Salkehatchie Stew, a five-county historical folk play project. With photographs from local historians, museums, and private collections, DeWitt shares the history of his colorful native county with a journalist's eye for detail and a storyteller's sense of humor.
Michael, thank you so much for joining us. We know that you have been a very busy man these last two months. Are you recovered from all your reporting?
Michael DeWitt Jr (00:15):
I am as recovered as I'm going to be. But no, we're not through reporting, not by a long side.
Benjamin Morris (00:24):
Yeah. We were saying off air that you have been drinking from a fire hose almost nonstop. What was that like?
Michael DeWitt Jr (00:35):
Well, like you say, it's been a six-week experience drinking from the fire hose. I may not remember the first few sips as well as I do those final swallows. But it's definitely been an experience that my county, my community and the people who live here, we won't get that taste out of our mouth for quite some time.
Benjamin Morris (01:02):
Yeah. Well, we've got plenty to cover. And we are just so excited to have you because it's rare that you get this kind of inside the courtroom perspective. So, we are just thrilled.
Benjamin Morris (01:15):
So, before we dive into the trial what I'd like to do is I'd love for you to introduce yourself to our listeners a little bit. We'd love to hear a bit about your background.
Benjamin Morris (01:26):
Now, you are a native of South Carolina and a native of the Lowcountry, and you have observed its politics and its dramas for pretty much the whole of your career, haven't you?
Michael DeWitt Jr (01:38):
That's right. I was born and raised right here in Hampton County. Never lived anywhere else. Went to school with members of the Murdaugh family. Alex Murdaugh's mother taught me in middle school, taught me English and reading or American literature or whatever it was at the time.
Michael DeWitt Jr (02:00):
I covered the Murdaughs in in the courtroom. I covered Libby Murdaugh as a school board member. So, I've been part of this community and part of the local newspaper here for almost 20 years. Lived in the community here all 50 years of my life. And it's been a quiet place up until recently.
Benjamin Morris (02:26):
And from which it went from 0 to 60 in about a hot minute, didn't it?
Michael DeWitt Jr (02:31):
Benjamin Morris (04:01):
Now, you are the author of two previous books that I could count. You wrote a book about Hampton County, in the Images of America series published by History Press. And then you also wrote a book called (and I'm just going to go ahead and warn our listeners to cover their children's ears if they're nearby), Saying Grace Over Edible Underwear. Tell us about those books.
Michael DeWitt Jr (04:27):
Well, I am a southern storyteller, so I may not answer your questions quickly. I may answer them with a story. But-
Benjamin Morris (04:36):
Michael DeWitt Jr (04:39):
Before all of this, I was the editor of the paper, and I was more of an outdoor writer and a southern humor writer. I was writing for South Carolina Wildlife Magazine. I was writing for Sporting Classics magazine, which is more of an international hunting and fishing magazine.
Michael DeWitt Jr (05:01):
But my love was (other than the outdoors and outdoor writing), writing southern lifestyle, southern humor. And I wrote an award-winning humor column that appeared in The Guardian almost every week about just down home, life on the farm, living in the South.
Michael DeWitt Jr (05:21):
And one of the columns I wrote, I took the title of that and turned it into a collection of humor columns that I published.
Michael DeWitt Jr (05:31):
But here in the South, religion is so ingrained in our upbringing, we're all Baptist or back row Baptist. And we're so religious that we'll say grace, even before we eat some edible underwear. The irony there.
Michael DeWitt Jr (05:54):
But so maybe not that title. I've been advised since then by my family to maybe tone down the titles of my next books a little bit. But I just found it very funny.
Benjamin Morris (06:59):
Well, tell us about this. Your new book is in line to a certain degree with your previous concerns. Your new book is called Wicked Hampton County which contains the story of the Murdaughs in a sort of generational sense.
Benjamin Morris (07:14):
But it also contains quite a bit more than just the Murdaughs. You have cases from all throughout Hampton County's history, and they really are some crackers in there. There really are some absolute gems of sort of misfits and escapades and folks getting into all sorts of trouble down there. How did this particular book come about?
