WALTERBORO, S.C. — From January until March, people across the country tuned in to watch the Alex Murdaugh murder trial unfold. Now months after the disgraced attorney's conviction, visitors continue to travel to the small Colleton County city of Walterboro to see where it all happened.
According to the US Census, Walterboro has a population of 5,463 people. Right in the heart of it's downtown district sits the Colleton County Courthouse.
Just a few months after the Murdaugh double murder trial made national headlines and put Walterboro in the spotlight, the courthouse is now offering tours to anyone who wants to come and see an up-close view of what happened.
"We go on a girls trip yearly and we picked this location — South Carolina — because we were really into the Murdaugh trial," visitor April High explains.
"We watched every single day," High's sister, Crystal Degoede adds.
High lives in Michigan, working in hospitality and Degoede is a professional development manager in Virginia. Once a year, they get together for a girls trip with their mom.
This year, they traveled all the way to the lowcountry to see the places they heard about as they tuned into the Alex Murdaugh trial, from Murdaugh’s old law firm to Moselle to the courthouse.
"For me it's almost like a celebrity thing. It sounds silly, but like I don't know I just want to be where they stood," Degoede and High share. "They’ve been made famous. I don't know. Yeah, I just I feel so involved at this point."
They’re not alone. Paul Bennett with court security says visitors come by every single day.
"People still show interest. We have had visitors. People want to come and take tours of the courthouse. And they get really excited when they come to see the actual courthouse that Alex Murdaugh was convicted in. Especially when we take them downstairs and show them to sales and we show where you sat and was a witness and witness stand and show how close he was to the jurors," Bennet details. "They're getting really excited. So it's been constant — people come and want to hear and see what really happened, where it happened at."
Bailiffs have started offering tours for free to anyone who wants to come by.
The tour starts outside, where Murdaugh would pull up in a van. Escorted by security, Murdaugh was led into an elevator.
Visitors can ride that elevator down to the cell where he was kept. Next door, they can see the women's cell where evidence was kept during the trial — red tape markings a reminder of the hundreds of pieces of evidence kept inside over the six weeks.
Next, the tour leads up to the courtroom. Visitors can see where the dozens of witnesses sat, where the jury listened, where the prosecution and defense team outlined their arguments and where Judge Clifton Newman delivered the decision to sentence Murdaugh to life in prison for the murder of his wife Maggie and son Paul.
"Most of them are amazed they are there. They're happy, they’re pleased, they're thankful to get to see, to be part of a history of a trial like that has happened in the state of South Carolina that took I say effect over the whole nation," Bennet shares. "The whole nation was really watching."
Tony Ferrell works with Bennett and the other bailiffs to give tours.
"How often is there a traffic jam at a car wreck?" Ferrell poses about the reason for the continued interest. "People want to see."
During the trial, Ferrell remembers his biggest surprise was "just the sheer number of people that were interested in this."
"We had lines forming in the wee hours of the morning for the at large passes. So we have people here three or four o'clock in the morning getting in line outside the front door because they never knew how many passes we were going to have from day to day," Ferrell recounts. "And just the number of people that were in line every morning. All the way from the front door back to the street and down the block. Just kind of baffled me that that many people wanted to be in the courtroom."
Now months later, that desire is still strong. With as many as 30 tours a day when the trial first ended, Ferrell tells me he’s seen how the trial has captivated all different types of people.
"Some people were interested in the financial part and that was where they were really into it. They're a numbers person. Some people yeah, they were more interested in the gruesome side of it. Others, the at-home detectives, were trying to figure out the mystery whodunnit thing and ‘was he really there this time? What's the deal with the phone by the road?’ and all that," Ferrell shares. "So it's different aspects and I think that drew in a much wider audience than it normally would because of all of the different facets that are involved."
This heightened interest leading Bennett and other court personnel to get recognized and stopped for pictures while they’re out in public.
"People recognize most of us are seeing us on TV," Bennett smiles.
The trial as a whole — and the continued interest — has made a positive impact on the small city of Walterboro, Tourism Director Scott Grooms explains.
"It ramped up our revenue locally, the restaurant revenue, the hotel revenue, all of the tourism dollars that come in from being right on the interstate. It did," Grooms details. "It ramped up significantly because the reporters were staying here in town. The tourists still coming through, tourists eating at the restaurants."
According to Ferrell, the tourists he's seeing often make a pit stop while in the general vicinity of Walterboro.
"Most of what we get they're visiting somebody in the area, or for some reason they're passing through the area and they find out 'Oh, Walterboro is only two hours away. I’m like 'Wow,' but they drive that two hours to come over here for 20 or 30 minute tour," Ferrell explains.
Tourists like Tracy and Jackie Lemons, who came to visit from Seneca. After watching the trial everyday, the couple says the opportunity to see the location for themselves in person is "too good an opportunity to pass up."
Now having stepped foot in the courtroom, the pair tells me the impact hits even harder.
"It's just, it's like it just makes it even…it feels more personal once you’re here and seeing it," they explain. "When you’re seeing that cell that he was in, I mean you realize just how he wasn't given any special treatment or anything."
It's a fascination that’s exciting — yet somber.
"So eerie. It is eerie," High and Degoede agree. "Knowing that such horrible things have happened where we're standing. Yeah, it's just sad. It really is so sad."
Those tours are offered for free every weekday when there isn't a trial in session.
"We take the time to answer their questions also. And that makes a big difference," Ferrell tells me.
Ferrell says while he's happy to fuel people's curiosity about the Murdaugh trial, he also sees it as an opportunity to educate visitors about how the South Carolina justice system works.
"I hope that when they get home they can say 'Okay, I know how the court system works now," Ferrell says.
For Grooms, having visitors in town is exciting — regardless of the cause.
"I'm just really happy that people have come to see Walterboro for what it really is, which is a quaint southern town. Yes, we got thrust in the spotlight but we also are normal as well," Grooms explains. "I mean we have historic homes. We have beautiful downtown area, we've been used in movies. So come on out; see Walterboro."