Within hours of the early morning boat crash that killed Mallory Beach, an officer investigating the incident spoke with the missing teen’s boyfriend.
The man said the boat’s driver was Paul Murdaugh, a 19-year-old from a line of prominent lawyers who long held sway over the South Carolina Lowcountry.
The officer did not write in his report that Murdaugh was implicated. Instead, he wrote that Beach’s boyfriend said he didn’t know who was driving. And he told his supervisor he suspected someone else entirely.
That discrepancy and others were revealed in hundreds of pages of recently released documents, which showcase missteps by officers who responded to and investigated the 2019 crash. The newly released records also reveal an aggressive effort by Murdaugh’s father and grandfather, both attorneys, to involve themselves in the early aspects of the investigation.
Prosecutors eventually charged Murdaugh with felony boating under the influence, nearly two months after the crash. The recent records show what may have caused the delay.
Some evidence was apparently not collected, statements weren’t documented in reports and incomplete information was passed along to supervisors, according to a Post and Courier examination of the case.
Responding officers, in depositions, called them honest mistakes.
But the investigation has drawn scrutiny because of several officers’ connections to the Murdaugh family and the law firm they founded. Interest in the case was also renewed after Murdaugh and his mother were gunned down last month at the family’s hunting lodge, news that drew international attention to the sleepy southern corner of the state.
In a recent court filing, attorneys representing one of the boat passengers said they wanted to question responding officers about a possible attempt to shift blame away from Murdaugh. A state grand jury was empaneled to examine how officers investigated the crash.
The newly released records show that Murdaugh’s father and grandfather prevented him from making a statement to law enforcement at a hospital. And his father was seen talking with other passengers and their parents there, as an officer tried to determine who was driving.
Questions about the Murdaughs’ influence have lingered since just after the crash.
Within weeks, Beach’s boyfriend told state investigators that he believed the Murdaughs were trying to pin the crash on his cousin, Connor Cook, records show.
Whether the errors by law enforcement or their connections to the Murdaugh family would have affected Paul Murdaugh’s prosecution is unknown. He was awaiting trial when he was fatally shot. Authorities have not made any arrests or named any suspects in his death.
Still, attorneys for Cook have asked a judge to question officers who responded to the scene about a potential “campaign” to mislead law enforcement, prosecutors and the public.
David Lucas, a spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources, which investigates boat crashes, declined to respond to the allegations specifically. But in a statement, he noted that the investigation ultimately led to charges being filed against Murdaugh, not Cook.
Questions about the law enforcement response to the boat crash begin with the first officers on scene, deputies from the Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office.
Jack Keener, a Beaufort County native, was one of them. He was working a traffic stop when a 911 call came in around 2:30 a.m. about a water emergency.
Soon after, Keener and another Beaufort deputy arrived at the bridge that leads to Parris Island and found five young adult passengers. The deputies also saw a boat with a hole in it, run aground on the side of a creek. A sixth person, Mallory Beach, had gone into the water after a collision. She was nowhere to be seen.
Keener, in a deposition, said that he wasn’t trying to investigate what happened. That was the job of the Department of Natural Resources. His focus was on finding Beach, and he followed a trail of blood and footprints into a marsh. Thick pluff mud that reached his knees prevented him from getting too far, so he returned to the passengers.
Paul Murdaugh was standing among them in his underwear even though it was a cool February night. Keener said he seemed intoxicated, and was swaying and slurring his words. At one point, Murdaugh dropped a phone.
In the days and weeks that followed, investigators intent on determining who was driving the boat requested surveillance video, phone data and medical records and interviewed passengers to try and answer that question.
But in that moment, with the case still in its infancy, Keener did not pick up the phone. He later said he figured Murdaugh was just drunk and it didn’t work. In his deposition last year, the deputy said he would probably have done things differently.
“Looking back now, hindsight is 20/20,” he said.
Keener had his own ties to Murdaugh’s law firm but said in his deposition that he did not remember them. He did not respond to an email requesting comment.
Keener and other Beaufort deputies on the scene also did not conduct a sobriety test on Murdaugh or any other passengers. Keener said that he was just trying to get basic information.
That included talking to some of the passengers as they waited for ambulances to arrive.
The group was returning to a Murdaugh family home after a night of drinking hard seltzers and cheap beer at an oyster roast and on the water.
The deputy said that those he talked to would not say who was driving the boat. But one passenger was adamant as to who was responsible.
Anthony Cook, Beach’s boyfriend, screamed at Murdaugh. Deputies kept the two men apart and tried to calm Cook down.
“That (expletive) needs to rot in (expletive) prison. He ain’t going to get in no (expletive) trouble,” Cook said, according to a transcript of what he said that was read in a deposition. “My (expletive) girlfriend’s gone.”
Beach’s body was found a week later.
