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Ex-thief 'Murph the Surf' to retell his story in film

Now living in Crystal River and leading a prison ministry, Jack Murphy became a legend for stealing jewels.

Published September 21, 2003

TARPON SPRINGS - It's been nearly 40 years since Jack Roland Murphy made national headlines.

Now "Murph the Surf" is 66, with white hair and tanned, textured skin. He is a handsome man: 6 feet tall with chiseled features and ocean-blue eyes.

Smart, too. Psychologists have labeled him a genius.

He speaks with confidence, panache and hard-earned wisdom.

He was a national surfing champion, a concert violinist, a tennis pro, a movie stunt man.

He was also a notorious jewel thief - the man who stole the Star of India sapphire - and a convicted murderer.

Now he is a born-again Christian and director of an international prison ministry.

Last week, the man who seems to have several lifetimes' worth of experience came to Tarpon Springs to tell his story of crime, punishment and redemption to a documentary film crew.

"If you're not doing God's business, you are just doing time," he said.

Producers from Interlock Media, an independent production company based in Cambridge, Ma., are shooting a documentary called Faith in the Big House. In it, they plan to explore questions about spiritual transformations within the prison population. Murphy is their star interview.

On Thursday, their location of choice was a cramped second-story office at the Landing at Tarpon Springs, a marina and office complex on the north bank of the Anclote River. It was chosen because Murphy loves the ambience of Tarpon Springs and the window provided a view of the Sponge Docks.

Inside the sweltering office, the windows were closed and the air conditioner was turned off because the sensitive sound equipment would pick up every pin drop. When workers outside had to refill a 4,000-gallon fuel tank, the crew stopped until the noise subsided.

All the while, Murphy sat patiently under a hot light, his back to the sun, his ears and face coated with burnt orange makeup. He looked a bit like a baking sweet potato.

"You are spritzing," said director Jonathan Schwartz, who signaled a production assistant to wipe his face.

Fifteen oppressively hot minutes later, the fuel tank was filled and Murphy launched into his spiel about his organization, the Bill Glass Champions for Life. He talked about his 12,000 volunteers - counselors, entertainers, sports superstars, and successful ex-cons - who will visit 400 prisons throughout the United States and the world this year. On Saturday, he and 100 volunteers took the Day of Champions ministry to the Pinellas County Jail for a half-day program.

The razzle-dazzle shows are motivational and spiritual in nature.

Murphy says prisoners are looking for an answer and Jesus Christ is it.

"Our country was founded on a book about a man who was executed on death row," he said.

Murphy was not always religious. As a young man in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he worshiped the Miami sunshine, beaches and pretty girls.

He loved watching movies, especially ones about clever crooks. His movie idol was Cary Grant and his favorite movie was To Catch a Thief.

"But movies don't show the aftermath. They don't show prisons and how horrible they are," he said.

Murphy was talented in many areas. A violin prodigy, he played with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra at age 15. In 1962 and 1963, he was a state surfing champ. In 1963, he won the Hurricane National Surfing contest.

He became a tennis pro, movie stunt man, and then started his own surfboard company and became known as Murph the Surf.

Murphy was riding high on the wave of life.

Then he began having wipeouts.

He lost his business and his marriage and fell in love with booze.

He got involved with a wild crowd and before he knew it, he was involved in a robbery.

"It didn't hurt anyone and insurance would cover it," he told himself.

Murphy found he loved the adrenaline rush of the getaways: by boat, car or swimming for his life in shark-infested waters.

And he loved the lifestyle: a home in Hawaii, a penthouse in New York, and a safe house in Santa Monica, Calif., for cooling off after the jobs.

Murphy was writing his own movie script, but he wasn't planning on the surprise twist.

In 1964, Murphy and two partners pulled off what has been called the largest jewelry heist in national history. They broke into the American Museum of Natural History in New York and stole the J.P. Morgan Collection of precious gems.

Their haul included the world's largest sapphire, the Star of India, a 563-carat gem about the size of a handball. They also snagged the 14-carat Eagle Diamond; the Midnight Sapphire, the largest black sapphire in the world; and 26 other priceless gems.

Murphy was caught and spent two years in New York prisons. The gems eventually were recovered from a bus station locker in Miami.

In 1968, he was back in the slammer in Florida. He was convicted of first-degree murder of a California secretary, one of two young women whose bodies were found in Whiskey Creek near Hollywood, Fla., in 1967. He also was convicted of trying to rob a Miami Beach socialite in 1968.

He was sentenced to life in prison and spent the next 19 years in Florida prisons, where he learned to paint seascapes and lighthouses.

He said he became a born-again Christian at the Florida State Prison in 1971.

"I didn't take it too seriously then," he said. "It just seemed like the politically correct thing to do."

In 1974, he met Bill Glass, a pro football player who brought his prison ministry to the prison. Over the next few years, Murphy and Glass established a rapport.

"Suddenly the pieces of the puzzle came together. I started to think differently. I began to really understand Christianity and how it could affect my life in a positive way," he said.

When he was paroled in 1986, he became a volunteer for a number of ministries. One was the Bill Glass Champions for Life.

"They asked me to come on staff to help with banquets, youth work and prison counseling," he said.

The ministry grew and so has his role. He is now the international director and spends his days organizing events, raising funds, and ministering to prisoners.

Murphy wants people to know that there is "an army of men and women who are coming out of prisons who are no longer criminals because God has raised them up."

The Interlock Media documentary will not be the first time his life has been put on film. He's been featured in documentaries before. In the mid-1970s, Hollywood released a feature film titled Murph the Surf starring Robert Conrad and Donna Mills. Murphy says it's inaccurate and thinks they ruined it by trying to turn it into a comedy.

He has been married for 15 years to a woman he met during the making of a documentary while he was in prison. They live in Crystal River. Between them, they have three sons and six grandchildren. He has written a book, Jewels for the Journey, in which he talks about his faith.

And he goes back to prison - not because he likes it, but because his faith demands it.

"I hate going into prisons," he said. "They are the devil's junk pile. But I do it because people visited me and it meant a lot. I'm not doing anything different. It's just my turn. Jesus said, "You visited me when I was in prison,' so it is a command of God to go to prisons and anywhere people are down and out."

- Times researcher Mary Mellstrom contributed to this report.

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