John D., Murph the Surf and one priceless Ruby
Bill Federici stood in the booth. The pay phone was ringing.
“Turn around and face the door,” the caller said. “Reach up and you’ll feel the ruby.”
“It felt like a pebble,” he would recall. “As beautiful as anything I have seen in my life.”
That’s how, on a Labor Day weekend a half-century ago, near West Palm Beach, one of the world’s most sensational jewels was recovered from the gang that had taken it from one of the world’s most prestigious museums in one of the world’s most audacious thefts.
The story could be a Hollywood movie. Oh, wait. It later was one.
The saga’s supporting cast includes actress Eva Gabor, two Los Angeles secretaries lying at the bottom of a canal, West Palm Beach’s own Roxy’s Bar, and a mover of stolen goods nicknamed Hymie the Fence.
The story’s stars are none other than:
Jack “Murph the Surf” Murphy, one of Florida’s most celebrated criminals, who would go from a romanticized cat burglar to a convicted killer to a prison minister. The striking surfer dude who turned the heads of 1960s beach girls turned 81 on May 26.
And the headliner: the DeLong Star Ruby.
Creation of a legend: ‘Murph the Surf’
Jack Roland Murphy was born on May 26, 1937, north of San Diego, the only child of a telephone-company lineman and his wife. Early on, he learned the violin, and at 15 he was performing with numerous orchestras.
In 1954, when the tall blond was a high school senior, the family uprooted to McKeesport, Pennsylvania, southeast of Pittsburgh. Jack graduated the next year with a tennis scholarship at the University of Pittsburgh and a chance to play violin in the Pittsburgh Symphony.
But the California dude hated the cold. One snowy day in his freshman year at Pitt, he saw “The Miami Story” on the big screen. That was it. He dropped out, hopped a train to Florida, and hitchhiked the rest of the way to Miami Beach.
Photo gallery: ‘Murph the Surf’ and the DeLong Ruby
He worked Hotel Row — handyman, pool boy, diving stunt “clown” performer and swimming instructor. He met and married a well-to-do hotel guest and they had two sons, but divorced after five years. He and his second wife moved to the Cocoa Beach area, where the epic waves of the Sebastian Inlet beckoned.
There, he became a champion surfer. And gained a nickname: Murph the Surf.
Murph opened a surfboard factory and shop. But he lost it in a financial spat with his business partners. His second marriage, to a secretary for space program pioneer Wernher von Braun, fell apart as well. He came back to Miami Beach.
“His home life and business on the rocks, the once life of the party and champion’s champion sank to new depths,” says a biography on Murph’s webpage. His answer: “drugs, alcohol, turn the music louder, and paddle out.”
One night in 1962, Murph joined friends on a nighttime boating excursion. The friends hopped onto the dock behind a mansion. They came back a short time later and the boat departed, but in minutes a police boat bore down. The burglars handed Murph a bag stuffed with the loot they had stolen and he dove overboard. While the cops chased down the boaters, Murph stealthily swam across dark Biscayne Bay with the goods.
Later, the ringleaders handed him a wad of bills. His cut was $12,000. The money was just too easy. Murph now was in the burglary business, robbing area hotels. His specialty: jewels.
Murph got a new friend and crime partner, Allan Kuhn. The “beach boys” were young and brash and liberally spent their booty on apartments, cars and speedboats. And bragged about their scores late at night as they boozed with pals. So it wasn’t long before they were on the radar of law enforcement.
But they also had made friends with a man nicknamed Hymie the Fence.
One day he told them about a 12-carat emerald cut ring sitting at a home in Palm Beach. His deal: you snatch it, I’ll sell it. Your cut alone will be 350 grand.
The two pulled off the heist, and brought the stone to Hymie. He took one look and gave them the bad news: it was a fake. The owners must still have the real gem. In New York.
Off the boys went to the big city. But after a few weeks there, they’d forgotten all about the Palm Beach jewel. Their heads were turned in, of all places, a house of dinosaur bones.
Planning New York’s greatest heist
The American Museum of Natural History stands across from Central Park in midtown Manhattan. It was founded way back in 1869. By 1964, it boasted a memorial to Teddy Roosevelt, a Hall of North American Mammals, and the J.P. Morgan Hall of Gems and Minerals, bankrolled in 1901 by the Gilded Age industrialist.
And then there was the DeLong Star Ruby. It was the world’s largest known uncut ruby, at a staggering 100.3 carats. It was the size of a golf ball and blood red. Its official name was the Edith Haggin DeLong Star Ruby. Found in the early 1930s in Burma — now Myanmar — it had made its way to Edith DeLong, daughter of a copper magnate, who in turn donated it.
