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Murf the Surf: He stole the Star of India, killed two women in the Whiskey Creek Murders, but that's not him any more

BUSHNELL

Jack Roland Murphy hates visiting prisons. "They're literally hell on earth," he always says. As Inmate No. 02467 he spent nearly two decades in Florida's most notorious lockups. But he keeps going back to the places he hates most with a message he once sneered at.

A gate opens with a bone-rattling buzz. A Sumter Correctional Institution warden extends his hand. "Glad to see you," Murphy says.

A long time ago Murphy rode the waves better than anybody in South Florida. Then he became the most famous jewel thief in America. Then he hurt people and was lucky to escape the electric chair.

In prison he experienced an epiphany of sorts, the kind that can make the devout cry "Hallelujah!" and the most cynical reach for the Alka-Seltzer. You can believe his "I was saved" story or reject it, but "it is what it is,'' he says mysteriously.

He is 75 now and lives in Crystal River. He is stocky and white-bearded and still talks like a surfer dude turned TV pitchman: loud with exclamation points. He carries a Bible in his back pocket and hands out free copies of Jewels of the Journey: Murf Talks to Wiseguys. The little book tells convicts about the author's metamorphosis from an enthusiastic sinner to a sort-of saint.

"I'm not a preacher," he tells prisoners. "I just want you to know what happened to me."

A Californian, he had moved often as a youth and landed in Pennsylvania to play a lot of tennis at the University of Pittsburgh and a little violin with the local symphony. He has never been clear about what exactly happened except to say "I got tired of the snow."

So he hitchhiked south to Miami and landed on the beach and declared it his own in 1955. He was 18. Oh, the girls. Oh, the opportunities to hustle up a few bucks. He weaved palm hats in front of hotels, taught tennis, gave swimming lessons, rubbed Noxzema on the sunburned shoulders of buxom ladies.

One day during a tropical storm, a cop saw him atop a terrifying South Beach wave and told another cop: "Oh, he knows what he's doing. He's Murf the Surf."

Sure, Sinatra and the Rat Pack were the kings of Collins Avenue. Murphy just wanted to be a prince.

He could talk your ears off. He could play you a snatch of Mozart on his violin. He could win your Saturday night money hustling you on the tennis court on Saturday afternoon. Lock up your daughters: He was cool and flashy behind those shades, like "Kookie" Edd Byrnes in that 77 Sunset Strip television show.

With a fake ID, he would sneak into the Hotel Fontainebleau's legendary Poodle Room and dance with the call girls, including one who dressed like Little Bo Peep and dated a Mafia hit man. He met the Beatles in the Deauville Hotel's swimming pool when Ed Sullivan brought them to the beach for a TV show. Murf being Murf, he blended into their entourage at the 5th Street Gym, where they clowned for photographs with a hot young boxer named Cassius Clay.

Prince Charming became the Prince of Thieves.

"I'd drive the boat. I knew the beach waterfront like the back of my hand. We'd take the Intracoastal behind the expensive homes. The other guys would climb over the walls and steal the jewels. Then we'd head across the bay. At some point, I'd be handed the bag of jewels. My job was to swim them to shore and meet the getaway car. That way the other guys would be okay if the police stopped them. My take the very first time was $15,000."

Soon he was climbing walls himself. He smoked dope, hit on the ladies, broke hearts. One girlfriend committed suicide. His crazy lifestyle doomed two marriages. He was Murf the Surf, the smartest guy on the beach. Everyone else was a sucker.

He met Allen Kuhn, another wise guy. In New York they cased the American Museum of Natural History, home of the world's most precious gem collection, including the golf ball-sized, 563-carat Star of India sapphire. They discovered unlocked windows and a burglar alarm turned off to save money.

They came at night, scaled walls, crept along window ledges, rappelled down to an unlocked window. Once inside, they spent hours filling a bag with choice gems worth $500,000 in 1964 dollars.

The brazen burglars returned to Miami Beach to celebrate. Nobody knows who squealed, but two days later the FBI broke down their door.

They got written up in Life magazine. They also served two-year sentences at Rikers Island in New York.

Murphy returned to Miami Beach in 1967 a changed person. He was still good for a newspaper quote or a photograph with pretty girls on the beach, but behind his grin was a desperate thief with a cocaine habit. He pistol-whipped an elderly Miami Beach woman who dawdled instead of handing over her jewels, probably because she was more concerned about triggering a silent alarm. He jumped through a plate glass door, but the police caught him.

Turned out he was a suspect in another crime.

Murphy and a guy named Jack Griffith had partnered with two young women in the theft of $500,000 in stocks. They were on a water-skiing trip in the Intracoastal when one woman apparently threatened to talk if she didn't receive a bigger share.

The two women ended up dead — beaten, shot, thrown overboard, weighed down with concrete blocks. For what the press called "The Whiskey Creek Murders" both men received life sentences. Murphy got another life sentence, plus 20 years, for the armed robbery of the Miami Beach socialite. The judge declared Murphy unfit to walk among decent people.

