Jack 'Murph the Surf' Murphy, heist mastermind, dies at 83

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Jack 'Murph the Surf' Murphy, heist mastermind, dies at 83
James Oliver, director of the Museum of Natural History, by the smashed case that held the stolen Star of India sapphire, and Star Ruby of Burma, in New York, Oct. 30, 1964. Jack “Murph the Surf” Murphy, a tanned, roguish, party-loving beach boy from Miami who transfixed the nation in 1964 by pulling off the biggest jewel heist in New York City history, died on Saturday Sept. 12, 2020, at his home in Crystal River, Fla. He was 83. Arthur Brower/The New York Times.

by Robert D. McFadden

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- He called himself “Murph the Surf,” a tanned, roguish, party-loving beach boy from Miami, and he transfixed the nation in 1964 by pulling off the biggest jewel heist in New York City history — the celebrated snatching of the Star of India, a sapphire larger than a golf ball, and a haul of other gems from the American Museum of Natural History.

It was not that 27-year-old Jack Roland Murphy and his accomplices, Allan Kuhn and Roger Clark, were superthieves, like the ones Maximilian Schell and Melina Mercouri portrayed in the then-current Jules Dassin film “Topkapi,” about a plot to steal an emerald-encrusted dagger from the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul — a movie the museum thieves had recently seen.

Rather, although they had robbed waterfront mansions in Miami and escaped by speedboat, they left a trail of amateurish clues to the museum theft and were caught by New York detectives two days after the crime, although the loot — worth more than 3 million in today’s dollars — was still missing: stashed by then in waterproof pouches in Miami’s Biscayne Bay.

And it was not that the job was so well planned. Rather, security for the fourth-floor Hall of Gems was just terrible. Burglar alarms had long ago stopped working, windows at night were left ajar for ventilation, and there were only eight guards for the museum’s dozens of interconnected buildings. One aging guard shined a flashlight into the hall on his occasional rounds. The gems were begging to be stolen.

“Allan said he could hear the jewels talking,” Murphy told The New York Times in 2019 for a retrospective article 55 years after the infamous break-in. “He said, ‘The jewels are saying, ‘Take us to Miami.’ So I said, ‘Well, let’s take them to Miami.’”

Murphy died Saturday at his home in Crystal River, Florida. He was 83. His wife, Kitten, said the cause was heart and organ failure.

Murphy was an enigma of fabled deeds and crimes. By his own account, he had been a concert violinist with the Pittsburgh Symphony at 18, a star athlete who won the University of Pittsburgh’s first tennis scholarship, and a two-time national surfing champion. A daring thief and self-promoter, an author, a prison missionary and television evangelist, he created his own myths and let the news media and Hollywood embellish them.

He published a short, self-serving memoir, “Jewels for the Journey” (1989), which neglected to mention that he was a convicted murderer; and he was portrayed in films, including Marvin Chomsky’s “Murph the Surf” (1975), a glamorized account of the museum caper with Don Stroud in the title role. Murphy spent nearly two decades in prison — a short stretch for the museum heist and a long one for a particularly brutal homicide in Miami.

Painted as a Folk Hero
For much of his adult life, Murphy was a caricature drawn from the publicity that engulfed him. The tabloids, which romanticized the museum theft as a crime of the century, idealized him as a handsome blond adventurer in dark sunglasses who charmed women, smoked dope and loved jazz. Even the mainstream press portrayed him as a kind of folk hero.

But the ordinary hallmarks of identity — a name, a date and place of birth, a history of schools and jobs — were missing or obscured by his misleading and contradictory statements, by his nomadic life of crime, and by dubious claims about his accomplishments, his innocence and the authenticity of his late-in-life religious conversion.

The California Index of Births listed his name as Jack Ronald Murphy. In an interview for this obituary in May, he said his birth name was Jack Rolland Murphy. At some point, he began using Roland for a middle name. For years he cited various birth dates and places, evidently to hide his identity from the law.

