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Wild life behind, legend enjoys golden years

(ran East edition of Pasco Times)

He taps the table. He rubs his watch. He stirs his iced tea. He smoothes his marlin-patterned boat shirt. When he's not talking, his eyes dart from his cell phone to the lacquered fish on the walls of the waterfront restaurant to the boats.

No, Jack Murphy - the legendary surfer and beach boy who scored the grandest jewel theft in American history 41 years ago - isn't one to sit still long.

"I can't sit around on a cruise ship or sit around in a lounge," he said. "I'm always, always, fiddling with something."

He has been a concert violinist, a national surfing champion, a tennis pro, a movie stunt man, a high-tower circus diver, a business owner, a cat burglar, a painter, an author, a murderer and the subject of a 1974 feature film, Murph the Surf, starring Robert Conrad.

"In fact, he's top notch at everything he does," wrote a psychologist who examined him after an arrest in 1968.

Murphy shrugged.

"I've always been very, very assertive," he said.

He dug his fork into some key lime pie.

"I've got to have projects."

Murphy was clearly focused on his present occupation: messenger of God. He has visited the world's most violent prisons to spread the Gospel among the worst criminals.

The man who once sparked one of the biggest riots at Florida State Prison is, at age 68, international director (and oldest staffer) of Champions for Life, a prison ministry founded 35 years ago by former Cleveland Browns football star Bill Glass.

The job takes Murphy into more than 200 prisons a year. He preaches, counsels inmates, raises funds and organizes events from Puerto Rico to England, from Barbados to South America.

This year, he planned to visit prisons in Brazil and Russia. More than 800,000 copies of his book, Jewels for the Journey, have been distributed in prisons across Russia and India.

An event organized by Murphy is an extravaganza. He brings in major league athletes; motorcycle clubs; ventriloquists; high-wire performers; country, soul and rock singers; wrestling, karate and boxing champions; and successful ex-cons.

"We've also got a skydiver who has parachuted into 160 prisons," he said, "and Dondi, the only born-again elephant in the world."

Of course, it is Murphy whom the prisoners want to see. And he usually gives them a good show.

He bounds onto the stage, snaps up a microphone, blesses his audience and rattles off tales of his prison experiences, of his most famous scams and schemes. He sprinkles his patter with quotations from Scripture and stock lines like "If you're not doing God's business, you're just doing time."

Education and employment aren't enough to rehabilitate a criminal, he said.

"If you don't deal with a person's heart, with their soul . . . all you're doing is passing out Band-Aids," Murphy said.

He said he recently preached at a penitentiary in Fort Worth, Texas: "And in the audience, serving time, were 22 attorneys, six judges and a congressman. I rest my case."

His own change of heart occurred in 1974, the day Glass and his troupe of NFL stars, including Hall of Famer Roger Staubach, spoke to the inmates at the Florida penitentiary where Murphy was serving two life sentences.

As he remembers it, the athletes talked about the important role that God played "in a real man's life," and, for the first time, Murphy considered the possibilities of faith.

There was no magic moment; his transformation, he said, is "sort of a lifelong process."

In time, he became a model prisoner and a jailhouse artist, painting seascapes and lighthouses, counseling troubled youths, working for the prison's chaplain.

After 19 years, Murphy was released. In 2000, because of his exemplary behavior and ministry, the Florida Parole Board voted unanimously to terminate his lifetime parole.

Still, to crime buffs and the masses, he remains and perhaps always will be Murph the Surf, the hypercool master of the waves who, along with two sidekicks, pulled off what has been called the largest, most audacious jewel theft of the 20th century.

On the night of Oct. 29, 1964, they 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 about 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 were already fenced.

"I was supposed to be on my way to Hawaii to surf," Murphy told the New York Times. "But this inconvenience has fouled the whole thing up."

He copped a plea, and 21 months later, Murphy left the prison at Riker's Island behind - though not the criminal mind-set.

"When I came out of prison in New York," he said, "I didn't give a damn about anybody or anything."

In 1968, Murphy was the driver and lookout when three of his partners entered the 19-room mansion of Olive Wofford, a Miami Beach socialite. At one point, she later told police, they held a pistol to her and threatened to pour boiling water on her 8-year-old niece if she didn't open the safe.

A swarm of police tracked Murphy down. As they closed in, he dove, headfirst, through a pair of French doors on the second floor. (At the arraignment the next day, Murphy was asked why his face was swathed in bandages. "I cut myself shaving," he said.)

That year, Murphy was 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. Prosecutors said the women were killed in a dispute over $488,000 worth of securities stolen from a Los Angeles brokerage.

Murphy denied it. Nevertheless, 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.

To this day, that era pains him.

"I'm not at all pleased with my past, or the terrible mistakes that I did, the hurt that I caused people," he said.

His strong voice was losing volume. "I am ashamed and embarrassed by all of that."

How did a man who was offered a tennis scholarship to college - who was invited to play the violin with the Pittsburgh Symphony at age 17 - become a legendary criminal?

Jack Roland Murphy was born in Los Angeles, the son of an electrical lineman, and grew up in Carlsbad, Calif. The family moved to Pennsylvania when Murphy was a senior in high school, but he quickly traded the harsh winters for sunny South Florida and returned to his passion, surfing.

Twice he was named Florida's top surfer, and in 1963, he won the National Hurricane Surfing championship. (He was inducted into the Surf Legends Hall of Fame in 1996.)

But he fell in with Allan Kuhn, a diver, swimming instructor and ladies' man with a yacht, a 50-knot speedboat and a Cadillac convertible. Together, they took up stealing.

What hooked Murphy were the getaways: There was a thrill to escaping the law by boat, car, or swimming through miles of shark-infested waters. And he loved the lifestyle - the safe houses in Hawaii, the parties in New York, the celebrations on yachts around the Caribbean.

In early October 1964, the duo stepped into Kuhn's convertible and drove from Miami to the Upper West Side of Manhattan for their rendezvous with larceny history.

Four decades later, Murphy has lost the old swagger. In his twilight years, he has a bit of a spread (too much calamari, he said), his forehead is freckled with age and sun spots, and his hair, once a sweep of sun-bleached gold, is white and receding at the temples. He no longer poses for pictures in his trademark sunglasses.

Once an epic womanizer, Murphy has been married 18 years to a member of a film crew that came to his prison to do a documentary. Between them, they have three sons and seven grandchildren.

"My wife and I have been homeschooling three of our grandchildren, ages 4, 6 and 8, for the past 14 months," he said. "Now, that's a challenge."

He skis in Colorado, sails with family down to Key West, and surfs off Cocoa Beach, Puerto Rico, Hawaii and California. Murphy keeps four clear "classic" boards ready and paddles out when "the waves are nice and little and it's not an ordeal."

But his priorities are elsewhere: "Mankind wasn't created to build superdomes and highways and get a lot of money. Your purpose is to represent God."

Sometimes, Murphy leafs through his collection of writings on America's legendary gangsters and criminals. He paused over one that features his face on the cover.

The book lumps Murphy in with Jesse James, Al Capone and Thomas Blood. This does not faze him.

"Every single one of those guys died in prison, or died some tragic, tragic death," Murphy said. "Very, very few of the historical characters of the underworld ever did anything to help other people. They didn't learn from their mistakes."

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