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Prominent South Carolina lawyer arranged own death but shot grazed, police say

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COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) – A prominent South Carolina lawyer who found the bodies of his wife and son three months ago tried to arrange his own death earlier this month so his son would get a $10 million life insurance payment, but the planned fatal shot only grazed his head, state police said Tuesday.

The shooter, Curtis Edward Smith, was charged with assisted suicide, insurance fraud and several other counts in the Sept. 4 shooting of Alex Murdaugh on a lonely highway in Hampton County, the State Law Enforcement Division said in a statement.

Murdaugh’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather all held the office of solicitor in the area for more than 80 years and other family members were prominent civil attorneys in the region. Murdaugh himself was an authorized volunteer prosecutor supporting his father’s cases, a relationship the office severed this month as Murdaugh said he was seeking rehabilitation for an oxycodone addiction.

Murdaugh’s lawyers said Smith sold him drugs and took advantage of his mental illness and deep depression over the deaths of his wife, Maggie, and son Paul, as well as his father’s death from cancer the same week. They said Murdaugh told them all about what happened Monday and they called state police to share his confession to the assisted suicide attempt.

“He didn’t want law enforcement spending more time on this fake crime instead of focusing on solving the murders of Maggie and Paul,” attorney Dick Harpootlian said on the Today show.

Murdaugh was not charged Tuesday night, but agents called him a co-defendant and said more charges were expected. Harpootlian said he expects Murdaugh to be charged in his own shooting, but doesn’t think his client knows who killed his wife and son.

“Clearly he is distraught about their deaths. He did not murder them,” Harpootlian said.

Murdaugh gave Smith the gun to kill him and he followed Murdaugh to Old Salkehatchie Road firing one shot at the lawyer as he stood in the road, a state agent said in a sworn statement.

But that bullet only grazed Murdaugh’s head and he was able to call 911 for help, authorities said. Murdaugh’s lawyer said last week his skull was fractured by the bullet and Harpootlian said the shot temporarily blinded Murdaugh.

Murdaugh wanted Smith to kill him so his surviving son would get his $10 million life insurance policy, state agents said.

Smith drove off after the shooting and disposed of the gun, authorities said.

Smith sold Murdaugh drugs, and the lawyer found his former client Saturday and “30 minutes later this guy is shooting him in the head. Didn’t try to persuade him not to do it,” Harpootlian said.

Murdaugh said last week through a family spokesman that he pulled over after his Mercedes SUV’s low tire pressure light came on. A man passing by in a pickup truck asked if he was having car trouble and then shot at him.

Agents said Smith, 61, confessed Tuesday and was charged with assisted suicide, assault and battery of a high aggravated nature, pointing and presenting a firearm, insurance fraud, conspiracy to commit insurance fraud, distribution of methamphetamine and possession of marijuana.

It wasn’t immediately known if he had a lawyer to speak on his behalf.

Still unsolved are the June 7 killings of 52-year-old Maggie Murdaugh and her 22-year-old son Paul Murdaugh. Alex Murdaugh discovered the bodies of his wife and son at their Colleton County home. Both had been shot multiple times.

Murdaugh announced two days after the shooting he was going into rehab for an opioid addiction. He apologized to his family and said he was leaving his law firm. His law license was temporarily suspended.

“The murders of my wife and son have caused an incredibly difficult time in my life. I have made a lot of decisions that I truly regret,” Murdaugh said without going into details.

A few hours later, the PMPED Law Firm announced Murdaugh had taken money from the business and was fired from the firm. The amount of money has not been announced, but the firm and Murdaugh’s lawyers have suggested it could over $1 million.

Murdaugh’s lawyers are doing their own investigation into the deaths and have a possible suspect, Harpootlian said, declining to give more details other than to say “the motive would be personal.”

Along with the killings of Maggie and Paul Murdaugh and the shooting of Alex Murdaugh, the State Law Enforcement Division is also investigating the missing money, whether anyone tried to obstruct an investigation into a 2019 boat crash which Paul Murdaugh was eventually charged and a July 2015 hit-and-run death in Hampton County.

Murdaugh’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather all held the office of solicitor in the area for more than 80 years and other family members were prominent civil attorneys in the region.

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Follow Jeffrey Collins on Twitter at https://twitter.com/JSCollinsAP.