How Murf the Surf pulled off a heist at Natural History museum
According to the “Oceans Eleven” movies, heists of major institutions require a high-tech, fast-talking, carefully orchestrated operation.
But when Murf the Surf decided to steal some jewels from New York City’s Museum of Natural History, all it took was an open window.
It’s unknown who decided to crack the fourth-floor window, which opened onto the J.P. Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals, in October 1964. Jack “Murf the Surf” Murphy, then 27, and two pals, Arthur Kuhn, and Roger Clark, were visiting the museum when they happened to notice it — which was very convenient for surfer dudes turned jewel thieves. On October 29, they climbed back in and pulled off New York City’s grandest museum robbery. No guards were in sight, and no alarms went off.
Using a glass cutter, the men etched a hole in the display case and five-fingered the DeLong Star Ruby, a 100.32-carat gem; the Eagle Diamond, which had been purchased for the museum by banker J.P. Morgan; and the Star of India, a 563-carat sapphire then considered the world’s most valuable jewel, along with other sparklers.
Back at their temporary digs on the Upper East Side, the trio celebrated before jetting home to Miami with Kuhn’s unwitting girlfriend carrying the haul inside a makeup bag.
The heist made The Post’s front page, in a story written by reporter Nora Ephron, and, all these years later, led to “Murf the Surf: Jewels, Jesus, and Mayhem in the USA,” a documentary that premieres Sunday on MGM+.
“People were fascinated with the theft, and later with these handsome surfers turned jewel thieves who pulled it off,” director R.J. Cutler told The Post. “They were the first true-crime celebrities.”
As publicity of the theft rapidly mounted, a desk clerk in their Manhattan building tipped off cops about the tenants who spent money like mad (tipping a bellhop $100 for a liquor delivery) and threw ragers. It was the gang’s hard-partying lifestyle that drew attention, but it was their carelessness that got them busted. When detectives entered the room, they found sneakers studded with glass, burglary tools, a gun, and photos of the museum.
But by the time the NYPD alerted Miami police, two days after the heist, the jewels were nowhere to be found in the guys’ Brickell neighborhood apartment. The three were arrested anyway.
Kuhn, Clark, and Murf made bond and promptly thumbed their noses at authorities for the next six months, even talking about opening a nightclub called Jewel of India. The public, meanwhile, loved it, buying up bumper stickers that read “Save Murf the Surf.”
Eventually, most of the jewels were found. The DeLong ruby was recovered through a $25,000 ransom paid by billionaire John D. MacArthur, whose foundation later instituted the so-called “genius award.” The Star of India and other smaller gems were retrieved from a Trailways bus station locker in Miami. The Eagle Diamond, however, never turned up and is thought to have been cut into smaller stones.
The trio pleaded guilty to burglary and grand larceny in April 1965. A New York judge sentenced them to three years at Rikers Island.
Murf likened the impending time to “being stuck in afternoon traffic.”
“He was an outlaw by every definition,” said Cutler. “He defied the laws of nature.”
Long before becoming a convicted jewel thief, Murf was a golden boy from the California beach town of Oceanside — acing surf championships, playing the violin, winning a tennis scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh. But winter hit hard there and Murf wondered what the hell he was doing in the cold.
He quit during freshman year, 1955, and headed to Miami Beach to work as a pool boy and rub elbows with celebrities such as Milton Berle and mobsters like Albert Anastasia. Murf also married a rich hotel guest, fathered two children with her, divorced in 1962, rapidly remarried and just as quickly divorced again. Capitalizing on his surf-stud notoriety, he relocated to Cocoa Beach, Florida, to open a surf shop.
When that failed, Murf torched the business for insurance money. “He got away with it,” said Cutler. “He did not accept the normal bounds of legality.”
With his business smoldered, Murf returned to Miami around 1963 and discovered that his beach-boy buddies had evolved. As per Cutler, “They went from rubbing shoulders with gangsters to becoming criminals themselves. Jack became part of that.”
