The Low Country, South Carolina, is a place of winding creeks, muddy swamps and cotton fields with tumbledown shacks. Pirates used to sail off the coast, moonshiners and bootleggers used to smuggle liquor. More recently it has been known as a place where people hunt, fish, drink and take drugs — but now a prominent family has made the area notorious for a series of crimes and unsolved murders.

Five dead bodies have turned up, four directly associated with the wealthy Murdaugh family. Nobody is in jail for these deaths, or not yet. The Murdaughs — pronounced “Murdock”, not “murder” — are well known in rural Hampton County. For generations they have been what passes for the “law”, acting as the area’s leading prosecutors and attorneys. They are one of the grandest families in the Southern lowlands.

Death 1. July 8, 2015. A much-loved gay teenager, Stephen Smith, 19, is found dead on the road. Was he the victim of a hit-and-run accident or a homophobic attack? This is the most mysterious incident. What Stephen’s death had to do with the Murdaughs — if anything — is unclear. The South Carolina police have reopened their investigation.

Stephen Smith, a 19-year-old L.G.B.T.Q. person, died on a rural road in South Carolina in what was officially ruled a hit-and-run.

Death 2. February 26, 2018. The Murdaughs’ loyal housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield, dies after falling down the front steps of their home on their 1,770-acre estate. She had suffered a head injury and never regained consciousness, passing away three weeks later. The insurance settlement for her family, a staggering $4.3 million, vanishes before reaching them.

Death 3. February 23, 2019. Mallory Beach, a beautiful 19-year-old woman, drowns after a boat crashes into the piling of a bridge in the fast tidal waters of Archers Creek. Paul Murdaugh, 19, is drunk at the wheel. Mallory’s body is found a week later five miles away.

Deaths 4 and 5. June 7, 2021. Paul and his mother, Maggie Murdaugh, 52, are shot and killed at the family home. Alex Murdaugh, 53, father of Paul and husband of Maggie, finds their bodies and dials 911. Murdaugh, a prominent lawyer, is currently a “person of interest” in their murder, but no charges have been laid.

At this point all of America begins paying attention. Then there was nearly a sixth death. Last September Alex Murdaugh was shot in the head at the roadside. His skull was fractured and he had a minor bleed on the brain, but his injuries were not acute. Murdaugh would later claim to have asked a distant cousin to act as a hit man, making his death look like murder rather than suicide so that his surviving son, Buster, 26, who is not implicated, could gain access to $10 million in life insurance.

Five deaths and a near miss, each wrapped in confusion and shadows. So far, there are no formal suspects in any of deaths. The only certainty is that Alex Murdaugh, the once seemingly respectable family patriarch, is sitting in jail facing at least 74 criminal charges, including one relating to the disappearance of the $4.3 million insurance money for his housekeeper’s death. Satterfield’s bereaved sons, one of whom is a vulnerable adult, did not receive a penny — even though Murdaugh boasted he would look after them.

Five dead bodies have turned up, four directly associated with the wealthy Murdaugh family.

The great unraveling of the Murdaugh family begins with the boat crash that killed Mallory Beach. (The earlier deaths of Stephen and the housekeeper initially made little public impact.) Had the attractive blonde teenager not died in tragic circumstances on Archers Creek, the Murdaughs might still be living the high life today. Until that point the family appeared untouchable — and none more so than Paul, the youngest son.

Security camera footage from the night of the accident shows the under-age Paul buying alcohol using his older brother’s ID and appearing to hold the beer aloft in triumph at his success. He had been loading up for a “date night” with his girlfriend and two other young couples — all childhood friends — using his father’s 17ft fishing boat to travel to a house party. Dockside video revealed Paul to be visibly swaying and drunk as the teens headed back to the boat in the early hours of the morning.

On the boat he is said to have stripped to his boxer shorts and begun raging at his friends, who were apparently pleading with him to slow down. “He gets drunk a lot and he’s a whole other person when he’s drunk,” Miley Altman, one of the three girls on board, told investigators. Paul also allegedly slapped and abused his girlfriend. “He started calling her a bitch and was, like, ‘You’re such a whore,’ ” Miley said.

