Nora Ephron on Murph the Surf!


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January 7, 1965, Vol. X, No. 12

Murph the Surf: The Case of a Failed Folk Hero

By Nora Ephron

From the moment it was announced that someone with the improbable nickname of Murph the Surf had been arrested and charged with the $410,000 Museum of Natural History gem theft, Jack Roland (Murph the Surf) Murphy’s place seemed assured in that very small area of American folklore reserved for accused perpetrators of ingenious and slightly ridiculous crimes.

Murphy was, in a sort of pop-art way, the true 20th-century man; were it not for the fact that crime does not pay on the airwaves, he might have been invented as the hero of an ABC television series. “Surf Side Suspect,” or some such thing: tall, blond beach boy tends cabanas and leaps from high diving boards by day and, police insist, robs by night.

As for the guilt or innocence of Murphy and his two fellow suspects, Allen Kuhn (handsome, faithful, skin-diving sidekick with possible lock-picking ability) and Roger Clark (naive, angel-faced stool pigeon) — that made no difference. Even if they were convicted — and there is doubt that evidence exists for conviction — someone would write a folk song about them.

They had been accused of pulling of the creme de le creme of crimes. The three most valuable gems in captivity had disappeared.

New York City police, in a burst of imagination run amuck, began to mumble things about coral reefs and Red Chinese fences. Miami police reacted to news of the arrest as if the three most dangerous men had been wiped off the earth. The police told how the trio had been questioned in connection with a yacht in Nassau at the same time a $750,000 jewel theft was committed on the island. Law enforcement officers knew them, feared them. Shades of Leslie Charteris’ Saint. Criminal shades of James Bond.

They may be burglars, people said, but what class! They arrive in Cadillac convertibles or $10,000 yachts. They pay cash. Women. Class. Cash. No small-time, no-nonsense thefts for small stakes. Nobody gets hurt. It was beautiful.

As for the description of the life the trio led during the month before the Museum crime — how they lived in an expensive hotel suite, told strangers of their daily trips to the Museum, left jeweler’s scales lying around their rooms, flashed huge sums of money, saw “Topkapi,” a motion picture about a similar gem theft before the actual acrobatic crime was engineered — well, as for that, students of ingenious and slightly ridiculous crimes knew that this was not carelessness.

It was simply, they said, that they knew their business so well they did not have to worry about circumstantial evidence. The jewels might have been thrown away for all they mattered; the important thing was the execution, the flawless execution of the crime itself.

The robbery had in fact been brought off without a trace. Until two weeks ago, when the FBI claimed it had uncovered a plan to sell the jewels in the Miami area, all that linked the three men to the October 29 crime — with the exception of the floor plans of the museum found in their hotel suite and other similar circumstantial evidence — was a confession, later repudiated, by Roger Clark and a rather sad little tale told by Janet Florkiewicz, a 19-year-old stenographer just come to Manhattan from Staten Island. Miss Florkiewicz, who carried a locked briefcase to Miami the day after the robbery, told police that she saw in the briefcase several pairs of socks, a dirty shirt, and a revolver. She never saw the jewels.

Whatever else they were, Jack Murphy and his friends were pros. Or so it seemed until Monday.

For the two months since the crime occurred, all three suspects have behaved with cool, slick, impervious charm. When Kuhn and Murphy were informed by a reporter that Kuhn’s girl friend Janet had told police of her trip to Florida, Murphy looked at his friend and cracked, “That’s what you get for hanging around with square broads.” They rode the waves in along the Miami Beach shore. They told reporters they planned to open a nightclub called the Star of India, named after the 563-carat star sapphire stolen from the Museum.

All was going well until Murphy’s pretty blonde girl friend, described by police as his common-law wife, Bonnie Lou Sutera, killed herself, leaving behind a mysterious, unsigned note to Murphy: “So this is the last thing I can do for you.” The mind boggles at the twist the folk song takes at this point.

Last Saturday, Jack Murphy was arrested by Miami police and charged with stealing $2000 worth of costume jewelry from a private home in Miami which had been robbed of $60,000 worth of jewels two weeks earlier. Clark was arrested with him. It was a sloppy job. Stupid, even. But Jack Murphy, minor folk hero, could have ridden that one out. He might have been testing Clark’s mettle. It might have been grief therapy. Murphy himself might have robbed the place two weeks before and gone back for a jade figurine, or to see if lightning could strike twice. The crime was so stupid, on the other hand, that he might not have done it. And if he did, there was still considerable aplomb: he was caught minutes after police said he had left the Miami home, and the jewels were nowhere in sight. Maybe he eats them.

But what can be said about Murph the Surf and Monday’s events? On Monday, New York police arrested him and charged him with a $250 July armed robbery of the Algonquin Hotel. Again, his guilt or innocence is irrelevant; this may be harassment, or the District Attorney’s answer to income tax evasion. But it is a sorry charge. $250. Hardly enough to pay for dinner. Pistol-whipping. $250. And the Algonquin Hotel; everybody knows the Algonquin Hotel would never leave large sums of money laying around. Unbelievable. The man of class, the alleged burglar of distinction, the thinking man’s jewel thief suddenly stained by a second-rate charge of armed robbery.

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