America’s Best Jewel Thief Is An 85-Year-Old Woman
If diamonds are a girl’s best friend, Doris Payne hasn’t met a stranger in well over six decades.
A coal miner’s daughter born in rural Slab Fork, West Virginia, the 85-year-old might well be the most prolific international jewel thief the world has ever known. Payne, who by all accounts may never have held down a job on “the books,” has made a better than healthy living hopscotching around the globe in pursuit of shiny baubles and other luxury goods.
Armed with nothing more than an easy smile, designer clothes, and an exquisite handbag, Payne routinely charmed jewelry story employees out of their wares. The final take has never been officially tallied, but the largess gleaned from her illicit escapades is thought to easily number in the tens of millions. At one time, she was the subject of criminal warrants on two continents and tracked by Interpol, the 190-member multi-national organization that hunts fugitives.
Hers is a story that might be better suited for Hollywood. Only Payne doesn’t look like Matt Damon and her trickery is decidedly lower tech than an installment of Ocean’s Eleven. Payne prefers to work alone, her thievery fueled solely by heavy doses of charisma and guile. She has been called a one-woman gang, to her chagrin, except the only weapon she carries is the demeanor and fashion sense of a high-living socialite.
Following her storied exploits for more than a decade, I wasn’t prepared for the eloquent well-appointed woman I encountered. I felt the air change as Payne bounded the narrow stairwell and quietly entered the upper conference room of her attorney’s suburban Atlanta offices. Marveling at her patent leather, lace-up Chanel oxfords and pin-stripped stockings, her grace was unmistakable.
“It isn’t every day that you meet a jewel thief,” I said out of earshot, “and certainly not one who reminds you of your banana pudding-baking grandmama.”
She took her place at the head of the table, removed her pricey sunglasses, clasped her hands before her and waited. I noted her veiny hands, her deeply creased yet smooth skin, the softness in her strong but trusting glance.
Payne told her story simply, as if she was taking a mid-afternoon stroll through Piedmont Park when the dogwoods bloomed in the springtime. She spoke like a woman who wasn’t wanted on an outstanding warrant in Mecklenberg County, North Carolina, as if she wasn’t facing a new felony shoplifting charge for allegedly stealing a $690 pair of earrings from Saks Fifth Avenue.
“I was a shopper,” she told me at one point. “I knew what I wanted.”
What she wanted was a 3.5-carat ring in Palm Desert, California, and another worth $33,000 from a store in Charlotte, North Carolina. Perhaps she is most infamous for a Monte Carlo caper in the 1970s that yielded a 10-carat diamond ring valued at over a half million dollars. There have been dozens of swoops since then, she readily admits.
“I used to go in stores, slip something into my pocketbook and give it back,” she says of the early years. “It was all in fun.”
Posing as a well-moneyed customer with long dollars to spend, Payne learned to simply make them all forget. An insurance payout, an inheritance. She wooed her victims with detailed backstories. Often, it would be hours before a store realized what she’d done and, by then, Payne had disappeared in broad daylight. She’d hop in a cab, a bus, or subway train and vanish into thin air.
And for that, Payne has a 20-page rap sheet in the U.S. alone. She is a celebrity among retail store security teams and has “no-trespassing” agreements with many of the country’s most prominent retail chains.
“I went to three countries in three days,” she says of her first trip abroad. “I went to London, then Paris, and then Rome.”
Far from a run-of-the-mill shoplifter boosting stolen goods from the trunk of a car, her life on the lam was nearly upended in France. She was detained in Nice and extradited to Monte Carlo to answer for her most audacious heist. She was held for nine months, Payne said, while a flummoxed band of investigators tried to unravel her case. Payne had been searched repeatedly, but the officers came up empty handed. The gem, she said, was tucked into the hem of her girdle.
The youngest of six children born to David Payne and a mother, who was a seamstress, Payne attributes her deceptive skills to a solid public school education. “I could travel in Europe as good as I did,” she told me, “because of the knowledge I had of maps.
“I had geography. I had algebra,” she said, waxing poetically about her upbringing. “I had home economics and health classes.”
Home to Grammy Award-winning singer-songwriter Bill Withers and situated along Route 54 in Raleigh County, it is notable that her hometown boasts a population of just over 200. As of the 2000 U.S. Census, almost all were white and none had acquired a college degree. The median income is 20 percent below the national average.
Payne is oddly proud of Slab Fork and she credits the tiny hamlet with helping her get her start.
“To be quite honest, it was a community. It was not a slum,” Payne recalled. “When you came down the mountain, the first community you come in contact with is the white community. There were lawns and gardens.”
Back in the 1930s, Slab Fork typified most Southern towns—white people lived in the first section coming off the mountain and “colored folk” lived in another quarter. Payne’s father was black and her mother was “full-blooded Sioux,” she told me. Her high cheekbones and neatly trimmed shock of white hair tells the story of her lineage. I am disarmed by the blue ring around her brown irises, a sign of cholesterol deposits most common in the elderly.
“I had all the things every little girl had,” Payne says, speaking fondly of her playhouse and dolls. “I was not raised to believe anyone was better than me because of skin color or that there was anything that I could not have.”
She pilfered several pear-shaped diamonds and emeralds, Payne told me. Clearly, she knows her way around the gem industry, picking the best of the lot. Payne also knows how the everyday consumer is fooled with cut-rate, bargain basement sales.
Payne is formal in her descriptions, I assess. She has no use for contractions and she speaks as if delivering a State of Union address. I realize then that she isn’t putting on “airs,” but rather affording me a lesson. It’s a measured coolness I had not witnessed since my paternal grandfather passed away. I hold my next question and wait, knowing there is more story yet to unfold.