The boat crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach in 2019 put the Murdaugh family in the national news.

At about 2.20am Mallory was sitting on the lap of her boyfriend, Anthony Cook, at the rear of the boat when it crashed at speed into the piling of the bridge. The boat split open on one side and Anthony’s cousin, Connor Cook, rang 911 in distress. Miley, his girlfriend, can be heard screaming in the background, “We’ve lost Mallory. Please help! Please hurry! … Where the f*** is Mallory?”

Anthony also ended up in the water and desperately searched for Mallory; but he could not find her in the dark. To this day he struggles with the memory of that night. After the police arrived he was recorded sobbing: “If my girlfriend’s gone, I’m not going to be able to live with myself.” He then burst out, “Get that motherf***er right there away from me,” and addressed Paul Murdaugh directly. “You f***ing smiling like it’s f***ing funny? My f***ing girlfriend’s gone, bro! You think it’s f***ing funny! You’ve killed my girlfriend, bro.”

This is not how the Murdaughs regarded events. A nurse at the hospital where the injured and dazed teenagers were taken recorded that Paul was “the most intoxicated and uncooperative of those involved”. Alex Murdaugh, who arrived soon afterward, allegedly told Connor to “keep his mouth shut” and not tell the police who was driving the boat. Connor is suing Alex Murdaugh for trying to pin the blame on him for the crash. Murdaugh denies the charges.

Murdaugh would later claim to have asked a distant cousin to act as a hit man.

In her only interview, Renee Beach, Mallory’s distraught mother, recently told ABC News of her shock and disgust at the Murdaughs’ alleged behavior. “That night, I’m worried about finding my child and they’re worried about how they are going to cover up Paul was driving.” A blood test taken hours after the crash revealed the teen was three times over the legal limit. Lawyers were amazed Paul had not been breathalyzed on the spot at Archers Creek, even though Connor was. They suspected the Murdaugh name had something to do with his lenient treatment.

On April 18, 2019, on what would have been Mallory’s 20th birthday, Paul was charged with “boating under the influence”, causing the death of Mallory and injuring others. He denied the charges and was released awaiting trial. His behavior deteriorated; he drank more than ever, carried on partying and took drugs. The legal case dragged on for two years — until he and his mother, Maggie, were killed in the shocking double murder. Had the Beach family exacted revenge? Nobody believed that — and there was no evidence to suggest it whatsoever. Mallory’s grieving parents were kind people who had set up an animal charity, Mal’s Palz, in their daughter’s name. The spotlight turned back on the Murdaugh family.

Kim Brant, 65, has spent most of her life in the Hampton area and knows all the Murdaughs. She knew Mallory a little, too, through her niece. “She was a beautiful young girl, just as sweet as could be,” she says as we talk over tea at a café about 25 miles from the scene of the boat crash. “I was at her senior prom, helping to spruce up all the girls.”

Brant claims Paul and his older brother, Buster, were spoiled as boys: “Their mother instilled in them from a very young age that they were better than anybody else because they were Murdaughs. At four years old they cussed like sailors and Maggie thought it was funny.”

Maggie Murdaugh and her son Paul were shot and killed last June.

It was Paul, though, who was out of control. Even as a child he would strip to his underpants. “He used to go outside in his underwear and snake boots and call his brother a ‘motherf***er’,” Brant says. Some people called him “little Dylan Klebold”, after the teenage misfit who went on a killing spree at Columbine High School in 1999. Brant’s nephew and niece used to play with the Murdaugh boys until her half-sister and brother-in-law put a stop to their visits.

“Paul was a murdering little demon,” Brant says. “He used to kill frogs and lizards.” There were darker, possibly fanciful rumors that he used to run over dogs and keep their collars. “Now that is a serial killer,” she concludes.

The boat crash that killed Mallory Beach, however, was an accident. Preventable, yes, but not the act of a murderer. But what had happened to the Murdaugh housekeeper, Gloria Satterfield? Did Paul have anything to do with her death?

