Cellphone video played in court could put Alex Murdaugh at scene of 2 murders
Two childhood friends of Paul Murdaugh’s each took the witness stand Wednesday to tell a jury that a third voice heard on a cellphone video, recorded minutes before Paul and his mother, Maggie, were murdered, is the voice of his father, Alex Murdaugh.
The 58-second video, played to the jury on the eighth day of Murdaugh’s double-murder trial, is vital prosecution evidence because, up to now, Murdaugh has contended that he was nowhere near the dog kennels the night his wife and youngest son were murdered.
Placing Murdaugh at the kennels could puncture Murdaugh’s major alibi — that he left the family’s rural 1,700-acre Colleton County estate before they were killed June 7, 2021, and drove to his mother’s house — although the defense has yet to offer a counter explanation.
Murdaugh, 54, is charged in Maggie and Paul’s murders. He has pleaded not guilty, and faces life in prison if convicted.
And, in a day full of dramatic testimony and revelations about Murdaugh and his family, the jury learned for the first time that Murdaugh — a supposedly well-to-do attorney who came from a well-connected family — was in danger of having his dire financial straits exposed publicly when his wife and son were killed.
Prosecutors contend that the motive for the killings is that Murdaugh, threatened with financial exposure, killed his wife and son to create a wave of sympathy and confusion so strong that it would throw people investigating his finances off the track.
Whether prosecutors can show the jury evidence of Murdaugh’s financial situation, which includes stealing from his law partners and clients, will be the subject of a 9:30 a.m. Thursday hearing before Judge Clifton Newman.
Without the jury present, prosecutors will argue that evidence of Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes should be admitted, even though Murdaugh has only been indicted, but not convicted, of various financial frauds that toal some $8 million over more than 12 years.
In November, Murdaugh’s friend and accomplice Russell Laffitte, a former bank CEO, was convicted in federal court of various financial frauds that he carried out with Murdaugh’s help.
Defense attorneys will argue that all financial fraud evidence is not relevant to the crime of murder and, in any case, Murdaugh, a loving family man, would never have murdered his wife and son for such a motive.
Lead prosecutor Creighton Waters on Wednesday teased the jury of financial fraud evidence he wants them to hear.
His voice rising, Waters asked Wednesday’s final prosecution witness, 26-year-old Will Loving, a longtime friend of both Paul and the family, if he knew whether Murdaugh was confronted by his law firm the morning of the murders about $792,000 in missing legal fees.
“No, I did not,” Loving said, after Newman overruled defense attorney Jim Griffin’s objection to the question.
Friends testify to Murdaugh family, Paul’s friendship
Loving was Wednesday’s fourth and final witness, and the 18th prosecution witness so far since the trial started Jan. 23.
The prosecution appears likely to take at least another week in presenting its case, noteworthy by the complexity of the evidence and legal hurdles, since both of the murder weapons have never been found.
Maggie was killed by a rile firing powerful .300 Blackout rounds, and Paul was killed by a shotgun.
Colleton County Sheriff’s Office deputy Dathan Varnadoe, who did a gunshot residue test on Murdaugh’s hands after the killings and law enforcement arrived on the scene, told the jury during cross-examination Wednesday that he testified in a previous case that involved an affiliate of the Cowboys’ drug gang. At that trial, several years ago, Murdaugh was a part-time prosecutor for the 14th Judicial Circuit, and the Cowboys were the object of a law enforcement crackdown.
Defense attorneys have floated the idea that others — including a drug gang — killed Paul and Maggie for revenge.
On Wednesday, Loving and Rogan Gibson, 26, another of Paul’s childhood friends — detailed to the jury about the closeness of the Murdaugh family, especially how Murdaugh loved his wife and especially his youngest son, Paul. Illustrating that fact, Gibson explained everyone had nicknames.
Paul was called “Rooster,” and his older brother, Buster, was called “Bus.”
Murdaugh was known as “Big Red,” and Maggie went by “Miss Maggie.”
Paul’s late grandfather, Randolph Murdaugh, was called “Handsome,” and his wife, Libby, went by “Em.”
“It just kind of seemed like Paul was the apple of his (Murdaugh’s) eye,” Loving testified, adding that Murdaugh and Maggie got along well. “I thought they had an awesome relationship, ... always laughing.”