The DeLong was pegged at $140,000. The three gems had an unofficial value of $400,000 — $3.3 million in today’s dollars. The museum said the appraisals were moot; the world-famous stones were priceless.
Murph and Kuhn rolled into Manhattan in Kuhn’s white Cadillac and met up with Roger Clark, a house painter and acquaintance from Miami. They did a little sightseeing. Including a visit to the museum, where they saw the jewel collection.
“Just like mountain climbers and skiers, as a jewel thief, you go for the challenge,” Murph would say in a 2014 50th anniversary story in Vanity Fair which reunited him with Kuhn. “We couldn’t just keep doing Palm Beach.”
At 9 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 29, 1964, an unseasonably cold night, as Clark, the wheelman, waited out back in the Cadillac, Kuhn and Murph scaled a 14-foot spiked steel fence. They scampered up a 125-foot wall to a 14-inch-wide fifth-floor ledge, then dropped to the roof of the fourth-floor wing. They reached down to a partly open window, and the former stunt high-diver swung down and in.
The thieves had timed the guard’s 15-minute round trip. They waited until a plane passed directly overhead, then used the noise to conceal the smashing of the glass display cases. There was no alarm; the system’s batteries had gone dead and no one had gotten around to replacing them.
Jewels in hand, Murph and Kuhn raced across Central Park. Clark, their getaway driver, waited, shivering, until 2 a.m., then drove back to the boys’ hotel room, where he was irritated to find them. They’d been there for two hours, boozing and admiring their loot.
Later that morning, back at the museum, a guard opened the Morgan gallery for the day. And gaped. And gasped. And raced to a phone.
After the heist: A quick bust
The day after the heist, Clark drove to Connecticut to visit friends, and Kuhn and Murph flew to Miami under assumed names. Back at Murph’s Brickell Avenue apartment, the two and their girlfriends rolled the 24 stones around on the carpet, illuminated with a flashlight. Murph would recall the gems’ points sparkled “like little explosions.”
The three had pulled off one of the great thefts in American history; Vanity Fair’s 50-year piece would call it New York’s “most sensational jewel heist.” The “beach boys” had all but punched their tickets to any criminal hall of fame. Murph was just 27.
But as meticulous as Kuhn and Murph had been at the museum, they’d been as sloppy as frat boys in their New York hotel room. A desk clerk alerted police three guests had been spending money like water, and when cops entered their now-vacated room, they found sneakers pocked with glass, photos of museums, and burglary tools.
A detective slept in the room and, the next morning, surprised Clark and a friend coming in.
Clark flipped on his accomplices. New York police called Miami cops, who burst into the apartment of Murph and Kuhn and busted them. It had taken 48 hours.
When police returned Murph and Kuhn to New York, where they were joined by Clark, groupies cheered the antiheroes as they entered court. Freed on bail, they returned to Miami. The case against them was circumstantial. And several gems remained missing.
Next step: Fencing the goods
While the thieves had quickly sold many of the smaller jewels, the bigger stones — including the DeLong — were just too hot to move, and the boys had arranged with a former Miami partner in crime, boater and yacht broker Dickie Pearson, to bury the rest in his backyard.
Weeks turned into months. The museum worried the irreplaceable jewels would be cut up in the gemological equivalent of a chop shop.
One day late in 1964, Eva Gabor saw pictures of Murph and Kuhn in the paper. She picked up her phone.
On Jan. 4, 1964, the actress told police, two men had stormed the Miami-area apartment of Gabor and Richard Brown, husband No. 2 out of five. She said the thieves had pistol-whipped the couple and had taken off with $50,000 in gems, including a 15-carat diamond ring. Gabor fingered the beach boys.
The Gabor charges later would be dropped, after Gabor refused to turn up for trial, claiming that she was too busy filming her sitcom “Green Acres” in Southern California. The prosecutor would tell Vanity Fair that he wasn’t so sure Murph and Kuhn were anywhere near Gabor. But, he said with a sly smile, their arrest “served my purposes.”
In January 1965, facing the Gabor charges, Kuhn and Murph made a deal to turn over the stones from the museum heist. Kuhn told Vanity Fair that Murph “did not want to do it. He would have toughed it out. But I think we would still be in prison if we hadn’t given the jewels back.”
On Jan. 7, Kuhn flew from New York with a prosecutor and three detectives. In Miami, the cops set up a meeting with a well-known local: Herman “Hy” Gordon. Hymie the Fence. The man who’d commissioned the boys’ ill-starred Palm Beach heist. Gordon said he’d bring the cops to the remaining gems but was cagey about where they were and who had them. And he’d cooperate only if he walked on any charges. A deal was struck.
