Spectators stand close together in line Wednesday morning to secure one of 70 seats set aside each day for the public during the trial. (Photo by Caroline Barry)
WALTERBORO – Local and out-of-state visitors are mingling with dozens of law enforcement officers, lawyers and national media crews outside the Colleton County Courthouse.
The double-murder trial of former lawyer Alex Murdaugh is bringing in people who might not normally stop by this small Southern town on breezy late-winter days.
They wait patiently in line to get a seat in the courtroom.
They wait patiently in line at a circle of shaded food trucks for lunch.
And they step carefully over media cords taped to sidewalks to get to their cars parked in new gravel lots.
The high profile nature of the trial has attracted hundreds of visitors each day to “The Front Porch of the Lowcountry.”
The trial unfolds
People lined up outside the courthouse early in the morning last Wednesday, hoping to get one of the 70 seats set aside for the public.
Some came from several states away.
“These are people who I consider celebrities,” said Maria Raymond, a retired Floridian who has been following the trial religiously and made a stop in Walterboro on the way to visit her daughter in Savannah.
On her first day in the city, Raymond had a quick interaction with Nancy Grace, a famous TV crime personality.
“I waved at her, she waved back and said, ‘Do I know you?’ ‘No, but I know you!’” Raymond said she told her.
At first she only planned on coming for one day but decided she had to stay longer to see more.
Some Walterboro natives who have moved away, like Anne Smith, came back to watch the trial because of all the public interest surrounding it.
They’re intrigued, and troubled, about who killed Murdaugh’s wife and youngest son on a family estate in rural Colleton County.
The Murdaughs, who live in the next county over, Hampton County, have a “ruling presence” about them, Smith said. Still, the town seems supportive of the family, she said.
But even with a midday bomb scare on Wednesday, with officers quickly and neatly emptying the courthouse, most folks are low key about what’s going on.
Locals are most aware of the increased traffic, the presence of media satellite trucks and a lack of parking near their favorite businesses.
Walterboro puts its best foot forward
Scott Grooms, Walterboro’s director of tourism and downtown development, doesn’t want the city to only be known for the Murdaugh trial.
His hope is to promote the city’s natural charm to make a good impression.
“We want to just put ourselves in the best light possible,” said Grooms, who’s working to accommodate everyone.
Helping the press do their jobs and treating visitors well will show a good side of the town, Grooms said.
“It’s really a classic downtown,” Grooms said. “So, we hope people will come back and go to our antique shops, go to our restaurants, walk around, see our historic homes.”
The spacious Walterboro Wildlife Center across the street from the courthouse is being used as a well-wired media overflow space, complete with a generator.
Normally, the building and its manicured back lawn functions as a tourist site, Grooms said.
“We want people to come off the interstate and see our animals, see the snakes, see the gators, things like that,” Grooms said. “We have a nature trail that’s further down the road. … There’s a big red rocker that you can get your picture taken in.”
The center was originally an old car dealership that was renovated to help develop the city, Grooms said.
“It’s been good for the economy, but I don’t know if it’s been the best look for our town,” Tara Langdale, a Walterboro resident who helps run Blazin’ Blaine’s Food Truck, said of the trial.
With the media spending time in the center, the emergence of a unique celebrity has been an unexpected result.
Albert the Alligator is a baby alligator who swims in a habitat at the entrance of the center. One of the media members started “What’s Albert Doing?” a semi-regular media update on the reptile, Grooms said.
Albert’s new fame can be an opportunity to promote the town without exploiting the trial, Grooms said.
“We’ll take that at the end,” Grooms said. “I’ll put a billboard, ‘Come See Albert, Come Visit Albert.’ That type of stuff.”
Mixed effects on local businesses
East Washington Street, also known as Main Street, is lined with cars and propped-open shop doors. Yet, the foot traffic doesn’t match the amount of cars parked out front.
“It’s been consistently inconsistent,” said Mandy Burdick, the co-owner of Twig, a home, gifts and clothing shop, when asked how business had been.
Businesses up and down the street are struggling to adapt and see growth during this time, several owners and employees said.
“We just haven’t seen that many people,” said Blair Westbury, an employee of Infinger’s Jewelry. “We looked (at sales) today and for the month. We’re down severely.”
Since the trial began, Westbury noticed how chaotic things around town have been and worried it was keeping visitors away from the shops.
“People who are attending the trial are parking on Main Street, which is public parking,” said Natalie Wilson, the owner of Body Basics. “But it’s meant for downtown customers.”
Body Basics is definitely affected, Wilson said.
“Because of what I do, I have a lot of elderly clients,” she said. “For instance, I had a client Monday with six fractured vertebrae, and I’ve kept her walking. But she can barely cross the street, let alone walk three blocks to get here.”
Walterboro is a close-knit community where neighbors have known each other for most of their lives.
Wilson, who has lived there all her life, has personal ties to the trial as well. She never expected her hometown to be so well known for an event as large as the trial.
“My father worked with Randolph Murdaugh (Alex’s late father),” Wilson said. “My uncle is friends with Alex and has gone to court to check on him.”
Residents and businesses alike are taking the national attention one day at a time.
The owner of Starlite Car Wash, Rev. Brown, hasn’t had many problems with clients and said he can’t judge what’s going to happen with the trial. All he can do is keep his business open.
If people “want their car cleaned, they’ll get it cleaned,” Brown said.
Reporters Raymond Escoto, G.E. Hinson and Margaret Walker contributed reporting.
Signs featuring the red rocking chair that is the symbol for Walterboro adorn many streets around the courthouse. (Photo by Caroline Barry)
The fountain at the Main Street intersection in Walterboro’s historic downtown. The street was deserted Wednesday morning as people made their way to the courthouse for the trial of Alex Murdaugh. (Photo by Abby Foncannon)
Body Basics by Natalie Wilson caters to a variety of clientele. Wilson said her business has fallen off since the trial began because her customers have trouble parking. (Photo by Grace Brown)
Car wash owner “Rev. Brown” looks at the courthouse across heavy afternoon traffic on North Jefferies Boulevard. A driver in a passing car honked at him, and he waved in recognition. (Photo by Abby Foncannon)
ABOUT THE JOURNALISTS
Taylor Kaye Beltz
Beltz is a senior journalism major at the University of South Carolina. While she leans towards covering sports, she also enjoys writing about small businesses and business development around Columbia. In her free time, she is fond of embroidering, baking and playing tennis.
Foncannon is a senior journalism major and business administration minor at the University of South Carolina. A military brat, Foncannon has spent her life traveling and looks to continue that in her career. She is interested in humanitarian issues and being a catalyst for difficult conversations. She focuses on localizing national issues so the community can see the direct effects.
Brown is a senior journalism major and Spanish minor at the University of South Carolina. She is from Charleston, S.C. Last year, she wrote columns for the opinion section of the student-run Daily Gamecock. She plans to expand her reporting work to include more long-form stories about social and environmental topics and eventually wants to explore as much of the world as she can with travel journalism.