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'Murph the Surf' Shares Story of Redemption with USF Students

Watching Jack "Murph the Surf" Murphy talk to a University of South Florida criminology class, two things are apparent: the man is incredibly charming and he makes sure he knows his audience.

"Some of you don't know who I am," he said, pausing to flash a smile. "Ask your grandma!"

The 76-year-old Murphy, whose ability as a surfer gave him his nickname as well as membership in the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame, is best known for taking part in what some called "the jewel heist of the century."

On October 29, 1964, a group of thieves broke into the American Museum of Natural History in New York City and stole thousands of dollars worth of precious jewels, including the Star of India, the Delong Star Ruby and the Eagle Diamond (which has never been recovered).

But before that, Murphy told the students, he and accomplice Alan Kuhn had an interesting discussion while casing the museum. 

"I said, ‘Well what do you think?’ He (Kuhn) said, ‘Listen to them, they’ll talk to you,’ and they were talking to us, and they were saying ‘Take me to Miami!’" Murphy said in a sing-song voice. "So a few nights later, we took them to Miami."

But it was not to be – Murphy, Kuhn and getaway driver Roger Clark were arrested just days later and eventually sentenced to three years in prison each.

Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News
WUSF 89.7 News

"Choices – whether you’re a winner, a loser, a champion or a chump, it’s the choices that you make," Murphy told the students. "I made a lot of good choices in my life, but I made some very, very bad, stupid choices along the way also, and those choices put there where I was at."

Murphy’s choices after he was released from prison the first time included a crime spree of robbery and murder. He was sentenced to a life sentence in a Florida prison in 1968 for the murder of Terry Rae Frank, 24, one of two women whose bodies were found near Hollywood, FL.

While in prison, Murphy heard from a number of speakers, including football players Roger Staubach and Bill Glass, along with a chaplain who spoke about a young criminal who was set up by the authorities.

"He said, ‘But this young man here, the judge caved in, they took him out and they executed him on death row and he rose up from the grave and his name is Jesus,’" Murphy told the students. "I’m sitting in the back row thinking, ‘That’s about the craziest story I ever heard.’"

At first, "prison religion" didn't have much effect on Murphy.

"I wouldn't go into chapel if they were handing out pizza and parole!" Murphy exclaimed at one point in his presentation.

But the words slowly had an effect on Murphy, who began working in the prison ministry and mentoring fellow inmates. After serving 21 years, he was paroled in 1986 and began visiting prisons and jails all over the world, sharing his story of redemption.

That story appealed to USF Professor of Criminology Kathleen Heide, who invited “Murph the Surf” to speak to her “Crime and Justice in America” class.

"What I want to do is just open them up to the possibility of ‘change’ and to understanding how somebody can get involved in a life of crime, stay in a life of crime, does the system really help them to change their lives, and when there is a success story, for them to have the opportunity to see how those individuals change their lives," Heide said.

Murphy's class appearance was a reunion of sorts for him – he said he spoke to a similar USF criminology class that visited Florida State Prison 40 years ago.

Junior Laura Stephenson said she likes hearing from the wide range of guests that have visited the class – guests that fall on both sides of the law.

"We have heard from FBI speakers to the chief of Tampa Police Department, and they all have their input regarding the various aspects of criminal justice," the criminal justice major said. "And now him, who was a convict and we have his side of the story regarding the laws and everything, so it’s very educational."

USF Criminology Professor Kathleen Heide talks to her “Crime and Justice in America” class
Credit Mark Schreiner / WUSF 89.7 News

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Both Heide and Murphy agreed that hearing from someone like him can be a real eye-opener to students.

"Oh yeah, when you have somebody who’s lived that life, it’s far more effective than me talking about it," Heide said.

"If I wanted to hunt walrus, I’d sure like to talk to some Eskimo who’s been out there with a spear," Murphy added. " I’ve been there and I’ve done that, maybe there’s a little more credibility there than they’re going to get from a schoolbook."

Murphy also hopes the students learn that crime doesn’t pay.

"When you watch ‘Castle’ on television, or you watch ‘CSI,’ there’s these fascinating programs, whether it was ‘Miami Vice’ or all, it’s all razzle-dazzle and all," he said. "There’s a whole much larger picture going on, and it’s a very ruthless world, and it’s a very sad world, there’s always pain and there’s always losers, very few winners."

Jack Murphy has spoken to inmates in more than 2,000 prisons and jails worldwide. He’s written a book about his experiences and had a number of movies made about his life, including a 1975 feature film starring Robert Conrad and Don Stroud. He currently lives in Crystal River.

'Murph the Surf' Shares Story of Redemption with USF Students
Jack Murphy talks to a USF criminology course about how he got started as a jewel thief, how he ended up taking part in the "largest jewelry heist in U.S. history" in 1964, and what his first stint in prison was like.

'Murph the Surf' Shares Story of Redemption with USF Students
WUSF's Mark Schreiner talks with Jack Murphy about what it was like between the 1964 jewelry heist & his arrest days later. He also talks about what he hopes students learn from his story.

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