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A jewel heist at the museum: How the beach boy burglars stole the Star of India
James A. Oliver, the director of the Museum of Natural History, inspects the damage in the Hall of Gems, in New York, Oct. 30, 1964. For its 150th anniversary, the museum is celebrating many historic moments, but one milestone not on the the list: the “heist of the century,” when three sharply dressed “beach boys” broke into the museum in late 1964 and made off with the Star of India, a 563-carat sapphire, and other precious gems. Arthur Brower/The New York Times.

by Corey Kilgannon

NEW YORK, NY (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- For its 150th anniversary, the American Museum of Natural History is celebrating its many historic moments, from its 1869 founding, to the 1902 discovery of the first T. rex skeleton, to the creation of the Teddy Roosevelt statue erected out front in 1940.

One milestone not on that list: the biggest jewel heist in New York history, when the Star of India, a 563-carat sapphire the size of a golf ball, was snatched from its display case, along with the rare Eagle Diamond, the DeLong Star Ruby and some 20 other precious gems from a collection donated to the museum by J.P. Morgan.

For several months beginning in October 1964, the city was transfixed by the brazen robbery that the tabloids immediately labeled the heist of the century.

The culprits were not ordinary thieves. They were sharply dressed surfer dudes on a spree that took them from their base in Miami Beach up to their lair in New York, a penthouse suite in a Manhattan hotel. They were caught within two days of the crime, but the jewels remained missing. After a wild escapade in Miami — an unorthodox excursion involving a rented convertible — many of the gems were recovered, including the Star of India, which was promptly put on solo display in the museum’s main floor rotunda — this time, with its own security guard and safe.

When the museum reopens the gem wing next year after a long renovation, the Star of India will be there.

Roberto Lebron, a current spokesman for the museum, would not comment on security aspects before or after the heist, other than to say, “The museum certainly learned a thing or two from that episode, which occurred more than 50 years ago.”

The call came in around 10 a.m. to the 20th Precinct on the Upper West Side. There was a break-in at the museum.

Detective Jack McNally and his colleagues headed right over, arriving to find the Hall of Gems a total mess, with numerous display cases shattered, the cabinets broken and their contents pillaged.

“We were thinking it was some tiny thing,” recalled McNally, who is now 85 and retired and living in a beach community on Long Island. “The whole place was a wreck.”

Within an hour, the press was swarming the museum.

If the Star of India was the story’s headline, museum security was the punch line. The alarms on the hall’s display cases had long stopped working, including the trip alarm on the Star of India. Because of budget cuts, the museum’s security staff was reduced. Of the eight guards on duty that night to cover the 18-building museum complex, it was the responsibility of one aging guard to sporadically shine a flashlight into the Hall of Gems during his rounds.

The museum put the stolen gems’ value at $410,000 — about $3.3 million today. But as historical artifacts, they were irreplaceable and considered priceless.

“We were all dumbfounded that there was no alarm system. That was extremely unusual,” McNally said. “There was no security at all.”

“We asked the curators for a description of the stuff that was taken, and they really didn’t have solid inventory,” he added.

The three thieves — Jack Murphy, Allan Kuhn and Roger Clark — were tan, fit beach boys in their 20s, full of swagger and Rat Pack chic. They had driven up from Miami several weeks earlier in a white Cadillac and had settled into a penthouse suite at the Cambridge House Hotel on West 86th Street, where they threw constant parties.

All the while, they were pulling off smaller robberies around town of hotel rooms and wealthy bar patrons, but it was hard to ignore the museum’s world-class jewel exhibit a few blocks away.

While Kuhn was eager for the museum heist, Murphy recalled being initially leery of the caper. “We were turning heads, and too many people in town knew who we were,” said Murphy, who is 82 and living in Florida.

In scouting the hall, they realized that, for a skilled thief with the chutzpah to break in, the jewels were practically begging to be stolen, recalled Murphy in a recent interview.

“Allan said he could hear the jewels talking,” he recalled. “He said, ‘The jewels are saying, ‘Take us to Miami.’ So I said, ‘Well, let’s take them to Miami.’”

Despite the profile of the crime they were about to commit, Murphy still boasts that they were undaunted by the challenge. “It really was no big deal — a job like this we could pull off anytime,” Murphy recalled. “This was the same as saying, ‘Let’s go bowling.’”

The heist became the basis for the 1975 film “Murph the Surf.” In it, Murphy (played by Don Stroud) and Kuhn (Robert Conrad) dress in sharp suits and squire stylish women into the Hall of Gems to case the joint. They prepare for the heist by flipping open a window latch right under the nose of a wheezy old guard in a cardigan sweater.

In reality, the three thieves cased the museum beforehand and noticed the fourth-floor windows were left open.

In the end, it was their high living that ultimately brought them down. After the heist, a staffer at their hotel tipped off the police about the three high-rolling Miami dudes who suddenly disappeared as soon as the heist made headlines.

Murphy and Kuhn were quickly located and arrested in Miami, but not before they had unloaded the jewels to be fenced.

