Conversation: Jack ÒMurf the SurfÓ Murphy
When released from prison almost two decades ago, Jack Roland Murphy, also known as ÒMurf the Surf,Ó became a platform speaker for Champions for Life, a prison ministry founded by Bill Glass. Now he is international director of the organization and he has traveled to 3,000 prisons to share his lifeÕs experiences. And what a life he has to share.
At age 18 he played violin in the Pittsburgh Symphony. He attended the University of Pittsburgh on a tennis scholarship. He won the East Coast Surfing Championship. He worked as an acrobatic diver for the Barnum & Bailey Circus.
Yet Murphy is best known for stealing more than $2 million worth of jewels from the J.P. Morgan collection of precious gems in 1964. His exploits became the basis for the 1975 motion picture, Murph the Surf.
A life of escalating crime resulted in 21 years in Florida and New York prisons. But Murphy, 68, says his most lasting thrill has been a relationship with Jesus Christ. With Champions for Christ, Murphy trains speakers, sets up events with law enforcement and corrections officials, and conducts fund-raising banquets for prison and jail ministries. He recently spoke from his Crystal River, Fla., home with News Editor John W. Kennedy.
tpe: Why are you still active in prison ministry?
MURPHY: If it hadnÕt been for people coming in for me, IÕd probably still be locked up. Inmates need to hear the only thing that changes a personÕs heart is a relationship with Jesus Christ. If a personÕs heart hasnÕt changed, you can give him all the educational and job opportunities in the world, and he will still live a dysfunctional existence. ItÕs only through the power of the Holy Spirit taking control of a personÕs life that the adventure of Jesus Christ comes alive.
tpe: How do you tell that to inmates?
MURPHY: I represent a man who went to prison himself, a guy whoÕs been on death row. Our instructions are from a Book that has been written largely from prisons. When I relate these facts to men in prison they get interested. The fact that Jesus rose from the grave — that the ground couldnÕt hold Him — thatÕs attractive to tough guys looking for something.
tpe: You first heard this message of faith in 1971.
MURPHY: For years I wouldnÕt go near the chapel. I didnÕt want anything to do with the ÒGod squad.Ó Frank Costantino, a friend of mine who had been an underworld character, got saved and when he got out he kept coming back. The Lord restored his life and family. He has put Christian substance abuse programs in prisons and is the founder of the Coalition of Prison Evangelists.
tpe: But it took awhile for you to make a commitment yourself.
MURPHY: I was just window-shopping at first. I really didnÕt want to change from my old rebellious stubborn attitude. Then Bill Glass, who had just finished his career with the Cleveland Browns as an All-Pro defensive end, came to the prison yard in 1974. He and other athletes, like Roger Staubach who had been Super Bowl MVP for the Dallas Cowboys, talked about the important role God plays in a manÕs life.
It was the same message the chaplain had been telling me: God has a plan for your life, God loves you; HeÕs not mad at you. I got to thinking, What if all this stuff is true? What if God will forgive me? That Sunday morning I felt compelled to go down front at the chapel service. I started a journey to emerge from the dark mess that had been my life.
tpe: You had quite the remarkable youth: teenage prodigy concert violinist, surfing champion, tennis pro, movie stuntman. How did you get from being able to accomplish anything you wanted to jewel thief and later convicted murderer?
MURPHY: The tennis tournaments and the symphony concerts put me in touch with the social crowds, rubbing shoulders with the rich and famous. I went into business building custom surfboards, but with the partners I had, I lost everything in six months.
Some friends in Miami Beach who dressed nice and drove nice cars got me out on a boat and said they needed someone who could swim real well. They were involved with a big jewel robbery, and I went along. In a short time I was wearing nice clothes and driving nice cars.
tpe: Crime has a way of escalating once it starts.
MURPHY: If you have a little cunning about you and some brains, itÕs not hard to rip people off — if you donÕt have any standards or moral structure. Unfortunately, I started writing my own rulebook. The problem with crime is that no matter how many big scores you make, youÕre still going to strike out eventually. And then you go to prison — for years.
tpe: But you pulled off what many consider to be the ultimate heist: stealing the 563-carat Star of India and the 100-carat DeLong ruby.
MURPHY: Some labeled it Òthe crime of the century.Ó It certainly had all the ingredients for an exciting movie caper: the New York Museum of Natural History, climbing walls, going through a window from the roof, dangling from ropes, stealing the largest sapphire in the world plus the most famous star ruby while there are guards around.
tpe: And you actually got away.
MURPHY: We got caught a couple days later in Miami because we were partying too strong. My partner started spending a lot of money. Interpol computers already knew who we were.
tpe: You married a woman who did a documentary on you.
MURPHY: ABC Television did a documentary on a group of men considered incorrigible guys at the end of the line. For 12 years, Kitten visited me twice a week while I was in prison. We married 18 years ago after I got out. We homeschool three grandchildren, which is about as hard as robbing a museum.
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