Alex Murdaugh’s former paralegal details alleged financial crimes as bomb threat disrupts murder trial

Bomb threat causes Colleton County courtroom to be evacuated during Day 13 of Murdaugh trial
Published: Feb. 8, 2023 at 8:34 AM EST

COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - The most surprising moment in day 13 of the Alex Murdaugh double murder trial did not come from testimony, but from a bomb threat called into the Colleton County Courthouse.

Presiding Judge Clifton Newman calmy made the announcement that everyone in the courthouse had to evacuate at 12:30 P.M. The trial resumed nearly three hours later after it was determined that the threat was a hoax.

WIS witnessed Buster Murdaugh, Alex’s surviving son, along with his brother John Marvin, being escorted out by deputies.

Law enforcement told both the general public and members of the media to move across the street as they worked to investigate.

Both the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the Colleton County Sheriff’s Office secured the area.

Earlier this morning, Alex’s former paralegal, Annette Griswold, took the stand. She said that she witnessed suspicious behavior from Alex in the months leading up to the killings.

Griswold described Alex as “the Tasmanian Devil,” and testified that his work habits were erratic.

She worked with him for nine years at PMPED, now known as the Parker Law Group.

Alex’s demeanor changed after the boat crash involving his son Paul that killed Mallory Beach in 2019, Griswold testified.

He became more isolated, secretive and seemed tense, she said.

Griswold said Alex would often tell her to change checks she had made out to Forge Consulting, a legitimate structured settlement firm, to just Forge.

This was a fake company that Alex had created to steal money from clients and the firm, Griswold testified.

“I was like, ‘Well, I don’t understand, isn’t the name of the company Forge Consulting?’” she said. “And he described it to me, he said, ‘Think of it like Forge Consulting is the large company and Forge is kind of under that umbrella of it.”

She said this did not seem right to her, but she kept quiet and trusted Alex.

Griswold testified about $792,000 in missing fees from the Mack Trucks/Ferris case.

After the murders, everyone at the firm went into “momma bear mode,” rallying to Alex’s aid, according to Griswold.

“Were you at all concerned about finding out what happened to these Ferris fees after that happened?” Lead prosecutor Creighton Waters asked Griswold.

“What Ferris fees?” she said.

“What Ferris fees?” Waters responded.

“Yea, what Ferris fees?” Griswold responded. “That was the furthest thing on my mind.”

She said the entire firm was scared for their safety and the safety of the Murdaugh family.

It was not until three months later, on September 2, 2021, that she thought about the missing funds again.

When reviewing files, she noticed a check “kind of floated like a feather to the ground.”

That check, which was made payable to the fake Forge company and signed by Murdaugh, was all the proof Griswold needed of Alex’s stealing and cover-up.

Alex had previously told Griswold that he did not have this check, and felt betrayed.

“I said, ‘He’s been lying this whole time,’” Griswold said when asked what she realized at that point. “He had these funds, he lied to me. That feeling in the back of my mind was correct, unfortunately. He did take these funds. Because when I flipped the check over, I also saw that he had deposited it by mobile deposit.”

On cross examination of Griswold, the defense sought to paint Murdaugh as a family man and a good person to work for.

Griswold was the fourth person to identify Alex’s voice in the video taken by Paul at the kennels just minutes before prosecutors say he and Alex’s wife Maggie were murdered.

She told Waters that she was “100 percent sure” that it was Alex.

Alex has asserted he was never there.

Earlier today, the defense established on cross examination of SLED forensics expert Megan Fletcher that the gunshot residue found on the blue raincoat recovered from the home of Alex’s mother after the murders could have been there for years.

When court resumed after the hours-long recess following the bomb threat, Dwight Falkofske, an FBI data analyst testified.

He looked into encrypted data from Murdaugh’s Suburban.

One key takeaway from his testimony is that data from the vehicle shows that Alex stayed at his mother’s home for 20 minutes the night of the murders, confirming caretaker Shelley Smith’s version of events.

