In late October 1964, thieves stole 22 gems from New York City’s Museum of Natural History. Three of the stones were so famous they would be impossible to sell. Within 48 hours, aided by confidential police sources, two men in New York and another two in Miami were arrested. One of those men, Jack Murphy, was a legendary surfer and beach boy. Later, he was to commit, apart from murder, the biggest jewel heist in American history. Today his moniker ‘Murph the Surf’ still haunts him, despite his efforts of rehabilitation and becoming a born again Christian and preacher.
Jack Roland Murphy was born in Los Angeles, California before the family moved to Pennsylvania. He was the A1 student and the boy every parent dreamed of, showing an aptitude for sport and ability in most subjects. A passionate surfer, he was named the state’s top surfer in 1963, winning the National Hurricane Surfing championship twice. More incredibly at 15 years of age he was playing with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Throughout his colourful career it is claimed that he has been a concert violinist, tennis pro, movie stunt man, high-tower circus diver, a jewel thief and a convicted murderer, who was even the subject of a 1974 feature film, ‘Murph the Surf’, starring Robert Conrad.
His audacious crime of the stealing the Star of India, a 563.35 carat star sapphire, wasn’t something he benefited from. Two days later he was arrested with his accomplices.
But the main question is what turned a high achieving young man with accolades and women at his feet into a violent criminal? A psychologist who examined him after an arrest in 1968 said “he’s top notch at everything he does”.
One probable answer is that he experienced a vicarious thrill from danger and getting away with criminal acts. The thrill of the chase and participating in a high powered heist, no doubt gave him the kind of emotional high or kick that he failed to get from other areas in his life. The principle character who introduced him to a life of crime was swimming instructor and ladies man, Allan Kuhn. The wealthy Kuhn epitomised the glamorous gangster, with his yacht, 50-knot speedboat and a Cadillac convertible.
Taking up the risky and dangerous world of stealing with Kuhn, Murphy loved the getaway scenarios that felt like something straight out of an action film. There was the thrill of escaping the law by boat or car and this was part of a glamorous package that included an affluent lifestyle made up of swanky parties, upmarket apartments, even safe houses in Hawaii and yachts around the Caribbean. But the crime that was to immortalise his name in hall of infamy was to become known as the greatest jewel heist of the 20th century.