Banker's trial sheds light on Murdaugh killings and alleged small-town conspiracy

Week two of the federal trial for former Hampton banker Russell Laffitte began Nov. 14 after the opening week pulled back the curtain a little on how he and former attorney Richard “Alex” Murdaugh allegedly conspired to steal from several clients over a period of years.

In addition to previous South Carolina State Grand Jury charges, Laffitte is standing trial in U.S. District Court in Charleston on a five-count federal indictment alleging bank fraud, wire fraud, conspiracy to commit fraud and misapplication of bank funds.

Laffitte is the former CEO of Palmetto State Bank in Hampton who's accused of helping Murdaugh, the disbarred attorney who's also accused of killing his wife and son, take or misuse money from the legal settlements of clients.

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Laffitte is the first alleged conspirator to stand trial in the sprawling South Carolina legal drama that has captivated true-crime audiences across the English-speaking world.

The Associated Press reported that the primary early defense presented by Laffitte’s attorneys, Bart Daniel and Matt Austin, focused on how Murdaugh allegedly manipulated people and lied. Laffitte’s defense team has claimed that Laffitte was only a pawn following Murdaugh's instructions and didn't willfully participate in alleged fraud.

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The prosecution, led by Assistant U.S. District Attorney Emily Limehouse, has contended that Laffitte knew what he was doing when he worked as Murdaugh's personal banker and eventually became the court-appointed conservator, or custodian, for the settlement money for several of his clients, some of them underaged.

Laffitte allegedly loaned Murdaugh and himself, personally, money from those settlements at low rates of interest, then repaid that money from other personal-injury or death cases, according to the indictment and prosecutors.

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Among those called to testify by federal prosecutors included Ronnie Crosby, Murdaugh’s former law partner, who stated that his law firm has emails between Murdaugh and Laffitte revealing the conspiracy involving the two.

The list of witnesses called to testify during the opening week also gave clues as to how such a conspiracy allegedly could take place in a small town like Hampton, where family members often work together and people are quick to trust others. Three members of the Laffitte family who either work at the bank or serve on its board of directors were called to testify, and two indicated that Laffitte was instrumental in the alleged conspiracy.

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Family roots in a South Carolina small town

The Laffitte family, which founded Palmetto State Bank, traces its roots back more than a century in Hampton, where the Murdaugh family founded its personal injury law firm, Peters, Murdaugh, Parker, Eltzroth & Detrick, in 1910. These small-town families are so intertwined that at least one member of the Laffitte family works at PMPED.

After the alleged crimes were discovered, Murdaugh was forced to resign from the family law firm in September 2021, and Laffitte was terminated from his family’s bank in January 2022.

Murdaugh now faces more than 90 state grand jury charges involving these alleged crimes and others, but he has not been charged by the federal government. However, the Laffitte trial may shed light on Murdaugh’s most serious and violent charges in addition to financial allegations.

The AP reported that PMPED’s chief financial officer, Jeanne Seckinger, who is Laffitte's sister-in-law, testified that she confronted Murdaugh about missing legal fees from one of his cases on June 7, 2021 — the same day that Murdaugh's wife, Maggie, and son Paul were shot and killed.

Murdaugh was indicted July 14 for those deaths, which took place at his family’s home in rural Colleton County.

According to federal court documents, Laffitte’s attorneys want to call Murdaugh as a witness, but Murdaugh's attorneys have said he would invoke his Fifth Amendment right to avoid self-incrimination if they did so. Presiding Judge Richard Gergel has said he would allow Murdaugh to take the stand only if he had something substantial to say.

Trial dates and expected start date of Alex Murdaugh's murder trial

The trial, which kicked off Nov. 8, is expected to last until Nov. 18.

Murdaugh's murder trial in the deaths of his family members is expected to begin on Jan. 23. Murdaugh has repeatedly denied killing his wife and son.

Murdaugh, who is accused of stealing more than $9 million over a decade-long period, remains jailed in Richland County’s Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center on a $7 million bond he had been unable to meet.

Reporting from The Associated Press contributed to this story.

This article originally appeared on Greenville News: Banker's trial sheds light on Murdaugh killings, alleged conspiracy