Jewel heists were a booming business in Miami, and Murf and his athletically inclined crew became successful cat burglars — breaking into high-rise apartments and hopping from one balcony to another.
Occasionally, they got rough. In January 1964, months before the museum break-in, “Green Acres” actress Eva Gabor and her stockbroker husband Richard Brown were robbed at gunpoint and pistol-whipped in Miami, with the crooks making off with her $25,000 diamond ring. Gabor picked Kuhn and Murf out of a police lineup.
The charge went nowhere but it led to bail being bumped up to $150,000 for the other infractions. Kuhn rolled over, leading cops to the bus station jewels for a lighter sentence.
Murf, meanwhile, pleaded guilty and ended up being sentenced to three years at Rikers. He served 21 months.
“My life radically changed,” he admits in the documentary. He’d gone from babes and surf to “a bad prison where I was in with 400 guys who knew all the crazy stuff. It was an incredible experience … I was a cool cracker.”
Upon release in 1967, “The first thing I did was get a pistol. I learned a lot of stuff in prison and I was ready to roll.”
From there, he pulled off armed robberies from Miami to Beverly Hills. And then things got really dark.
In November of that year, Murf and Kuhn were contacted by Terry Frank and Annelie Mohn, two young secretaries who had stolen $488,732 worth of negotiable securities through a work connection. They hoped that Murf and Kuhn could move the paper. But, Murf told Vanity Fair, “The girls [started] to get antsy, so we went for a boat ride.”
One month later, the women’s badly mutilated bodies were found in Whiskey Creek, north of Miami. Murf and a karate champion named Jack Griffith were arrested, pled innocent, and released on bail.
That left time for one last fling: the home invasion of wealthy Miami socialite Olive Wofford. Murf and his collaborators threatened to throw boiling water in the face of her young niece, who happened to be in the house if Wofford didn’t give them the jewels; instead, she secretly pressed a panic button that summoned police and led to a shoot-out. Murf was once again arrested and, this time, sentenced to double life in prison for both the shoot-out and his alleged role in the murder of Frank.
Though he never admitted to killing the secretaries — he blamed a mysterious man named Rusty — Murf did admit to cleaning the crime scene. “I’ve got dead bodies in the back of the boat,” he told Vanity Fair. “You get rid of the situation the best you can.”
Sent to Florida State Maximum Security Prison in 1969, Murf did relatively well. He emerged as the joint’s drug-dealing kingpin — complete with an enforcer to beat anyone who took too long to pay him — and was somehow allowed to dress in a white shirt and slacks instead of the standard prison jumpsuit. He even did occasional TV interviews from behind bars and managed to win the heart of local crew member Kitten Collins, who became his girlfriend.
After his appeals for release failed through the 1960s and into the mid-’70s, Murf got tipped that his only shot at walking would require faith in God. He went all out — praying with Pat Robertson when the evangelist taped a 700 Club TV special behind bars and posing for photos with Roger Staubach when the born-again NFL great brought his Prison Crusade to Florida.
Some officials believed that Murf was a changed man. Others disagreed. “When one considers the violence loss and bloodshed that Murphy caused, is this the man that society wants back in its community?” asked Ken Glassman, Miami chief of police in a mid-’80s letter to the parole board.
Nevertheless, Murf surfed out of prison and into a halfway house in 1986. Within two years, his devotion to Christian ministry earned him a recommendation for early release. Murf saluted fellow inmates who sang Christian spirituals as he exited. On the outside, he started his own ministry, traveling from prison to prison and preaching the gospel to the incarcerated.
Murf did in September 2020, at age 83, soon after being interviewed for the documentary, “Jack was willing to cross the line until he found a line that would not catch up to him. That line was his faith,” Cutler said. “And it is difficult to question a man’s faith.”
As Murf says in the film: “Everybody bends the truth to their advantage.”