A year before Mallory died, Satterfield, 57, apparently tripped and fell down the front steps of the family home on their hunting estate. Nobody paid much attention to her fate until Mandy Matney, a brilliant investigative reporter and podcaster, broke the story of her missing insurance payout in September last year.

When the Hollywood film or TV series of the Murdaugh saga inevitably gets made, Matney, 31, from Kansas City, will be its heroine. Her gripping podcast series, Murdaugh Murders, has topped the Apple charts. A few years ago she moved to Hilton Head — a popular island resort on the southeastern shore of South Carolina — to be close to the beach and took a job with the local newspaper, later becoming news director of an upstart investigative publication, FITSNews. She became immersed in the Murdaugh story.

“Basically my whole life has been about the Murdaughs since the double homicide [of Maggie and Paul]. I eat, sleep and breathe this stuff,” she tells me over dinner at the Driftwood Eatery, near Skull Creek Drive on Hilton Head, a nod to the island’s piratical past. She has received numerous threats, some of which she takes seriously. “I have a lot of enemies because of what I’ve reported. We’re dealing with so many bad people in the story — I just want to be, like, ‘I’m not the bad person here,’ ” Matney says.

She doesn’t know if Satterfield fell or was pushed. “I don’t know if we are ever going to find out. Two people know and they are dead.” By that, she means Maggie and Paul Murdaugh. It was Maggie who called 911 on the night of Satterfield’s death, before passing the phone to her son.

“My housekeeper has fallen and her head is bleeding and I can’t get her up,” Maggie told the emergency services. She said Satterfield had been climbing the eight brick steps at the front of the house and was lying at the bottom, mumbling incoherently. Paul added: “Ma’am, she can’t talk … She’s cracked her head and there’s blood on the concrete and she’s bleeding out of her left ear.” He then said impatiently, either from the need for urgency or a reluctance to be quizzed: “Ma’am, can you please stop all these questions?”

Had Paul lost his temper and shoved the housekeeper? If so, why? Speculation is rife but nobody knows. Satterfield’s injuries were consistent with a fall, but as Ronnie Richter, the lawyer for her sons, tells me: “There is nothing natural about a 57-year-old woman falling to her death.” Hampton County authorities now regard the accident as suspicious.

Gloria Satterfield, the family’s longtime housekeeper, died from injuries sustained after a suspicious fall.

On the 911 call there was no explanation for her fall, but Alex Murdaugh subsequently claimed Satterfield had tripped over his two hunting dogs. Drawing on his legal expertise, Murdaugh allegedly suggested that Satterfield’s adult sons, Brian and Tony, should sue his insurance company — with the help of a lawyer who also happened to be Murdaugh’s friend and former college roommate. As the owner, Murdaugh assumed full blame for Satterfield’s death, leaving the insurers with no option but to settle.

However, the sons never received the money. Instead, it was allegedly redirected through a shell company called Forge, a similar name to a legitimate settlement firm. Brian, the most vulnerable, struggled financially and lost his home. They discovered there had been a payout after their aunt Ginger Hadwin, the family matriarch, read Matney’s scoop about a settlement said to be worth $500,000. It was the first any of them had heard of it. And only later did it emerge that this sum was just the first tranche of an astonishing payout worth $4.3 million in total. “Did he [Murdaugh] have going through his mind that day when we buried Gloria … ‘Oh, how much money am I gonna get?’ ” Aunt Ginger wondered.

“Their mother instilled in them from a very young age that they were better than anybody else because they were Murdaughs.”

The cruelty of the alleged deceit was breathtaking. “The man could have given those boys $500,000 and not said a word about the other millions,” Brant tells me. “They would have been so happy. It would have been enough to change their lives but that SOB wanted the whole wad.”

A few months ago Brian and Tony received more than $6.5 million in an out-of-court settlement from three parties: Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, the law firm founded by Murdaugh’s great-grandfather; Alex Murdaugh himself; and Palmetto State Bank, which was also involved in the insurance claim. Richter, the sons’ lawyer, says: “What a breach of trust after such a tragic loss, but we have had great success so far.”