Later, the cops and Gordon went to a diner and came out minutes later with a note and a key. The note contained directions to the Trailways bus station in downtown Miami. The key was to locker 0911. Inside: some grubby cloth bags. Back at their motel room, the cops upended the bags onto a coffee table. Spilling out: two aquamarines, five emeralds and a small sapphire. And the Midnight Star. And the Star of India.
As Allan Kuhn looked on, the blood drained from his face. The DeLong wasn’t there.
Recovering the ruby: John D. gets involved
Back in New York, the three beach boys were convicted and sentenced April 6, 1965, to three years at the Rikers Island prison but served only two because of their help in recovering some of the gems.
Still, no DeLong.
Enter Francis Antel, a freelance magazine writer based in Palm Beach Gardens whose day job was selling used cars.
His research led him to Dickie Pearson, who reportedly had buried the jewels in his backyard. Why a freelance writer, and not the cops, was able to link Pearson remains a mystery.
One night in early summer of 1965, at Roxy’s Bar, then at Okeechobee Boulevard and Dixie Highway in West Palm Beach, Antel confronted the man.
“It’s my understanding,” Pearson told the writer, “that the people who have the stone are willing to return it if they can obtain immunity from prosecution.”
Pearson wanted a $21,000 reward.
Antel did more digging and got word that the ruby had been used as collateral on a $30,000 loan. The shadowy loan sharks, Antel heard second-hand, were charging an outrageous 10 percent per month. But the sharks wanted to unload it. Now.
Antel’s next stop was the venerable El Cid Bar, across from The Palm Beach Post. His drinking partner: Post City Editor Bill Antill, himself a veteran investigative reporter. Antill looked into the story, but later told Antel he wasn’t able to corroborate enough of his claims.
Antel’s next step: Find someone to pay the ransom. He connected with a big shot he knew: John D. MacArthur. The billionaire had turned a bunch of cow pastures into the city of Palm Beach Gardens, and ran his kingdom from a corner table in the coffee shop at his Singer Island hotel, the Colonnades.
Meanwhile, the New York district attorney balked at the ransom. Nothing happened for several weeks. But as Labor Day 1965 approached, Antel and Federici crossed that magic line from reporters to participants, and were about to get the stories of their lives.
By now, the payoff was up to $25,000. For MacArthur, 25 grand was cigarette money. Regardless, he wanted to pull out. The whole thing was just too hinky. Antel said he pleaded for a few more hours. John D. said OK. Hours later, Antel and Pearson met in a hotel room. Pearson took the deal.
On Sept. 2, Antel went to First Marine Bank in Riviera Beach, where MacArthur was a major investor. Its president was Jerry Thomas, a state senator from 1965 to 1972 and state Senate president from 1971 to 1972. Antel stuffed the cash — 15 bundles of $100s and two stacks of $50s — into his coat pockets. He “didn’t want to carry a money bag,” Thomas told reporters later.
Antel drove off and met Pearson in the parking lot of a Hollywood elementary school.
Back at the Colonnades, MacArthur and some associates waited impatiently. Then John D’s phone rang. It was Antel, who instructed him to drive to a phone booth at the West Palm Beach service plaza of the Sunshine State Parkway, now Florida’s Turnpike.
With a photographer in tow, Bill Federici, the Daily News reporter, answered the phone. MacArthur stood feet away. Dick Pearson gave instructions to Antel, who relayed them to Federici.
“I can’t find anything!” a frantic Federici shouted. Then, seconds later, “I’ve got it! This is it!!”
The reporter handed John D. the ruby. The photographer snapped away.
Back at his hotel, MacArthur called in a local jewelry expert to inspect the stone. It took seconds. “My God,” the man said.
Antel called again. MacArthur said the gem’s ID was firm. Give the money.
Antel and Pearson drove to a Howard Johnson’s a mile and a half northeast of Miami International Airport. They walked in and took a booth. Pearson told the writer to look at the cashier and nothing else. Moments later, Pearson said, “OK.”
The late Clarke Ash, of the Miami News and later The Palm Beach Post, recalled in a 1986 column that a tip led him to the phone booth at the service plaza, but the ruby already had been recovered and everyone was gone. He said he raced to the Colonnades, where he found MacArthur and Thomas and their wives dining.
The two men “were gracious about filling me in,” Ash wrote. “MacArthur’s motive, he said, was purely civic. He hated to see the museum piece destroyed or lost.”