Keener testified that he had no evidence Murdaugh was driving, but he said Cook’s outburst made him think he was. After all, the boat he saw damaged and ashore belonged to Murdaugh’s father.
By the time DNR officer Austin Pritcher arrived at the site of the boat crash, all of the passengers, except Anthony Cook, had gone to a local hospital. Pritcher’s job was to figure out who was driving the boat.
Officers on the scene told Pritcher conflicting information, he recalled in a deposition. Some said they heard Murdaugh was driving. Others said they heard it was Connor Cook, Anthony Cook’s cousin.
When Pritcher arrived at Beaufort Memorial Hospital, he first stepped into Murdaugh’s room.
Pritcher had been warned about how the young man was acting. A security guard was stationed outside of his room and a nurse described him as out of control. Later, a hospital staffer told officers that when she asked Murdaugh for a urine sample, he asked if she would “hold it for him.” When she turned around, he pointed at her butt and said, “Oh wow, that’s nice.”
While at his bedside, Pritcher said Murdaugh screamed answers to him. He asked the officer why it was important to find out who was driving. “I definitely was not driving, these are all my best friends,” Murdaugh said, according to an incident report.
Pritcher got little else from Murdaugh at the hospital. When the officer tried to speak with him again, Murdaugh’s father and grandfather stepped into the room, and shut down the interview. Randolph Murdaugh told Pritcher that his grandson wasn’t giving any statements.
Pritcher said that he had heard the Murdaugh name before the crash but did not know the family’s local significance. But in the room with three generations of Murdaughs, that’s “when everything clicked,” he recalled in his deposition.
The Murdaugh family had long held significant influence over the Beaufort area. Three generations of Murdaughs had served as the top prosecutor in the 14th Circuit, starting with Paul Murdaugh’s great-great-grandfather. Their hold on power in the state’s southern tip lasted more than eight decades before it ended in 2005. The family had also accumulated significant wealth through its law firm, which is based in nearby Hampton.
After shutting down the interview, Randolph Murdaugh, a former solicitor himself, stayed at his grandson’s bedside; he was heard telling him to keep his mouth shut. Alex Murdaugh, Paul Murdaugh’s father and a part-time employee for the Solicitor’s Office, roamed the emergency room. He introduced himself to medical staff, paced back and forth while on the phone and talked in hushed tones to the parents of other passengers, hospital staff recounted in statements to investigators.
The emergency room’s charge nurse recalled that Alex Murdaugh said he was responsible for the kids, and then tried to dip in and out of their rooms to speak with them. She asked a security guard to keep an eye on him, and he was finally told to go back to his son’s room or leave.
Another nurse told investigators it looked like Alex Murdaugh was trying to orchestrate something among the passengers and their families. His son’s girlfriend refused to let Alex Murdaugh in her room and later told officers that she heard him say that “he needed to tell me what to say,” according to a written statement.
A third nurse remembered Paul Murdaugh’s father asking a DNR officer multiple times if he had reason to believe his son was driving the boat.
Alex Murdaugh did not respond to a voicemail and email requesting comment. Randolph Murdaugh died earlier this year.
Pritcher needed to determine who was driving the boat before he could conduct a sobriety test.
The agent, in his deposition, said in the early stages of the investigation that he believed it was Connor Cook.
That came after Paul Murdaugh’s girlfriend implicated him. But she acknowledged that she was covering her face when the boat crashed because moments earlier, Paul Murdaugh had approached her “screaming, cussing and saying horrible things.” She later testified that he spit on her and slapped her.
When Paul Murdaugh would leave the wheel, Connor Cook, who was next to him at the controls, would step in, according to passengers.
Later she would recant her statement implicating Connor Cook and said she believed Paul Murdaugh was driving, because she noticed the driving had become more erratic. When he was driving, the ride was choppy as the boat accelerated and slowed suddenly, another passenger told officers. According to the passengers’ statements, he nearly crashed into a sailboat moored near downtown, and he would have hit Beaufort’s iconic swing bridge if Connor Cook hadn’t grabbed the wheel.
Pritcher did not attempt to test Paul Murdaugh, and he said in a deposition that he did not remember if the lead investigator on the case asked him to. He said he would have tried if he was told to. The lead investigator wrote that both Paul Murdaugh and Connor Cook refused to be tested.
Investigators later determined the amount of alcohol in Paul Murdaugh’s blood only because the hospital ran its own test. Three hours after he was seen downing Jägermeister and lemon drop shots at a waterfront Beaufort bar and about an hour and a half after the crash, his blood alcohol concentration was over 0.28. The legal limit for driving a car in South Carolina is 0.08.
Either way, Connor Cook declined the sobriety test and told Pritcher he didn’t remember anything. But in a deposition almost a year after the crash, he said he knew Paul Murdaugh was behind the wheel all along. He said he was not honest with officers because Alex Murdaugh had told him at the hospital that he didn’t need to tell anyone who was driving.