Murphy ended up in the Florida State Prison at Starke.

It was 1969.

"I found God in prison," Murphy says one day at a restaurant near his home north of Tampa. He taps the table with his fingers. Squirms. Answers his cellphone. It's an ex-con. They talk, talk, talk. Hangs up. Wife calls. Talk, talk, talk, one topic flowing into another. John the Baptist meets Dennis Hopper.

He remembers we were talking about finding God in prison.

"I know what you're thinking," he says. "We're sitting in the Riverside Crab House looking at the rain on the water. I'm eating key lime pie. 'Oh, I found God.' I know it sounds hokey.''

These are cynical times, after all. We have learned to be wary of the fine print in the bank statement, the email from the Nigerian prince who promises riches, the handsome politician who is going to fix the country by snapping his fingers. Felons who find Jesus in prison aren't exactly rare.

"I was a bad person in prison, a real a------," Murphy goes on. "I ran a drug ring. I ran a gambling operation. I was out of control. I helped lead a prison strike in 1971 and ended up in isolation, for seven months, on death row."

Louie L. Wainwright was in charge of Florida's Division of Corrections for 25 years. In the early 1970s, he opened Florida's prisons to rehabilitation programs that included counseling, education and jobs training. He welcomed missionaries into his prisons.

One day a chaplain handed Murphy a religious tract.

"Thanks," Murphy remembers telling him. "I'll use this to roll a doobie."

Murphy went to the chapel, but only to escape work and for the coffee and doughnuts. If a chaplain came on strong with the Jesus talk, Murphy tuned out.

One day a former tough guy thief from Miami, Frank Constantino, visited prison to tell old pals he had been saved by Jesus. Murphy felt embarrassed for him.

So it went for one year. Then a second year.

He watched a few gangster friends who were always reading their Bibles and making an effort to behave. He wondered whether they were pulling a con.

A preacher asked Murphy: "Do you want to invite Christ into your life?"

"No, man."

But he didn't say it with his usual conviction.

Murphy's transformation wasn't like Saul being struck blind on the way to Damascus. Changing from murderer to loving Christian was slow going.

One day chaplain Max Jones told Murphy, "I want to talk about a rebel who spoke up for the poor, and angered the rich. They put him to death for that." Murphy hated talk that sounded like grandma's religion. But he could identify with a rebel.

Later, the chaplain cornered Murphy.

"Listen, Murf. You're a smart, talented guy. You had good parents. You had it all. You could have done anything you wanted with your life. But here you are. The best you can do is wake up every morning in a prison cell. Don't you think it's time for a new manager?"

"So I got me a new manager," Murphy says over lunch. "Listen, I loved the life. I loved the insanity. I loved stealing jewels. It was like Cary Grant, very exciting, and the people you stole from always had insurance. But I also know I was out of control and so I had to have a new manager."

At first his change was as much practical as spiritual.

He enrolled in Alcoholics Anonymous and gave up smoking pot. He met an ABC television reporter out of Gainesville, Mary Catherine Collins, who was working on a story about prisoners trying to turn their lives around. Over many months they developed a friendship. When he told her he wanted to take up painting, she sent him her photographs of lighthouses for artistic inspiration.

"I need help with my social graces,'' he told her on another visit. He'd forgotten table manners and how to converse like a normal person. Soon she was visiting every week, sometimes bringing food, sometimes clippings from the newspaper they could discuss. "I was attracted to his intelligence and curiosity," she says now.

Also, unlike prisoners who blamed someone else for their troubles, Murphy didn't. He admitted he was guilty as sin, that he deserved to be locked up.

As for romance, it seemed completely hopeless. Murphy never expected to leave prison alive.

"It wasn't an easy time," Murphy says now. "As you make a breakthrough, as you begin to grow as a person, these immense feelings of remorse start to wash over you, feelings that eat you up inside where you can't even sleep.

"On your own, you don't have the strength to deal with the blunders of your life, the evil things you've done, the people you've hurt. The guilt was overwhelming. I felt that I had to turn all my guilt over to a higher power. I prayed a lot and read Scripture about redemption and forgiveness.''

If another inmate wanted to pray, Murphy prayed along — John 1:9: "If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins," and Peter 5:6: "Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that he may exalt you in due time."

He taught illiterate prisoners to read and write, led Bible studies, offered advice. Nelson "Buzzo" Kowalczyk, serving 30 years for murder, listened. "Everybody knew who Murf the Surf was,'' says Kowalczyk, who conducts his own prison ministry now. "I started watching how he handled himself, how he talked to people, how he led. I wanted to be like that, too.''

Murphy was also mediating disputes between convicts and prison guards. The warden noticed.

