Jewel Thief ‘Murf the Surf’ Has Had a Busy 50 Years

Jack Roland Murphy didn’t intend to become notorious, but he always wanted a reputation.

On October 29, 1964, Jack Roland Murphy swung off a fire escape on a rope secured to one of the Museum of Natural History’s romanesque pillars and through the window of the J.P. Morgan Hall of Gems. Murphy was 27 years old, strong as hell, and capable of remarkable concentration. The year before, he’d won the national surfing championship. Eleven years before that – at the tender age of 15 – he’d played violin for the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra and Johnny Carson on “The Tonight Show.” He was not a run-of-the-mill thief and this wasn’t just another smash and grab.

Here’s what Murphy, better know to the girls on Miami Beach as “Murf the Surf,” saw when he – along with his accomplice Allan Dale Kuhn – surveyed the dark museum: the world’s biggest sapphire, the world’s most perfect ruby, the world’s largest black sapphire, a case of smaller gems, and a security system on the fritz. The two thieves made quick work of the cases with a glass cutter and duct tape, stuffed the gems into bags and got the hell out of there, shimmying careful down several floors worth of rope. They took separate cabs and drove away the perpetrators of the biggest jewel heist in U.S. history.

“He almost died there with the pigeons,” says Domenic Fusco, the Florida publicist who has been helping Murf, now 77 and on parole, book speaking gigs. Fusco plans to make a documentary about Murf’s life and serves as a sort of gatekeeper, keeping “secular” publications at arms length. “Murf is just about the most talented guy you’d ever meet,” adds Fusco, “but he wasn’t a great thief.” 

Even now, it’s impossible to know what the stones Murf stole were worth. They we insured for $410,000, but that was to keep premiums affordable – the booming market for stolen gems was fueling an uptick in heists. And these jewels even had names: The Star of India, the DeLong Star Ruby, and the Midnight Star. They were priceless and the police were justifiably angry. 

The story hit the front pages, but it didn’t blow up until Murf got nicked in Miami. He was a handsome bon vivant and he was giving himself a ticker tape parade with cash. Even after he was arrested, he was mouthy. He complained that he was supposed to be at a surfing competition in Hawaii. He puffed on a cigar. He called incarceration an “inconvenience.” Naturally, he was a hit with the public, which saw him as either a lovable rogue or wrongfully accused beefcake. The man who committed what the papers were still calling “the crime of the century” didn’t have to buy his own drinks.

But the cops were dogged and a third accomplice named names. Murf finally had to give up surfing – as well a performing stunts in Hollywood movies and high-tower circus diving acts – when he was convicted for the Natural History Museum heist in 1965 after making a deal with the Manhattan District Attorney, who was holding him for the 1963 robbery of actress Eva Gabor. He spent 21 months in prison and emerged handsome, famous and in demand. It was 1967, Murf was a star, and women wanted him almost as badly as the Miami P.D.

Actor and professional surfer Don Stroud played Murf in the 1976 biopic “Murph the Surf” as a sort of poolside lothario with an easy smile and a natural swagger. Like the man he was playing, Stroud had a square jaw and an easy way about him. At the end of the movie – after a reporter asks what he’s going to do next and another answers for him, saying “He’ll think of something” – the following text rolls over a freeze frame: “Jack Roland Murphy was released from Riker’s Island Prison after serving his full sentence. He was later convicted of subsequent crimes and is currently serving a life sentence in Raiford State Penitentiary, State of California.” The film doesn’t specify the nature of the crimes, presumably because Murf’s murder conviction made him a little less dreamy.

Fusco will tell you that Murf didn’t kill Terry Rae Frank, whose mangled corpse was found with the body of another woman in a Hollywood, Florida swamp. “He did not touch those girls!” says Fusco, insisting that Murf is a thief who served 45 years of two consecutive life sentences because he didn’t want to be a rat. “Gangsters used to keep their mouths shut,” Fusco adds. “Everyone talks now. You can’t get a preacher to keep their word.”

Today, Murf is a preacher. He found Jesus in jail and, through the International Network of Prison Ministries and Sonshine Adventures (tagline: “Believe a man can change”), he’s shared the good news with prisoners around the country and plenty of organizations abroad. The story he wants to see – or the story Domenic says he wants to see – is a redemption story, not a story about a slick thief living large in the wild sixties. The movie he and Domenic are making won’t have the mainstream appeal of the older film. It’s been fifty years since that night at the museum and Murf wants to finally set the record straight, to take credit for what he did and what he did next. He wants to talk about redemption, but everyone else wants to hear about those jewels.

Photos by Bettmann / Corbis