Yet the case stayed in the headlines for months and included a wild expedition to recover the stones led by a relentless Manhattan prosecutor named Maurice Nadjari.

Nadjari was a by-the-books prosecutor and a fierce cross-examiner. His regular courtroom was known among opposing defense attorneys as “the Snake Pit.”

He saw the jewel theft as an affront to the city itself, recalled his son, Douglas Nadjari, who cares for his father now that his health has declined.

“My father felt that those jewels belonged to the people of New York City,” Nadjari said.

And so, while the press was still swarming the story, Nadjari proposed an unusual covert mission. He would slip Kuhn out of a New York jail and escort him to Miami, along with McNally and two other detectives, to track down the fenced jewels.

It was a risky ploy, one that Nadjari’s boss, longtime Manhattan District Attorney Frank Hogan, agreed to with trepidation.

“Hogan told me, ‘If you don’t get the jewels, don’t come back,’” recalled Nadjari, now 95.

Murphy grew up in Southern California during the formative years of longboard surfing, which he helped pioneer on the East Coast in the 1950s by opening a shop in Florida.

He dropped out of college as a freshman in the mid-1950s, he said, and hitched to Miami, where he taught tennis and swimming at swanky hotels, also performing as a trick diver in hotel aquatic shows.

But he also fell in with the local hustlers and thieves who robbed mansions along the Intracoastal Waterway. They relied on Murphy’s special talent: He would swim the jewels to a getaway car on the mainland.

A year before the Star of India heist, he was still a world-class surfer, taking first place in a competition in Virginia Beach that was a precursor to the East Coast Surfing Championships. But by the time he arrived in New York that autumn, he was also a hardened jewel thief, fresh off a streak of heists of mansions and hotels in Miami.

The decision to try the museum job was hardly the result of an elaborate scheme. Instead, it was almost a whim after a drinking session at a hotel bar — “I was probably ready for anything,” Murphy said.

Murphy was still dressed sharp — in a dark green velour jacket, turtleneck, corduroys and tennis shoes — when they pulled up in the Cadillac to the southwest corner of the museum, at a truck entrance off Columbus Avenue near 79th Street.

“You got to have a little flair,” he said recently. “If you get arrested and end up on the news, you don’t want to look like a schlub.”

Clark remained behind with a walkie-talkie while Murphy and Kuhn headed in with an airline shoulder bag and a coil of rope. Murphy also carried a pistol, just in case.

To access the Hall of Gems, they entered the courtyard behind the building and scaled a tall iron fence like two acrobats. They climbed the fire escape to the fifth floor and inched along a narrow ledge. Murphy said he almost fell after he startled a covey of pigeons that burst into flight.

The pair broke into the darkened office of Dr. Colin Turnbull, a noted British anthropologist who kept a harpsichord in the office to play at lunchtime.

“They were very, very athletic, these guys, and they were not rookies at this,” McNally recalled. “They had done plenty of this already down in Florida.”

From there, they lowered themselves to an open window in the fourth floor Hall of Gems.

“I wasn’t surprised at all that they were left open,” Murphy recalled. “I don’t think the museum ever expected anyone to get up there.”

The most precious gems were in larger cases in the center of the room, but the alarms had been nonfunctional for years.

“They probably thought, ‘Why do we need alarms? These jewels have been laying here for 70 years and no one’s ever tried to steal them,’” Murphy said.

The thieves could see that the trip alarm on the Star of India’s display stand had batteries that were corroded and probably long dead. Still, Murphy expected that when the Star of India’s alarm went off, they’d just run for it. But nothing happened. A seemingly impossible caper was turning out to be a breeze.

One hiccup was the strong double-paned glass in the display cases. The thieves’ initial attempt to smash it with a fat rubber mallet was loud and unsuccessful.

So they used glass cutters to score a circle, which they covered with duct tape to prevent shattering and muffle the sound. Timing their work with the guard’s predictable rounds, they worked carefully over several hours hitting one case after another, synchronizing the smashing with airliners flying overhead and sweeping the floor after each one.

Around midnight, after gathering up roughly two dozen jewels — prize emeralds, diamonds, aquamarines and several diamond bracelets, brooches and rings — they went back out the window and made their way down.

Murphy said that as he slipped through the small park around the museum, he saw a crowd of police officers and froze. He quickly realized that this was not a response to the robbery but rather a routine shift change from the local precinct.

Still, here he was, carrying a bag of stolen jewels, a coil of rope on his shoulder, when two officers headed toward him. He quickly began chatting with a man walking his dog.

“I just said, ‘Good evening, officers’ and they gave me a nod and kept walking,” recalled Murphy, who then hailed a cab on Columbus Avenue — not to the penthouse suite but to the Metropole Cafe in midtown, to check out Gene Krupa’s jazz band.

“I figured, if I wind up going to jail for this,” he said, “I might as well party a little.” Minutes after pulling off an epic heist, Murph the Surf was standing with the jewels and a cocktail at the Metropole, digging Krupa’s star trumpeter, Shorty Rogers.