Michael DeWitt Jr (07:42):
Well, I've actually, over the past year, year and a half, been writing two books with the same research effort.
Benjamin Morris (07:52):
I started out years ago before the Murdaugh murders, even before the boat crash, after I finished Images of America, I wanted to do a, I was going to call it the Dark History of Hampton County.
Michael DeWitt Jr (08:09):
As opposed to more of a photo history, I wanted to do a history and focus on some of the old crimes, the old mischiefs that went on over the years.
Michael DeWitt Jr (08:20):
And I'd been researching this for quite some time. My wife used to work at the newspaper with me and I had her doing some research in the archives. I'd go to the museum; she'd go to the library.
Michael DeWitt Jr (08:31):
And this book was a little over halfway finished when all this Murdaugh stuff happened. And so, I kind of amped things up a little bit with my research. And in the process, I researched the Murdaugh family, the Murdaugh Dynasty, going back over a hundred years.
Michael DeWitt Jr (08:50):
So, I've written two books: Fall of the House of Murdaugh will be published in June of this year, and it's by the Evening Post press, Evening Post books. And that is strictly a history of the Murdaugh Dynasty from the Confederacy to the present, including the trial and Alex Murdaugh's scandal and all that.
Michael DeWitt Jr (09:16):
But in the process of doing that book, I finished the Dark Hampton County book, and I very thankful History Press is publishing it as part of their Wicked series. So, Wicked Hampton County. And it contains a condensed version of the Murdaugh history, but it also goes back to the days of the Native American, to the days of reconstruction.
Michael DeWitt Jr (09:44):
And I deeply love this book. It's not a feel good, obviously, it's not a warm and fuzzy type of book, but I tried to put it in context.
Michael DeWitt Jr (09:58):
There's a chapter at the end where I talk about modern Hampton County and how we've grown and changed, and how one small town in America overcame generations of racism and ignorance.
Michael DeWitt Jr (10:12):
And so, I tried to put it in a good context, but it is a well-researched, well-documented history of our county. It just focuses on the misdeeds. Libraries are filled with books of great deeds and great accomplishments. And this is a story of great misdeeds and how one small town in America overcame them.
Benjamin Morris (10:35):
Which we love. And one of the arguments that you make, which I thought was so interesting, is that we often think of the Wild West in this sort of cliched and stereotypical terms. The lawlessness and fights breaking out in the streets and vendettas leading to murders and kind of people taking justice in their own hands and so forth.
Benjamin Morris (11:01):
And you write that the stereotypical aspects of the Wild West that we think of are actually more applicable to the Wild Southeast of South Carolina. And that everything you're looking for out there in Tombstone, you are going to find right here in the Lowcountry.
Michael DeWitt Jr (11:21):
Yeah. Before the Wild West, we had the Wild East. The towns here were dusty streets, horses and livestock roamed unchecked, unaccounted for. You might be walking to the local general store with your kids or your wife or your mother and gunshots might ring out.
Michael DeWitt Jr (11:44):
There'd be a fight, a dual or just somebody throwing pistols right on Main Street. There have been killings and lynchings right at the county courthouse. It was very much a wild, wild historical landscape.
Benjamin Morris (12:03):
Well, let me ask you this, where did you find these particular cases? And can you tell us about maybe just one or two of your particular favorites?
Michael DeWitt Jr (12:15):
Michael DeWitt Jr (12:20):
As editor of the paper, I inherited all the historical research that previous editors had done before me. That was a starting point. There was a great editor named Martha B. Anderson, who wrote for the state paper at one time. She was invited to the White House as a guest of President Jimmy Carter, I believe. And as a part of the Press Corps.
Michael DeWitt Jr (12:45):
And she did a 100-year centennial when the county was a hundred-years-old, or the newspaper was a hundred-years-old, she did a historical edition of the paper, and I have those archives.
Michael DeWitt Jr (12:58):
And then the very first year I started with the paper, 2004, it was our 125th ... let me get this right, Martha B. did a 100th edition for the 100th year of our county.
Benjamin Morris (13:14):
Michael DeWitt Jr (13:15):
And going back to when it was Prince William Parish, before it became Hampton County.