He told The Times that his father had been a telephone lineman, but told the East Coast Surf Legends Hall of Fame that he had been an electrical contractor, always on the move. He said he had attended 12 grade schools and three high schools. He claimed to have a photographic memory, but in the Times interview he could not identify any of the schools or the years he attended them.

Was he a genius? Perhaps. The Florida correctional authorities listed his IQ as 143 — in the 99.8 percentile of scores. Did he play a violin with the Pittsburgh Symphony at 18? There is no record of it. Did he win a tennis scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh? Probably. Was he a national surfing champion? Perhaps. Was he the Miami cat burglar who in the 1960s rifled waterfront homes for jewels and escaped by speedboat over a maze of waterways? Almost certainly, investigators said.

Did he conspire with two secretaries to steal securities from a brokerage, and lure them aboard a speedboat, where he and another man bludgeoned and slashed them to death and dumped their bodies in a canal in 1967? Probably. A court convicted him of one of the homicides and sentenced him to life in prison. He served 17 years.

But in 1986 he was released, a born-again Christian with a new persona and vocation, preaching to prison inmates. Was his redemption real or faked? Either way, he gave it a huge effort.

Murphy ministered to thousands of inmates over decades, became a television evangelist and appeared with celebrities at prayer breakfasts, once with President Ronald Reagan. His friend, NFL quarterback Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys, called his redemption real enough.

California Surfing
Jack Ronald Murphy was born in Los Angeles on May 26, 1937, to Jack Marshall Murphy and Sylvia Ruth Camp, who were married six weeks after his birth. An only child, Jack spent some of his formative years in a disciplinarian household in Carlsbad, California, an oceanfront city near San Diego. John Penrod, a childhood friend, told Sports Illustrated in 2020 that he once saw the father slap the boy’s face for washing dishes too slowly.

Jack became a rebel, but also an adept violinist, tennis player and surfer at local beaches. The Murphys moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Modesto, California, in the 1940s, and to the Pittsburgh suburb of McKeesport when he was a high school senior. He said he won a tennis championship there and a scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh.

But months after matriculating at Pitt in 1955, he dropped out and hitchhiked to Miami Beach. He found jobs teaching swimming, scuba diving, tennis and dancing at cabana clubs and resorts. He also became a high-board stunt diver with a traveling aquatic troupe at swank hotels.

In 1957, Murphy married Gloria Sostock. They had two sons, Shawn and Michael, and were divorced in 1962. In 1963, he married Linda Leach and was divorced. A relationship with Bonnie Lou Sutera ended with her apparent suicide in 1964. Another with Connie Hopen lasted from 1967 to 1969. In 1987, he married Mary Catherine Luppold Collins, called Kitten.

A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

In Cocoa Beach, Florida, Murphy opened a surfboard shop and began surfing competitively. The Encyclopedia of Surfing (2005), by Matt Warshaw, says he won the 1962 Daytona Beach, Florida, Surfing Championship, was inducted into the East Coast Surf Legends Hall of Fame in 1996 and won the East Coast Surfing Championship in Virginia Beach, Virginia, in 1966.

In Miami Beach, he met Kuhn, a scuba diver with a speedboat, who introduced him to crime. After plundering art works from waterfront homes, instead of selling them to fences they called art insurers and traded their booty for cash, no questions asked.

In the fall of 1964, Murphy, Kuhn and Clark drove to Manhattan hoping for a big score. Renting a penthouse at the Cambridge House Hotel on West 86th Street, they threw all-night drug parties. In Midtown, they robbed bar patrons and burglarized hotel rooms.

At the J.P. Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals at the American Museum of Natural History, on Central Park West, they noted lax security and gawked at what they found there: the Star of India, a 563-carat, oval-shaped blue sapphire, 2 1/2-inches long (a golf ball is 1.68 inches in diameter); the DeLong Star Ruby, at 100.32 carats; and the 116-carat Midnight Star, one of the world’s largest black sapphires.