At times, Murdaugh, listening Wednesday to witnesses describe seemingly idyllic times of his family, appeared to weep.
Moselle, the family’s property in Colleton County, was a vibrant, popular center of life for family and friends, where the children often would hang out, riding around on the family’s many vehicles and shooting hogs, deer, ducks and turkeys, Paul’s friends testified.
“The Moselle property was Paul’s passion,” Gibson said. “It was open to all of Paul and Buster’s friends.”
Murdaugh and Maggie got along very well, the two friends said.
Murdaugh doted on Paul, and a wide circle of close friends found a home in the Murdaughs’ home, even to the point where some considered Murdaugh a second father and Maggie a second mother, they testified.
Murdaugh had a “very good relationship” with Paul, and Paul told Murdaugh about everything he was doing, Gibson testified.
Late Wednesday, just before the jury was dismissed for the day, prosecutors showed the jury a brief video of Murdaugh’s surprise 52nd birthday party. The video showed his best friend, lawyer Chris Wilson, giving him a hug.
Wilson is the attorney whom Murdaugh persuaded in spring 2021 to give him a $792,000 legal fee — Murdaugh’s share of a winning court award — instead of forwarding that money to the firm’s client trust account. Ordinarily, lawyers are supposed to put their fees in their firm’s trust account. But Murdaugh told Wilson it was fine with the firm to give him the money, according to legal documents.
Friends say ‘100%’ Murdaugh’s voice on cellphone video
Hours before Maggie was killed, the jury heard she sent a text message to a friend.
At the time, Maggie was staying at the family’s cottage at Edisto, a beach resort about 70 miles from the family rural estate. In the text, Maggie said she was returning to Mosselle that night because Murdaugh wanted her to.
“Alex wants me to come home,” she wrote to her friend, testified Lt. Britt Dove, with the State Law Enforcement Division.
It’s unclear the activity that occurred once Maggie got home, but the jury was finally presented with evidence Wednesday teased by Waters in his opening statement: a video from Paul’s cellphone taken at the kennels the night of the murders that was intended to be shared with his friend, Gibson.
Paul was killed inside of the feed room, attached to the kennel building. Maggie was shot roughly 20 feet away, around the side of a red roofed hanger-like structure.
Gibson testified Wednesday that he boarded his dog at the Murdaughs’ kennels while he was staying at his girlfriend’s house. On the night of the killings, he asked Paul to take a video of his chocolate lab, named Cash, in the kennel.
“He was going to try to FaceTime me,” Gibson said, but since the cell service in the area was unreliable, “I asked him if he can’t get FaceTime to do a video.”
The video started recording at 8:44:49 p.m. the night of June 7, 2021, according to Dove, who extracted data from Paul’s cellphone. It ended roughly 50 seconds later.
On the video, Paul’s voice can be heard as he attempted to wrangle Cash into the frame. In the background, a woman, identified by Paul’s friends as Maggie, can be heard asking about a guinea fowl.
“It’s a chicken,” a third man can be heard saying, in a high-pitched voice.
On the video, Gibson said he could hear two voices, one of them Maggie and another he later told investigators he was “99% sure” was “Mr. Alex.”
Shown the video again in court, Gibson said he was “100%” sure the man’s voice was Murdaugh.
Loving said the same.
Gibson never got the video of Cash from Paul.
Prosecutors estimate that a little more than three minutes after he shot the video in the dog kennel, Paul and Maggie were shot to death.
Prosecutors highlight cellphone evidence at trial
Defense attorney Phillip Barber in cross-examination largely ignored the video.
Murdaugh and his attorneys have maintained he fell asleep in front of the television around 8:30 p.m. at the main house at Moselle, then woke up around 9 p.m. and visited his mother, who has late-stage Alzheimer’s, in nearby Varnville. Murdaugh told investigators that he discovered his wife and son’s bodies after 10 p.m., when he returned from his mother’s house.
Based on evidence taken from the cellphones, prosecutors say Paul and Maggie were killed moments after the video of Paul and the dog, Cash, was recorded. Dove testified that activity on Paul and Maggie’s phones stopped around 8:49 p.m.
A text message sent to Paul’s phone was read at 8:48:59 p.m., but another text sent at 8:49:35 p.m. was never read.
