The Tide - notes in the ebb and flow of news

PEMBROKE — The unassuming beige warehouse off old Highway 204 in Southeast Georgia is not quite in the middle of nowhere, but it’s close. A few miles to the west, the state’s oldest fruit cake company churns out sticky old-fashioned delights. To the east, what’s soon to be the Peach State’s biggest car plant will catapult the region to a clean, green manufacturing future.

Last Thursday, however, the Pembroke warehouse owned by Liberty Auction showcased a slice of contemporary life. Several hundred people — true crime fanatics, looky-loos and those whose taste lean toward hunting chic — gathered to peruse souvenirs of lives turned putrid by crime, corruption and greed. On the block were the décor, furniture and books from Moselle, the 1700-acre hunting lodge that was once the jewel in the crown of the family Murdaugh.

The crowds came in equal parts to gawk, admire and moralize in the time-honored American tradition, the feeding frenzy that erupts when a wealthy man thought above the law is brought low. Alex Murdaugh, scion to the family that for generations ran Hampton County, South Carolina, was convicted in early March in the double homicide of his wife and son at Moselle on June 7, 2021. He has been indicted on dozens of other crimes, including fraud and embezzlement. He maintains his innocence for the murders.

Entire families, complete with dogs and babies, braved the heat in the name of flatware and Seiko watches. Phones were out en masse as people recorded, live-streamed, and FaceTimed friends and family during the auction.

Throughout the cavernous warehouse lay the detritus of a bygone, active family. Piles of sports and hunting equipment stacked high on racks; glittery holiday decorations covered table tops. Folded clothing with family names written inside filled boxes. Fishing rods, tackle boxes, and bicycles lined up near stacks of holiday-themed dishware and baseball-playing ceramic Santa figurines. The jumble of indistinctive bric-a-brac prompted several patrons to wonder aloud, “where exactly did the stolen money go?”

Among the crowds, dozens of people carried the yellow slips of paper that the auction house used as bidding paddles. But those potential buyers were outnumbered by a mob who wandered around the tables in packs, gossiping about the homicides and the extent of the alleged crimes that the Murdaugh patriarch has not yet been found guilty of. They were ghoulishly up to date with the names of other unsolved deaths now attached to the family name: Mallory Beach, Stephen Smith, and Gloria Satterfield.

Some folks had come from several states away, making the day trip to Georgia just to see the auction. A group of women in University of Georgia gear whispered in faux hushed tones about their own personal connection to the Murdaugh family. One retold a story about how vexing it was to be hounded by a news journalist who wanted permission to publish one of her photos. Had she let them? Well, yes, of course, she had.

A delightfully eccentric and enthusiastic buyer came in the form of Phillip Jennings, III, the owner of Broomsedge Rod & Gun lodge. Outfitted in the off-duty sportsman style often favored by the Murdaugh patriarch, Jennings had an eternal grin while in hot pursuit of conversation pieces for his rural lodges. How had he done this? Why, with a friend and a cocktail, of course.

Over countless voices, only the trill of the experienced auctioneers broke through the din of conversation.

Auctioneers and other staff worked feverishly to sell off the tables of furnishings that stretched across two large, connected rooms. Buyers stood at attention, hovering near their potential treasures. Spectators watched from the sidelines at two snack bars, adding to the carnival atmosphere.

People spoke animatedly about the nature of the relationship between certain items and the murderer himself. To wit: boxes of spent shotgun shells and old law books initialed “RAM.”

As the afternoon progressed, prices for Murdaugh memento mori climbed. Decoy ducks that retail for under $50 sold for hundreds, while guns and other weapons from the former family home sold for thousands of dollars.

A small cheer went up through the room when a pair of Texas longhorns went for $10,000.

A set of brown leather sofas drew particular interest, as they had often been featured in the family photos shown day after day during the national broadcast of the murder trial. Mr. Jennings, the hunting lodge owner, became the new owner, spending more than $30,000 for the ultimate conversation piece.

Total profit generated from the auction was not yet known — but all money will be paid out according to the same court-approved settlement that dictated the terms of the sale of Moselle itself. The property sold this year for $3.9 million. It is anticipated that Buster Murdaugh, Alex’s only living child, will pocket approximately $500,000 from the sale of his former home, with the rest going to pay his family debts and legal fees.

The Tide brings regular notes and observations on news and events by The Current staff.

Caitlin Philippo

Caitlin Philippo is a freelance writer and investigative researcher living in Savannah.