Jack Murphy, jewel thief and convicted killer known as ‘Murph the Surf,’ dies at 83

Jack Murphy, jewel thief and convicted killer known as ‘Murph the Surf,’ dies at 83 - The Washington Post

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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.

After dropping out of college, Mr. 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 Mr. Murphy’s trial, he was released.

Later that year, Mr. 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.

Mr. 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.

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 Mr. 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.

Mr. 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 Mr. 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,’ ” Mr. Murphy told the Times.

Because the glass display cases were too thick to break with a rubber hammer, Kuhn and Mr. 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.

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