Crime & Public Safety

SC Attorney General reviewing possible charges in fatal Beaufort County boat crash, officials say

Paul Murdaugh charged in Feb. 24 boat crash that killed Mallory Beach

Paul Murdaugh of Hampton, S.C., faces 3 criminal charges in the Beaufort County boat crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach. Beach went missing after the crash. Her body was found a week later.
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Paul Murdaugh of Hampton, S.C., faces 3 criminal charges in the Beaufort County boat crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach. Beach went missing after the crash. Her body was found a week later.

South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office is reviewing possible charges connected to the boat crash near Parris Island that killed Mallory Beach, officials said Wednesday.

“We’ve received the report from the Department of Natural Resources and are reviewing it,” Robert Kittle, a spokesman for Wilson’s Office, said via email Wednesday. “I can’t comment beyond that.”

SCDNR has been lead investigator into the crash that killed 19-year-old Beach around 2:20 a.m. Feb. 24, when the boat she was on struck a piling of a small bridge in Archer’s Creek just outside the main entrance to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island. The boat crashed “at a high rate of speed,” according to first-responders speaking to dispatchers in 911 audio.

The agency has been working without a prosecutor assigned to the case since 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone’s office recused itself Feb. 25.

Officials said Stone’s office asked for the case to be reassigned because three of the boaters are related to its employees. This includes Randolph Murdaugh III, a former 14th Circuit solicitor who continues to work under contract, trying criminal cases.

The former solicitor’s grandson, Paul, is one of two possible drivers of the boat, a Port Royal Police report said. The report also named Connor Cook as another possible driver. Both of the possible drivers were 19 at the time of the accident.

The boat is registered to Richard Alexander Murdaugh, a Hampton County attorney who is Randolph’s son and Paul’s father.

Kittle said the Attorney General’s Office would wait for charges to be filed before assigning a prosecuting agency.

“We’ll still make that decision if charges are filed, and we’re not at that point yet,” Kittle said. “DNR has given us its report. The next step is to decide whether there will be charges, and then at that point we’ll decide whether we’ll prosecute or assign it to a different solicitor.”

Investigative bodies sometimes send possible charges to prosecuting offices for review prior to officially filing charges, SCDNR spokesman Robert McCullough said Wednesday.

“That is our standard practice with cases,” McCullough said. “Usually at the solicitor’s office level, we will sit down to make sure they agree with us. In this case, the solicitor recused themselves so we would go to the AG.”

Neither SCDNR nor the Attorney General’s office has said what kinds of charges could be filed.

Beach was one of six people on the boat when it crashed. The five remaining boaters appeared to be “grossly intoxicated” at the scene, a Port Royal Police officer wrote in a report.

Alcohol was found on the boat, but none of the boaters were offered a sobriety test, McCullough previously said.

McCullough said Monday he can’t speak about whether blood from Paul Murdaugh or Cook was taken by hospital staff the night of the crash. He also wouldn’t say whether any blood has been subpoenaed in the case.

Neither Paul Murdaugh nor Cook has talked with SCDNR as of Wednesday, McCullough said.

What happened with the sobriety tests?

On March 1, McCullough said the driver couldn’t be determined and testing multiple people would likely result in a case being thrown out if charges were brought.

Kittle said he couldn’t speak about specific cases but, in general, a police officer can “offer” sobriety tests to more than one individual if there is a question about who is driving.

“There is nothing prohibiting tests on two people,” Kittle told the Island Packet in early March.

An investigation would, in the end, have to prove that one of the two individuals was driving.

On March 5, McCullough said the tests couldn’t be offered because one of the individuals was in surgery and another would not speak with investigators.

McCullough went into further explanation when asked again about sobriety test by an Island Packet and Beaufort Gazette reporter on March 23.

“At that point it was just a missing person,” McCullough said. “For all we knew, we were going to have six people who could have been driving. I can’t walk into a room and say everyone is going to take a sobriety test — I have to have probable cause.”

Probable cause is different from reasonable suspicion, McCullough said.

“I have to be able to articulate in a manner that a reasonable person would understand, why I am doing that,” McCullough said. “If we had done that, you would be asking, ‘Why did you give all those people that test, when you were violating their rights?’”

By the time two people were determined as possible suspects, the two boaters had a shared attorney, McCullough said.

“I know the attorney walked in and said they are not (taking the test),” McCullough previously told the Island Packet. “They were uncooperative at that point.”

The Lawsuit

On March 29, Renee Beach, Mallory’s mother, filed a lawsuit in March against former solicitor Randolph Murdaugh III, his son Richard Alexander Murdaugh, and his grandson Richard Alexander Murdaugh Jr. The lawsuit provides alleged details for important events leading up to the crash.

The recently filed wrongful death lawsuit also includes claims against Luther’s Rare & Well Done on Bay Street in Beaufort, Parker’s 55 convenience store in Ridgeland, and homeowners Kristy and James Wood, alleging all three provided or sold alcoholic beverages to the six boaters, who were between the ages of 18 and 20.

The Hampton County suit alleges that Richard Alexander Murdaugh Jr. allowed his younger brother — who is not named in the lawsuit— to use his driver’s license to purchase alcohol at Parker’s.

After purchasing the alcohol, Richard Alexander Murdaugh Jr.’s brother (Paul) shared the alcohol with Beach and the other four people under the age of 21, according to the lawsuit.

The group then consumed alcohol on Randolph Murdaugh’s property, referred to in the lawsuit as “The Island.”

“The Island” is property located on Chechessee Creek that is an asset of the Murdaugh Trust 2, which Randolph Murdaugh is a trustee of, Tinsley said. He said it is where the boaters launched from on the evening of Feb. 23.

The lawsuit accuses Randolph Murdaugh of allowing underage drinkers to consume alcohol on his property and allowing them to leave in an in “intoxicated state.” It also said the group drank alcohol that was on The Island and “available for consumption.”

“(Randolph Murdaugh) undertook a duty to supervise minors’ consumption of alcohol so as to not allow them to unnecessarily endanger themselves or others, including Mallory Beach,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit accuses Richard Alexander Murdaugh of “failing to supervise his son when he knew or should have known his son was illegally using a license to buy and consume alcohol.”

On March 25, the Sheriff’s Office emailed the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division, asking to be recused from assisting DNR in its investigation into where the group of underage Hampton County boaters at the scene had obtained alcohol before the Feb. 24 crash, according to Maj. Bob Bromage, spokesperson for the Sheriff’s Office.

Last week, Judge Perry Buckner and Judge Carmen T. Mullen, both of the 14th Judicial Circuit, recused themselves from the lawsuit and forwarded the lawsuit to the Chief Justice for assignment, according to court documents.

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Mandy Matney is an award-winning journalist and self-proclaimed shark enthusiast from Kansas. She worked for newspapers in Missouri and Illinois before she realized Midwestern winters are horrible, then moved to Hilton Head in 2016. She is the breaking news editor at the Island Packet.