Michael DeWitt Jr (13:22):
And then when I started, we did a 125th anniversary edition of the newspaper itself. And my publisher, I was just one of the staff writers at the time before I became editor. And my publisher did most of the research and I inherited that research.
Michael DeWitt Jr (13:39):
Then the rest of it was going to, we've been very good about saving the guardians for over 143 years. We have them on microfilm, we have them hard copies that are yellow and falling apart, but they're in the county museum.
Benjamin Morris (13:56):
Michael DeWitt Jr (13:56):
So, I spent months going through microfilm, going through old paper archives. I bought every local history book I could find. And I just started putting all of these stories together.
Benjamin Morris (14:10):
There is no substitute for that kind of butt in chair research. And I know the historians who are out there listening to us right now, are nodding their heads in agreement. There is just no substitute.
Benjamin Morris (14:26):
You got to put in the time, you got to put in the hours, you got to have the bad days where you don't find dirt. And then you got to find those days where you dig up a diamond, just you get both kinds and you just got to show up.
Michael DeWitt Jr (14:38):
That's right. Yeah. It's not like Indiana Jones, the history is usually in a very old, dark, dimly lit place. And that's where you got to just dig through it.
Benjamin Morris (14:52):
There you go. Well, before we start talking about the Murdaughs in detail, can you just tell us maybe about one of your favorite cases from this particular adventure, this particular compendium that you have compiled?
Michael DeWitt Jr (15:07):
Sure. And I forgot to mention that Wicked Hampton County is coming out on May 29th. I think they're already taking pre-orders out there. I've heard dozens of people have already bought the book, and that's amazing.
Benjamin Morris (15:21):
Michael DeWitt Jr (15:43):
There was a young man that killed his parents back in the 50s. Back in the 40s, there was a man who murdered his family with a baseball bat. Horrible stuff. But it was a man named Randolph Murdaugh, whether it be senior, junior, or the third. It was a man named Randolph Murdaugh, who was the solicitor prosecutor who put them away.
Michael DeWitt Jr (16:04):
So, I go into some side roads in both books, but to me, Wicked Hampton County, I think the moonshining stuff and the civil rights stuff, I'm kind of torn between the two.
Michael DeWitt Jr (16:17):
We had to have students and activists from the North, like Notre Dame College students come down to help locals register to vote. And there's a whole lot of interest in stuff here. The Klan was very much active here in our area for decades.
Michael DeWitt Jr (16:34):
But to single out one, it would have to be the moonshine. We used to have Moonshiners in every swamp pole of this county. My family was known for their moonshine and hog rustling, which that is a whole nother story there. But the moonshiners were active. There was a town in Hampton County, or an area in the swamp, they used to call Liquorville.
Benjamin Morris (17:07):
Wait, just to make sure we got that right. There was a town called Liquorville, you said.
Michael DeWitt Jr (17:14):
That wasn't the official name of the town. It was a collection of houses right on the edge of the swamp.
Benjamin Morris (17:20):
Michael DeWitt Jr (17:20):
But that area was called Liquorville.
Michael DeWitt Jr (17:23):
There you go.
Michael DeWitt Jr (17:23):
And my favorite stories when SLED really became an active state police agency, and they started helping local law enforcement look for moonshiners. They'd put airplanes in the air and fly over the swamp, look for steam or smoke or anything coming out of a dense forest area near waterways.
Michael DeWitt Jr (17:48):
And so, the Moonshiners got slick. One moonshiner put a liquor still in his bedroom. I don't know how he didn't blow hisself up, but he had a still in his bedroom in the house.
Michael DeWitt Jr (18:00):
And then one set of moonshiners built an apparatus very much like a submarine, and it was half in the water of the swamp and half above the water. And they were cranking out hundreds of gallons of bootleg hooch. The newspaper article I found called it swamp juice.
Benjamin Morris (18:20):
There you go.
Michael DeWitt Jr (18:21):
So, they were basically buried in a submarine in the swamp, cranking out swamp juice, where the SLED airplanes in the 40s and 50s couldn't see them. And law enforcement had to paddle in there by a boat and they arrested them, shut the whole thing down.
