Late on the night of June 7, 2021, Buster Murdaugh received a phone call from his father, Alex.
It wasn’t the first time Alex had called his son that night. A couple of hours before, shortly after 9 p.m., he had telephoned Buster from his car as he drove to his mother’s place to check on her. Alex sounded normal, and it was common for the Murdaugh family — Alex, wife Maggie, and their sons, Buster and Paul — to call one another from their cars to update them on their movements, Buster said.
But this late-night call was different.
“He asked me if I was sitting down, and I was like, yeah. He sounded odd,” Buster recalled in his court testimony on Tuesday. “And then he told me that my mom and brother had been shot.”
Buster was called to the stand at the Colleton County Courthouse by defense attorneys for his father, who has pleaded not guilty to murdering Maggie and Paul and is now able to call his own witnesses after prosecutors rested their case against him last week.
Buster and some of Alex’s siblings — all members of a family of high-profile lawyers in the South Carolina Lowcountry region and whose influence and power stretches back for generations — have sat behind the defendant on each day of the weeks-long trial to show their support. But this was the first time Buster has spoken publicly since the killings — and the subsequent uncovering of extensive alleged financial crimes by Alex.
In his testimony, Buster described his father in loving terms, recalling how he’d coached him during Little League sports and almost never missed one of the boys’ sporting events. The family settled disputes civilly and without violence, Buster said.
But all wasn’t picture-perfect.
Like his mother and brother, Buster said he became aware in recent years that his father had been misusing prescription painkillers — although, Buster said, he wasn’t as clued in to the extent of the drug addiction as the rest of his family because he’d moved away for college. Around Christmas in 2018, Alex had even gone to a detox facility to wean himself off the opioids, Buster testified.
“I thought that handled it,” Buster said. But Alex's family had discovered drugs on other occasions, compelling him to try to detox at home, Buster added.
Last week, members of the jury read a text message sent from Paul to his father about a month before the killings, telling him Maggie had discovered “several bags of pills” in Alex’s computer bag. Alex later told investigators that he sometimes spent as much as $50,000 a week to support his drug habit — money, he told investigators in a recorded phone call, that he secretly stole from his law firm and clients.
Prosecutors have said that Alex killed his wife and son in a panicked attempt to distract others and engender sympathy for himself amid a swirling sea of investigations and lawsuits against him that were poised to expose his financial wrongdoings and drug misuse.
Indeed, Buster testified that he never knew about his father’s financial troubles or misdeeds, despite being aware of his drug addiction. But defense attorneys have mocked the state’s case as one based entirely on theory, not fact.
After driving for hours through the night to the family’s property on Moselle Road in Islandton, South Carolina, after Alex had called him to let him know of the killings, Buster said his father appeared to be a broken man. “He was destroyed. He was heartbroken,” Buster testified. “I walked in the door, saw him, gave him a hug — just broken down.”
Buster described packing clothes for his father so they could stay with other family members, describing how he may have knocked over clothes in his father’s wardrobe. He also said that both he and his father took showers at the house early the next morning.
Defense attorneys introduced Buster’s testimony to explain evidence given by the Murdaugh family housekeeper two weeks ago. Blanca Turrubiate-Simpson testified how she’d been asked by Alex that morning to clean the home in case visitors came to offer condolences, but she noticed several odd things. This included at least two towels discarded on the floor in Alex’s bathroom and wardrobe, a puddle of water next to the shower, and a white T-shirt on the floor that appeared to have fallen from a pile placed up high.
Both Paul and Buster were avid shooters who routinely hunted animals at the family’s rural property. Many weapons were left around the property, Buster said, especially by Paul, who had a habit of not storing them properly. But Buster said that he would never alternate buckshot and birdshot rounds in a single shotgun, and he’d never seen anyone on the property do that either. A shotgun loaded in this manner was used to kill Paul.
In a bid to further discredit the state’s case, defense attorneys also called Mike Sutton, an engineer who produces digital reproductions of crime scenes in order to track ballistic trajectories. Sutton testified Tuesday that he believed, based on his analysis of the angles at the scene, whoever shot Maggie was most likely at least a foot shorter than Alex. “In my opinion, it’s very unlikely that he fired that shot,” Sutton testified.
Prosecutors have hinted that they believe Alex hid the two missing murder weapons when he drove to his mother's house and discarded them sometime later. However, state investigators have said they did not search his mother’s home until months after the killings — something they’ve admitted was a mistake.
But in the 10 days after his mother and brother were killed, Buster said, he was regularly with his father.
“Do you remember your dad disappearing for any periods of time?” defense attorney Jim Griffin asked.
“No, sir,” Buster responded.
“Were you physically close to him almost all the time?” Griffin asked.
“Yes, sir,” Buster responded.
Prosecutors also played for Buster a snippet of an interview that his father gave to investigators three days after the killings in which detectives said they could hear Alex say of Paul, “I did him so bad.”
But defense attorneys have insisted that Alex was actually saying, “They did him so bad,” and was referring to whoever killed his wife and son. After playing the tape for Buster, Griffin asked what he could hear his father saying in the audio. Buster said he could hear his father using the pronoun “they.”
“Was that the first time you’d heard him say, ‘They did him so bad’?” Griffin asked.
“The first time I heard him say that was the night I went down to Moselle,” Buster said. “The night of June the seventh.”