by gaspar gonzalez | March 1, 2010 | Lifestyle
When Jack Murphy arrived in Miami Beach in the 1950s, he worked as a strolling violinist at the Poodle Room in the Fontainebleau. A gifted tennis player, he gave lessons—and hustled games—at the Roney Plaza’s courts. He was a champion surfer. And he developed an aquatic act that was perfect for the tourist crowd. “Every hotel had a high [diving] board and a pool, and they would all put on water shows,” says Murphy, who specialized in acrobatic comedy dives. Tall, blonde and cocky, the California native became a fixture on the beach, with a nickname custom-made for the era of sun-and-fun: Murph the Surf.
Of course, if that’s all Murphy was famous for, we wouldn’t be sitting at this open-air restaurant on the bay in Coconut Grove. We’re here because the 72-year-old Murphy still likes being close to the water. “You want to know about the heist, huh?” he asks, adjusting the Rolex on his wrist. The heist, as Murphy calls it, occurred 46 years ago, on October 29, 1964.
That night, Murphy and two beach buddies, Allan Kuhn and Roger Clark, broke into the American Museum of Natural History in New York and made off with two dozen prize gems, including the 563-carat Star of India, perhaps the most famous sapphire in the world, and the 100-carat DeLong Star ruby. The value of the stones was estimated at around $410,000 (about $2.8 million today), but, in reality, they were irreplaceable. It was the biggest jewel job in history.
The trio made it look easy. Clark was the lookout man. Murphy and Kuhn, a marine salvage diver, scaled a 125-foot wall to the fourth floor. Once there, an unlocked window gave them access to the room where the gems were kept in glass cases. The men had researched the heist well; they knew the museum’s alarm system was antiquated and wouldn’t sound when they cut into the cases. “For us, it wasn’t anything,” says Murphy. “We just swung in there and took the stuff.”
It was not their first burglary. Living in Miami, Murphy and his friends had developed an appetite for speedboats, luxury cars and expensive clothes. As their tastes became more and more refined, says Kuhn, who today lives in California, “the crime thing just crept into our lives.”
It didn’t take the police long to identify Murphy, Kuhn and Clark as suspects. In the weeks leading up to the break-in, they had been staying at a hotel near the museum, throwing parties and trying to impress their New York friends with talk of what they were planning. “We knew we’d get picked up,” says Murphy. “It’s like jumping in a car and doing 90 miles an hour. You’re not surprised when you get pulled over.” Less than 48 hours after the burglary, police in Manhattan collared Clark, while the FBI arrested Murphy and Kuhn in Miami—though not before they had managed to hand off the jewels to friends for safekeeping.
The arrests created a media frenzy. “[The newspapers] called it ‘The Crime of the Century,’” remembers Maurice Nadjari, the Manhattan assistant district attorney assigned to the case. “There was this talk that these guys had seen the [recent hit] movie Topkapi, about the robbery of a Turkish museum. Since they were athletic types, they thought they could try something similar.”
As the investigation dragged on—Nadjari had neither witnesses nor jewels to enter into evidence—Murphy emerged as the front man for the group. He relished the spotlight. “I was at the police station in New York one time and they had me handcuffed to this drag queen, to make me look bad,” he recounts. “So I said to her, ‘Listen, when they take us down to the paddy wagon, [pretend] I’m Tab Hunter and you’re Leslie Uggams [at a Hollywood premiere].’ The cops start walking us down and I’m like, ‘Okay, baby, it’s showtime!’ And the crowd outside is going wild.”
With his dark glasses, hipster swagger and pop moniker, Murph the Surf oozed Jet Age cool. To his court dates, he wore silk suits, colorful ties and an overcoat with a fur collar. When reporters asked about his plans for the future, he joked about opening a nightclub with Kuhn on Miami Beach. They were going to call it the Star of India.
“Those [guys] exuded confidence,” says Nadjari. “I knew I had to break them down.” To do that, Nadjari relied on some star power. Eva Gabor— soon to be cast in television’s Green Acres—was famous for her good looks, bad movies and multiple marriages, a poor man’s Liz Taylor. On January 5, she became Nadjari’s secret weapon. The Hungarian bombshell claimed that, a year earlier, Murphy and Kuhn had pistol-whipped her in her North Bay Village condo and taken a $25,000 diamond ring. To this day, Murphy scoffs at the charge: “They put me in a lineup with eight Puerto Ricans. [Of course] Gabor picked me out.”