Michael DeWitt Jr (18:38):
But one of the bootleggers, this was in January and November, it was cold.
Benjamin Morris (18:43):
Michael DeWitt Jr (18:43):
One of the bootleggers was brave enough to jump into swamp and swim away. And he got away because it was too cold for the cops to swim after him.
Benjamin Morris (18:51):
Oh, my goodness. Now, are we sure, did he show back up on scene or was his body ever found? Swimming through icy river in December/January, you better be quick son and get to shore as fast as you can.
Michael DeWitt Jr (19:10):
Well, that was an unanswered question for me. I couldn't find any more newspaper articles that ... his last name was Tuten. And I couldn't find any newspaper articles that told me if he was ever apprehended or if he died.
Michael DeWitt Jr (19:22):
And I posted a little teaser on Facebook about that story and promoting the book. And one of his descendants commented and said, "That's my uncle." And-
Benjamin Morris (19:32):
Michael DeWitt Jr (19:33):
And she wasn't upset. She was just tickled pink, because she had fond memories of her moonshining ancestors. And she was like, "I'll have to tell you some stories sometime." I'm like, "Absolutely."
Benjamin Morris (19:46):
You come on down to the newsroom. Exactly.
Michael DeWitt Jr (19:48):
Yeah. I think Mr. Tuten survived and I think he made a lot more shine before he died.
Benjamin Morris (19:54):
There you go. Well, I have to ask a strictly professional question here. The shine that your family made, how was it? Did you ever get to try any?
Michael DeWitt Jr (20:03):
That was a little before my time. The last my father would remember; he told me a story. There was a liquor still, and the property right next door, our Uncle Doc was ... we don't know if he and I'm not going to say his last name. I don't want the family to disown me, but we don't know if Uncle Doc made the shine or if he just let somebody do it on his property down by the swamp.
Michael DeWitt Jr (20:31):
But my grandfather and my dad were back in the field, ploughing the field with one of the old timey Ford tractors or Cub tractors, whatever they had.
Michael DeWitt Jr (20:41):
And my father's walking around behind the tractor picking up roots. It's all hot and sweaty. And Uncle Doc walks out of the swamp. So, my grandfather parks the tractor, takes the water jug off the tractor, pours the water out, and follows him into the swamp.
Michael DeWitt Jr (21:00):
And my dad was hot and thirsty, but when my grandfather came back, he said he wouldn't let him have any more water for the rest of the day, so-
Benjamin Morris (21:08):
I think we know why. He would've been feeling a lot worse.
Michael DeWitt Jr (21:13):
Benjamin Morris (21:14):
Had he had some of that water. Well, those stories are fantastic. And longtime listeners of Crime Capsule will know that we have a very soft spot in our heart for bootleggers and for folks who have pursued the dark arts of the distilleries, in the course of American history.
Benjamin Morris (21:34):
We did a small series about a year ago on the Dixie Mafia of which moonshine was a major part of their various activities around the South. And anytime it comes up, we are just overjoyed. So, we appreciate it. This lens onto the Carolinian history thereof.
Benjamin Morris (21:55):
So, let us switch gears here and start looking at this trial. Now, I am so curious Michael, last week we had Lieutenant Rita Shuler as our guest, a Crime Capsule veteran, and a longtime forensic investigator with SLED, now retired.
Benjamin Morris (22:16):
And Rita noted that in working in law enforcement, in and around Walterboro and the surrounding counties, as you know, the Murdaughs were omnipresent. They just went back as far as she could remember. They predated her tenure in law enforcement. And she noted that within SLED, she was able to resist their influence.
Benjamin Morris (22:43):
But I was curious from your perspective, what were the challenges on the other side of the line, so to speak, in journalism? What were the challenges in reporting on them and their power structure sort of woven all throughout the area?
Michael DeWitt Jr (23:02):
Well, that's a good question. To touch on Ms. Rita's comment first, and I've read one of her books. She's a great author. I think within the 14th circuit. And the 14th judicial circuit is five counties. It's Hampton, Allendale, Colleton, Jasper, and Beaufort. And these counties couldn't be any more different.
