Jack Roland Murphy just about had it all: Kennedy-esque good looks, charm to burn, athletic talent and even a musical gift. Still, he wanted more.
The man who became a legendary jewel thief – he bagged the priceless Star of India from a New York museum – before graduating to murder is the focus of the documentary series Murf the Surf : Jewels, Jesus and Mayhem in the USA , which premieres on MGM+ on Sunday. Renowned filmmaker R.J. Cutler directed and executive produced the four-part series.
" Murf the Surf tells the story of one of the most complicated and notorious American crime figures ever, Jack Roland Murphy," Cutler has explained in a director's statement, "who became America's very first true crime television superstar in 1964, a mere few months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy."
In episode 1 of the series, Murf describes his upbringing as "storybook." It was hardly that, unless the book in question is Grimm's Fairytales. When Jack was six, his hardscrabble pop plunked him on the back of a steed in the rugged California Badlands, slapped the horse's rear and exhorted his son, as the mount trotted away, to find his way back home.
"We do root a lot of it [his psychological profile] — as we find is often the case — in his upbringing, in his relationship with his father, in a certain cruelty that was at the core of his childhood," Cutler tells Deadline. "It is a wild combination of great charisma, an endless appetite for outside adulation, a hole in the heart that seems never to be filled, and a certain sociopathy that defines him."
In high school Murphy moved to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where, according to him, he played violin for the Pittsburgh Symphony. He then won a tennis scholarship to the University of Pittsburgh, but later quit school, decamped to Florida and became a surfing champion (hence the nickname Murf the Surf). For a time, he built surfboards in Cocoa Beach, but eventually he torched the business – an initial flare up of a criminal predilection.
He and some buddies got into jewel thievery, pulling off heists at fancy Florida hotels, facilitated by convincing hotel staff to surrender master room keys. Then in October 1964 he and his accomplices orchestrated a daring caper at the American Museum of Natural History Museum in New York, cat burgling their way in through a window and absconding with magnificent jewels including the Star of India sapphire.
Murf and his colleagues were arrested – wild partying in a New York hotel helped give them away – and attention to the case turned him into a celebrity. Not only was he telegenic, but the guy with the Irish surname possessed a Touch of the Blarney.
"These surfer dude jewel thieves had captured the public imagination and become nightly news fodder. And Americans gathered around the TV to see what was going on in the case," Cutler explains. "For many years, Murf was a pop culture superstar… Bob Dylan wrote about him in the liner notes of one of his early albums."
Part of what engaged Cutler was the opportunity to explore a particular kind of American archetype.
"We love the outlaw. We love the rule breaker," he says. "We get into that in the series — what is it that attracts us? Why do we invest in the legend of Jesse James and in the legend of Murf the Surf? But, of course, actions have consequences. And these deeds lead to others deeds."
Very dark deeds, in Murphy's case. In 1967 he would be accused of murder in the grisly deaths of Terry Rae Frank and Annelle Marie Mohn in Broward County, Florida. The two young women had crossed paths with Murf after allegedly stealing stock certificates from a brokerage firm in Los Angeles, negotiables that in today's dollars would be valued at roughly $4 million. Their bodies, bearing stab wounds and other injuries, were discovered in tidal waters, with cement blocks fastened around their necks. Murf pleaded insanity but eventually was convicted of one of the killings.
"He was sentenced to multiple lifetimes in prison by a judge who added extra years on, lest anybody down the road be confused about how much time the judge wanted Murf to spend in prison," Cutler says. "[The judge] made it very clear that he wanted them to throw away the key. They did not."
Behind bars, Murf the Surf found Jesus. Over time, the Rev. Pat Robertson and other Evangelicals took up his cause. He got out of prison in 1986, substantially earlier than the release date of 2040 or so that he originally faced. Before things took that favorable turn, Murf pondered a prison escape scheme that would have trundled him off to Algeria.
"This is part of the great fun of this series, is that we're rediscovering this figure from American history who so many people, in his time — in the '60s and '70s — knew about him. But I, anyway, had not heard of him in," Cutler comments. "On some level, he was forgotten."
Cutler cites another important reason to reexamine this story — to pay proper respect to the women who fell prey to Murphy's homicidal streak. The series shows that in news coverage of their deaths, Frank and Mohn were portrayed essentially as disposable bimbos.
"We really did want to focus in the series and honor Annelle Marie Mohn and Terry Rae Frank, his victims, who in the telling of the story are often ignored, and certainly to explore the way the media treated them in that moment," Cutler notes. "Victims, especially women victims, and I'm afraid far too often true crime female victims, are treated a certain way, seen through a certain lens."
He adds, "We wanted to be able to honor them, to tell their story, which we get into in the later episodes, to hear from their family members, to not see this as just another fact in Murf's story, but to see their lives as two distinct lives, brutally, cruelly ended at the hands of Murf the Surf."
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