Legendary jewel thief Doris ‘Diamond’ Payne – a career criminal once wanted on two continents – has been arrested aged 85 for stealing earrings from an Atlanta department store.
Sweet, petite and immaculately turned out, Payne may be the world’s most unlikely international jewel thief.
The 85-year-old has gained infamy for a six-decade criminal career during which she has traveled the world to swipe millions of dollars worth of jewels by making staff ‘forget’ she was carrying them.
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Her incredible story has even been turned into a documentary film; The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne. There is speculation that a biopic is in the works with Academy Award winner Halle Berry set to star as Payne.
Ten years ago, when she was 75 years old, the thief swore she was done with a lifetime of pilfering jewels across two continents. Several arrests later, in 2013, she said again that she was leaving that life behind.
But it seems that old habits die hard. On a recent visit to Saks Fifth Avenue department store at a mall in Atlanta’s upscale Buckhead neighborhood, the octogenarian was allegedly unable to resist the lure of a bit of sparkle.
Unfortunately for Doris, authorities are now so familiar with her history that they were quick to catch her.
A store security guard watching surveillance video saw Payne enter a Christian Dior boutique inside the department store and pocket a $690 pair earrings from a standing shelf, according to police reports.
She was arrested in the mall and officers recovered the pricey earrings from her pocket.
Payne is currently being held on shoplifting charges at Fulton County jail, and is also wanted for a similar offense by the sheriff’s office in Mecklenberg County, North Carolina.
Born to a coal mining father and a seamstress mother in the remote and impoverished town of Slab Fork, West Virginia, in 1930, Doris Marie Payne was the youngest of six children.
Although a family move to Cleveland, Ohio, when broadened her horizons somewhat as a teenager, she still faced the injustice and suppression that was the lot of many black women in those days of American history.
Kirk Marcolina, producer of The Life And Crimes Of Doris Payne, told the Daily Mirror’s Rachael Bletchly: ‘She always wanted to become a ballerina but one day somebody told her she couldn’t – there were no black ballerinas.
‘She realized she had to find another way of getting out of that small town and seeing the world. Stealing jewels eventually became the way she did it.’
Sweet, petite and immaculately turned out, Payne may be the world’s most unlikely international jewel thief
In the documentary, Doris revealed how she first learned her trademark distraction trick as a teenager when a store clerk eagerly ditched her when a white customer came in.
She walked to the door, a small gold watch still clasped around her wrist. Although she gave it back that time, she realized how easy it would have been to walk away with the prize.
From there, she worked her way up from bargain jewelry to some of the most expensive stores across the globe, hitting targets as far afield as Britain, France, Italy, Monaco and even Japan.
Aged just 23, she walked out of a Pittsburgh jewelry store with a diamond valued at $22,000.
She developed a winning strategy – dressing nicely, carrying a designer handbag and arming herself with a detailed story – that she used to charm jewelry store employees.
Faced with a well-to-do woman with money to spend, store employees would relax their rules and bring out multiple high-value pieces at once, and Payne would quickly slip the expensive baubles on and off until the employee lost track and she could easily leave with one in hand.
Over time, she has been connected to 20 aliases, nine dates of birth, and five Social Security numbers, but is nevertheless so brazen about her crimes that she once gave her occupation as ‘jewel thief’ in court papers.
But the international lifestyle has come at a heavy price for the cunning Payne: she has an Interpol file dating back to the 1970s, a U.S. criminal record 20 pages long and has served a string of jail terms including a nearly five-year prison stint in Colorado.
In a 2005 jail interview, Payne remembered her exploits with amusement and explained how she stole diamonds because they were easiest.
For her, the thefts were about the thrill, not the money.
There’s never been a day that I went to steal that I did not get what I went to do,’ she said in her documentary.
‘I don’t have any regrets about stealing jewelry. I regret getting caught.’
That sentiment proves problematic for judges faced with the elderly offender.
In 2010, she asked one to be lenient because she was ‘truly sorry that this went on as long as it did,’ but that wasn’t enough.
‘You won’t stop,’ Judge Frank Brown said at the time, explaining his decision to sentence her to five years which was at the high end of the possible verdicts.
‘That’s the problem here… She’s a thief. She’s charming. Santa Claus’s wife, that’s who she is.’
After that punitive sentence, Doris vowed to leave her life of crime.
But in 2013, just three months after she had been released from jail, she was up to her old tricks.
When Doris walked into El Paseo Jewellers in Palm Desert, California staff were delighted. White-haired and petite, not in the best of health but articulate and elegantly turned out, she told them she had just had a $25,000 insurance payout and wanted to spend the cash on a present for herself.
Salespeople fussed around her with typical Californian courtesy, helping her try on gem-encrusted necklaces and rings and, when her hip began playing up, finding her a chair to rest her legs.
After making arrangements to complete her purchase of a diamond and white gold pinkie ring the next day, they helped her hobble to the door.
What staff did not realise was that the $22,500 the ring was still on her finger.
The Los Angeles Times reports that the manager of El Paseo Jewelers only realized that the ring was missing hours after she had gone.
She sold the ring to a nearby pawnshop for $800, and as part of the sale, she had to give her thumbprint, which eventually tipped off authorities.
Last year, she was sentenced to spend two years in jail and two years under mandatory supervision after the judge took pity on her age and ill health.
After an early release, the serial offender is back behind bars for her latest theft.
Payne is truly in a league of her own in the pantheon of jewel thieves, Jewelers’ Security Alliance president John J. Kennedy said.
‘It’s extraordinarily rare for a criminal to have that lengthy of a career,’ he said. ‘Usually they either stop because they have enough money and they don’t want the risk anymore, or they’re dead.’
Kennedy said people often ask him about her, fascinated and even amused by the story of this elderly woman who has committed so many thefts.
‘We’re all laughing, but it’s not funny,’ he said. ‘She goes in and she takes product from people, and it causes a lot of grief for people.’
Kennedy, for one, wasn’t surprised to hear about her latest arrest.
‘I have long said that she is a career criminal, and I doubt if she has any interest whatsoever in stopping,’ he said. ‘When you’re that age and you’re still doing it, you’re not about to stop.’