Crime & Public Safety

Man accused of felony BUI had alcohol charge before fatal Beaufort Co. boat crash, records say

The Feb. 24 boat crash near Parris Island that killed Mallory Beach is not the first time Paul Murdaugh, the 20-year-old Hampton man charged with driving the boat under the influence that night, has been accused of an alcohol-related crime by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources in Beaufort County, court records show.

At Murdaugh’s bond hearing Monday, prosecutors told the court that Murdaugh’s potential alcohol use was a concern should he be released on bond, however they did not request any alcohol-related restrictions be placed on Murdaugh, such as requiring him to submit to breathalyzer testing while awaiting trial.

Prosecutors also did not ask the court to consider a citation Murdaugh received two years ago for possession of alcohol. DNR confirmed the misdemeanor charge Wednesday.

Murdaugh pleaded not guilty Monday to three felony counts of boating under the influence in the crash that killed 19-year-old Beach and injured others on board.

Judge Steven John of the 15th Judicial Circuit released Murdaugh on a $50,000 personal recognizance bond.

The judge did not list any requirements from the court to limit Murdaugh’s alcohol intake while out on bond. The only other restriction included in the conditions of Murdaugh’s release was that he cannot leave the 14th Judicial Circuit, which includes Beaufort, Hampton, Allendale, Colleton and Jasper counties, without permission of the court.

In some DUI cases, such as that of the S.C. 17-year-old who allegedly killed another teen while driving drunk this week as Fox Carolina reported, a judge will require the defendant to wear an alcohol-detecting ankle monitor while awaiting trial.

On May 29, 2017, Murdaugh was charged with “purchase or possession of beer or wine by a minor” by DNR officers in Beaufort County. He was charged on Memorial Day, a day during which DNR had said there would be an increased presence of officers in Beaufort County waters.

Also charged with underage alcohol possession that day were two of Murdaugh’s friends, both of whom were on the boat with him the night of the fatal crash.

According to Beaufort Magistrate records, Paul’s father, Richard Alexander Murdaugh — an attorney who owns the boat his son is accused of driving on Feb. 24— represented his son in the 2017 case, along with Beaufort attorney Cory Fleming.

The charges were filed on May 31, 2017. On June 29, 2017, Murdaugh’s attorneys requested a jury trial. The trial was rescheduled five times between July and November of that year.

In May 2018, Murdaugh was sentenced to attend an alcohol diversion program, which he completed in July.

His charges were dismissed on July 5, 2018.

The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette requested the incident report from the 2017 alcohol charges, but DNR was unable to produce it. An incident report would include more information about the circumstances that led to charges being filed.

“(The records) were expunged and they went through PTI (Pre-Trial Intervention),” DNR Spokesman Robert McCullough said Wednesday.

When asked whether Murdaugh was on a boat when he charged in 2017, McCullough declined to answer, saying the case had been expunged.

Though McCullough used the word “expunged” to describe the status of the charges, court records associated with the case are still available to the public and do not contain the word “expunged” on them.

DNR is the lead investigating agency in the 2019 boat crash.

Pre-trial intervention “is a diversionary program in South Carolina designed for first-time offenders charged with non-violent offenses,” according to the 14th Circuit Solicitor’s Office website. Participants who are accepted in PTI pay a total of $350 and agree to complete their assigned programs, such as alcohol education and random drug screenings, and to “not engage in any criminal activity”

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson’s office, which is prosecuting the case, said it could not comment on whether any motion or other request was made by the prosecution prior to Monday’s hearing that the judge consider Murdaugh’s underage drinking charge in deciding his bond conditions, according to spokesperson Robert Kittle.

During the bond hearing Monday, Megan Burchstead, a prosecutor with the attorney general’s office, said she wanted the record to reflect the state’s position on their concerns about Murdaugh’s alcohol use.

“The standard condition of the bond is to not have crimes committed on bond and to assume that would include the underage use of alcohol,” Burchstead said. “People handle stress differently and it would be a concern of the state pending stress at trial that we would not have a misuse of alcohol. I don’t know what parameters would be put in place for bond, under the usual conditions, but for the record purposes that is a concern of the state.”

Speaking for the defense, state Sen. Dick Harpootlian noted that Murdaugh did not have a criminal record.

Because Murdaugh had completed an alcohol diversion program in 2018, the charges were dismissed.

“There is no allegations of anything affecting his mental condition, and his character in the community is very good,” Harpootlian said of Murdaugh. “He has lived here all his life and has no convictions and no record of flight to avoid prosecution.”

