When Doris Payne went to work, she stepped into her fancy dress, high heels and donned a wide-brimmed hat. Her creamy, mocha skin was made up just so, her handbag always designer. Sometimes a pair of 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. Yes, she says, that was me, and she throws back her head and laughs.
There was the February day, eight years ago, when she strolled into the Neiman Marcus store on the Las Vegas Strip and asked to see a pair of diamond earrings.
Hmm, she said. She’d think about it over lunch.
She returned and asked to see diamond rings. Employee Linda Sbrocco showed her several — this one ... no, this one ... how about that one? 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 cab.
She is, says retired Denver Police Detective Gail Riddell, 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. Every month or every other month — no one knows how many times over more than 50 years — she strolled into a jewelry store and strolled out with a ring worth thousands of dollars.
Occasionally, she was caught. Mostly, she was not.
She grew up in Slab Fork, W.Va., where her daddy worked in the coal mines and her mother sewed dresses and did alterations for extra money. Payne was the baby, the youngest of six who liked school and loved to show her illiterate father places on the world maps she made out of salt and flour, places she would someday visit.
When she was a teenager, the family moved to Cleveland. One day, her mother gave Payne a $5 bill — $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 didn’t 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.
It became a teenage game. Payne would enter a jewelry store with her girlfriend and try on watches. “I simply tried to cause the man to forget how many they would show me. I always managed to be able to keep one on my arm,” she said.
She didn’t steal. Not yet. But she made it clear to the sales clerk that she could have.
After high school, Payne went to work at a nursing home, the last legitimate job she would ever have. By then, it was just Payne and her mother living together, her mother having left her abusive father. Payne was pregnant at 18 with a son, and would later have a daughter, too.
Doris wanted her mother to know that she had figured out a way to raise money, to take care of her. “I know how to cause the man in the jewelry store to forget,” she confided.
“That’s stealing,” her mother warned.
“It’s not stealing because I’m only taking what they give me,” Payne said.
Her mother’s reaction was so harsh, Payne never mentioned it again.
But “I began to cause it to happen,” she said.
She knew she needed the right lingo, the right plan, the right dress. Clerks had to assume she had money. A cheap purse wouldn’t do.
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 a time.
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 said.
A song came to mind. “There’s a pawn shop on the corner in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania,” she sings, remembering the lyrics with a smile.
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.
She was off and running.
Soon, she was living two lives: the plain, single mother who liked to cook and go to jazz clubs, and the worldly woman with places to go, work to do, gentlemen to dine with.
Her success was remarkable. She just had to go into a jewelry store, all dressed up, and more times than not, things went her way.
At first, her longtime boyfriend, a tavern owner, gave her tips. Don’t talk too much. Don’t give too much away. Don’t even give your name. Sometimes he called a store beforehand and told them he was an attorney and he had a client coming in to shop who was settling an estate.
But mostly, Payne was a one-woman gang, with her own patter. Maybe she’d come into some money and wanted to buy a few pieces of jewelry. Or maybe her jewelry had been stolen and she needed to replace it.
The story didn’t matter; she took her leads from the sales clerks and confused them easily. She had them take rings out all over the store and tried many on, asking about the cut, clarity, the carat. Usually jewelry stores only show one expensive item at a time. But when a customer comes in and claims they have thousands of dollars to spend, rules are often relaxed.
“Do you have a preference of stones?” they asked.
“You go where he takes you. You just play it by ear. He’s talking to you about quality and beauty,” she said.
She usually hid the ring in her hand, or sometimes on her finger in plain sight, then strolled out of the store into a waiting cab (she didn’t own a car). Then she went straight to the airport to get out of town. Almost as soon as she stole, she sold.
Once she went to a fine dress shop in Pittsburgh and asked to see a satin robe on the mannequin in the store window. Payne was wearing a ring she had just stolen and the sales lady commented on it.
Tears flowed from Payne’s eyes and she told the woman she had to sell it, something about her divorce. The woman thought she could help and left to speak to the owner.
The owner paid her $3,500 cash.
From then on, she had no fear of being caught. As she explains it, it was as if her victims became her silent partners.
Payne got most ideas for her thefts from ads and articles in fancy magazines, especially Town & Country. She flipped through the pages, spied a ring she liked and then traveled from her base in Bedford, Ohio, to the store which advertised it.
The Jewelers Security Alliance, an industry trade group, got 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 only took one or two expensive rings at a time. But what really 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. “She was just very clever at what she does.”
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. When she got to the airport in Nice, custom agents suspected she had the ring and stopped her. The ring was never found.
During the investigation, Payne says she was kept in a “fifth-rate motel” by the Mediterranean. One day she asked the woman in charge for nail clippers and for a needle and thread to mend her dress. She used the clippers to pry the ring from its setting, sewed the diamond into her girdle and then tossed the setting into the sea, she says.
She wore her girdle day and night, even when it was wet from washing. Her room was searched every day, but the diamond remained hidden.
She wasn’t always so lucky. She’s been arrested more times than she can remember. One detective said her arrest report is more than 6 feet long — she’s done time in Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, Colorado and Wisconsin. Still, the arrests are really “just the tip of the iceberg,” said FBI supervisory special agent Paul G. Graupmann.
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 U.S. attorney who was prosecuting Payne for trying to sell a ring 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.
She quickly left Colorado, sold the ring and then went to Europe. The FBI searched her Ohio home while she was gone, and found $10,000 in cash — and several passports. Through the decades, she has used at least 22 aliases, among them Audrey Davis, Thelma White, Sonya Dowels, Marie Clements, Donna Gilbert.
The name may have changed, but the persona was always the same. She is charming, pleasant, refined, with a sweet Southern way about her.
“She is a woman and has a stately appearance about her,” Eddins said. “So it’s hard for people to believe she’s a liar, cheater and a stealer.”
During her time for the Denver theft, she served two stints at a halfway house. Denver Police Detective Diane Stack 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 complained.
And of course that’s exactly what happened. She fled the state while on parole, and authorities say she soon was back at work, relieving jewelers of their jewelry.
Life behind bars
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. No fancy dress. No designer purse.
She looks tired as she runs her hand across her lips and rests her thin fingers on her forehead. Her dress these days is a blue jail uniform.
Doris Payne is again behind bars, this time in Las Vegas’ 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.
She doesn’t dwell much on the past: “I’ve had regrets, and I’ve had a good time.”
It’s been a long journey. It was fun dressing up, fun forging this career all on her own. It was never about making money or spending it. It was about the game.
Once, she swears, she threw a ring in the trash. She didn’t want it. It meant nothing.
She stole diamond rings, she says, because “they’re easier than everything else.” She, herself, wore simple gold earrings. She never much cared for diamonds.
“I don’t know,” she said in a rare moment where she considers 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. No more, she says.
But the men and women who tracked her just laugh. “If she’s alive, she’s going to be still stealing,” Kennedy said.
Jean Herbert, a longtime friend, asked Payne about her future: “I said, ’You’re in your 70s, you cannot wear the bars of the jail out.’ I said, ‘Aren’t you tired?”’
She never got an answer.