TALLAHASSEE — Jack Roland Murphy, the famed jewel thief and surfer known as "Murph the Surf," has spent the last quarter-century going into prisons and telling inmates that they could still turn their lives around.
Murphy, now 75 and living in Crystal River, said he thought it was time he tried to get his own bit of redemption. He asked the state to restore his civil rights despite the fact he spent nearly 20 years in prison for murder.
"I'd like to be able to go to these guys I talk with and say 'Listen, I just came back from the governor's office and received favor' because I have been working with the system and trying to do the right thing," Murphy told Gov. Rick Scott and members of the Florida Cabinet on Thursday.
The answer: No.
Scott was willing to restore Murphy's rights, but not the other three Cabinet members, including Attorney General Pam Bondi. Under Florida law, the governor cannot grant clemency without the yes votes of two additional Cabinet members.
Bondi told Murphy he was fortunate just to have avoided execution for his role in the slayings of two women.
"Under today's death penalty scheme I firmly believe he would be on Death Row or executed by this time," Bondi told reporters. "His blessing is he is out there walking the street."
Murphy was a national surfing champion, a concert violinist and a tennis pro. But he is probably most famous for a jewel heist.
On the night of Oct. 29, 1964, Murphy and two accomplices broke into New York's American Museum of Natural History and stole the J.P. Morgan Collection including the Eagle diamond, the Midnight sapphire, the DeLong ruby and the world's biggest sapphire, the Star of India, a 563-carat gem the size of a racquetball.
Within 48 hours, Murphy and his cohorts were in police custody thanks in part to a bellhop at the Cambridge Hotel, where the three had been planning the break-in and throwing lavish, all-night parties for weeks. The jewels were recovered from a locker at a Miami bus station, except for nine diamonds that had already been fenced.
The heist was the subject of a 1975 movie, Murph the Surf, starring Don Stroud and Robert Conrad.
Murphy spent nearly two years in jail.
In 1968, he was the driver and lookout man in a scheme to rob Olive Wofford, a Miami Beach socialite. He was also charged with first-degree murder in the "Whiskey Creek murders," the 1967 case of two California secretaries who were found shot, bludgeoned and dumped in a creek north of Miami, concrete weights lashed to their necks.
Murphy denied the murder. But in 1969, he was convicted of killing Terry Rae Frank, 24, and sentenced to life in prison. In 1970, he received a second life sentence, plus 20 years, for conspiracy and assault to commit robbery against Wofford.
On Thursday, Murphy again asserted that he did not kill anyone, saying instead that he was driving a boat when an argument broke out and the women were shot after they threatened to go to the FBI.
"I hear bang-bang," Murphy said. "It was an absolute train wreck, a nightmare."
Scott said after the meeting that he did not know about Murphy until the clemency case came up. But he said he "felt positive" about restoring Murphy's rights, which would have allowed him to vote and serve on a jury.
Murphy's bid to win his rights was backed by former Florida Department of Corrections Secretary Louie Wainwright and others who spoke about his years of prison ministry work since he was released from jail in 1986.
Murphy has gone to prisons across the country and abroad while working for Champions for Life, a prison ministry founded 35 years ago by the former Cleveland Browns football star, Bill Glass.
After the vote, Murphy said he had hoped to get his clemency request granted, but he had expected the outcome.
"It's the nature of the times," he said, adding that he was surprised that Scott sided with him. "It is what it is."