Jack McNally: NYPD Detective Turned Defense Sleuth

From a New York Times obit by Daniel E. Slotnik headlined “Jack McNally, N.Y.P.D. Detective Turned Defense Sleuth, Dies at 89”:

Jack McNally, who as a police detective in 1964 made the first arrest in the most audacious jewel theft in New York City history, and who then became a private investigator for famous defense lawyers like F. Lee Bailey and worked on behalf of clients like O.J. Simpson, died.

As a detective, Mr. McNally had the boldness and street smarts of a Raymond Chandler protagonist, though his approach to witnesses and suspects was less confrontational than that of a typical hard-boiled gumshoe.

“You try to win them over and convince them that you are in the mode of fair play,” he said in 1994. “We’re just there seeking the truth.”

Mr. McNally’s first high-profile investigation followed the brazen theft of two dozen priceless jewels from the American Museum of Natural History.

On the night of Oct. 19, 1964, burglars broke into the museum’s Hall of Gems and stole the Star of India, a 563-carat sapphire bigger than a golf ball, as well as the DeLong Star Ruby, the Eagle Diamond and about 20 more gemstones. The museum valued the jewels at $410,000, the equivalent of more than $4 million today.

Mr. McNally was on duty at the 20th Precinct on the Upper West Side when a call about the burglary came in at around 10 a.m. The tabloids called it the heist of the century, though it took Mr. McNally and his colleagues only about two days to solve.

A tip came in from a staffer at the nearby Cambridge House Hotel, who told the police about three hard-partying men from Miami who had been living extravagantly in a penthouse suite for several weeks.

The three men were Jack Murphy, Allan Kuhn and Roger Clark, beach boys turned criminals who had been robbing bar patrons and hotel rooms in the city but envisioned a bigger caper.

After casing the museum, Mr. Murphy, a celebrated surfer known by the nickname Murph the Surf, and Mr. Kuhn scaled a spiked metal fence, ascended the museum wall and entered through an unlocked window. They used tape and glass cutters to get to the gems. Then they escaped.

“They were very, very athletic, these guys, and they were not rookies at this,” Mr. McNally said in 2019. “They had done plenty of this already down in Florida.”

The museum’s lax security made the theft easy, Mr. Murphy said in 2019. Only one aging guard monitored the Hall of Gems on his rounds, and the alarm system on many display cases no longer functioned.

Early the next morning, Mr. Murphy and Mr. Kuhn boarded a flight for Miami, along with a young woman who carried the jewels.

Not long after they fled, Mr. McNally and a colleague obtained a search warrant. In the penthouse, they found sneakers embedded with glass, a museum floor plan and burglary tools. Mr. McNally decided to spend the night, and the next morning Mr. Clark walked in with a friend.

“They came into the apartment, and they caught me in the bathroom washing up,” Mr. McNally said in 2014.

Mr. McNally arrested Mr. Clark, and Mr. Kuhn and Mr. Murphy were soon detained in Florida. But the jewels were nowhere to be found, there were no witnesses, and the suspects denied everything.

They were released on bail and went back to Miami. They returned to New York for court hearings and mocked the authorities in the press, which in some cases portrayed them as folk heroes. (The heist had such a hold on the public imagination that it was dramatized in a 1975 film, “Murph the Surf,” starring Don Stroud as Mr. Murphy.)

The authorities eventually recovered about half of the jewels, including the Star of India and the DeLong Star Ruby. Mr. Murphy, Mr. Kuhn and Mr. Clark served roughly two years each on Rikers Island.

Mr. McNally was promoted to second-grade detective. He retired from the Police Department as a first-grade detective in 1971, with 22 commendations, according to a profile of him that ran in 1995.

After retiring, Mr. McNally began sleuthing on behalf of defendants as a private investigator. In 1972 he started working with F. Lee Bailey, the lawyer known for vigorously representing defendants in notorious criminal trials.

Mr. McNally was involved in marquee trials of the 1970s and ’80s, including those of Patty Hearst, who was imprisoned for crimes she committed after being kidnapped by a radical group called the Symbionese Liberation Army; Claus von Bülow, who was convicted and later acquitted of trying to murder his wife; and Bernhard Goetz, who shot four young Black men on the subway who he said had tried to rob him.

Prosecutors tried to link Mr. McNally to the Mafia several times, including during the trials of members of the Gambino crime family. He denied the accusations.
In the 1990s Mr. McNally played a part in the blockbuster trial of O.J. Simpson for the murder of his ex-wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman — a trial that captivated the nation and became a cultural touchstone.

As part of Mr. Simpson’s fractious legal team, Mr. Bailey brought in Mr. McNally to help find the true killers. The trial eventually claimed their relationship after another lawyer on Mr. Simpson’s team blamed Mr. McNally for unflattering leaks to the press, and he was fired.

Mr. Simpson was acquitted in the criminal trial in 1995 but was found responsible for the deaths of Ms. Brown Simpson and Mr. Goldman in a civil trial in 1997 and ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages to their families.

John Edward McNally was born in Brooklyn in 1933. He joined the Navy at 17 and served for four years in the Korean War. After returning from the service, he married Elaine Hansen, with whom he had four children. He joined the New York Police Department in 1955.

Persuading someone to talk sometimes meant making sacrifices, Mr. McNally said in 1995: “You’ve got to give a little to get a little.”

A Manhattan prosecutor persuaded Mr. Kuhn to help the authorities find the missing Natural History Museum jewels in 1965 by offering him a reduced sentence. But the prosecutor and Mr. McNally, who also came to Florida to retrieve the jewels, had to give a little more.

Mr. Kuhn, a flashy person who favored Cadillacs, was unhappy with the drab rental car that awaited them when they landed in Florida.

“I had to get him a red convertible” before he would search for the jewels, Mr. McNally said in 2014.

It paid off. Mr. Kuhn helped them recover many of the missing gems from a Miami bus station locker.

Daniel E. Slotnik is a general assignment reporter on the Metro desk and a 2020 New York Times reporting fellow.

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