If Alex Murdaugh did embezzle millions, as alleged, what did he do with the money? And did the series of alleged financial crimes have anything to do with the double murder of his wife and son? All these questions and more are still being investigated. It does appear that in early June last year Murdaugh was under severe stress. His lawyers claimed he was an opioid addict. He was being sued by the Beach family and the Cooks over the boat crash, and his son was being prosecuted in connection with Mallory’s death. Did he snap on June 7 and shoot Maggie and Paul? Or was someone else responsible?

On the night Maggie and Paul died from multiple gunshot wounds, Murdaugh had been visiting his elderly father. He told the emergency services he returned home at around 10pm to find their bodies lying near the kennels. “I need the police and an ambulance immediately,” he sobbed. “My wife and child have been shot badly!” A dog can be heard barking nearby. “I’ve been gone, I just came back,” he told the operator. “Neither one of them is moving.”

The dynasty: Buster, the family’s surviving son; Maggie, shot dead at home; Paul, shot dead at home; and Alex Murdaugh, in jail facing charges including money-laundering and forgery.

The facts are difficult to ascertain. Maggie was said to be seeking advice about divorce before her murder, but representatives for Murdaugh have claimed they had a “loving relationship”. Divorce may have been a ploy to shield their assets.

Matney thinks the Murdaughs’ marriage was unhappy, but Brant disagrees: “They were miserable people but they were happy together.” Brant doubts Murdaugh murdered his own family. “I think Alex is a bully but I don’t know that he is a cold-blooded killer,” she says. Yet her own theory about the homicides — involving professional killers and Murdaugh’s elderly father, who died days later — sounds very far-fetched.

Was there more than one shooter? Paul was reportedly blasted with a shotgun and Maggie was killed by a semi-automatic assault rifle. But the events of that night remain shrouded in mystery. What we do know is that South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) said almost immediately that there was no threat to the wider community, even though no one had been arrested for the killings. Perhaps Paul was the target and Maggie had stumbled onto the scene of the crime? Or perhaps they were both the object of murder? If Alex Murdaugh knows why his wife and son were gunned down, he is not saying.

Dick Harpootlian, Murdaugh’s lawyer, declined to comment. “My concern is what a jury hears and that depends on the facts of the case,” he says. “No lawyer involved in this process should be commenting and that includes me.”

Murdaugh has broken his silence only to explain the bizarre “assisted suicide” pact he allegedly entered into with a man called Curtis “Eddie” Smith when he was shot in the head by the roadside on September 4. Murdaugh has since been charged with filing a false police report and attempted insurance fraud. Smith has also been indicted, charged with insurance fraud, among other things.

“My world was caving in, much like it had three months earlier,” Murdaugh explained in court. “I made a terrible decision that I regret, that I’m sorry for and quite frankly I’m embarrassed about.”

Smith disputes this version of events, claiming he tried to wrestle the gun away from Murdaugh when it went off. “I didn’t shoot him, I’m innocent,” he told NBC’s Today program. “If I had shot him, he’d be dead. He’s alive.”

On top of that, neither man has explained why Murdaugh allegedly paid Smith nearly $2 million over six years. It has also emerged that 17 payments were allegedly issued in the form of hard-to-trace cashier checks for just below the $10,000 threshold at which cash payments have to be reported to the US Internal Revenue Service.

What were they for? Nobody knows. Murdaugh also owns some uninhabited islands in the swamplands. Were they used for anything illicit? Could he have become entangled with some very bad people?

I drive past Smith’s home in Walterboro, about 15 miles from the Murdaughs’ estate. There is no sign that the alleged “hit man” has been spending the money on himself. His one-story ranch house has a large yard filled with scrap and old pick-up trucks, much like those of his neighbors.

Meanwhile more scandals are coming to light. Murdaugh is alleged to have snaffled the settlement money he obtained as a personal injury lawyer for scores of needy people, such as a highway patrolman injured in the line of duty and the family of a young deaf quadriplegic. “Look at who these victims are. Who steals from a deaf kid? Let alone the fact that he’s now a quadriplegic and is on a ventilator,” said Justin Bamberg, a lawyer acting on behalf of some of the victims.

