A Colleton County man alleged to have provided drugs through a go-between to convicted killer and ex-lawyer Alex Murdaugh pleaded guilty to drug and various financial fraud charges Thursday afternoon at the Kershaw County courthouse.
Jerry Rivers, 39, who was indicted last year, pleaded guilty to drug distribution, second offense, before Judge Clifton Newman, who accepted seven different guilty pleas during a 52-minute hearing attended only by lawyers, court officials and a few members of the media. Other charges against Rivers will be dropped as part of a plea deal. He had been scheduled for trial on Aug. 28.
“I made a lot of bad decisions in the past few years,” Rivers told the judge, saying he was trying to help his family.
“Ever since this, I’ve been associated with Alex Murdaugh, and all that, and people judge me for that, and that’s not me. I’ve never met this guy, I don’t know nothing about that,” Rivers said, apparently referring to his arrest a year ago.
State Assistant Attorney General Johnny Ellis James Jr. gave Newman a 10-minute summary of the crimes to which Ellis was pleading guilty, beginning with the drug and money scheme that has been linked to Murdaugh, the ex-lawyer, convicted killer and alleged embezzler of millions of dollars whose dark exploits have riveted the nation for two years.
Although it has long been alleged that Murdaugh had an expensive drug habit he paid for with money he stole, Rivers’ admissions Thursday lifted the veil for the first time on exactly where at least one of the pipelines that provided Murdaugh with drugs began.
Although James was careful to avoid naming Murdaugh at certain points of his presentation, he gave enough details of the drug pipeline and case to leave no doubt that the prosecutor was talking about him.
Murdaugh was found guilty in March at a state trial of the 2021 killings of his wife, Maggie, and son Paul at the family’s 1,770-acre estate in Colleton County.
James explained the facts of the drug charge against Rivers this way:
“Mr. Rivers first appeared on the state grand jury’s radar because of its investigation into the finances of Richard Alexander Murdaugh,” James said.
“During the 2020 lockdown of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Rivers met and began providing opioid pills to an individual known as Curtis Edward Smith. Mr. Smith had a cousin who needed pills and was thus looking to purchase large quantities of opioid pills,” James said. (Smith has been identified in numerous hearings and court documents as Murdaugh’s cousin who provided him with illegal prescription drugs.)
Rivers began to supply Smith with quantities of “Roxy,” a street term for a painkilling drug, and “Oxy30s,” a kind of oxycodone, James said.
“Per their arrangement, Mr. Smith would provide cash payments to Mr. Rivers, who cultivated sources of pills from members of the community he knew possessed prescriptions for the pills that he needed.... Mr. Rivers would buy excess prescription pills and then sell them at a significant ‘upcharge’ to Mr. Smith,” James told the judge. “Mr. Rivers profited as much as $40 per pill.”
After a number of deals, Smith started paying Rivers with checks instead of cash, and Rivers cashed most of the checks at the Enterprise Bank in Walterboro, James said. “Altogether, Mr. Rivers accepted as payment for narcotics 16 checks ... (that) totalled $80,100.”
Rivers continued accepting checks from Smith until his last check, for $5,000, on Sept. 3, 2021, James said.
“As this court will recall, Mr. Smith and his cousin had a meeting with fate on Old Salkehatchie Road on Sept. 4, 2021, and as a result Mr. Rivers lost his reliable customer,” James told the judge.
Although James did not name Murdaugh as the “reliable customer,” Sept. 4, 2021 is the date when Smith met Murdaugh, who had been fired from his law firm for stealing the day before, on the side of Old Salkehatchie Road. On that day, Murdaugh tried to get Smith to kill him and gave him a gun, according to public accounts of that day and court testimony.
Some facts of what happened next that day are in dispute, but both Smith and Murdaugh have been charged by the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division with engaging in a bungled life insurance scheme that was supposed to result in a $10 million payoff to Murdaugh’s son Buster.
Smith faces various charges involving drugs and financial crimes but has not yet been tried.
“After the loss of his reliable narcotics customer (Murdaugh), Mr. Rivers required a new means of income,” James said.
Within weeks, Rivers and two co-conspirators James didn’t identify came up with a scheme to defraud credit unions by applying for auto loans with phony loan papers involving fictitious dealerships and fake cars. Credit unions would issue a check for the loan to the fake dealership and Rivers would deposit it in a fake bank account. He then split the money with a co-conspirator, James said.
Rivers and his co-conspirators did that four times over the next two months, collecting a total of $121,465, James said.
Rivers then began a scam in which he submitted false documents through the federal COVID-19 Paycheck Protection Program and claimed he was sole proprietor of a beauty salon that earned $106,600 in gross income the previous year. “No such business existed,” James said. “It was fake.”
After that, Rivers got $27,453 by falsely claiming he was due that money in state unemployment insurance funds because he had been out of work in 2020 and 2021, James said. Rivers falsely represented himself as an unemployed dry wall finisher, James said.
Rivers then submitted two other unemployment claims by falsely representing himself as an unemployed hair dresser and as a construction worker, getting a total of $32,558 from state employment insurance funds, James said.
Rivers also pleaded guilty to an obstruction of justice charge that involved keeping from law enforcement a cellphone of Spencer Roberts, another man allegedly involved in the drug-money pipeline to Murdaugh. Roberts has been charged in connection with two of Rivers’ schemes and has pleaded not guilty.
The financial charges Rivers pleaded guilty to Thursday included money laundering, obtaining a fraudulent federal Paycheck Protection Program loan and making false statements for the unemployment insurance claims,
Rivers was first arrested in August 2022. In a court hearing that month, state Assistant Attorney General Creighton Waters linked Rivers to Murdaugh.
At that time, Waters explained to Judge Newman that Rivers is “very much” involved in ongoing money laundering and check-cashing investigations concerning Murdaugh.
Waters said Rivers is “one of the individuals downstream from Alex Murdaugh … who received substantial amounts of checks.”
James called Rivers’ agreement to plead guilty to the seven charges a “negotiated plea deal.” Rivers has agreed to be exposed to a sentence of between five and 20 years in prison, the severity of which will depend on how much help he gives to prosecutors in pending Smith and Murdaugh financial fraud and drug cases.
Although James urged Newman not to let Rivers out on bond, Newman said he would allow Rivers to get out on $150,000 under certain conditions, including that he enter a strict drug treatment program in Greenville.
Rivers’ court-apppointed lawyer, Chris Leonard, urged Newman to let Rivers out on bond, saying that Rivers is currently incarcerated at Alvin S. Glenn Detention Center in Richland County, a jail that has a reputation for being unsafe, Leonard said. The rehab center “would allow him to get the resources that he needs,” Leonard said.
Newman noted that although Rivers has an extensive criminal history of drugs and theft, none of the prior convictions against him, some of which dated back more than 20 years, were for violent crimes. Moreover, Newman noted, Rivers has an extensive family, with young and old members who are dependent on him.
In other action at the hearing, James said two federally convicted co-conspirators of Murdaugh — ex-lawyer Cory Fleming and former banker Russell Laffitte — have status hearings on pending state charges against them next Wednesday at the Williamsburg County courthouse.
Fleming pleaded guilty to federal charges involving the state crimes. Laffitte was found guilty in federal court last November of bank and wire fraud. Fleming began serving a nearly four-year federal prison sentence this week. Laffitte, who was sentenced to seven years in federal prison, is in the process of being incarcerated.
James was accompanied Thursday by Attorney General’s office forensic account Carson Burney and SLED financial crimes fraud examiner Matt Wright, a senior special agent, as well as by paralegal Carly Jewell.