Jack Murphy was a talented violinist, a college-level tennis player and, for a few years in the early 1960s, perhaps the best surfer on the East Coast. He became known as “Murph the Surf” – or, as he preferred to spell it, “Murf” – and in 1960 opened the first surf shop in Florida.
What made him famous, though, was his life as a criminal.
After dropping out of college, Murphy moved to South Florida and became known as a charming, charismatic hustler, teaching tennis, swimming and scuba diving at high-class Miami Beach hotels.
He worked as a stunt diver with a troupe of aquatic acrobats and, during his off hours, put his agility to work by climbing the walls of high rises, sneaking in through windows and leaving with stolen jewels and artwork. Other times, he and his crew broke into waterfront mansions, making their escape by boat.
In 1964, he was arrested and accused of pistol-whipping an elegantly dressed woman and stealing her jewelry. The woman turned out to be actress Eva Gabor. When she did not show up at Murphy’s trial, he was released.
Later that year, Murphy and two accomplices drove a Cadillac convertible to New York, living it up for a few weeks in a hotel while plotting a caper that remains one of the biggest and most audacious jewelry heists in history: the theft of the Star of India, the world’s largest blue star sapphire, from the American Museum of Natural History.
Murphy, whose life of crime continued for several years before he went to prison, only to emerge as an evangelist to inmates, died Sept. 12 at his home in Crystal River, Fla. He was 83.
The death was confirmed by a longtime friend and surf-shop owner, Bill Yerkes, who said Murphy had diabetes and other ailments.
For a few years in the mid-1960s, Murph the Surf was a household name, far overshadowing his two partners in the Star of India burglary, Roger Clark and Allan Kuhn. He was blond and powerfully built, wore well-made suits and seldom was seen without his sunglasses.
On the night of Oct. 29, 1964, Kuhn and Murphy scaled an iron fence at the American Museum of Natural History on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, then climbed up the fire escape to the fifth floor. They slipped into the office of anthropologist Colin Turnbull, which was directly above the museum’s gem collection. Clark waited outside with a walkie-talkie, watching for police.
Murphy, who said his idol was the debonair jewel thief played by Cary Grant in the 1955 film “To Catch a Thief,” was wearing a green velour jacket, with a gun in his pocket, a turtleneck sweater and corduroy trousers, along with his sneakers.
“You got to have a little flair,” he told the New York Times in 2019. “If you get arrested and end up on the news, you don’t want to look like a schlub.”
Kuhn and Murphy climbed out of Turnbull’s office window, descended 15 feet on a rope, then entered the gem room through a partially open window. From earlier surveillance, they knew the museum had poor security and only a few guards.
“They probably thought, ‘Why do we need alarms? These jewels have been laying here for 70 years and no one’s ever tried to steal them,’ ” Murphy told the Times.
Because the glass display cases were too thick to break with a rubber hammer, Kuhn and Murphy used a glass cutter, incising circles above the gems. They placed tape over the glass to keep it from shattering, then used suction cups to remove the glass. When they reached the 563-carat Star of India – about the size of an egg – they saw that the batteries for its alarm were corroded. When they grabbed it, there was silence.
Kuhn and Murphy spent hours inside the museum, taking 22 items in all, including a 100-carat star ruby, a 116-carat black sapphire, diamonds and various pieces of jewelry. An elderly guard occasionally shined a flashlight into the room, but the theft was not discovered until the next morning. The value of the gems was put at $410,000 (more than $3 million today).
Early in the morning, he and Kuhn flew to Miami with the gems, which they hid under a boat. Their freedom lasted 24 hours.
A clerk at the men’s hotel alerted police that they had left suddenly. While police searched their penthouse suite, Clark walked in and was promptly arrested. Police found drugs, a gun, ammunition, floor plans to various New York museums and books about gems.
About 36 hours after the break-in, Kuhn and Murphy were arrested in Miami. Most of the precious gems, including the Star of India, were recovered and returned to the museum.
