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Standout athlete at McKeesport High School became notorious criminal, prison preacher
Jack Roland Murphy, better known as “Murf the Surf,” is shown here during a 2016 interview on the Christian Television Network program, “Homekeepers.” Murphy died Saturday in Florida at age 83. (Screenshot via YouTube)
One of McKeesport’s most notorious former residents — Jack Roland Murphy — has died in Florida at age 83.
Known as “Murf the Surf,” Murphy was born in California but lived in the city as a teen-ager and was a stand-out athlete and musician at McKeesport High School.
But it was after leaving Western Pennsylvania that Murphy achieved international infamy as a jewel thief — and murderer.
After spending 19 years in a Florida prison, Murphy was paroled and launched a ministry to jails and prisoners, becoming a frequent guest on Christian radio and television shows. He was the subject of a lengthy profile in Sports Illustrated this past May.
Florida newspapers said Murphy died Saturday of heart and organ failure.
As a senior at McKeesport High School in 1955, Murphy won the WPIAL tennis singles championship and also represented the Pittsburgh region as a violinist in a statewide competition held in York, according to newspaper clippings from the time.
His musical abilities reportedly earned him an invitation to play in concert with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.
Although he was awarded a tennis scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, Murphy grew frustrated with life in Western Pennsylvania. He later claimed that he hopped a freight train and headed for Florida.
Once in the Sunshine State, Murphy worked in Miami hotels before opening a surf shop in 1962. He became a championship surfer and performed in surfing stunt-shows in the Cocoa Beach area, sometimes dressed as Santa Claus.
Behind the scenes, however, according to the New York Times, Murphy had started hanging out with mobsters and was helping them steal jewelry and other valuables from wealthy vacationers, swimming away with the loot from the scenes of their crimes.
Two years later, in 1964, Murphy and two friends drove to New York City in a white Cadillac and began a series of burglaries and robberies.
Their crime spree culminated on Oct. 29, 1964, when they stole 24 precious gems, including the Star of India, a 563-carat sapphire, from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.
The museum burglary was labeled the “Jewel Heist of the Century.”
Within 48 hours, Murphy and his accomplices had been arrested after suspicious hotel workers called police to report that the trio had been throwing wild parties ever since the museum break-in.
Murphy was eventually sentenced to three years in prison for the museum burglary. The events leading up to the arrest of the three men was turned into a 1975 film, “Live a Little, Steal a Lot,” starring Don Stroud and Robert Conrad.
By the time the movie came out, Murphy was serving two life sentences in a Florida prison for a 1967 murder and a 1968 armed robbery.
Murphy as depicted on the cover of the 1987 book, “Murf The Surf Always Had A Plan.” (Amazon.com photo)
Murphy was born in 1937 in Oceanside, Calif. His father was a telephone company lineman and the family moved frequently.
According to Murphy, he had attended at least 12 different elementary schools before arriving in McKeesport as a teen-ager in the early 1950s.
As a senior at McKeesport High School, Murphy in 1955 won the WPIAL tennis singles crown at a tournament in Mt. Lebanon and qualified for the state championships.
“I practically lived on the beach in California,” he told a writer for the Pittsburgh Press at the time. “Tennis was just an occasional sport for me. Swimming was my main desire.”
But in McKeesport, Murphy told the newspaper, the only place to swim was in public pools. “That cost too much for me, so I changed to tennis as my serious game,” he said. “Last winter, I even practiced outside, batting the ball against a wall. Everyone must have thought I was goofy, but it paid off.”
While at McKeesport High, Murphy also won the Pennsylvania Forensic and Music League championship for playing the violin.
Although his tennis prowess earned him the scholarship to Pitt, Murphy disliked the McKeesport area and decided to leave as soon as he could.
In an interview in Vanity Fair published in 2014, Murphy recalled “standing in the slush, you could see the junk in the air, floating from the steel mills ... I thought, ‘I’m going to die here.’”
After only a few months of college, Murphy dropped out to head to Florida.
By his own admission, Murphy had become addicted to drugs and alcohol in the 1960s. In 1967, prosecutors said that Murphy and another man met up with two women who had stolen nearly a half-million dollars in securities from a California investment broker.
The two men promised to help the women dispose of the stolen investments. Instead, prosecutors said, Murphy and the other man murdered the women and dumped their bodies in a creek.
Following his conviction and sentencing for the murder, Murphy was sent to prison, where he said he finally kicked his drug and alcohol habits. Authorities said Murphy was a model inmate, mentoring other prisoners and becoming a chaplain.
Although he was not due for parole until 2005, Florida officials agreed to release him in 1986 because of his good behavior.
On the outside, Murphy launched a ministry to prisoners and ex-offenders, and by many accounts visited thousands of prisons and jails over the next 30 years.
Vanity Fair, in a story about the 50th anniversary of the jewel heist, called him a “charismatic mile-a-minute talker.”
Some observers also questioned whether Murphy had sincerely reformed. The New York Times called his 1989 autobiography “self-serving” and noted that in his memoirs, he had somehow “neglected to mention that he was a convicted murderer.”
Brian Burnsed, writing in Sports Illustrated in May, wondered if “Murphy’s personal overhaul was authentic or more like a new skin he’d slipped into.”
Although back problems had left him unable to surf, Murphy lent his name to a “Murf the Surf” line of custom surfboards and in 1996 was elected to the East Coast Surfing Hall of Fame.
According to Burnsed, Murphy in recent years was devoting most of his time to caring for his third wife, Mary Catherine Collins, a former TV news reporter, whom he married in 1987.
The couple lived in a “modest home” in the small town of Crystal River, Fla., on the Gulf of Mexico, Burnsed wrote.
Murphy was a frequent volunteer in nearby prisons and work-release centers, helping former convicts re-enter the community by finding them homes and jobs, Burnsed reported. He also met in a prayer group every Saturday morning with other local retirees.
In addition to his wife, Murphy is reportedly survived by two sons and several grandchildren. Funeral arrangements were not immediately available.
Jason Togyer is editor of Tube City Almanac and volunteer executive director of Tube City Community Media Inc. He may be reached at email@example.com.
Originally published September 15, 2020.