On the night of Oct. 29, a Thursday, with Clark on the street as lookout, Murphy and Kuhn, carrying a coil of rope, scaled a tall iron fence behind the museum, climbed a fire escape to the fifth floor and inched along a narrow ledge. Tying the rope to a pillar above an open fourth-floor window, Murphy swung down and used his foot to move the sash.

They were in.

The glass protecting the important gems was a third of an inch thick, too strong to break with a rubber mallet. Instead of risking noise with heavy blows, they used cutters to score circles of glass; duct tape to cover the circles, to prevent shattering and muffle the sound; and a rubber suction cup to pull the pieces out.

They opened three cases and bagged 22 prizes: emeralds, diamonds, rubies, sapphires and gem-laden bracelets, brooches and rings. Finally, they went out the window, climbed down and walked away, encountering several police officers on their beat.

“Good evening, officers,” Murphy said. They gave him a nod and kept walking.

The next day, as headlines on the heist hit the streets, Murphy and Kuhn flew to Miami and stashed the loot in pouches under Kuhn’s boat in Biscayne Bay.

Their liberty was short.

A hotel clerk tipped off police. In the penthouse, investigators found a museum floor plan, brochures on its gem collections and sneakers with glass shards on the soles. Their search was interrupted when Clark walked in. He admitted to the theft and said Murphy and Kuhn had taken the gems to Miami. A day later, all three were in custody.

Half the missing gems, including the Star of India and the Midnight Star, were recovered by a New York prosecutor, Maurice Nadjari, who promised Kuhn leniency for revealing the hiding place. Nadjari found the gems in a Miami bus station locker, where they had been stashed by a Kuhn confederate after retrieving them from under the boat.

Murphy and his partners served about two years each at Rikers Island in New York. The Star of India and the Midnight Star eventually went back on display at the natural history museum, now more popular than they had ever been before. So did the DeLong Star Ruby, which was recovered in a Miami phone booth after $25,000 in ransom was paid. Another prize, the Eagle Diamond, was never recovered.

Killings at Whiskey Creek
While Kuhn and Clark resumed anonymous lives, Murphy’s crimes deepened. In 1967, he and a Miami thug, Jack Griffith, met Terry Rae Frank and Annelie Mohn, secretaries who had stolen $500,000 in securities from a California brokerage where they worked. Prosecutors later said Murphy had conspired with the women in the theft, and gave them a hideout in Miami.

Murphy and Griffith took the women on their last ride: a midnight speedboat excursion to Hollywood, north of Miami, ostensibly to discuss disposing of the securities (worth $4 million in today’s dollars). But in a waterway called Whiskey Creek, the women were bludgeoned and hacked to death, and their bodies, anchored with concrete blocks, were dumped overboard.

Traced through the stolen securities, Murphy and Griffith were charged with the killings. In a 1969 trial in Fort Lauderdale, they blamed each other for the murders and were both convicted. Griffith was sentenced to 45 years and Murphy to life in prison.

After 17 years in Florida prisons, Murphy was released in 1986, vowing to spend his remaining years on “God’s business.” For three decades, supported by groups like the International Network of Prison Ministries, he traveled from his home in Crystal River to preach to inmates in a dozen countries.

He appeared on Christian broadcasts and at criminal rehabilitation conferences, sometimes with an entourage of major league athletes and popular singers. In 2000, the Florida Parole Board ended his lifetime parole.

In media accounts of Murphy’s later life, the murders of Frank and Mohn became footnotes to the supposedly more alluring tales of his prison ministry and the heist at the American Museum of Natural History.

“The streamlined legend of Murph the Surf has long overshadowed the nuanced conundrum of Jack Roland Murphy’s core,” as Sports Illustrated put it. “Are decades spent sacrificing for others enough to atone for a few moments of savagery on Whiskey Creek?”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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