The last recorded activity on Maggie’s phone was around the same time, prosecutors say.
▪ 8:44:49 p.m. — Paul records a video on his phone at the dog kennels for his friend Rogan Gibson.
▪ 8:48:59 p.m. — A text to Paul’s phone is marked as “read.” It is the last read on his phone
▪ 8:49:27 p.m. — Two texts are marked read on Maggie’s phone. They are the last read texts on her phone
▪ 8:49:31 p.m. — Maggie’s phone locks. It does not unlock until 1:10 p.m. the next day, June 8, 2021
▪ 8:49:35 p.m. — A follow-up text to Paul goes unread
▪ 8:53:15 p.m. — Steps start on Maggie’s phone
▪ 8:54:34 p.m. — A camera on Maggie’s phone activates for one second. It is possibly responding to facial recognition, Dove testified
▪ 8:55:15 p.m. — Steps stop on Maggie’s phone. No more steps are recorded
▪ 9:02:18 p.m. — Steps begin on Murdaugh’s phone. This is the first activity on this device since 8:09 p.m., Dove testifies
▪ 9:04:23 p.m. — First missed call to Maggie’s phone from Murdaugh
▪ 9:06:12 p.m. — Orientation on Maggie’s phone changes
▪ 9:06:14 p.m. — Maggie receives a second call from Murdaugh
▪ 9:06:47 p.m. — Steps stop on Murdaugh’s phone.
▪ 9:08:58 p.m. — Murdaugh texts Maggie, “going to check on m be right back.” It is unread
▪ 9:31:44 p.m. — Display comes on Maggie’s phone for the final time. Cause unknown, Dove testifies
▪ 9:45:32 p.m. — Maggie’s phone records incoming call from Murdaugh
▪ 9:47:23 p.m. — Maggie’s phone receives a text, “call me babe,” from Murdaugh. It is not read
▪ 9:59 p.m. — Paul’s friend Gibson texts Paul, “Yo.” Paul does not respond
▪ 10:03:58 p.m. — Missed incoming call from Murdaugh on Maggie’s phone
The defense on Wednesday questioned the interpretation of some of the phone data, particularly a record from Maggie’s phone that the phone recorded an orientation change — moving from horizontal to vertical or vice versa — at 9:06:12 p.m., suggesting the phone was being held up two seconds before Murdaugh’s second missed phone call.
Barber asked if the orientation could have changed when the phone was thrown from a car window.
“It would be reasonable if somebody had taken the phone, they see his name light up on it, they might have thrown it out the window,” Barber said.
Maggie’s phone was found hundreds of meters from her body the night she and Paul were shot to death at the family’s rural Colleton County estate. While Paul’s phone was found on top of his left thing, Maggie’s was not recovered until the next day. It was found on a road near the property using the Find My iPhone app on her surviving son Buster’s phone. Buster had shared locations turned on for his mother’s phone.
The array of data taken from the call records and the internal sensors gives the most detailed timeline yet of the Murdaugh family’s movements the night of June 7, 2021.
Records from Maggie’s phone, introduced first on Tuesday, indicated five missed calls from her husband at 9:04 p.m., 9:06 p.m., 9:06 p.m., 9:45 p.m. and 10:03 p.m. — after prosecutors allege she was killed. But those calls are missing from the call log on Murdaugh’s phone. Dove suggested Wednesday that the phone calls must have been manually deleted by the time the phone was inspected in September 2019.
Focusing on Maggie’s cellphone, Barber raised two key points Wednesday:
▪ Between 9:02 p.m. and 9:06 p.m., Murdaugh’s phone recorded 283 steps
▪ At 9:06 p.m., three key events happened, he said: Murdaugh called Maggie; his Chevrolet Suburban turned on; and Maggie’s phone recorded its final orientation change, indicating that the phone had been rotated. However, Maggie’s phone recorded no steps
“It appears the phones were not being moved together by the same person because they are not (both) recording steps,” Dove said during cross-examination.
The only activity recorded at the time was an unanswered call to Maggie made from Murdaugh’s phone at 10:25 p.m.
Dove said he could not say if the phone was thrown at the moment the movement was recorded, or whether the action of throwing a phone would record an orientation change unless the phone tumbled end over end in the process.
“I’ve never practiced throwing a phone out a window to see what the orientation change would be,” Dove said.