Michael DeWitt Jr (23:28):
You've got the Resort Islands off Hilton Head are in Beaufort County, and you've got Backwood Swamps in Hampton, Allendale, and Colleton.
Michael DeWitt Jr (23:38):
So, within the 14th circuit, the Murdaughs were well known. And for a time, I'm not going to use the word all powerful, but for a time, very prominent, very powerful, very well connected. But outside of the 14th Circuit, when you get to the state level, with SLED and state politics, they — not so much.
Michael DeWitt Jr (24:00):
A lot of people outside the 14 circuit had never even heard of these people. Which was surprising to me, because everybody in our area knows who the Murdaughs are. But outside the 14-circuit people in Columbia and people in the upstate were like, "Who the heck are these people?" So, that would explain the lack of influence and connection in SLED.
Michael DeWitt Jr (24:24):
As far as journalistically, before 2015, let's look at the Murdaughs pre-Stephen Smith and after Stephen Smith.
Michael DeWitt Jr (24:41):
I covered them throughout from 2004 on, and prior to 2015, it was all courtroom cases and accolades. And Murdaughs donated this, and Murdaughs won this award.
Michael DeWitt Jr (24:56):
And I was not a close friend, but I was often invited to their social events. Alex's father Randolph would have what they call Third Thursday, which basically every third Thursday of the month, all of his cronies, local mayor, police sheriff, whoever would be invited to his man cave in the backyard at Alameda. And they'd fry fish, or they'd have barbecue or whatever.
Michael DeWitt Jr (25:25):
And as editor of the paper, I guess I was somebody they considered to be somebody, I guess. So, they invited me, and I attended a couple of the events. I attended a couple of dove shoots and shot birds with John Marvin and members of the family.
Michael DeWitt Jr (25:41):
And it was social, but it was also a work kind of thing, because I was editor of the paper, I was invited. We weren't close friends.
Michael DeWitt Jr (25:53):
Then after Stephen Smith with the rumors about a possible Murdaugh connection, which we still don't know for a fact. That is certainly not confirmed, things changed.
Michael DeWitt Jr (26:07):
There was also another scandal involving a local coach that as Alex's mother was on the school board, they were rumors that they kind of ousted this well-loved local coach and put in somebody that they liked and they wanted, and that was a whole lesser, much lesser controversy.
Michael DeWitt Jr (26:30):
But after 2015, I kind of cut social ties with the Murdaughs, if Randolph was getting an award, for example, 2018, he was awarded the Order of the Palmetto at the Hampton County Courthouse. Well, I was there, and I covered that.
Michael DeWitt Jr (26:48):
But the same year I was invited to come to his house for a cookout or whatever. Well, I declined those invitations, so I began to distance myself. And bottom line, before all of this, I was a journalist operating in ... let's just say that I reported the good along with the bad.
Michael DeWitt Jr (27:14):
But I was dealing with a family of lawyers. So, whenever I reported the bad, I made dang sure I had all my ducks in a row. I had my facts, my documents, my sources confirmed all of that before I did my job, but I did my job the whole time. If there was a controversy involving the Murdaughs, we reported on it.
Benjamin Morris (27:38):
Yep. Now, my brother was a reporter for nearly a decade, actually, over a decade before he switched careers. And from time to time, he would mention folks who would extend invitations that on paper they were above board, but there was always an undercurrent. There's always an undercurrent of who can we get on our side? Who can we cultivate a little fellow feeling or a little sympathy with.
Michael DeWitt Jr (28:03):
That's right. That's right.
Michael DeWitt Jr (28:03):
I think that's something we have to be very wary of.
Benjamin Morris (28:07):
So, let me ask you this, what was your first indication that something was truly amiss? Was it the boat crash or was it something else?
Michael DeWitt Jr (28:19):
Well, we had always heard rumors about Buster Murdaugh. Keep in mind, Buster, he retired in the 80s. I don't have the exact year in front of me. It might have been '86, something like that.
Michael DeWitt Jr (28:33):
But so, he retired years before I came to work for the newspaper. And I guess, I was maybe 10-years-old at the time when he retired.