In 1986, Murphy was invited to attend a parole hearing. Wainwright, the prison system head, did something unusual. He testified on a prisoner's behalf. He believed Murphy was a suitable candidate for parole.

At the news conference at his release, a reporter asked about his future.

"I'm going to do God's work," Murphy blurted out.

Edna Buchanan, the hard-nosed Pulitzer Prize-winning crime reporter for the Miami Herald, told her readers that yes, Murf the Surf had found Jesus in prison. "They usually do," she later wrote sarcastically.

Twenty-six years have passed. He married that television reporter and calls her "Kitten.'' She calls him "Murf." They watch television together, mostly sports and Murphy's favorite, Dancing With the Stars. They're raising their grandchildren. Murphy takes them to Crystal River to see the manatees, drives them to school and helps with homework. He takes his eldest grandchild to St. Petersburg for Saturday swim meets. Then he goes over to see Bill Mills.

Mills is 73, a chain-smoking, whiskey-drinking, curse-word-uttering millionaire who builds things, including prisons. They met through Wainwright more than a decade ago. They argue about religion. They argue about everything. But they're friends. The cynical Mills sometimes lets Murphy say a quick grace before dinner.

"At first I didn't know what to make about his prison conversion," Mills says. "But he's either the greatest B.S. artist in history or he's for real. I have no doubt he's for real. He has walked the walk for many years."

Mills and his wife, Gigi, have a vacation home on southwest Florida's exclusive Useppa Island. The first time Mills invited Murphy for a weekend, neighbors expressed alarm about the presence of America's most notorious jewel thief. But that was before they attended the sunrise service Murphy conducted on Easter Sunday. Afterward he weaved palm-frond hats for all comers.

But inmates, he has found, are sometimes harder to impress than rich people.

Buzz!

At Sumter Correctional, another gate slams behind Murphy. He follows a guard down a corridor into a big hall. Half the seats are filled with two dozen prison officials and VIPs. About that many convicts, dressed in their prison blues, occupy the other chairs.

Murphy scopes out the room. Since 1986 he has visited more than 1,500 prisons as a staff member for the famous Bill Glass Champions for Life prison ministry and a dozen others. He has spoken in Jerusalem, at San Quentin ("a satanic capital," he calls it) and at a gulag in Siberia.

He's used to tough audiences.

He's more optimistic about this visit. "I'm going to be talking to military veterans who went wrong,'' Murphy whispers. "But you know they must have a disciplined, patriotic background because of the military."

Showtime.

There's a color guard, Pledge of Allegiance, the national anthem. Murphy has brought a guest speaker, a retired Air Force general who tells prisoners he was a self-important, cocky flyboy before he was saved by Jesus.

Murf the Surf's turn.

He mentions "God" but never "Jesus" or his murder conviction. In his stream-of-consciousness way he explains how he went wrong. He says he was a smart guy who blew it. But people, man, they opened doors for him, they believed in him the same way he believes in them, the prisoners of Sumter C.I.

He comes up for air.

Okay. Okay. You're in prison, man. You made a mistake. But no matter who you are, man — inmate, guard, warden or visitor — you want to finish well. You can accomplish something that matters. You can help others. You can change. Bad men can change into good men. You got to finish well!

Big applause. Murf the Surf says thank you.

While he was an inmate, a movie came out about the Star of India caper called Murph the Surf. Aside from how screenwriters changed the spelling of his nickname, he thought it was an okay effort. Robert Conrad played Allen Kuhn and Don Stroud played him.

But it only told part of the story. Murphy has been working on a screenplay he says will tell the whole shebang. It will feature sex and drugs and stealing. It will have violence and murder and prison hard times. But it will also be about the Redemption of Murf the Surf, about how a bad man changed into a good man and is trying to finish well.

Perhaps a new film will also feature his impish sense of humor.

Bob Haiman is a friend who once was executive editor of the Tampa Bay Times and later director of the Poynter Institute, which owns the Times. As a longtime newsman, Haiman was more than suspicious of Murphy's prison conversion. But as their friendship blossomed, he grew to believe in him.

Some time ago, when Haiman traveled to New York and visited the Museum of Natural History's gem room, he tried to imagine how Murphy had pulled off the heist. Next time he saw Murphy, he described the trip.

Murphy's eyes lit up.

"What's the layout like now?" Murphy asked eagerly.

Haiman silently wondered why Murphy wanted to know.

"How is security?" Murphy pressed. Uncomfortable now, Haiman asked why he needed that information.

"Ah, you know," Murphy told him quietly. "If this God business doesn't work out, I may need something to fall back on."

Haiman stared back, speechless.

Murphy leaned toward him.

"I had you going there, didn't I?"

Jeff Klinkenberg can be reached at klink@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8727.

Murf the Surf: He stole the Star of India, killed two women in the Whiskey Creek Murders, but that's not him any more 08/25/12 [Last modified: Saturday, September 1, 2012 8:14pm]

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