Prosecutors continue to lay out evidence of alleged financial crimes in Alex Murdaugh trial

ByAlta Spells, Dakin Andone and Steve Almasy, CNN
Tuesday, February 7, 2023
Alex Murdaugh murders trial
Alex Murdaugh murders trialState authorities reopening the investigation into Stephen Smith's death after saying they found new evidence while looking into the Murdaugh murders.

Witnesses in the murder trial of disbarred South Carolina attorney Alex Murdaugh on Wednesday shored up earlier testimony of his former law group's chief financial officer, who'd spoken about discovering what prosecutors allege were his financial crimes that could have helped lead to the killings of his wife and son.

Murdaugh has pleaded not guilty to two counts of murder and two counts of possession of a weapon during the commission of a violent crime in the killings of his wife, Margaret "Maggie" Murdaugh, and his 22-year-old son Paul on June 7, 2021.

Murdaugh called 911 the night of the killings to report he'd found his wife and son shot dead at the family's home in Islandton, South Carolina -- a property known as Moselle. The defense has portrayed Murdaugh as a loving father and husband being prosecuted after a poorly handled investigation while the real killers are at large.

Prosecutors accuse Murdaugh of committing the killings to distract attention from a series of alleged illicit schemes he was running to avoid "personal legal and financial ruin," per court filings.

Separate from the murder charges, Murdaugh faces 99 charges stemming from alleged financial crimes, per the state attorney general. Opening statements were delivered January 25.

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Jeanne Seckinger, the chief financial officer of Murdaugh's former law firm, feared Murdaugh was working to hide assets to protect them from being disclosed in connection to "the boat case," she has testified. At the time of the killings, Murdaugh was facing a lawsuit stemming from a boat crash in February 2019 that killed 19-year-old Mallory Beach. Murdaugh owned the boat and Paul Murdaugh was allegedly driving it at the time of the accident.

Alex Murdaugh was scheduled to face a hearing in that case on June 10, 2019 -- and that could have led to the disclosure of his accounts and revealed his alleged financial misdeeds, the state has contended in pre-trial filings. But after Maggie and Paul were killed three days beforehand, the hearing was canceled.

On the morning of June 7, 2019, hours before the killings happened, Seckinger confronted Murdaugh about $792,000 in funds that should have been collected by the firm but were missing, she testified last week and Tuesday.

The law firm, PMPED, now known as Parker Law Group, learned Murdaugh was misappropriating funds and sending them to a personal account labeled "Forge," Seckinger said -- a name similar to that of a legitimate financial services firm named Forge Consulting LLC. The firm regularly did business with Forge Consulting to arrange structured annuities for plaintiffs' settlements and attorney fees, Seckinger said.

On Wednesday, Annette Griswold, one of Murdaugh's paralegals, corroborated Seckinger's testimony, telling the court she would prepare disbursement sheets outlining the fees and expenses that would be deducted from a settlement. At times, Murdaugh had asked her to note disbursements to "Forge" on her disbursement sheets, Griswold said.

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"I can't remember when it started, but he told me to put it on Forge, and me, knowing Forge Consulting was a legitimate company, I would put Forge Consulting," Griswold testified. "And he would say, 'No, it's not Forge Consulting. If I wanted it to be Forge Consulting, I would have told you Forge Consulting. I want it to be Forge.'"

Still, the firm's accounts payable department would write checks to Forge Consulting, and Griswold would have the department change it to Forge instead, she testified. Additionally, Murdaugh would insist on hand-delivering the checks to the law firm's contact at Forge Consulting, Michael Gunn.

Griswold, who said it wasn't unusual for Murdaugh to misplace things, began making notes in her files that Murdaugh had said he'd deliver those checks, she testified.

Gunn, a principal and consultant at Forge Consulting, was asked in court Wednesday whether he ever received a hand-delivered check from Murdaugh.

"Absolutely not," Gunn testified.

Forge Consulting has no subsidiaries named only "Forge," and Gunn had never allowed Murdaugh to use the name Forge for his own purposes, Gunn testified.

It wasn't until September 2021 that Gunn learned something was wrong, he said. That's when a partner at Murdaugh's firm called Gunn, he said, and gave him a list of 10 or 12 names and asked whether Gunn could tell him what Forge Consulting had done for those clients. Gunn told him, "I didn't have a file open on any of these people."

Witness testifies about possible usage of Murdaugh's vehicle on night of killings

The final witnesses Wednesday testified about systems on the Chevy Suburban that authorities say Alex Murdaugh was driving the night of the killings.

One of the witnesses, Dwight Falkofske, an electronics engineer with the FBI, testified that he was able to pull encrypted data from the entertainment and OnStar systems.

Falkofske said he gained access to stored information such as call logs, contacts, and some other information that would tell when the vehicle was going in and out of park.

The timeline he gave spanned from 9:06 to 10:13 p.m. on the night of the killings. It shows the vehicle taken out of park eight times during that period. The data can't determine whether the vehicle was actually being driven, Falkofske testified.

One witness has testified that on the night of the killings, Murdaugh visited his ailing mother in the town of Almeda, which is about a 15-minute drive from Islandton.

At least three other witnesses have testified that Alex Murdaugh's voice can be heard on a video that authorities say Paul Murdaugh started recording on his phone at 8:44 p.m. A law enforcement expert testified the video appeared to have been recorded around the Murdaugh family's kennels -- where Paul's and Maggie's bodies would be found.

RELATED: Alex Murdaugh trial: Prosecutors play video to undermine claim he was not at the scene of killings

Someone read a message on Maggie Murdaugh's phone at 8:49 p.m. and the phone's display turned off at 8:53 p.m., the law enforcement expert testified.

Prosecutors believe the voices on Paul's video places Alex at the scene at the time of the killings. Murdaugh has maintained in interviews with law enforcement he was not at the kennels.

Alex Murdaugh called 911 at 10:07 p.m. to report the killings, the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division has said.

A friend and former law partner of Murdaugh's, Ronnie Crosby, testified Tuesday that Murdaugh told him after the killings that Murdaugh had dinner with Maggie and Paul, and then fell asleep on a couch while the two went to the kennels.

Murdaugh told Crosby that after he woke up, Murdaugh drove to his parents' house to see his mother, and when he returned home, discovered Maggie and Paul had been fatally shot, Crosby testified.

Crosby is one of the witnesses that testified Alex Murdaugh's voice can be heard on Paul's video.

In cross-examination Wednesday, defense attorney Phillip Barber asked Falkofske if walking by the vehicle with a key fob could trigger the vehicle's system to come on. "It's a possibility but we did not investigate that," Falkofske responded Wednesday.

Court ended with Falkofske on the stand and will pick up with more cross-examination of him Thursday morning.

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