Jewelry thief with unlikely profile mined a world of diamonds
Woman, 75, plied her trade for more than five decades
LAS VEGAS -- When Doris Payne went to work, she stepped into her fancy dress and high heels, and donned a wide-brimmed hat. Her face was made up just so, her handbag always designer. Sometimes plain gold earrings would do. Always, she looked immaculate, well-to-do.
It was a lonely job. She worked by herself, and few people knew what she did.
New York. Colorado. Nevada. California. They all beckoned, and so did Greece and France, England and Switzerland, as she plied her trade over five decades.
She is 75 now, and she remembers the things she has done with amusement.
There was the February day eight years ago, when she strolled into the
Hmm, she said. She'd think about it over lunch. She returned and asked to see diamond rings.
An employee, Linda Sbrocco, showed her several. Soon Sbrocco was swapping jewelry in and out of cases at a dizzying pace.
Payne slipped rings on and off, and had Sbrocco do the same.
Then Payne was gone. And so was a $36,000 marquis-cut, 2.48-carat diamond ring.
This was how Doris Payne went about her work as an international jewel thief.
Never did she grab the jewels and run. That wasn't her way. Instead, she glided in, engaged the clerk in one of her stories, confused them, and easily slipped away with a diamond ring, usually to a waiting taxi.
She is, said retired Detective Gail Riddell of the Denver police, like a character from a movie -- a female Cary Grant, smooth and confident. ''She is very good at what she does," said Riddell. ''She has the style."
And she has been very, very successful. Occasionally, she was caught. Mostly, she was not.
She grew up in Slab Fork, W.Va., where her father worked in coal mines and her mother sewed for extra money. Payne was the youngest of six.
When she was a teenager, the family moved to Cleveland. One day, her mother gave Payne $5 -- $2 to get her hair straightened, the rest to pay the family's bill at a clothing and jewelry store.
''My mom says if I get good grades this year, she's going to buy me a watch," Payne boasted to the store owner, Bill Benjamin.
She had always liked Mr. Benjamin. He was kind and friendly, and this time he showed her some watches. She tried a few on, but then a boisterous white man entered the store, and suddenly it seemed that Mr. Benjamin did not want to be seen being nice to a black girl.
He rushed her off and she made it to the door before she realized she still had a small gold watch on her wrist. Mr. Benjamin had forgotten. ''Oh Mr. Benjamin," she shouted gleefully, holding up her wrist, ''I forgot this watch."
Mr. Benjamin snatched the watch from her arm. People, she had learned, could forget.
She started with bargain jewelry stores. But she found out quickly that cheap stores obeyed by the rules. They never pulled out more than one item at once.
So when she was around 23, she took a Greyhound bus to a Pittsburgh fine-jewelry store and easily walked out with a square-cut diamond with a price tag of $22,000.
''Now I got to get rid of it. I don't have a clue. I'm scared to death," she remembered in a recent interview.
She went to a pawn broker and told the man she wanted to sell the ring. He asked how much. She wasn't sure, so she divided the price by three and came up with $7,500.
No questions. No ID requested. She got the cash, and was off and running.
Payne got most ideas for her thefts from ads and articles in fancy magazines, especially
The Jewelers Security Alliance, an industry trade group, caught on to Payne in the 1970s. Bulletins went out, warning jewelry stores about a slick, well-dressed black woman who was stealing diamond rings.
Where others might hit a store for several pieces of jewelry, Payne took only one or two expensive rings at a time. But what made Doris Payne different was that she was so prolific and so good.
''She pretended and gave all kinds of stories out over the years, of illness, of this and that, of sweet talking people and making deals," said John Kennedy, president of the Jewelers Security Alliance.
In the early 1970s, Payne tried her skills overseas. First Paris. Then Monte Carlo, where she flew in 1974 and paid a visit to Cartier, coming away with a platinum diamond ring.
She has been arrested more times than she can remember. One detective said her arrest report is more than 6 feet long -- she has done time in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Colorado, and Wisconsin.
Once, when she was in federal custody in Texas, she even escaped from a hospital after faking a medical condition. She simply walked away, said Ron Eddins, an assistant US attorney, who was prosecuting Payne when she fled.
The most time she ever served was in Colorado, where she did almost five years in prison for swiping a diamond ring from a Neiman Marcus store in 1998. Payne had seen the $57,000 gem in Town & Country. She wanted it. And she got it.
During her time for the Denver theft, she served two stints at a halfway house. Detective Diane Stack of the Denver police told authorities that this elderly woman needed constant supervision. They found this hard to believe.
''Everyone sees her as this nice little old lady, and she gets away with it," she said.
And of course that's exactly what happened. She fled the state while on parole, and authorities say she soon was back at work.
She is 75 now. The white hair that she fluffed into a perfect coif is combed back in a dull way that is hardly a style. Her face is plain. No creamy makeup brightens her eyes and cheeks.
Doris Payne is again in jail, this time in Las Vegas's Clark County jail on charges that she stole a diamond ring from one of her old haunts -- a Neiman Marcus store, this one in Palo Alto, Calif. -- and sold it in Las Vegas. She also faces charges of stealing another ring from a Las Vegas jewelry store, violating parole in Colorado, and skipping town while out on bail from a previous Las Vegas theft at a Neiman Marcus.
''I don't know," she said in a rare moment of considering her criminal past. ''I think the whole thing just got out of hand. It kind of went amok."
She says she is done with thievery. But those who tracked her only laugh. ''If she's alive, she's going to be still stealing," Kennedy said.