Smith testified on Monday that Alex confronted her after the murders and told her he was at the house for 30 or 40 minutes.

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Day 12 recap

WALTERBORO, S.C. – (WIS) For the first time Tuesday, jurors in Alex Murdaugh’s double murder trial heard testimony about the disbarred attorney’s alleged financial crimes.

Presiding Judge Clifton Newman ruled Monday to allow the financial crimes evidence to be admitted. The state contends it was Alex’s financial misdeeds, and the threat of their exposure, that motivated him to murder his wife and son.

Jeannie Seckinger, the CFO at Alex’s former law firm PMPED, testified for hours.

She is a key witness for the prosecution, as she went line by line through Alex’s elaborate, decades-long scheme, she says, of stealing over $5 million from clients and the law firm, now known as the Parker Law Group.

Seckinger’s testimony was largely very similar to what she said during an in-camera hearing last week, but in a new exchange she told jurors Tuesday that his success at the firm was not based on work ethic, but on deceit and manipulation.

She testified that she worked with him for 20 years, but had known him for more than 40 years. They went to high school together.

“Did you really know Alex Murdaugh?” Lead prosecutor Creighton Waters asked.

“I don’t think I ever really knew him,” Seckinger said. “I don’t think anybody knows him.”

In case after case, Seckinger described how Murdaugh diverted money belonging to the firm and its clients to a shell account he created in his name at Bank of America called Forge.

Forge Consulting LLC is a legitimate company that would structure settlements for PMPED clients.

However, Alex used the name Forge for this sham company, which prosecutors refer to as “fake Forge.”

Seckinger further described how Alex would divert law firm fees totaling over $2 million to Palmetto State Bank, where convicted banker Russell Laffitte was the CEO. There, Lafitte would draw from those funds to cover any overdrafts or loans outstanding on Murdaugh’s personal accounts.

Waters ran through a line-by-line accounting of incidents where Alex stole money, and diverted funds to Forge.

His use of repetition was designed to convey the scope of Alex’s corruption to the jury, now privy to evidence of Alex’s alleged financial misdeeds.

Dozens of times, Seckinger was asked if the firm was forced to repay clients for the money Murdaugh stole, and each time she would respond, “Yes.”

When asked why, she would say, “Because Alex stole it.”

During one exchange, Waters asked, “Alright, so looking at the second page of this exhibit, what is this?”

“This is the check made payable to Forge for $225,000,” Seckinger said.

“And that went to the fake Forge?” Waters asked.

“Yes,” Seckinger replied.

“Did the law firm ultimately have to pay that money back?” he asked.

“We did,” Seckinger said.

“And why did you have to pay that money back?” Waters asked.

“Because Alex stole it,” she replied.

Seckinger also said in the days prior to the murders, Alex sought to divert money to his wife Maggie’s bank account ahead of a hearing on June 10, 2021, in the Mallory Beach boat crash wrongful lawsuit where Alex was a defendant.

When it was suggested that Alex could be doing this, Alex’s former law partner Ronnie Crosby testified on Tuesday that he was shocked.

“I said, ‘Oh [expletive] we’re not,” Crosby said.

“And why was that your reaction?” Waters asked.

“Because to do that under any circumstance was illegal, unethical and he would be putting us at risk,” Crosby said.

In that hearing, Alex was set to be compelled to disclose all his financial accounts. Prosecutors argue he diverted funds to his wife in an effort to shield his income from the lawsuit.

Seckinger also described a key meeting at the law firm on the afternoon of June 7, the day Alex’s wife and son Maggie and Paul were murdered.

During that meeting, she confronted Alex about $792,000 in missing fees that she had uncovered and was demanding an explanation.

“He looked at me with a pretty dirty look, one I’d not seen before, and said, ‘What do you need now?’” Seckinger said. “Clearly disgusted with me, which kind of raised my hackles so I said, ‘Well let’s go in your office and talk about it.’”

That conversation was cut short, Seckinger said when Alex received a phone call saying his father was hospitalized and was terminal.

