Fabled jewelry thief Doris Payne, 83, pleads guilty to another diamond theft

Doris Payne poses in this undated photo provided by her family. (AP Photo)
Doris Payne poses in this undated photo provided by her family. (AP)

An elegant dress, high heels, maybe a hat and always a designer handbag, 83-year-old Doris Payne strolls into high-end jewelry stores in Las Vegas, Monte Carlo or Paris playing the part.

She flashes a smile and chats up the clerk, usually engaging him in a story or complaining about an aching hip. She tries on a few fancy watches and diamond rings. She makes him forget.

Then she promises she’ll return tomorrow or maybe after lunch to make the purchase — but she never does.

That’s when they realize — this 5-foot-5 woman has a knack for making expensive things disappear.

Payne acknowledges being an international jewelry thief with some 60 years of experience. She has worked under 20 aliases, she has been linked to five Social Security numbers and she has nine dates of birth on file, according to ABC News. Her Interpol record stretches back to the early 1970s and her U.S. rap sheet is nearly 20 pages long, one of her lawyers, Gretchen von Helms, told ABC News in 2011.

On Monday, Payne pleaded guilty one felony count each of burglary and grand theft for stealing in October a $22,500 diamond-encrusted ring from an upscale store in Palm Desert, Calif. She was sentenced to four years — two in county jail and two under mandatory supervision, John Hall, a spokesman for the Riverside County district attorney’s office, told the Los Angeles Times.

“The judge tempered punishment with compassion about her age,” von Helms told the LA Times this week. “He took into account the taxpayers’ pocketbook. And do we really need to incarcerate a nonviolent offender — yes, a repeat offender, that’s true — who’s ill, who has emphysema, who’s elderly?”

Some may remember her from a well-publicized arrest in 2010 for taking a $9,000 diamond ring from Macy’s in San Diego. According to an ABC story at the time:

“Payne told the judge she didn’t think he should ‘be harsh with [her]. … I am truly sorry that this went on as long as it did.’ But Judge Frank Brown gave her five years, the upper end of the possible sentence.  ‘You won’t stop,’ Judge Frank Brown said. ‘That’s the problem here. … She’s a thief. She’s charming. Santa Claus’s wife, that’s who she is.’”

Payne had been out of prison about three months when she pulled off the Palm Desert theft.

“When she got out, she was so excited to be out and have her freedom,” Matthew Pond, co-director and co-producer of a documentary about her life, told the Los Angeles Times last year. The film is entitled “The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne.” “She swore black and blue that she wasn’t going to do that again.”

“There’s never been a day that I went to steal that I did not get what I went to do,” she said in the documentary. “I don’t have any regrets about stealing jewelry. I regret getting caught.”

The daughter of a West Virginia coal miner father and a mother who was a seamstress, Payne grew up wanting to be a ballerina but was told black girls couldn’t do so, the Los Angeles Times reported.

As a teenager, she first discovered a way to make a living as a jewelry thief at a store in Cleveland. She told the Associated Press in 2005 that the store owner showed her some watches and quickly pushed her aside as a white man entered the store. The owner tried to rush her out of the store with a small gold watch still on her wrist. And that’s when she realized: People could forget.

Doris Payne, right, appears in this copy of a 1966 wanted poster provided by her family. The 75-year-old international jewel thief, who was successful stealing jewels for more than 50 years, now faces charges that she stole a ring from a Neiman Marcus store. (AP Photo)
Doris Payne, right, appears in this copy of a 1966 wanted poster provided by her family. (AP Photo)

It became a teenage game. She started with bargain jewelry stores but quickly learned they kept a close eye on the merchandise. So, when she was in her early 20s, she jumped on a Greyhound bus to Pittsburgh, walked into a high-priced jewelry store and walked out with a $22,000 diamond, she told the AP. But regarding her past, Payne told the AP she doesn’t dwell much on it.

“I’ve had regrets, and I’ve had a good time,” she said.

Lindsey Bever is a national news reporter for The Washington Post. She writes for the Morning Mix news blog. Tweet her: @lindseybever
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