Michael DeWitt Jr (28:42):
But I heard my father and my grandfather talk about him, and they talked about, just to quote and paraphrase my family and my ancestors, he was a crook. He was a snake in the grass is what local common people would say about him.
Michael DeWitt Jr (29:00):
It was known that he was involved with bootleggers and different controversies. And we could talk about that. I go into great detail about all of those in both books.
Michael DeWitt Jr (29:15):
There was a whole moonshine conspiracy where he went to federal court, and that's in Wicked Hampton County, that's in Fall of House of Murdaugh. And it's very fascinating.
Michael DeWitt Jr (29:25):
But Buster was allegedly corrupt, but he was slick. He always got away with everything. He retired with honor from his job, well thought of. But people in Hampton County always knew there was something kind of shady about old Buster.
Michael DeWitt Jr (29:46):
Then Randolph came along, Randolph the third, his son, and he was a lot cleaner. He still had a few controversies here and there, but he was a lot cleaner than his old man.
Michael DeWitt Jr (29:57):
And the Murdaughs mostly, we knew about the history of the law firm. We knew the law firm was instrumental in us not getting a lot of industry and Walmart not coming our town and things of that nature. We could talk about all that later if you'd like.
Benjamin Morris (30:16):
Michael DeWitt Jr (30:16):
But locals knew the negative side of the Murdaughs. But you know how when you live in the forest, you say you can't see the forest with the trees. Well, we had accepted all of this, and it wasn't a story to us anymore. It was just one of our dirty secrets. Nothing you can really do about it.
Michael DeWitt Jr (30:37):
And as a whole, the Murdaughs were mostly respected, and everybody loved Randolph the third. Alex's father, he was a nice guy. He was charming, quick with a joke or a story. And if you spent five minutes with Randolph Murdaugh the third, you're like, "This is a great guy. I love him."
Michael DeWitt Jr (30:57):
And about 2015, to answer your question, is when we started getting rumors that the Murdaughs, in particular, the younger generations, that something wasn't right.
Benjamin Morris (31:13):
It's funny, we often think about the charisma of evil. And sometimes the worst people are the ones who can talk a worm out of its hole, as they say.
Benjamin Morris (31:27):
Let me ask you this, where were you when you heard the news that Paul and Maggie had been killed? Were you in the newsroom that night of June 7th, I believe it was 2021? Or were you kind of out and about?
Michael DeWitt Jr (31:43):
This happened about two o'clock on a Sunday morning. And it happened in another county, so obviously I wasn't the first. A lot of the major events, the homicides happened one county north of us, just right across the Hampton County line. The boat crash happened in Beaufort County, one county east to the coast.
Michael DeWitt Jr (32:06):
So obviously, I wasn't the first at the scene. I wasn't the first to break the story. So, it was early that morning either before I came into the office Monday morning or once I walked in. And that's when I heard about it. And that's when I began working on the story.
Michael DeWitt Jr (32:22):
By then, the local reporters in Beaufort, the Beaufort Gazette, the Island Packet, this was in their backyard. So, they were on the scene. They were breaking the story, and they did a great job.
Michael DeWitt Jr (32:35):
But that was pretty much first thing, Monday morning, I walked in, and my first thought was, "Oh, my God, a local girl is missing in the water." And my second thought was, "Oh, my God, a Murdaugh is involved." And we know what type of story that has become.
Benjamin Morris (32:56):
Yeah. What was the reaction inside the newsroom at the Hampton County Guardian? Were y'all just action stations, we're taking this, we're running with it to the best that we can. But you still have other news to report. Just because this has happened, you can't shut down your news gathering operations in other domains, can you?
Michael DeWitt Jr (33:16):
Well, that's kind of a funny, when you said the newsroom, when Stephen Smith died in 2015, we were a newsroom of two, myself as editor of the paper, and I had one reporter. And I think I wrote the initial story when Stephen's body was found.
Michael DeWitt Jr (33:35):
And then in November, my reporter Matt Popovich, at the time, at my instruction, he interviewed Sandy Smith, Stephen's mother. Wrote a couple of heart tugging stories that we published in the Thanksgiving edition of that year, saying, "We think this is a hate crime, a prominent family's involved. If you know something, please come forward."