The handful of DNR officers assigned with investigating boat crashes took turns waiting for their next case to come in.
While Pritcher worked to gather information at the hospital, a call went to a DNR investigator named Michael Brock. He lived close to the crash and had grown up in the Lowcountry. His connections to the area would later raise concerns.
Brock knew Murdaughs and said in a deposition that he was close enough to stop and catch up when he ran into members of the family, but not so close that they shared dinner or vacations.
He was also familiar with the family business. His wife worked for the Murdaughs’ law firm while she was studying to be an attorney. She left the firm roughly eight months before the crash, according to a LinkedIn profile in her name.
The connections were enough that Brock said he alerted a supervisor about his connection to the family. He was later put in an assisting role. But not before he was in charge during its crucial first hours.
Before the sun rose the morning of the crash, Brock began making calls about obtaining search warrants. Paul Murdaugh’s father and grandfather had said DNR would need to obtain a search warrant to inspect the family boat, which was harder to do because it was a Sunday.
Fingerprint and DNA evidence could help determine who was driving, and Brock met a judge in a Walmart parking lot to get a search warrant signed to inspect the boat. But 14 hours had passed since the crash, by the time the boat was swabbed, according to a report by the Beaufort County deputy who took the samples. It had been left uncovered, exposed to rain and heavy dew, potentially washing away blood that could help determine who was behind the wheel.
In a statement, DNR said the swabs did not clear up who was driving.
DNR officers Pritcher and Brock both tried to clear up that question by talking with Anthony Cook. In a written statement after a conversation at the crash scene, Pritcher said he was unsure of who was driving.
But after hearing a recording of the conversation, Pritcher testified at his deposition that Anthony Cook had said that Paul Murdaugh was the driver. The agent said he did not know why he didn’t document that comment.
On the day of the crash, Brock also interviewed Anthony Cook. But at the bottom of a statement form, Brock twice marked that he’d recorded the interview.
Yet when he sat for a deposition a year after the crash, Brock said he didn’t remember if he taped the conversation, and he said that, regardless, he didn’t have a recording. He acknowledged that the missing recording did not look good, but said it was simply “an error.”
Pritcher declined to comment to a reporter. So did Brock, who now works for the State Law Enforcement Division.
And Brock’s supervisor later testified that he did not tell her that Anthony Cook had lashed out at Paul Murdaugh and accused him of killing Mallory Beach.
“From what I was getting, they were all friends and didn’t want to tell on each other,” Robin Camlin said in a deposition. She declined to comment to a reporter.
An attorney asked Camlin if she would agree that Anthony Cook’s outburst was the exact opposite of “no one wanted to say anything.”
“Yeah,” she answered.
‘A very powerful family’
Back at the scene after leaving the hospital, DNR agents took note of the fact that Paul Murdaugh came from a prominent family. An officer from the Marine Corps Recruit Depot at Parris Island overheard them describing “a very powerful family of lawyers in Hampton County.”
In fact, some of the law enforcement officials who handled the case in its first hours knew about the family’s law firm firsthand. The connections began with Jack Keener and Troy Krapf, the first Beaufort deputies to arrive on scene.
The firm, founded by Paul Murdaugh’s great-great grandfather, represented Keener’s family in 2014 after the deputy’s father was killed in a vehicle crash.
Keener, in his deposition, denied knowing who his family hired; he said his mother handled the lawsuit. But the officer personally benefited from the outcome, court records show. He and his mother each received more than $750,000 from a settlement in the case.
The firm also represented a man who in 2007 alleged that he was hurt when Krapf rear-ended him, resulting in an undisclosed settlement. Krapf declined to comment to a reporter.
Both deputies were named in the court filing earlier this month by the attorneys representing Connor Cook. So were Pritcher, Camlin and Brock of DNR.
Even when he was put in a supporting role, Brock continued to be involved in interviews with witnesses, records show. He later acknowledged that as a young man, he’d also been invited to the Murdaugh family’s river house, which was the boat’s destination the night of the crash.
Pritcher, the first DNR agent to arrive on scene, is also on the list to be questioned. His connection to the law firm is less direct. He had once played in a golf tournament hosted by the firm and was joined at the tournament by two other DNR agents, one of whom was a friend of Paul Murdaugh’s uncle.
But the family’s web of connections extend beyond just those named in the recent filing, court records show.
The on-duty commander at the Port Royal Police Department, which also responded to the boat crash, had hired the Murdaughs’ firm to represent his family after they were in a vehicle crash.
So had a group of Beaufort County employees, including at least two deputies involved with aspects of the investigation, who disputed changes made to their retirement benefits.
Their lawsuit was being personally handled by Alex Murdaugh.