Jack Roland “Murf the Surf” Murphy enjoyed having control of his own narrative, so much so that in his later years he would actively steer the conversation away from the murders of secretaries Annelie Mohn and Terry Rae Frank.
Mohn and Frank’s bodies were found weighted down in Whiskey Creek Canal in 1967, they had been bludgeoned, shot and stabbed. They were 21 and 24 at the time of their deaths.
Murphy was convicted of first-degree murder in March 1969 over Frank’s death, and he was sentenced to life in prison with hard labor. His accomplice, Jack Griffith, was charged with second-degree murder and was given a 45-year prison sentence with hard labor. Mohn’s death was never prosecuted.
Murphy was also given a second life term after being convicted of conspiracy and assault to commit robbery in a separate case. But, by 1986, Murphy was granted parole after finding religion and becoming a mentor to the other men in prison.
When he was released, Murphy, then an ordained minister, began to steer the public’s focus of his life story back onto his earlier exploits as a jewel thief and, in particular, his part in the theft of the Star of India sapphire in 1964.
Murphy’s desire to dominate the conversation and control how a story is told, even if it is later proven to contain lies, makes him similar to President Donald Trump, Murf the Surf director R. J. Cutler told Newsweek ahead of the MGM docu-series’ finale.
Jack Murphy Was the Donald Trump of His Time, Says ‘Murf the Surf’ Director
In this composite image is Jack Roland Murphy (center) pictured in the poster for MGM+’s documentary series “Murf the Surf” and former President Donald Trump at the South Carolina State House on January 28, 2023. Director R.J. Cutler spoke to Newsweek about making the four-part docu-series and how Murphy’s desire to control his narrative is indicative of Trump’s desire to do the same. Win McNamee/MGM+/Getty Images
Murphy was the country’s first “true crime television superstar,” Cutler said. He was seen as a charismatic party boy and surfing champion (hence the moniker), and he became somewhat of a folk hero to the public for the 1964 heist at the American Museum of Natural History, which saw him and a friend steal the Star of India sapphire, the DeLong Star ruby, and other jewels.
Meeting Murphy in person proved to be an interesting experience, Cutler said: “My first impression when we met was that he was full on, 100 percent, no holds barred Jack.
“He intended to dominate the conversation and to assert his will, and his desire for the series to be something [positive] which viewers of the series will be clear on. It was very important for him to kind of control the narrative, and he was very committed to that, and he went on [when speaking].
“He reminded me of a certain recent president of the United States who I had the experience of meeting a number of times and who also liked to speak a lot, and without a particular interest in other people in a conversation speaking.”
In the fourth episode of the documentary, Murphy shares a new theory about the killing of Mohn and Frank, claiming that there had been a fifth man in the boat with them and Griffith. He suggested that it was this unnamed person who was responsible for the two women’s deaths.
Reflecting on this, Cutler went on: “Jack is a bit of a Trumpian figure, and I think that this is another instance where you experience that there’s no limit to not only what he’s willing to fabricate as truth, but the fact that he thinks that people will swallow it, perhaps because so much of the truths he’s fabricated, or of the truths he fabricated over his lifetime, were swallowed by so many.
“That’s what I make of the fifth man, there was no indication that there was a fifth man. There was nobody else who had even heard him reference the fifth man until this […] what I make of it is that Murph’s willingness to spin alternate truths, and his certainty that his spinning of them could result in a rewriting of the narrative, seems to have known no bounds.”
“But it’s an interesting thing because this is why this series, as much as it tells the story from another time, is a story for our time,” the director went on. “Because this is not an unfamiliar character in our culture, this is not an unfamiliar phenomenon.
“Narratives are presented to us all the time that we find out not to be true, and then they’re re-presented in ways that we find out not to be true.
“It is now a thing to run for elected office in our society and when you lose to just declare that you won, that’s a thing. I mean, the president has done it, and a Republican running for governor has done it. It is now a kind of path you can take.
“Well, we gotta take a long hard look at what our relationship is as a culture, and a society, and the body politic, to truth. And so this is part of why this story is so [important], it’s a great yarn but it is very much a story for our times.”
Focusing the Narrative Back on Annelie Mohn and Terry Rae Frank
The deaths of Mohn and Frank became largely a footnote in the original media coverage of Murphy’s deeds, and so Cutler was keen to correct this in MGM+’s Murf the Surf.
The filmmaker explained: “It was very important to us that Annelie Mohn and Terry Rae Frank not be, first of all, forgotten in the narrative, and that their stories and their families not be in a way treated as the media—I’m a little loathe to monolithically refer to the media—but the culture, if you will, treated them a certain way in the time of their murder, and it was an inhuman murder.
“You see that in the series and we mean to examine their lives differently, and not to re-victimize them the way that the culture re-victimized them in the moment and, dare I say, other treatments, other recent tellings of Jack’s story.
“I mean, the first time I heard about Jack was in the front page article in the New York Times. That was about the Star of India and about the crime that started all of Jack’s fame, and, granted this article was about the Star of India and the crime that started Jack’s fame, but it was a good 20 paragraphs in before Terry Rae Frank and Annelie Mohn were referred to, and they weren’t referred to by name.
“They were referred to in the context of Jack having killed them: ‘He was convicted of murder, years later he was convicted of murder,’ it said something like that in this article and, again, it said it long after it talked about the kind of criminal glory he had achieved.”
Cutler went on: “Now, everybody’s entitled to tell a story in any way that they think is the best way to tell it, [but] for us it was important to tell this story with a full understanding that Annelie and Terry Rae were were human beings and that this was not just a fact that Jack could erase.
“This was two gruesome murders for which he was convicted, and sentenced by a judge to multiple lifetimes in prison.
“And, whatever attempts he made throughout his life to erase the fact and deny the fact that he had committed these murders, we were, first of all, not going to allow that to be the case here, and, second of all, we were not going to allow the victims to be re-victimized by the telling of the story, or at least we hoped we would.”
Jack Murphy’s Intimidation Tactics
Cutler also spoke on the way in which Murphy was comfortable using subtle intimidation when speaking to him and others, as can be seen in an exclusive clip shared with Newsweek above.
Murphy, Cutler said, would often find ways in which to remind journalists that he had been convicted of murder when speaking to them.
Cutler said of his own experience with Murphy: “He also was consistent with the way we see he interacted with journalists who were attempting to tell his story, and you see this a lot in the fourth episode of the series. He was not at all above suggestions of intimidation.
“He was charming and personable, but he let it be known that he knew that I had a family. He let it be known that he knew what my wife did for a living. He let it be known that he knew that we lived in a certain part of Los Angeles.”
“These were things that people don’t normally make a point of letting it be known, these are things that people don’t normally tell you they know about, even if they do,” Cutler added.
Murphy died on September 12, 2020, and when asked if he would have liked to have heard the man’s opinion on the docu-series, Cutler said, “of course” and added: “I’m sure it would be fascinating. I’m sure he would let me know what he thought. I’m sure he would go on at some length. I guess we’ll leave it at that.”
The finale for Murf the Surf premieres on MGM+ on Sunday, March 5 at 10 p.m. ET, the first three episodes are available to watch now.