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Born May 26, 1937, in Los Angeles, the late Jack Roland Murphy, better-known as ‘Murph the Surf’, grew up as an only child. Whose criminality first showed itself innocently enough when breaking into his first school to fill his face with ice cream.
Writer: Kieran Longworth / Illustrator: Cerys Szczesny
A tense household, by all accounts, was headed by a particularly demanding father, also named Jack. The stern electrician pushing his boy to rebel.
Young Jack was a capable violinist and tennis player. And by his teens had found himself dragging a 60-pound redwood surfboard down to the coast with friends.By now a sunglasses-wearing, swimsuit-sporting bronzed daredevil, Murphy would go on to be inducted into the East Coast Surfing’s inaugural Hall of Fame. With him regarded as a master on the water and something of a folk hero.
Legend has it that one Christmas he delighted Floridian crowds by paddling into 14-foot swells wearing a Santa costume. As well as winning events in Virginia Beach, Jacksonville and Ormond, as well as becoming Florida state champion in ‘62 and ‘63.
Surfing, though, wouldn’t take off as a professional sport until the 1970s. And it was a failed business in Cocoa Beach and a broken second marriage that saw Murphy shut up shop and return to his hometown of Miami. Meeting Allan Kuhn on the way, the alliance would prove the catalyst for an ever-increasing portfolio of robberies and criminality that escalated in both violence and audacity.
Infamy peaked in ‘64 when he and two accomplices lifted $3 million worth of precious stones. Labelled the jewel heist of the century, Murphy, Kuhn and Roger Clark were said to have casually entered the Natural History Museum in New York, climbing to the top floor to steal the Star of India Sapphire and 22 other jewels. The robbery serving as the centre of the late surfer’s mythology, as well as seeing him given three years.
The 21 months spent inside Rikers Island prison saw Murphy emerge a wholly darker soul. Accompanying Thomas Griffith, the pair met the acquaintance of Terry Rae Frank and Annelie Mohn, two young women finding themselves in possession $500,000 worth of stolen bonds. The foursome were said to have taken a boat ride with the intent to discuss how to divide their takings and when two bodies were subsequently found, the bodies weighted with concrete and dumped in the swampy waters of Whiskey Creek, it was clear that discussions had proven pretty one-sided.
Both women had been bludgeoned, stabbed and shot to death, leading to a conviction in 1969, with the then-32-year-old receiving a life term, and his accomplice, Griffith sentenced to 45 years.
When in prison he told the Tampa Bay Times of his involvement in a drug and gambling ring, and his actions being ‘out of control’. He claimed in subsequent years to have been wise to violence and murder, involving himself in Boston gang wars that left more than 60 people dead, saying, ‘I lived in the jungle, baby’.
In 1974, pro football players Roger Staubach and Bill Glass visited Murph in prison, speaking of the power in faith. As a direct result he began to lead Bible discussions as well as mediating disputes between inmates and guards.
Released in 1986, Murphy joins a ministry led by Glass – a former defensive end with the Cleveland Browns – and later launches prisoner outreach groups himself.
Visiting more than 2000 prisons during his time – now as a silver-haired Holy Roller – the surfer preached a message of forgiveness. Never in trouble with the law again, Murphy confessed his crimes to a Palm Beach Post reporter in 2006, admitting to ‘most of them, and a whole lot more’.
Marriages to Gloria Sostoc and Linda Leach both ended in divorce. He passed away in September 2020 and is survived by third wife Mary; two sons from his first marriage; and a coterie of grandchildren. He was 83.
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