Long before Maggie and Paul were killed, there was a curious incident in this part of arch-conservative South Carolina. I had no idea until driving around the area that it occurred less than a mile from Mallory Beach’s home. A large white cross bearing the name Stephen Smith caught my eye on Sandy Run Road.

This sum was just the first tranche of an astonishing payout worth $4.3 million in total.

One night in July 2015, Stephen’s car had run out of gas and he was walking six miles home. Just before 5am his body was found sprawled in the single-lane road. His head was stoved in but there was none of the usual evidence of a hit-and-run accident, such as shards of glass. A state trooper reported at the time that Stephen, 19, had no abrasions, no torn clothes and his shoes were still on his feet. The trooper said in an audio recording that there was “no doubt” he was murdered but the investigation petered out.

Stephen’s mother, Sandy Smith, 55, is a gentle soul, and so was her son. He dreamed of becoming a doctor or nurse. I meet Sandy and her lawyer, Mike Hemlepp, at a Southern fried restaurant in Hampton. She smiles at the memory of her boy. “A lot of people ask, ‘What was it like when Stephen came out?’ He didn’t have to come out. Stephen was Stephen.” Sandy always knew he was gay.

Mysteries often have red herrings, and it is possible Stephen was simply hit by the wing mirror of a speeding vehicle. But Sandy is doubtful. For a start, Stephen had battery power and a signal on his phone. If he had run out of gas, Sandy is convinced he would have rung his twin sister, Stephanie, or his parents for help. He wasn’t the type to spend hours trudging home in the dark — nor, according to his autopsy, was he drunk or on drugs.

Once a hotshot lawyer, Alex Murdaugh now faces multiple charges, including trying to fake his own death in an attempt at insurance fraud.

When I was there in broad daylight, the road was deserted and had a wide grass verge. Stephen ought to have been able to hear a vehicle approaching and jump out of the way. “I knew from the beginning there was foul play,” Sandy says. She suspected a homophobic attack. “I felt in my heart it was a hate crime.”

Nevertheless, Sandy and her lawyer are very clear they do not know what happened that night. They are not accusing anyone of his murder. They are simply seeking the truth and justice for Stephen. They know that nobody cared about his death until Mallory Beach died — and then some old, disturbing rumors resurfaced.

Shortly after Stephen’s death the Murdaugh name cropped up dozens of times in phone calls to law enforcement officials. The various tip-offs were all based on secondhand information and it was never possible to establish a connection. In a small town like Hampton, everybody went to the same school and knew each other — the Murdaugh boys, Mallory, Stephen. Perhaps the reports were nothing more than malicious gossip.

Stephen’s mother had heard the same rumors almost immediately after her son’s death. She hadn’t known what to make of them. She alleges that, bizarrely, she had passed Alex Murdaugh at the roadside that morning on the way to see Stephen’s body.

Among many competing and sometimes contradictory theories, there were suggestions that Paul Murdaugh — though only 16 at the time — may have been involved in the events of that night and that other people may have been present. Hemlepp tells me he is “optimistic” that new evidence will emerge.

Sandy is afraid to get her hopes up, but she is determined to keep fighting for Stephen. When we meet, she is wearing a white and green T-shirt with a portrait of her son and the hashtag #StandingForStephen. The gay community has rallied round and raised more than $25,000 for a headstone and scholarship in his name. Sandy attended the annual Pride parade last autumn in Columbia, the capital of South Carolina, and felt warmed by the support. It is the one kind thing to come out of so much crime and sorrow.

It sometimes bothers Sandy that her son’s death has become entwined in the Murdaugh case, as just one element of the wider mystery. Yet his case had gone cold until SLED announced last summer, intriguingly, they were reopening their investigation “based upon information gathered during the course of the double murder investigation of Paul and Maggie Murdaugh.”

Sarah Baxter is the deputy editor for The Sunday Times of London