Born in Los Angeles in 1938, Jack Rowland Murphy became a champion surfer before earning notoriety for a jewel heist in 1964. Convicted of murder in 1969, he turned to religion while incarcerated and was granted lifetime parole in 1986. Murphy has since devoted his time to visiting convicts as a member of prison ministry organizations.
Jack Rowland Murphy, also known as "Murph the Surf," was born in 1938 in Los Angeles, California, before his family moved to Pennsylvania. In his youth, Murphy was a top student with an aptitude for music and sports. He had a passion for surfing, and won the National Hurricane Surfing Championship in 1963. More incredibly, by the age of 17, he had been invited to play violin with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
In addition to being a surfer and concert violinist, Murphy was a tennis pro, movie stunt man and high-tower circus diver. But Murphy also had a dark side, and he would eventually become better known as a jewel thief and convicted murderer.
Museum Jewel Heist
On October 29, 1964, thieves stole more than 20 gems, including the Star of India, a 563.35-carat star sapphire, from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. Within 48 hours, aided by confidential police sources, two men in New York and another two in Miami were arrested. One of those men was Jack Rowland Murphy. Another was the person who had helped introduce Murphy to a life of crime, swim instructor Allan Kuhn.
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, fancy apartments and yachts around the Caribbean.
Murphy's involvement in the robbery at the Museum of Natural History—which has been credited as "the greatest jewel heist of the 20th century"—landed him in prison for almost two years, and also immortalized his name in the hall of infamy.
Olive Wofford Burglary and 'Whiskey Creek Murders'
A turning point in Murphy's image as a glamorous cat burglar came in early 1968, when he and two partners broke into the mansion of Olive Wofford, a widowed Miami Beach socialite. Wofford later told police that the thieves had held a pistol to her and threatened to pour boiling water over her 8-year-old niece if she didn't cooperate and open a safe.
After a silent alarm brought the police, Murphy sought to escape by smashing through a locked glass door. When found swathed in bandages and apprehended, he quipped, "I cut myself shaving."
Worse yet was the charge that two California secretaries had died at Murphy's hands in 1967. Later known as the "Whiskey Creek murders," the two women had been shot, bludgeoned to death and then dumped in a creek near Hollywood, Florida; concrete weights had been tied to the necks of the women to sink them. The victims had allegedly been killed in a dispute over nearly half a million dollars worth of securities stolen from a Los Angeles brokerage, with Murphy emerging as the prime suspect.
Conviction and Prison Sentence
Despite denying his involvement in the Whiskey Creek murders, Murphy in 1969 was convicted of killing one of the women, Terry Rae Frank, and sentenced to life in prison. In 1970, he received another life sentence, plus 20 years, for conspiracy and assault to commit robbery against Olive Wofford.
In 1975, Murphy was the subject of a feature film, Murph the Surf, with Don Stroud starring as the champion surfer turned criminal.
Murphy eventually became a Christian and a model prisoner, remorseful for his past deeds. He led Bible studies, taught other prisoners to read and helped mediate disputes. His exemplary behavior drew the endorsement of Florida Division of Corrections Secretary Louie Lee Wainwright at a parole hearing, and Murphy was released in 1986.
From 'Murph the Surf' to Preacher
Murphy joined the Bill Glass Champions For Life ministry after his release, visiting prisons as a "messenger of God" with the aim of helping rehabilitate other felons through religion. He also married a television reporter he had met while incarcerated.
However, the moniker "Murph the Surf" still haunts him, despite his efforts at rehabilitation through religion. Of his villainous and murderous past, Murphy has stated, "To this day, that era pains me. I'm not at all pleased with my past or the terrible mistakes that I did, the hurt that I caused people. I am ashamed and embarrassed by all of that."
In 2012, Murphy requested clemency from the state of Florida to have his civil rights restored. Despite the approval of Governor Rick Scott, Murphy was unable to secure the necessary votes, and his bid was denied.
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