Historically, there’s always been something about surfing that draws ne’er-do-wells and degenerates into its ranks.
It could be the pastime’s countercultural roots or the freewheeling hedonism the lifestyle encourages. Or perhaps it’s the simple fact an obsession with chasing waves around the world ain’t exactly conducive with traditional modes of employ. Whatever the reason, everywhere in the world, crime and sliding on waves have gone hand in hand since time immemorial.
To examine this enduring duality, we’ll be running a series of online features profiling some of the most notorious surfing criminals.
Today, we’ll recount the life an times of Jack Roland Murphy, better known as Murph the surf, whose extensive criminal rap sheet includes dozens of robberies, first-degree murder and the biggest jewel heist in American history.
Murphy was born in 1938 in Carlsbad, California. His friends remember him as an excellent student, both in the classroom and on the sports field, driven by demanding, disciplinarian parents. He lived out his teenage years in a strict routine of school, sports practice and violin performances with the local symphony. Although he did find the time in between to learn to surf on a large cumbersome 50’s red-wood.
When he was 18, his family moved to Pennsylvania, where he quickly earned a tennis scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. However, Murph longed to be back by the sea and after just a few months, he ditched school and hitched a ride down to Miami Beach.
For a hedonistic hustler, it was the place to be in the late 50s. That summer, he spent much of his time on the sand, slipping seamlessly into the nascent beach boy archetype that like Murph himself, had drifted east from California, where a post war exodus of GIs combined with Hollywood glitz to create surf culture’s original sheen.
For money, Murph lifeguarded and taught swimming before launching a high dive comedy act with state championship high-jumper Dick Catri. In 1958, Murph introduced Dick to surfing and the pair travelled north, showing off their wave riding skills at beaches all over the Indialantic-Cocoa Beach area. After a few years, Catri took off to Hawaii, where he would later become the first ever east coast mainlander to surf Pipeline and Waimea.
Following a failed marriage, Murph settled in Cocoa Beach, where he picked up two state surf titles in 62 and 63, re-married (and quickly re-divorced) and opened up his own surf shop. He became well known in the area as a standout in the lineup, gaining celebrity one Christmas when he reportedly paddled out in a 14 foot hurricane swell dressed in a Santa costume.
His stint in Cocoa was cut short after just four years, when some bad business deals forced him to close shop and move back to Miami Beach.
While there are various reports of Murph’s petty crimes and run ins with the law in the proceeding decade it wasn’t until the early 60’s when he met a playboy named Allan Kuhn, that he turned properly to a life of crime.
“The two men would plunder valuable artwork…” writes Brian Burnsed in a recent story on Murphy for Sports Illustrated, “but instead of selling their haul they would contact the company that had insured the art, essentially holding the pieces hostage. If one was covered for $200,000, Murphy says he’d ask the insurer for $70,000, saving them a full payment to their client.”
Murphy would use his photographic memory to scope out valuable jewelry hanging round the necks and off the fingers of the clientele at swanky bars throughout Miami beach. Once he spotted something valuable, he’d break into the owner’s home with a team of others and make off with the haul in his speedboat through the city’s network of waterways, which Murph says he knew like the back of his hand. His sharp analytical mind and athletic prowess made him an invaluable asset among his gang of thieves.
In 1964, Murph, Allan and another man named Roger Clark got on a plane to New York, where they checked into a lavish penthouse suite. They spent a few weeks partying and pulling off small robberies around town, before hatching plans for their most audacious heist yet. They were going to break into the American Museum of Natural History and raid its collection of prized jewels.
In the lead up to the robbery, they spent a few days casing the ‘hall of gems’ and studying books purchased from Museum gift shop, which detailed the particulars of each stone on display. Then, one night, the trio scaled a ten-foot wall, forced open a door and using chords from Venetian blinds, lowered themselves into the gallery. They cut holes in the glass display cases and made off into the night with 24 stones, boasting a combined value of $3 million in today’s money. Among them was the Star of India; the world’s largest sapphire.
During the entire episode, not one of the museum’s eight on duty guards noticed anything was amiss, nor did any alarms sound (it later transpired they’d been disconnected years earlier in an effort to save money.) However, it didn’t take law enforcement long to find the culprits.
There are conflicting accounts of who exactly tipped them off, but within 48 hours of escaping into the night, all three men were in handcuffs.
Recovering the jewels proved more difficult, although eventually the most precious of the haul, including the Star of India were located stashed in a bus station locker.
Murph was repeatedly bailed and re-arrested over the coming months, as his new found infamy and constant press attention enabled many of his past victims to identify him. Despite informing the judge at one of his court appearances that all these legal proceedings were interfering with a planned surf trip to Hawaii, he was sent down and ended up serving almost 2 years behind bars.
The stint did little to quell his criminal instincts, and he slipped quickly back into the underworld upon his release.
“By then, the sheen of the outlaw surfer was wearing off, revealing something edgier,” writes Burnsed. “Without divulging specifics, [murphy] claims in the subsequent years to have been involved in or privy to extreme violence and other murders, including Boston gang wars that left more than 60 people dead. “I lived in the jungle, baby,” he says.”
On Dec 8, 1967 Murphy boarded a boat with a friend named Griffin and two female bank tellers who were involved in a criminal plot with the pair. At some point, an argument kicked off about who was getting what split of the stolen money and the woman were beaten, killed and sunk to the bottom of the creek. Murph claims he had little to do with their violent demise, saying instead he was only responsible for disposing of the bodies. However, after a lengthy trial, a jury pronounced him the lead protagonist, convicting him of first degree murder. In a move that some attribute to his ever-growing fame, he was spared the electric chair, and instead sentenced to life behind bars.
One would have thought that might be the end of the twists and turns that defined the life of Murph the Surf. However, sometime during his first two decades behind bars, he had a religious awakening.
In the following years he repented for almost all of the crimes he was convicted of and set about convincing a parole board that he should be freed. And in 1986, after 20 years inside, he was.
Upon his release he took up work for a non-profit prison ministry organisation and has spent the 33 years since visiting inmates and telling his story, encouraging others to embrace the word of god, so perhaps one day they too can be free.
Plenty see his so-called repentance as just another ruse, while many others hold him up as a shining example of how profoundly human beings can change.
Cover photo: Miami Herald