The Biggest Murdaugh Family Murder Theories: What Really Happened?

The Murdaugh family murders have proven a hotbed of theory and speculation, complete with their own subreddit of amateur sleuths. It all starts with the murders of Maggie Murdaugh (52) and her son, Paul Murdaugh (22), shot to death in June 2021 on their 1,700-acre, rural, wooded property along the Salkehatchie River in South Carolina (per the Associated Press). One was killed with a shotgun, and the other with an assault rifle (per People). 

At the time, Paul had been awaiting trial for the 2019 death of 19-year-old Mallory Beach in a boating accident where he took the helm while drunk. Paul pleaded not guilty and was released on $50,000 bond (per People). Three days after Maggie and Paul's death, Paul's 81-year-old grandfather Randolph Murdaugh III, founder of the law firm Peters Murdaugh Parker Eltzroth & Detrick, died.

In September, Paul's father Alex — also a lawyer at his father's firm — was shot in the head by a hitman that he allegedly hired himself, because he purportedly wanted to leave $10 million in insurance to his surviving son, Buster. Alex survived, went into rehab for opioid addiction, and was charged with 48 counts of financial crimes to the tune of $6.2 million, including some related to the family housekeeper Gloria Satterfield, who died in 2018 under suspicious circumstances. Alex's bond was placed at $7 million.

Amidst enough uncanny deaths, family secrets, and legal entanglements to satisfy the most absurd Southern Gothic plotline, what in the world is actually going on?

Theory 1: Retaliation from an enemy of the family

It's easy to envision all sorts of revenge plots and underhanded dealings related to the Murdaugh case, particularly regarding Alex and his father Rudolph's law firm. If the financial crime charges against Alex are true, then it's reasonable to assume that someone could be after the family. The sons of the Murdaugh housekeeper Gloria Satterfield alone, who died on the Murdaugh premises due to a "slip and fall," as Your Tango states, reportedly still haven't been paid $505,000 in damages (per People). 

The whole "the Murdaugh family is under the (proverbial) gun because Alex did someone financially dirty" angle gains credibility when we consider that Alex left his firm after going to rehab, as People says. Additionally, he went to rehab for opioid abuse after allegedly hiring hitman Curtis Edward Smith to stage his murder, for which Alex was charged with attempted assisted suicide. Did Alex just want a quick escape? To complicate things further, Smith stated that he was never hired to kill Alex, only show up on September 4. On the spot, Smith said, Alex demanded that Smith shoot him. They supposedly wrestled for Smith's gun (Smith just happened to have it on him?), and it went off and grazed Alex's head.

Alternatively, it could be that someone took revenge on the Murdaugh family not because of Alex's legal dealings, but for the 2019 death of Mallory Beach, the girl who died as a result of Paul's drunken boat driving.

Theory 2: Alex murdered his housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield

Several months passed between Maggie and Paul's murders on their South Carolinian property in June and Alex's alleged suicide-for-hire in early September. On September 15, as People says, Alex's plot came to light when the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) arrested Alex's alleged hitman, Curtis Edward Smith. On that same day, SLED opened an investigation into the death of the Murdaugh housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield.

The investigation was opened at the request of the Hampton County Coroner, who reported a bunch of suspicious circumstances regarding Satterfield's 2018 death. As USA Today says, her death was never reported to the coroner's office. Also, despite her cause of death being reported as "natural" due to her tripping and falling, no autopsy was ever conducted. On top of this, as previously stated, her sons claimed that they never received their $505,000 settlement due to their mother's death.

Your Tango picks up the theory from here. The whole Murdaugh murder mess, the rationale goes, supposedly started because Satterfield learned something incriminating about Alex's host of shady legal dealings. Alternatively, or additionally, she learned some dark family secrets related to potential divorce, Alex's opioid abuse, things like that. Alex killed her, which set off a cycle of retribution and revelation, resulting in the present circumstances. In this scenario, Maggie and Paul are innocent bystanders caught in the crossfire of Alex's illegalities and poor decisions, and Paul's boating while intoxicated (BUI) incident becomes an unhappy coincidence.