Before his trial, Murphy was arrested again in Florida on burglary charges, captured after what newspaper reports called a “wild automobile chase.” As the Star of India court case wore on, Murphy behaved more like a movie star than a defendant, smoking cigars and casting the police as bumblers. He was upset that the legal proceedings interfered with his plans to go surfing in Hawaii.
“Listen, I loved the life,” he told the Tampa Bay Times in 2012. “I loved the insanity. I loved stealing jewels. It was like Cary Grant, very exciting, and the people you stole from always had insurance.”
All three men were found guilty, and Murphy spent almost two years in New York’s Rikers Island prison. When he got out in 1966, he moved back to Miami and promptly won the East Coast surfing championship.
He also returned to his old criminal ways. In 1967, he and another man, Thomas Griffith, had an arrangement with two young women who had stolen almost $500,000 in securities from a brokerage firm they had worked for in California. (Prosecutors later said Griffith and Murphy were part of the scheme from the beginning.)
Murphy and Griffith took the two women, Terry Rae Frank and Annelie Mohn, for a boat ride to discuss how to divide the money. During the trip, both women were bludgeoned, stabbed and shot to death. Their bodies were weighted with concrete blocks and dumped in a swampy waterway near Hollywood, Fla., called Whiskey Creek.
Still on the loose in January 1968, Murphy and several other men attempted to rob a wealthy woman in Miami Beach, threatening to pour boiling water over her 8-year-old niece. When police arrived in the midst of the robbery attempt, there was a shootout, and Murphy received cuts to his face as he tried to flee by diving through a glass door.
As he was being taken to jail, he quipped to reporters, “I cut myself shaving.”
He and Griffith later went on trial for the murder of Frank, each accusing the other of killing her. Both were convicted in 1969, with Murphy receiving a life term and Griffith sentenced to 45 years. (The death of Mohn was never prosecuted.)
A year later, Murphy received another life sentence for the robbery attempt. He entered the Florida prison system, seemingly for the rest of his life.
Jack Roland Murphy was born May 26, 1937, in Los Angeles. (His middle name at birth may have been Ronald, one of many parts of his early life that are difficult to verify.) His father was an electrical company lineman or an electrical contractor. Little could be learned about his mother.
Murphy grew up as an only child in Oceanside, Calif., where he learned to surf. He began taking violin lessons at 10 and became an outstanding tennis player. He completed high school in McKeesport, Pa.
He later said he was offered a tennis scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, but he dropped out during his freshman year and moved to Florida. He was credited with being among the first people to bring surfing from California to Florida and won statewide and East Coast surfing championships. He was a member of the inaugural class of the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame. He was portrayed by actor Don Stroud in a 1975 film about the Star of India heist.
His marriages to Gloria Sostock and Linda Leach ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife since 1988, the former Mary “Kitten” Collins of Crystal River; two sons from his first marriage; and several grandchildren.
During his first years in prison, Murphy told the Tampa Bay Times, he ran a drug and gambling ring and was “out of control.” In 1974, pro football players Roger Staubach and Bill Glass visited Murphy’s prison and spoke about the power of faith. Prison officials recognized Murphy’s intelligence and leadership skills and urged him to make something of himself.
He began to lead Bible discussions and helped mediate disputes between inmates and guards. With the support of the state prison director, Murphy was released in 1986, after serving 17 years.
He joined a ministry led by Glass, a former defensive end with the Cleveland Browns, and later launched prisoner outreach groups himself. He visited more than 2,000 prisons in the United States and other countries, preaching a message of Christian forgiveness and self-reliance, while relating tales of his colorful past.
Many people were dubious that the notorious Murph the Surf had truly reformed, but he was never in serious trouble with the law again.
Asked by the Palm Beach Post in 2006 whether he had committed all the crimes he was charged with, Murphy said, “Most of them, and a whole lot more.”