The next day, Murphy and Kuhn flew to Miami with the gems packed into a ladies’ overnight bag that was carried unwittingly by a 19-year-old woman named Janet Florkiewicz, whom Kuhn had met at the hotel and quickly seduced.

But their liberty was brief. After the tip from the hotel staffer, a warrant was obtained and McNally entered the thieves’ penthouse suite and found plenty of incriminating evidence, including burglary tools and sneakers with glass stuck in the soles.

Clark, the driver, remained in New York and was arrested at the hotel. Detectives quickly located the other two thieves with the help of Florkiewicz’s jilted boyfriend and her roommate in New York, who was speaking by phone with her in Miami.

With the jewels missing, the thieves denying the crime, and no witnesses, Nadjari knew he had a weak case. Bail was set low, and Murphy and Kuhn went back to gallivanting in Miami. They would fly up to New York for court dates and never missed an opportunity to grandstand for the press and insult the authorities as bumbling squares.

After one court date, Murphy lit a cigar and told reporters the plan was to grab the jewels, fence them in Florida, and then hit the North Shore of Hawaii for the winter surf season. Unfortunately, that wasn’t happening. “This inconvenience has fouled the whole thing up,” he said.

Nadjari was irritated that the thieves were being portrayed in the press as celebrities and folk heroes. He began searching for other possible crimes the men may have committed, which would necessitate a higher bail and perhaps hold them in jail.

Sure enough, he was able to have the men arrested again, on charges of mugging a woman in a Miami hotel for her jewelry. The victim, improbably, was actress Eva Gabor, who would later decline to press charges, citing her schedule shooting the television show “Green Acres” in Los Angeles.

But for the moment, those charges — which Murphy still denies — allowed the authorities to keep the thieves locked up in the jail in downtown Manhattan known as the Tombs.

“They thought they were tough,” Nadjari’s son said, “but they weren’t tough enough to handle staying in the Tombs.”

Now facing long prison sentences, Kuhn approached Nadjari offering to get the jewels back in return for leniency.

Surprisingly, Nadjari agreed. Kuhn was spirited out of the Tombs and flown to Miami, the detective seated by his side.

During the trip, Kuhn repeatedly offered to bribe Nadjari to drop the charges or simply let him escape.

“Kuhn would say, ‘All you have to do is turn your head away and I’ll make you a rich man,’” Nadjari recalled. Kuhn would then get angry and call the cautious prosecutor stupid for opting for a mild-mannered life as a civil servant over accepting a bribe.

“I said, ‘I may be stupid, but you’re going to jail and I’m going home to my wife and children,’” recalled Nadjari. He did, however, indulge one of Kuhn’s requests: While they were in Miami, the detective sprung for the rental of a flashy red Cadillac convertible.

Over several days, as Kuhn negotiated for the return of the jewels, the group hopped from one motel to the next to evade a press scrum tailing them, along with federal agents vying to take over the case.

“We were actually fugitives,” recalled McNally, who was also on the trip. “We had 100 reporters chasing us, as well as the FBI.”

At one point the group hopped out a rear motel window that had a long drop down to the beach.

When Kuhn balked at this, Nadjari told him, “If you don’t jump, I’m throwing you out.”

Kuhn was impressed with the detective’s skill in slipping in and out of motel windows.

“He told me, ‘I wish we’d met earlier — you would have made a great jewel thief,’” recalled Nadjari, who at one point put on a mask and snorkel to search for the jewels, which were said to be stashed underwater in Biscayne Bay near Kuhn’s boat.

In the end, fewer than half of the two dozen stolen gems were recovered. But they did retrieve the Star of India.

Kuhn arranged with the fence to pick up the jewels in a locker in a Miami bus terminal. They were left in two soaking pouches drenched in salt water.

Nadjari immediately stuffed them in his pockets, drenching his pants. Once on the plane back to New York, he transferred them to airsickness bags.

“I wasn’t going to let them out of my sight,” he said.

For his work on the case, McNally made second-grade detective.

In exchange for cooperating with the recovery, Murphy and his partners received light sentences, serving roughly two years each on Rikers Island.

After that, Clark and Kuhn went straight, fading into conventional lives. Both have died in recent years.

But Murphy’s criminal career continued. In 1969, he was convicted in a murder case in Florida for his involvement in the deaths of two women who had fallen in with him and several other thieves.

In prison, Murphy developed a popular Christian ministry for inmates and was granted parole in the mid-1980s to administer prison outreach.

Murphy now lives in a small town near Tampa. He continues his prison evangelism and still invokes the museum heist as the impetus for the criminal odyssey that ultimately led him to Jesus and redemption. He even zips over to Florida’s east coast to catch the occasional wave.

Nadjari went on to become a special prosecutor weeding out corruption and ran unsuccessfully for Queens district attorney. To this day, he keeps a photo of the Star of India in his living room, a reminder of the most meaningful case of his career.

“He felt like those guys stuck a finger in the city’s eye,” his son said. “And he really wanted to get the jewels back for the city of New York.”

© 2019 The New York Times Company

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