Michael DeWitt Jr (34:02):
So meanwhile, I was tasked with running the entire paper, if you know anything about a small weekly newspaper-
Benjamin Morris (34:09):
I do actually. Yes.
Michael DeWitt Jr (34:12):
You do everything. I was writing stories. I was running the advertising department. I was laying and out and designing the newspaper. The driver called in sick, I had to deliver the dang paper.
Michael DeWitt Jr (34:27):
So, that was 2015. And by the time the boat crash happened, I was a newsroom of one. So, the newsroom reaction that you might have had in the Beaufort newsroom where you've got a bunch of people going around, "Oh well, let's brainstorm about how are we going to cover this? Who are the Murdaughs?"
Michael DeWitt Jr (34:45):
Well, it was just pretty much me and one guy in a big room by myself in Hampton County going, "Oh, my God, what am I going to do with this story? The Murdaughs are involved."
Michael DeWitt Jr (34:56):
But we covered it. We got on top of it. We covered it. I think the biggest thing, not newsroom reaction, but community reaction, I think. That's where we should look. Early on. These are two families. Well, everybody on that boat, there were six passengers on that boat. Five of them were from Hampton County, one of them was from Jasper Beaufort, I think.
Benjamin Morris (35:25):
Michael DeWitt Jr (35:25):
So, you got five Hampton County families involved. They're all friends. They all hang out; they all know each other. And now one of them's dead.
Michael DeWitt Jr (35:34):
So, you've got families and friends that are like torn apart. We were best buddies last week, but now you killed my daughter, or your son killed my daughter, or you're not taking responsibility for this. Whatever.
Michael DeWitt Jr (35:49):
It ripped families apart, friends apart. And in a sense, it began creating a rift in the Hampton County community of those who loved and supported the Murdaugh family, and those who felt that they had got away with too much abuse of power and privilege for too long.
Benjamin Morris (36:10):
Yep. One of the things that Rita shared with us when she came back into the studio last week was, she said that when SLED started saying after, Paul and Maggie had been killed, that they did not believe that there was a threat to the public, her kind of spider sense started tingling.
Benjamin Morris (36:37):
Right. And little alarm bell went off there suggesting that law enforcement either knew who did it, or they had a good enough idea to start.
Benjamin Morris (36:48):
Was that alarm bell immediately ringing in your mind to, you said Murdaugh might be involved, but did you have a really strong suspicion right up front that something's going on the inside here?
Michael DeWitt Jr (37:17):
So, that's a good question. My first thought, and I think a lot of people, their first thought was not that the father of the family did it. My first thought, everyone's first thought was, this has to be something related to the boat crash.
Michael DeWitt Jr (37:37):
We were all thinking, this is backwoods justice. Somebody connected to one of those families on that boat crash, more than likely Mallory Beach, they've decided that justice is not going to be served, that Paul Murdaugh, the son of a lawyer, the grandson of a solicitor is not going to be held accountable. Justice is not going to be served.
Michael DeWitt Jr (38:01):
So, we're going to take justice into our own hands. And as we sat through the trial and as we heard the testimony and saw the evidence, that's exactly what Alex Murdaugh wanted everyone to think. And we can go into the trial a bit later, but from the very moment police arrived on the scene, he was telling them, "Hey, there was a boat case, and I think that somebody connected to this boat crash had something to do with it and Paul's been getting threats."
Michael DeWitt Jr (38:32):
And he wanted to paint that picture. He wanted that $10 million lawsuit to go away. He wanted the world to look at him as the victim of vigilantes. And so, yeah, that's the web that Alex Murdaugh was trying to spin. Now that we've seen and heard the details of the trial.
Michael DeWitt Jr (38:52):
And that's what everybody was thinking, that's certainly what I was thinking. Do I think that Mallory's father or mother or somebody pulled a trigger? No, I'm not saying that. I'm just saying everybody's thought was somehow this has to be connected to the boat crash.
