As Murdaugh's 'trial of the century' unfolds, the town of Walterboro awaits crowds. Will they come?
Published in News & Features
WALTERBORO, S.C. — Before the prospective jurors lined up outside the Colleton County Courthouse, before Alex Murdaugh himself was shuttled inside, and before most reporters had arrived to the six-block downtown for the day, JoAnn Goodhope was up and ready to take advantage of the coming media storm.
By 6:15 a.m. Goodhope was standing at a downtown Walterboro intersection holding up a sign that read “Stop Shield Ministries.”
She kept a clipboard tucked into her waistband, hoping to gather signatures for a petition that has nothing to do with the Murdaugh double-murder trial. She and a handful of others are protesting a new halfway house that’s been proposed in the area.
“There’s going to be a lot of people around, a lot of media, so we figured it was the best place to get the word out,” said Katie Vanwhy, a fellow protester.
Media flooded Walterboro Monday, but the true-crime fanatics and murder trial voyeurs many expected to overwhelm the town hadn’t arrived. At least not yet.
Walterboro, population 5,400, has been bracing for what the local newspaper dubbed “the trial of the century.” But on the first day of the double-murder trial that will determine whether disgraced Lowcountry lawyer Alex Murdaugh gets convicted of killing his wife and son, the town remained relatively quiet.
Weeks of planning preceded the trial’s arrival — along with some criticism that the town could be making a spectacle out of a tragic crime. Food trucks were solicited to feed the hordes of lawyers and support staff and journalists, and hotels in the area have been booked solid. As the week unfolds, the town is still bracing for what attention and crowds may or may not come. With no idea how long the trial will loom or when or if spectators will begin to swarm, locals say all they can do is wait and see.
A media circus?
Walterboro residents have malaria to thank for the town’s formation.
Before it became known as the “front porch of the Lowcountry,” with massive red rocking chairs painted on every corner and oyster-shelled tabby sidewalks, it was a vacation area for rice planters.
Brothers and rice plantation owners Paul and Jacob Walter stumbled upon the area in 1783. They were trying to find a reprieve from the swampy, mosquito-laden rice plantations they lived on in nearby Jacksonboro, explained Christie Slocum, historical coordinator at the Colleton County Museum and Farm Market.
“People were getting sick in Jacksonboro, and they weren’t sure why, especially during the summer months. So they traveled inland and found this area,” she said. “Later they found out it was malaria that was making them sick, living in swampy areas where rice was being grown. So Walterboro actually became a summer retreat for rice planters to get away from mosquitoes and the heat.”
That dynamic has since reversed. Most of Walterboro’s traffic now comes from people heading toward the coast, to Edisto Beach.
But that summertime pass-through traffic is nothing compared to the swell of visitors expected in Walterboro this month.
Local officials have estimated between 500 and 1,500 people will come to town for the trial. So far, most of those people have been journalists.
The city’s tourism director, Scott Grooms, is responsible for overseeing all the media that will be in town for the trial. A reporter for The State snagged an interview while Grooms was crossing the street from the Wildlife Center-turned-media-hub to the courthouse. A South Carolina Public Radio reporter was tailing him, too, waiting for her own interview.
Then, another reporter approached, asking for a parking pass, and then another came over just “to say hi,” and also to ask about parking.
Vanity Fair magazine, The New Yorker, CNN, NBC and other major outlets had reporters in town Monday. Grooms said he even heard Dr. Phil was planning an appearance. Nearly every area hotel was booked solid for the first week of the trial, he said, and as of 8:30 a.m. Monday, Grooms had given out 80 media parking passes.
The few non-journalists or non-law enforcement officers outside the courthouse Monday were there not to spectate but to capitalize on the media attention they knew would be present for the duration of Murdaugh’s trial.
Varn Cummings carried a large wooden cross with the words “repent” and “Jesus saves” painted in red letters. He attended Murdaugh’s arraignment in Hampton last summer, too.
Cummings’ message was one of salvation. He preached about Jesus and redemption to those who would listen.
“This is just an occasion that brings people together,” he said.
He believes Murdaugh is deserving of forgiveness for his alleged crimes, “but it’s dependent on what he does.”
By noon, Cummings had saddled his cross in the sidecar of his motorcycle. Other than the parking lots full of news vans and a lot full of food trucks, things were almost business as usual in Walterboro by Monday afternoon.
Some think this may be the calm before the storm.
“Trials in themselves are not very entertaining,” Grooms said, while noting that more people may yet show up after jury selection ends. “You know, the spectacle is the entertaining side of it in certain people’s minds. But after the ‘new’ wears off, people are gonna go away.”
Mark Wysong, president of the Walterboro-Colleton Chamber of Commerce, said he also thinks things will ramp up after jury selection ends. He’s spoken with some people who are coming from Charleston to observe the trial, but not until the actual trial begins.
It’s going to be a lot for the town, regardless, he said. It’s just not clear yet to what degree.
Attention on the front porch of the Lowcountry
Though not yet as chaotic as some predicted, the trial has still brought the most attention to Walterboro since filming for major movies “Forrest Gump” and “Radio” came to town in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“People are watching this. We have people who are flying in from overseas,” said Chamber of Commerce Director Stewart McAdoo. He’s spoken to at least one reporter who came to South Carolina from France to cover the trial.
McAdoo, like Grooms, hopes the national attention on Walterboro will help the town’s reputation grow. They didn’t ask for the trial, he said, but the town can lean in and find a silver lining.