Just over a month before Murdaugh’s 2017 alcohol possession charge, he had another run-in with DNR on Beaufort County waters.

On April 22, 2017, Murdaugh was charged with littering “less than 15 pounds or 27 cubit feet in volume” by a DNR officer at McCalley’s Creek sandbar, according to court records.

He was fined and ordered to appear in court on May 25, 2017.

That same day, the court noted a “failure to comply” and issued a “bench warrant/arrest warrant,” records show.

On May 31, 2017 — the same day the court filed the alcohol possession charge against Murdaugh — Murdaugh paid $510 in fines for the littering charge and the warrants were recalled, according to records.

Other violations on Murdaugh’s record include minor infractions.

Online court records show Murdaugh was issued a total of three seat belt violations in Beaufort, Hampton and Colleton counties between July 2017 and June 2018.

On Aug. 21, 2018, Murdaugh was charged by DNR officers in Colleton County for “exceed catch or size limit on gamefish or sharks” and paid $150 in fines, according to online records.

Murdaugh’s trial date in the fatal boat crash has not yet been set, according to Kittle.

The case

A Beaufort County grand jury directly indicted Murdaugh on April 18 — what would have been Beach’s 20th birthday — on one count of boating under the influence causing death and two counts of boating under the influence causing great bodily injury.

Beach, also of Hampton, was ejected from the 17-foot boat Murdaugh is accused of driving when it crashed into a bridge around 2:20 a.m. in Archers Creek. Her body was found a week later in a marshy area about 5 miles from the crash.

The five surviving passengers in the boat, including Murdaugh, were injured, according to police reports. Law enforcement officers at the scene also noted that all five appeared to be “grossly intoxicated.”

Columbia lawyers Harpootlian and Jim Griffin are representing Murdaugh. Griffin is known as a “white collar crime specialist,” The State newspaper reported. Harpootlian is “a prominent, multimillionaire trial lawyer and former prosecutor” who represents the Richland area as a Democrat, according to the newspaper.

The Attorney General’s Office decided to prosecute the case after current 14th Judicial Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone’s office recused itself the day after the crash. Three of the occupants of the boat, including Murdaugh, are related to current solicitor’s office employees.

Two judges in the 14th Judicial Circuit, Judge Perry Buckner and Judge Carmen T. Mullen, recused themselves in April from a wrongful death case filed by Beach’s mom, Renee Beach.

Kittle previously said John was already scheduled oversee cases in Beaufort County prior to Murdaugh’s charges.

From 1920 to 2006, three generations of Murdaughs have held the elected position of solicitor of the 14th Judicial Circuit, which includes, Beaufort, Allendale, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties.

Randolph Murdaugh III served as solicitor from 1986 to 2006 and is now a contract employee with the solicitor’s office, according to solicitor’s office spokesperson Jeff Kidd.

Paul Murdaugh’s father, Richard Alexander Murdaugh, is a prominent Hampton County attorney. He also assists with cases in the solicitor’s office but is not a paid employee, Kidd said.

At the scene of the crash, Paul Murdaugh was not offered a sobriety test by law enforcement.

He was taken to Beaufort Memorial Hospital, where SC Department of Natural Resources officers say Randolph and Alexander Murdaugh blocked investigators from questioning him and another boater who had also been identified as a possible driver, agency officials later said.

The elder Murdaughs also told investigators that neither Paul Murdaugh nor the other boater would submit to sobriety tests, DNR officials have said.

On March 29, Renee Beach filed a lawsuit in Hampton County against former solicitor Randolph Murdaugh III, his son Alexander Murdaugh, and his grandson Richard Alexander Murdaugh Jr.

The 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, of which Randolph Murdaugh is a trustee, Mark Tinsley, Renee Beach’s attorney, said.

He said the boaters launched from “The Island” 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 “intoxicated state.”

It also said the group drank alcohol that was “available for consumption” on “The Island” and “(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 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.”

It took DNR officials seven weeks to charge Murdaugh in the death of Beach. He was directly indicted — which bypasses the warrant, arrest, booking into jail and preliminary hearing process, during which the facts of the case are presented publicly in open court.

No other charges have been filed in the case. However, McCullough said this week that the investigation of where the boaters obtained alcohol the night of the crash is still ongoing with SLED.

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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.
Teresa Moss is a crime and public safety reporter for The Island Packet and The Beaufort Gazette. She has worked as a journalist for 16-years for newspapers in Illinois, Missouri and Arkansas.