Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Elderly jewel thief pilfers and charms

International jewel-thief Doris Payne, 83, has been sentenced once again–and she’s the subject of a new documentary.

Payne has claimed to have stolen $2 million in jewels over the course of her career, from points including London, Milan, Monte Carlo, Paris and Tokyo. But she was born to a seamstress and an illiterate coal miner in Slab Fork, West Virginia, in 1930. She was the youngest of six, and precocious. Enchanted by such films as “Gone with the Wind,” she dreamed of the sort of glamour hard to attain in her tiny town–especially for a black child born into poverty.

At just 13, she seems to have glimpsed a way out. Running errands for her mother in Cleveland, where the family now lived, young Doris Payne stopped in a jewelry store to look around. She told the owner that her mother promised to buy her a watch if she kept her grades up. She tried one on, but the owner shooed her away when a white customer came in. Outside, Payne realized the watch was still on her wrist. She promptly returned it, but it was a lesson.

She started using the trick on other clerks. It was a game: distracting and confusing them, so they’d forget what she was holding. She says that during this period, she never kept the goods. (Her son, Ronald, born when she was a teenager and raised by his grandparents, disputes this and says she sold the jewels for cash.)

Payne meanwhile graduated from high school and started working at a nursing home.

At 23, she took a Greyhound bus to Pittsburgh and walked out of a store with a $22,000 diamond ring. This time she didn’t return it; she sold it at a nearby pawn shop for $7500. Payne says she did this so her mother could escape abuse at the hands of her husband; other accounts say Payne’s parents had already separated.

Over the next years, Payne honed her craft. Charming and well dressed, she knew how to impress a clerk, and when to remain inconspicuous. Once she’d won over her victims, she’d keep them so busy that they were distracted and might lose track of which rings they’d brought out. She might spend a lot of time with one ring, even letting the clerk worry it had been misplaced–only to slip another on her finger, and stride out the door after wrapping up their friendly chat, saying she’d be back later to make a decision. She stole diamonds, she says, because they were easiest; she prefers simple gold.

Harold Brondfield, a bar owner she was dating, gave her some advice in the beginning; he even called shops posing as her lawyer, to tell them his client was coming in for a major purchase. But she spent most of her career working alone.

She’d spot rings she liked in magazines–and fly around the country from her Ohio home to get them. She usually kept a cab waiting to ferry her back to the airport. (She never owned her own car.)

A 1966 wanted poster showing Brondfield and Payne

In the 1970s, the Jewelers Security Alliance issued a warning about a well-dressed black woman with superlative stealing skills. That prompted her to expand internationally. Payne has bragged that she had used more than 20 aliases, five Social Security numbers and 9 birth dates. She has also been particularly proud of a 1960s theft that left Willie Mays’ wife a prime suspect (and mistakenly arrested).

She pulled off her biggest heist when she casually lifted a ring from a store in Monte Carlo, Monaco, in 1974. It was only when she was in the waiting cab that she took a close look at the 10-carat diamond–or its price tag, showing a worth of over $1,000,000.

Police alerted their colleagues abroad. French authorities detained Payne at the airport when she landed in Nice. She managed to hide the ring in her mouth while they searched her; then she faked a sneeze into a handkerchief, and deposited that and the ring in her boot.

Authorities booked her into a hotel on the Mediterranean while they decided what to do with her. There, she ripped the diamond from its setting, threw the ring into the sea and sewed the stone into a piece of lingerie. Authorities searched her room multiple times, but, always on her, the jewel was safe.

Cops never found the diamond, but a court sentenced her to three years anyway. She managed to escape while in custody in the United Stated, sneaking away when the nuns who served as her guards during a hospital visit let her use a restroom unattended.

She sold the rock in New York’s diamond district for $148,000–nowhere near the list price, but it would be worth about five times that amount in today’s dollars.

Payne wasn’t always so lucky. The high periods when her social graces and sharp mind won her stays in four-star hotels and meals at gourmet restaurants alternated with harsher times, including an episode in the ‘80s when she reportedly was broke and living with a crack addict. Things have been especially rough for her in recent decades, thanks to her growing infamy and to more sophisticated security measures. She’s served prison sentences in six states.

A bust in Las Vegas started the run of bad luck. She had tried on a pair of diamond earrings at Neiman Marcus. She told a helpful clerk that she’d think about the purchase. When she returned, she looked at diamond rings too–and left with a 2.48-carat ring worth $36,000.

Another Neiman Marcus heist netted Payne a five-year sentence. She saw a $57,000 gem in “Town & Country” and flew to Denver to pick it up. She sold the ring immediately, as usual, and left for another job in Europe. While she was there, police searched her home in Bedford, OH, and found not only $10,000 cash, but passports in multiple names. She broke parole, fled the state, and continued to work.
Her next arrest, in Costa Mesa, California, January 22, 2010, was for walking out of Saks Fifth Avenue with a $1300 Burberry coat.

The following year saw double trouble. She pleaded no contest to stealing a $16,000 ring in Santa Monica, and she was also convicted of stealing an $8900 ring from a San Diego Macy’s. Her lawyer’s strategy–claiming that staff had confused Payne with another elderly African American woman who actually stole the ring–didn’t spare her. Payne continued to claim she was innocent. When she wrote lawyer Gretchen Von Helms about atrocities including being pepper-sprayed during a gang fight, she also said she was content to be in prison, because she had nowhere else to go.

Still, she was out soon enough, and back at work.

On April 28, 2014, Payne pleaded guilty to stealing a $22,500 ring from El Paseo Jewelers in Palm Desert, California. The composed and friendly elderly con woman had told clerks there that she had received a $42,000 insurance settlement for stolen jewelry and was ready to buy replacement pieces. She looked at dozens of pieces over two visits, and told staff she’d return later with a cashier’s check. But she left with the ring. Employees noticed a bare spot in the case that night, but by then Payne had sold the ring down the street, at a secondhand shop the Exchange, for a mere $800. The Exchange’s records–including her fingerprints, required for such sales–condemned her. She was arrested when a Palm Desert Saks security veteran recognized her. The judge ordered her kept in custody in lieu of bail, as he suspected that the $65,000 she’d tried to post just might be ill-gained.

Payne has now been sentenced to two years in prison and two more on house arrest. Judge William Lebov ordered her to stay away from jewelry stores.

Rumors suggest that Oscar winner Halle Berry is considering playing her in a feature film. Meanwhile, Payne is the subject of 2014 documentary “The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne.”

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