Of course, there’s always the risk that despite the town’s efforts, Walterboro gets misrepresented by national media, said lifelong resident Robby Craven.
“With any press, any type of media, the bad always outweighs the good,” he said. “The hometown atmosphere is overshadowed a lot.”
Walterboro resists small town tropes. Some may call the community sleepy, McAdoo said, but the area is actually going through a kind of renaissance. The town was just accepted into a state program geared at Main Street revitalization. On several vacant storefronts are signs announcing something new is “coming soon!”
A few locals are also working together to boost a local “First Thursdays” event (similar to Columbia’s) to celebrate local businesses and artists each month.
But some cliches do fit Walterboro well. It’s a town where everyone pretty much knows each other, Craven said. He isn’t worried or upset about the trial coming to town. But without any way to know how long it might last, it’s hard to know how much it will truly affect residents.
“We’re not so big. And where the courthouse is, right in the heart of town, traffic and the influx of people, that’s going to impact (the town),” he said.
Craven’s mom lives on East Washington Street — ”We call it Main Street” — near the Colleton County Courthouse. Craven tried to convince her to list it on Airbnb. Some area homes were renting for $300-$400 a night ahead of the trial.
“I said, ‘Mom, there’s people paying a couple thousand dollars a week; you’re missing a golden opportunity,’” Craven said.
Indeed, in addition to fully booked hotels and homes being rented as pricey Airbnbs, the county has been helping advertise office space locals are renting. A city councilman and a local attorney were among residents to list office space for rent online.
Grooms, a former reporter himself, had the idea to bring in food trucks because of his own past experiences covering high-profile trials. He worried that without additional options, the hundreds of new bodies in Walterboro would overwhelm the small number of local restaurants.
Six trucks with fare ranging from carnival-style elephant ears to Southern barbecue waited all day Monday in the parking lot adjacent to the Walterboro Wildlife Center in the middle of town, serving lawyers and reporters in between jury questioning.
One food truck, Shorty’s Smokin’ Butts, planned to have a new menu item every day this week, said co-owner JJ Lamb.
The food trucks themselves drew ire when Grooms first solicited applications. Some residents worried the town was encouraging a carnival-type atmosphere.
“I would hate for us to miss the opportunity to show the nation that we are not back country yokels who fall victim to criminals like Murdaugh,” one Walterboro resident wrote on Facebook.
“Clowns and concessions, now all you need is a trapeze troop to complete the three ring circus,” another person commented. “Just deplorable.”
But Grooms and other local officials say they want Walterboro to put its best foot forward, and the food trucks are part of that.
Two small towns, worlds apart
Inside the courthouse at the start of the week, prospective jurors were being questioned about how much they know of the events surrounding the Murdaugh murders. They’re being asked whether they know Alex, or if they have any connection to the dynastic Murdaugh family.
No one knows how long the jury selection process will last. Nine hundred jury summons went out for this trial. How long it will take to cull the pool is anyone’s guess, especially in an area where pretty much everyone at least knows about the case already.
“It’s not like (the Murdaughs) were Walterboro people,” Craven said, explaining that the crimes didn’t really impact Walterboro, at least not in the same way they affected Hampton, where residents feel the town’s reputation has been harmed and trust in local institutions fractured.
The law firm where Murdaugh practiced while he allegedly stole millions from clients is located in downtown Hampton. So, too, is the Palmetto State Bank, which also was implicated in Murdaugh’s alleged financial crimes. Though just 30 miles separate the towns, Hampton and Walterboro are worlds apart when it comes to the Murdaugh saga.
But the murders happened here, in Colleton County.
In June 2021, Margaret “Maggie” Murdaugh and her younger son, Paul, were shot to death at Moselle, the family’s massive hunting estate that straddles the line between Colleton and Hampton counties.
Alex Murdaugh has asserted his innocence in their deaths.
And while the Murdaugh’s may not have called Walterboro their home town, they’re deeply enmeshed in the history of Colleton County, too.
Normally, a portrait of Randolph “Buster” Murdaugh Jr. would be hanging at the back of the Colleton County Courthouse in downtown Walterboro. Alex Murdaugh’s grandfather was a famed 14th Circuit solicitor, covering Allendale, Beaufort, Colleton, Hampton and Jasper counties for nearly 50 years, from 1940 to 1988.
His image has been exiled from the courtroom for the duration of his grandson’s trial.
Alex’s father, Randolph Murdaugh III, also was a solicitor for the 14th Circuit.
“The people that are coming in from out of town who are detached from it … to them it’s a media frenzy, it is a spectacle,” Wysong said. “But for the people who do live here, it’s not that at all. … They know these people. It’s very personal to them.”
Still, Craven’s point stands. In Hampton, residents say many are afraid of the Murdaugh name, the power and influence it once and perhaps still holds.
That isn’t the case in Walterboro, residents say. Most people are aware a trial is happening. But Craven and others say it won’t disrupt their lives beyond the headache of traffic.
A proprietor at one local business asked, “What trial?” before hanging up when a reporter from The State called to ask about preparation.
Grooms, the tourism director, can’t say what this week will hold, or what the coming weeks may bring. The trial could be done in a few weeks, or stretch on for months. During that time, he wants Walterboro to be a gracious host.
“Everybody here is our guest, we’re trying to treat the press as well as we can,” Grooms said. “We’re the front porch of the Lowcountry. We’ve got the rocking chairs. So we’re just trying to treat everybody as we would want to be treated.”
(Hilton Head Island Packet reporter Blake Douglas contributed to this report.)
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