Using little more than some rope and a dash of agility, a small gang of beach bums headed by a crook known as “Murf the Surf” (or “Murph the Surf”) stole over 20 gems valued at $410,000 (about $3 million today) from the American Museum of Natural History‘s J. P. Morgan Halls of Gems and Minerals on October 29, 1964.
Jewel heists were commonplace in 1963, occurring on average every 32 seconds. But this one gained national attention and earned Upper West Sider Nora Ephron her first front page story after sneaking into the hotel where the blundering criminals stayed.
The trio’s haul included the milky-blue Star of India (the world’s biggest sapphire, weighing 563.35 carats); the orchid-red DeLong Star Ruby (100.32 carats, and considered the world’s most perfect), and the purplish-blue Midnight Star (the largest black sapphire, at 116 carats)” before using good old NYC taxis to make their getaway.
To say security at the museum was lax is an understatement. Just two weeks before the theft, the museum sought additional security and staff from the City, according to the New York Times. The security team was said to be at least 25 staff members short. The alarms in the display cases were knowingly non-operational and the windows of the gem’s hall were always left open, each without a single burglar alarm. To add injury to insult, the jewels were uninsured because the insurance premiums were too high.
All three burglars were arrested within 48 hours of the heist. Clark was nabbed by authorities at the Cambridge House Hotel on West 86th Street. He quickly ratted out his fellow accomplices who had flown south to Florida. Both Kuhn and Murphy were extradited from Florida to New York.
But luck was about to run out for the trio. Actress Eva Gabor was gagged and pistol whipped on January 4, 1964 in Miami along with her husband. The cruel villains made off with the star’s $25,000 diamond ring. Gabor spotted pictures of Murf and Kuhn in the papers and recognized them as the men who perpetuated the heinous crime against her months earlier, according to Vanity Fair, and identified them in a police line-up.
On January 2, 1965, Murf and Clark were arrested for a burglary in Miami and were flown back to New York. What they didn’t know, according to Smithsonian, was that they were walking into a trap. “Searching files on unsolved jewelry thefts, police struck pay dirt. As soon as the hearing on the Natural History Museum theft adjourned, Kuhn, Murphy and Clark were charged with the January 4, 1964, jewel robbery and pistol-whipping of the actress Eva Gabor. With bail raised to $100,000, Kuhn, Murphy and Clark were suddenly willing to negotiate.”
After a bizarre and daring mission to Miami to retrieve the stolen gems with Kuhn in tow, nine were recovered from a bus locker and transported back to New York in an airline vomit bag. The Star of India (once the property of J.P. Morgan himself), the Midnight Star, five emeralds and two aquamarines were returned to the Museum on January 8, 1965.
The beach bums pled guilty and were each sentenced in April 1965 to serve three years at Rikers Island. In his 2014 Smithsonian article, writer David Sears proclaimed how “[a] few days after the sentencing, the Star of India went back on exhibit, this time secured in a thick glass display case stationed on the museum’s main floor. Each night the case pivoted out of sight into a black two-ton safe.” The DeLong Star Ruby was recovered in September 1965 from a Miami phone booth after insurance millionaire John D. MacArthur effectively ransomed the jewel for $25,000.
Despite the brutality of the murders and his storied criminal history, Murphy won parole in 1986 and almost won clemency from then Florida governor, now U.S. Senator Rick Scott. But the murderous, pistol whipping thief fell two cabinet votes short.
Before any of this, Murf the Surf was a champion surfer and gave swimming and tennis lessons at upscale hotels. He used his post-prison life discussing how he found God in prison and “dedicated his life to helping other inmates in prison find religion. He spent the final years of his life traveling from Crystal River to preach to inmates in a dozen countries.”
Murphy passed away of heart and organ failure in September 2020 at the age of 83. Roger Clark died in 2007 after suffering from heart disease. Kuhn “spent the intervening decades doing everything possible to be invisible,” according to Vanity Fair, before his death in 2017.
As far the gems go, only 10 of the 24 were found and returned to the museum.