The next morning, reporters and photographers swarmed the lobby of the Colonnades. And the front page of the New York Daily News featured a photo of Federici reaching up into the phone booth. It bore the headline, “HERE’S RUBY!”
The ruby went on display at First Marine for two days. As many as 8,000 people lined up to view it.
A Museum of Natural History director flew down and retrieved the stone. That Sunday, when the New York museum opened, the DeLong was in a new case. It remains at the museum to this day.
From criminality to faith: Murph’s second act
Dick Pearson was arrested several months later with bills whose serial numbers matched the ransom money. He was convicted on federal charges of possessing and fencing the stolen gems and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. He would die in 1990 in Sarasota.
Herman “Hy” Gordon — Hymie the Fence — was convicted for fencing other stolen jewels, and died at 56 of a heart attack in a federal prison in Atlanta.
William Federici, after 32 years at the New York Daily News, retired in 1981. He died at 82 in 2014.
MacArthur died at 80 in 1978.
Antel, not surprisingly, wrote a book: “Ransom and Gems: the DeLong Ruby Story.” He would die at 60 in Palm Beach Gardens in 1979.
Allan Kuhn, Murphy’s partner, lived quietly in Northern California until his death in June 2017. Roger Clark, the lookout and getaway driver, died at 71 in 2000.
Murphy, meanwhile, didn’t stop his life of crime after his prison stint for the 1964 museum heist.
On Jan. 28, 1968, he and three other men allegedly pushed into the Miami Beach mansion of socialite and widow Olive Wofford. They threatened to scald her 9-year-old niece unless she opened her safe. When she did, it triggered a silent alarm. Murph crashed through a glass door. Photos show him leaving jail, his face swathed in bandages, and quipping, “I cut myself shaving.” He eventually would be convicted of the robbery in June 1975.
But it’s what Murph allegedly did in 1967 that ended the sweet life for him.
On Dec. 8, 1967, a man taking out-of-town relatives for a night boat ride in southern Broward County spotted a leg sticking out of the water at the Whiskey Creek canal near Hollywood. Authorities would fish out two bikini-clad women. They had been stabbed and their heads bludgeoned. Their bodies were weighted down with concrete blocks.
Terry Frank and Annabel Mohn were Los Angeles secretaries. In a plot twist worthy of Alfred Hitchcock, the women allegedly had been caught in the middle of a dispute over $500,000 in securities stolen from a Los Angeles brokerage and were themselves suspects. Detectives said Murph was an “intimate companion” of Frank in both California and Florida and that the two had been seen together shortly before her death.
Murph swore he didn’t do the killings but admitted he helped dump the corpses. He would be convicted of the murders in March 1969. He got two consecutive life terms in prison plus 20 years — meaning that, barring a parole, the 31-year-old would stay in prison until the year 2244.
Murph already had sold his life story to actor Robert Conrad for a 1975 movie. In prison, he found God and began ministering to fellow inmates.
The Florida Parole Board chose to believe that Murph was a changed man and in 1984, he was ordered on probation for the rest of his life and was forbidden to ever return to Broward or Dade — now Miami-Dade — counties.
He walked out of a prison northeast of Tampa in December 1984, as inmates on the other side of the barbed wire sang “Amazing Grace” and held a large sign that read: “Goodbye Jack. We’ll miss you.”
In 1986, he left an Orlando halfway house and was a free man. He told reporters he planned to hit the lecture circuit — at $2,500 a pop. A year later, he married Kitten Collins, whom he met when she worked on the crew of a TV documentary about him. He became a prison evangelist under the auspices of Champions for Life, a prison reform group.
He’s continued his work with prison ministries.
In 2012, Murph asked to have his civil rights restored. Gov. Rick Scott was sympathetic. But other Cabinet members prevailed. Attorney General Pam Bondi said Murph was lucky he hadn’t gone to the chair for the Whiskey Creek murders.
In mid-May of this year, Murph spoke briefly with a Post reporter and agreed to view questions via email, but ultimately opted not to comment. He lives with his wife in a small town near Tampa. He has traveled the world, trying to convince other inmates to see the light.
And in 1996, he was inducted into the East Coast Surf Legends Hall of Fame. Cowabunga.
Staff writer Mike Stucka and staff researcher Melanie Mena contributed to this story. Sources were The Palm Beach Post, The Miami News, The Miami Herald, Vanity Fair, The New York Daily News, “Ransom and Gems,” and Jack Murphy’s webpage. Special presentation by Laura Lordi.
Timeline of Murph the Surf