“Let her tell it,” I said to myself.
Her father was abusive, she recalled, regularly beating her mother until Payne was old enough to step in. At only 13, she figured out she had a special gift: distraction. A shopkeeper allowed her to try on a gold watch. When a white customer entered the store, he went off to tend to the customer, leaving Payne alone with the merchandise. She slipped out, but returned the timepiece later. In time, she grew more brazen and her career as a bandit took flight.
“I could make the white people to forget,” she told me. “I would say that I have lived an exciting life… I learned from trying.”
Armed with some 20 aliases and multiple Social Security numbers, Payne admits that while she was apprehensive about waking up in foreign lands, she was never nervous about the job at hand.
“I knew what I came to do. There was never a day that I went to get what I went to get.”
Diamonds were the easiest, she said, and even though Payne was sometimes an ocean away from home, she wasn’t worried about the getaway.
“I read a lot about the war. I knew how to get out of France or any country, if you know what I mean,” Payne said, waving her boney hands as if she was conducting a symphony. “We had to know every county, every state, and every country. We had to know the judicial system.”
It was an education that Payne came to rely on. Over the years, Payne was arrested nearly two dozen times—in France, Greece, Switzerland, and Britain. After a heist in Colorado, she spent five years in prison for her transgressions. Rarely working with an accomplice, at least one booking record listed her occupation as “jewel thief.”
Early on, Payne decided she needed a “fence,” a way to sell her cache that wouldn’t draw the prying eyes of law enforcement. She met a young white woman who ran a brothel in Cleveland, Payne told me.
“Drug dealers want everything you got,” Payne said. “So I needed a different clientele.”
Payne was adamant. She doesn’t drink and never did drugs.
She was looking for a way to sell her what she had stolen privately and the woman in Cleveland had the answer.
“I learned. She told me where to go and gave me names. I used to set up shop and sell to Cleveland Indian baseball players,” she said, beaming with self-satisfaction.
“I don’t have any regrets about stealing jewelry,” Payne quipped in one jailhouse interview. “I regret getting caught.”
Payne seems especially pleased, as she tells me of one early incident. Her eyes light up light like fireworks on the Fourth of July.
“I was in this store in Philadelphia. And I had it on, girl,” she bragged. “I don’t think I had a grand taste… If I was going to wear a mink coat, I’d wear it when it was cold.”
“It,” meaning she was dressed to the nines in haute couture clothes worthy of swooning. Payne, whose slender frame stands 5-foot-9 in flats, has the look of a runway model. “If you don’t think you are less than whatever, then you don’t… I didn’t automatically sit in the back of the bus. They had to come tell me.”
“My mother didn’t want us to come with some ‘Columbus discovered America’ attitude,” she told me at another point. “My father lived to be 91 and acted like he had black lung disease to get a check.”
“The gentleman that was serving me must have been the manager or whatever,” she told me. “But everyone else congregated in a cluster and were looking dead at me. I told myself, ‘I can’t do this with five or six people staring at me.’ It is unusual for a black woman to be in here so I used race.’”
The store manager abruptly shooed his staff away so as not to annoy his “customer.” He was embarrassed, Payne could tell, but he explained that they were discussing how elegant she looked.
“Well, I dressed like that from now on!” she exclaimed.
Payne’s life was chronicled in a documentary, The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne, in 2014. According to the filmmakers, beginning around 1953, when the presence of a colored woman was not common, she walked out of a Pittsburgh jewelry store with a diamond valued at $22,000. Decades and millions in ill-gotten booty later, in 2011, Payne was arrested in San Diego on theft charge and then in Costa Mesa for attempting to steal a Burberry coat priced at $1300.
I asked her about love. “You have two children,” I said.
A son, Ronald, lives in Nevada and a daughter, Donna, is in Ohio. They are grown now, of course, but I wanted to know about their father. She doesn’t explain why she has not retired and gone to live with her children.
“Tell me about the love that got away.”
Payne doesn’t answer. She grows teary-eyed at the question and leaves it unanswered.
“I had some joy,” she said in a muted voice.
Her glee is gone now, for reasons Payne will not name. If he was an accomplice or some other acquaintance, I do not know.
A burly defense attorney has been sitting with us for the full hour or so that we’ve been together. When the interview is complete, Atlanta defense attorney Shawn McCullers walks me through the latest round of evidence against Payne. He is defending her against the Saks Fifth Avenue charges in Atlanta and even I can see that the case appears to be full of holes.
The weight of her celebrity is not lost on McCullers. He is a fighter. He’s the kind of junkyard dog that is well prepared to put any prosecutor through their paces. The case in in Fulton County won’t be easy, I figure. The district attorney seems sure of the fact, but store detectives clearly did not know who they stopped that day and their statements don’t seem to match the surveillance tape or other alleged evidence that McCullers shows me.
There is another story to be told, he tells me, bigger than any heist Payne might have pulled—or ones that the lawyer claims were concocted by the jewelry stores themselves. He hints that the industry may need Payne more than she needs them.
“I can tell you that the value reported to the insurance companies doesn’t always match the invoices,” McCullers claims, in a rueful voice.
I remember then something that Payne told me earlier.
“That Chanel store in Monte Carlo never said how much was missing in the media. You can assume that they reported a different value to the insurance company.”
My photographer snaps a few last pictures before Payne slips away. And I wonder if I will I ever see Doris Payne again, on this side or the other. I wonder what else she will live to tell.