She testified that Maggie and Paul’s murders halted the inquiry into the missing funds for maybe a month, as everyone at the firm was justifiably concerned.

“He was erratic, we knew he was taking pills,” Seckinger said. “We were just worried about his sanity so we weren’t going to go in there and harass him about money when we were worried about his mental state and the fact that his family had been killed.”

It was not until September of 2021 that Seckinger would discover the extent of the schemes.

The defense, on cross-examination of Seckinger, established that though this conduct was going on since 2011, no clients had complained about missing money at the time of the murders.

“So some 10 years before the murders of Maggie and Paul, right?” Defense attorney Jim Griffin asked.

“Correct,” Seckinger said. “He managed to fool a lot of people, myself included.”

“I understand,” Griffin said. “And I understand you have the right to be hurt and angry about that. Are you angry about that?”

“Oh yes, I take it very personally,” she said. “It haunts me that I let this – or that this happened.”

“Do you feel like it happened on your watch?” Griffin asked.

“I think anybody would feel normal feeling like that, it’s a big betrayal of trust,” she said.

That betrayal of trust and the possibility of these crimes being exposed, prosecutors say, is key in proving Murdaugh’s motive in the murders of Maggie and Paul.

The defense’s argument is that if Alex were trying to escape the scrutiny of his alleged financial misdeeds, buying himself only a month would not justify the murders of his wife and son.

Judge Newman reminded jurors that this evidence is being admitted with a limited purpose: in proving the state’s theory of motive.

Griffin hammered that point and said that the jury is not here to try the financial crimes.

Alex faces 99 charges and 19 indictments related to financial crimes. If convicted of those crimes, he could spend the rest of his life in prison, regardless of the outcome of his murder trial.

Crosby testified that he headed to Moselle shortly after the murders to rally around Alex.

He said that Alex told him a story similar to what he told investigators regarding his whereabouts on the night of the murders.

But when shown the video on Paul’s cell phone at the kennels at 8:44 P.M. on the night of the murders, Crosby became the third person to testify with 100 percent certainty that he could identify Alex’s voice on the video, five minutes before prosecutors say the murders happened.

This contradicts Alex’s statement of alibi. He said he was taking a nap from 8 to 9 P.M., and in an interview with SLED, he told investigators that he had not gone to the kennels at all after dinner that night.

The final witness of the day was Maggie Fletcher a forensic expert with SLED, who analyzed Alex’s clothing for gunshot residue on June 8, 2021.

She testified that she found gunshot residue on his white t-shirt, his shorts, and the seatbelt buckle in his Suburban. She said the gunshot residue was likely transferred to the buckle.

Fletcher testified that the shirt smelled like laundry detergent and was “freshly washed.”

She explained that gunshot residue can appear on clothing in a variety of ways: from a gunshot fired in the vicinity of the clothes, coming into contact with a recently fired weapon, or close contact with someone who has been shot.

Most notably, she testified that she tested a raincoat on October 5, 2021, which was found in the upstairs closet at Alex’s mother’s home in Almeda.

A few days after the murders, Shelley Smith, the caretaker for Alex’s mother, said she saw Alex carry a blue bundle resembling a tarp or a raincoat into the house at 6:30 A.M.

On Tuesday, Fletcher testified that the raincoat tested positive for gunshot residue on the inside of the garment.

She said she found 38 particles of gunshot on the inside of the rain jacket, and she could have detected more but stopped checking because of the sheer volume.

Fletcher also said it would have taken a week to fully analyze all of it. This is a “significant” amount, she said.

Fletcher testified that the high amount of gunshot residue discovered on the inside of the coat is consistent with shooting a gun while wearing it inside-out, or wrapping it around objects like guns that had been previously shot, and have high amounts of gunshot residue on them.

Earlier Tuesday, Newman gave the prosecution another favorable ruling.

He said that the blue jacket is admissible and not prejudicial.

The defense then objected to further testimony from Fletcher, which Newman also denied.

Fletcher is likely to face a difficult cross-examination on Wednesday morning when court resumes.

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