Michael DeWitt Jr (39:07):
Whether it be a friend, a family member, or maybe some vindictive member of the community who's just been reading the news and is like, "You know what, if the criminal justice system isn't going to do it, I'm going to do it." So,
Michael DeWitt Jr (39:34):
When I heard the statement that the public was not in danger, I didn't put a whole lot of speculation in it. I don't think necessarily that police, they may have had a slight suspicion about Alex up front, but basically, I think they wanted to let the community know that this happened on Monday night. We don't expect somebody else to get killed on Tuesday night. We don't think that somebody's just going to go around randomly kill people. We think this was a targeted hit.
Michael DeWitt Jr (40:05):
So, whether they thought it was involving the boat crash or whether they thought it was the work of Alex Murdaugh, basically, they didn't think this was a random thing. They thought it was a very targeted thing.
Michael DeWitt Jr (40:17):
And that's why they put this statement out, which has come back to haunt them. It's been questioned during the trial; it's been analyzed to death.
Michael DeWitt Jr (40:25):
But basically, they wanted to let people know, "Hey, we're working this case, but you don't have to worry about somebody coming to your house tonight or the next night and killing you." And I think they should have just chosen their words a little more carefully.
Benjamin Morris (40:38):
Yeah. It's funny because it does actually take us back to what you call in your book: Wicked Hampton County, you call the Wild East. Here you do have the presumption or the specter, the kind of echo of those honor killings, vendetta killings, if that as an idea is still in the water in Hampton County and the five-county area, the 14th circuit, and so forth, then it's a lot more sort of plausible upfront if there's a context for that kind of belief, isn't there?
Michael DeWitt Jr (41:19):
Yeah. I think the words, I may have even used these words in one of my stories backwoods justice. Well, let me ask you this, backwoods justice, how likely was it, did you think back in June, 2021 that we would end up where we were in January, 2023 with Alex sitting in the defendant's chair?
Benjamin Morris (42:05):
Because even now, with as many people as he was prosecuting on the other side of that line, the irony is just almost too much, isn't it?
Michael DeWitt Jr (42:13):
Well, I think that from the night of the killings until Labor Day weekend, I think pretty much most people thought that this was in some way connected to the boat crash.
Michael DeWitt Jr (42:28):
Then when the first criminal allegation started coming out about Alex, that he had been stealing money from his law firm, he was forced to resign, he admitted his drug addiction, he pulled off this crazy stunt beside the road. That's when the whole narrative changed. That's when the suspicion changed.
Michael DeWitt Jr (42:52):
My mind was probably just like everyone else in the Lowcountry, everyone else following this story. Okay, wait a minute. Alex has been doing some shady stuff. You know what they say, the husband is always a suspect, or the spouse is always a suspect. Well-
Michael DeWitt Jr (43:10):
At that moment, he went from being a victim in everyone's eyes to being a suspect. I think testimony at the trial proved that SLED had him as a suspect by the end of June, July or maybe even the first week, I'd have to go back and review all the notes.
Michael DeWitt Jr (43:35):
But they were inconsistencies that they noticed right away, probably responding on the ground. He told 911, and he told police that he checked the bodies for a pulse and tried to roll them over, but there was no blood on him.
Michael DeWitt Jr (43:52):
So, there was probably a little suspicion early on by law enforcement, but he wasn't a full-on suspect, and the only suspect for SLED until August 11th when they did this third interview with him. But keep in mind, all of this is hush-hush from the community.
Michael DeWitt Jr (44:12):
He's a suspect for SLED and in this inner circle, but the public at large doesn't know the inner workings of the investigation. And you might read a story where it's been leaked out that he's a person of interest, but for the most part, I think people still considered him the victim of a crime.
Michael DeWitt Jr (44:31):
And it was somewhere connected to the boat crash. Well August, September, that began to change. And he was primarily seen by everybody as a suspect, and every criminal charge, every crime, every allegation that rolled out, it just deepened that notion.
Benjamin Morris (44:56):
Yeah. Well, we will get into the meat of the trial next week. Thank you so much, Michael, for setting the stage for us, upfront. That's a lot and we grateful for your insight on so many levels.
Benjamin Morris (45:13):
So, we will come back next week with the view from inside the courtroom. Thank you, again.