Possibly nothing more than a ruse by Nadjari—the actress later declined to testify in court—Gabor’s dramatic allegation nevertheless placed Murphy and Kuhn at the scene of a crime. It was a different crime, but it was enough to get them jailed. “I got an indictment on them,” says Nadjari triumphantly. “By 4 PM [that day], I got a phone call saying Kuhn wanted to speak with me.”
The beach boys, it turned out, did not like the view from inside the Manhattan Detention Complex, known as The Tombs for its oppressive architecture. With the jail’s dark, gray walls staring them in the face, they decided to cut a deal. They confessed to the museum heist. On January 9, the newspapers reported that the jewels had been retrieved from a bus-station locker in downtown Miami. For his role in the theft, Murphy got 21 months.
Prison did little to diminish Murphy’s or his friends’ celebrity. “When they came back [in 1967], I did a story on them,” says crime writer Edna Buchanan, then a reporter for the Miami Beach Daily Sun. “Old people [on Miami Beach] treated them like conquering heroes.”
When he was apprehended a few months later for breaking into the home of a Miami Beach socialite, it sounded like vintage Murph the Surf. This time, however, there was a difference. Things had gotten rough. Murphy, working with a different set of accomplices, had threatened to pour boiling water on the woman’s eight-year-old niece if the woman didn’t cooperate. When the cops showed up, he ran through a glass door trying to get away.
At the hospital following his arrest, the former trick diver showed he still had a performer’s instincts. “They were suturing [his face] up,” recalls Buchanan, “and I said, ‘Jack, what happened?’ And he said, ‘I cut myself shaving.’ He never lost that bravado.”
It was undeniable, though, that Murphy’s once appealing bad-boy act was growing darker. In late 1967, two women’s bodies were found in Whiskey Creek, a drainage canal near the Intracoastal in Hollywood. By the spring, police had traced the crime to Murphy. The women, it seems, had stolen half a million dollars in securities from their Los Angeles employer. After traveling to South Florida, they sought out Murphy and another man, Jack Griffith, hoping they would help them cash their loot. Instead, police said, the men killed them for the money.
It was nasty stuff. The women were taken out on a boat and bludgeoned, their stomachs cut open so decomposition gasses wouldn’t bring their bodies to the surface. Then they were weighted down with cement blocks and thrown overboard. At trial, Murphy was convicted of first-degree murder and sentenced to life. He was paroled in 1986. When the subject of Whiskey Creek comes up, Murphy becomes uncharacteristically reticent. “I’m out there, driving a boat, and all of a sudden a nightmare takes place,” is all he’ll say about that day.
“[Whiskey Creek] screwed up the image of the ‘beach-boy burglars,’” says Kuhn. “It was so out of character.” Maybe that’s the reason Murphy won’t discuss it. He’d rather be remembered as the swashbuckling hero of the Star of India caper. (When told that his old nemesis Nadjari is still around at age 86, Murphy exclaims, “You’re kidding! You’ve got to give me his number. He’s got great photos of me!”)
These days, Murphy is active in Champions for Life, a Christian ministry that counsels inmates. Every year, he travels from his home on the west coast of Florida to more than 100 prisons, spreading his faith—and his fame. “When I go back to the prisons,” he notes, “the guys say, ‘I want what you got,’ [so] I tell them what the Lord says: ‘If your life is pleasing to me, I will open doors for you.’” And then, because he knows how important a man like that can be, Murph the Surf smiles.
TOP IMAGE: Murph the Surf, handcuffed to a transvestite, fl ashes his brand of Jet Age swagger for the cameras outside a Manhattan police station in early 1965.
BOTTOM IMAGE: Murphy with girlfriend Bonnie Lou Sutera in court. The strain of the case proved too much for the 22-year-old; she committed suicide in Miami in December 1964.
PHOTOGRAPH BY bettmann/corbis and LYNN PELHAM/TIME LIFE PICTURES/GETTY IMAGES