South Carolina

2 judges ask to be removed from Beaufort Co. boat crash lawsuit. Investigation continues

Paul Murdaugh charged in Feb. 24 boat crash that killed Mallory Beach

Paul Murdaugh of Hampton, S.C., faces 3 criminal charges in the Beaufort County boat crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach. Beach went missing after the crash. Her body was found a week later.
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Paul Murdaugh of Hampton, S.C., faces 3 criminal charges in the Beaufort County boat crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach. Beach went missing after the crash. Her body was found a week later.

Two high-ranking officials have recused themselves from a Hampton County lawsuit against a former 14th Circuit solicitor and two of his family members who allegedly allowed underage boaters to drink alcohol and use false identification to obtain alcohol before the crash that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach.

Judge Perry Buckner and Judge Carmen T. Mullen, both of the 14th Judicial Circuit, join two government agencies that have also asked to be recused from case connected to the Feb. 24 boat crash near Parris Island.

On April 8, Buckner filed a document recusing himself from hearing the lawsuit Mallory Beach’s mother filed against former solicitor Randolph Murdaugh III, his son Richard Alexander Murdaugh and his grandson Richard Alexander Murdaugh Jr.

“All administrative matters concerning this case shall be directed to the Honorable Carmen T. Mullen,” the document stated.

On April 10, an additional recusal document was submitted by Julia Bradshaw, a court clerk, stating that Mullen “has recused herself from hearing all matters related to this case and has forwarded this to the Chief Justice for assignment.”

Neither Buckner or Mullen returned a call inquiring about the recusals Monday.

Buckner’s law clerk responded to an email saying, “Because he is a judge, Judge Buckner cannot give any comments or take any active part in any pending case. Generally, judges are only allowed to speak to people about a case in court, with all sides present and able to participate. Consequently, Judge Buckner is not allowed to respond or comment. . . .”

The document does not state why the judges asked to be recused from the cases. However, two of the defendants in the case have worked in the same circuit as the two judges.

“There is probably not a single person (in Hampton County) whose life has not been influenced by Randolph Murdaugh,” Buckner, the first judge to recuse himself from the case, said at a 2018 ceremony honoring the former solicitor, the Augusta Chronicle reported.

The recently filed wrongful death 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 parties provided or sold alcoholic beverages to the six boaters, who were between the ages of 18 and 20.

After leaving Luther’s, one of the boaters crashed into the Archer’s Creek bridge, ejecting Mallory Beach and causing her death, the lawsuit states.

The lawsuit accuses Randolph Murdaugh of allowing underage drinkers to consume alcohol on his property on the evening of Feb. 23 and allowing them to leave in an “intoxicated state.” It also says the group drank alcohol on that was “available for consumption” on his property.

Richard Alexander Murdaugh owned the boat that crashed into a piling of a small bridge around 2:20 a.m. just outside the main entrance to Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island, according to S.C. Department of Natural Resources, the lead investigating agency in the case. However, the lawsuit does not mention that he owned the boat.

His 19-year-old son, Paul, is one of two possible drivers of the boat, a Port Royal Police report states. It states Connor Cook, 19, is another possible driver.

Three generations of Murdaughs have held the elected position of solicitor for the 14th Judicial Circuit, which serves Beaufort and Hampton County, since 1920. Randolph served from 1986 to 2006. He continues to work as a contractor prosecuting criminal cases for the office. Richard Alexander voluntarily assists.

Randolph and Richard Alexander are partners in the Hampton County-based law firm Peters Murdaugh Parker Eltzroth & Detrick. The firm, started in 1910 by Randolph Murdaugh, tries cases throughout the region.

Beach first filed suit against Parker’s, Luther’s and the Woods on March 20 in Beaufort County. That lawsuit was dismissed and refiled as the current lawsuit, Beach’s attorney, Mark Tinsley of the Gooding & Gooding law firm in Allendale, previously told The Island Packet.

The Beaufort County Sheriff’s Office recused itself from a criminal investigation into where the teens received or purchased alcohol on March 25. A “long-standing relationship with the Murdaugh family” was given as a reason for the recusal.

A day after the crash, the 14th Circuit Solicitor Duffie Stone asked South Carolina Attorney General Alan Wilson to reassign the case should charges be filed because three of the boaters are related to employees of Stone’s office.

The investigation

While numerous public records point to alcohol playing a role in the crash, no charges have been filed in the case.

“I can tell you that the case will come to fruition and it will work out,” SCDNR spokesman Robert McCullough says. “We are on our time frame, not the public’s time frame. The public is not doing the investigation — we are. They are not held responsible — we are.”

Mallory was one of six people on the boat when it crashed. The five remaining boaters appeared to be “grossly intoxicated” at the scene, a Port Royal Police officer wrote in a report.

Alcohol was found on the boat, but none of the boaters were offered sobriety tests, McCullough previously said.

McCullough said Monday he can’t speak about whether blood from Paul Murdaugh or Cook was taken by hospital staff the night of the crash. He also wouldn’t say whether any blood has been subpoenaed in the case.

Neither Paul Murdaugh nor Cook has talked with SCDNR as of Monday, McCullough says.

He says SCDNR attorneys are talking with the two suspects’ attorneys.

The other three boaters have cooperated with SCDNR, McCullough says. He would not reveal whether the other boaters told agents who was driving.

SCDNR hasn’t given any insight on what type of charges could be possible.

It can take longer to investigate boating accidents vs. car accidents, McCullough says.

“A fatal car accident doesn’t change — there are skid marks on the road you can go back and look at a day later, a week later,” McCullough says. “On the water there are no marks. You can get a mark on a dolphin like we have here but the tide comes in and out every day. It is constantly changing every day.”

Broken pieces of a car, such as busted headlights, on a road can tell you the direction cars were moving, McCullough says.

“None of that exists in the water,” McCullough says. “It is there, but it disappears — the ground moves. It becomes a much more difficult process to find out exactly what happened.”

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.