Theory 3: Alex murdered his wife and/or son

Probably the most popular theory surrounding the Murdaugh family murders centers on Alex himself purportedly killing his wife and son. This theory sidesteps Alex's apparent grief following their deaths and public statements like, "The murders of my wife and son have caused an incredibly difficult time in my life ... I'm resigning from my law firm and entering rehab after a long battle that has been exacerbated by these murders," (per People). Rather than being a victim of family tragedy, opioid addiction, and prone to terrible decision-making at his law firm, Alex becomes either a sociopathic murder machine or an accidental killer.

As Your Tango speculates, this theory centers around Maggie and Paul being killed by two different weapons, which is admittedly strange. What murderer carries around a shotgun and a machine gun, and swaps between the two between kills? This issue is compounded by the presence of a "hunting lodge" on the Murdaugh property where Maggie and Paul were killed. 

Several highly conjectural narratives take the baton from here: A) Alex hired someone to murder his wife and son, and tag-teamed; B) Alex hired someone to murder either Maggie or Paul, and killed the second person accidentally or intentionally, himself; C) Alex didn't hire someone, but was on the property — perhaps in the hunting lodge — ran out after some shots were fired, and accidentally shot Maggie and/or Paul himself. The only problem? Police say his alibi is airtight that day.

Theory 4: Alex is covering up for his other son, Buster

The next theory regarding the Murdaugh family murders centers on the least visible character in the tragedy, the surviving son and sole heir to the Murdaugh fortune, 25-year-old Buster. As it turns out, Paul wasn't the only Murdaugh son involved in a vehicle-based death. As Your Tango says, back in 2015, Buster was implicated in the ostensible "hit-and-run" death of 19-year-old Stephen Smith. Smith was found dead on Sandy Run Road, 15 miles from the Murdaugh's aforementioned hunting lodge. 

At the time, per Inquisitr, the police stated that Smith had run out of gas and was walking home when he was hit by a car. However, as the Daily Mail explains, South Carolina Highway Patrol stated that there was "no vehicle debris, skid marks, or injuries consistent with someone being struck by a vehicle." Rather, the Hampton County Coroner stated that Smith had been shot in the head.

So how does Buster fit into all this? Police received an anonymous tip stating that Buster ought to be looked into because he and Smith were romantically involved. Smith was openly gay, and his mother believed her son was killed in a hate crime because of his sexual orientation. Buster, this story goes, had Smith killed, or killed Smith himself, to cover up their relationship. This set off a chain of cover-ups and bungles that led to Maggie and Paul's murders. At present, police have opened an investigation into Smith's death.

Theory 5: The whole thing is a cover-up for something else

The final theory regarding the Murdaugh family murders is admittedly vague, but it might have crossed the observant reader's mind already. It centers on Alex's opioid addiction, rehab, and supposed suicide-for-hire. Specifically, what if Alex's self-hired hitman Curtis Edward Smith was lying about not being instructed to kill Alex? In this scenario, Smith and Alex worked together, as Your Tango speculates, to stage an attempted assisted suicide gone wrong. Alex got hurt enough to go to the hospital, admit to an opioid dependency, relieve pressure a bit, and when he went to "rehab" he used the time to swab clean some of his dirty dealings. 

According to this line of reasoning, Alex's whole opioid abuse problem was a lie, which negates the possibility that the Murdaugh housekeeper Gloria Satterfield was killed by Alex to cover his addiction. In turn, events focus back on Alex's legal woes and 48 charges of forgery, money laundering, breaches of trust, and so forth (per People), regardless of whose death they factor into. In this case, both Paul's boating while intoxicated (BUI) incident and Buster's involvement in Stephen Smith's supposed "hit-and-run" become either completely tangential, or integral to some financial cover-up on Alex's part.

Time will tell the truth of the Murdaugh family murders. It's easy to get wrapped up in conspiratorial narratives and push-the-pin-into-the-corkboard webs of rationale. At present, despite all speculation, we can only sit, watch, and hope for justice.

If you or anyone you know is struggling with addiction issues, help is available. Visit the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration website or contact SAMHSA's National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).