Doris Marie Payne is an American white-collar criminal and convicted jewel thief. In a criminal career spanning six decades, she has been arrested and convicted multiple times. A West Virginia native, she grew up in an impoverished neighborhood of Ohio. At 13, she first realized how easy it was to take something precious out of a store with a simple distraction and when she entered her 20s, she got the idea that she could support herself by doing just that. She developed a modus operandi wherein she would enter a jewellery store dressed as an affluent woman and look for a diamond ring. Using her effortless elegance, she would charm an employee and convince him to show her their high-value collection. Eventually, she would make the hapless clerk forget the number of items he had laid out and leave the store with one or two pieces. Amazingly, she is an active criminal even today, despite being well into her eighties. Payne has been the subject of public fascination for the most part of her criminal career. There is a considerable amount of literature written on her and a documentary made on her life and exploits.
Childhood & Early Life
Doris Payne was born on October 10, 1930, in Slab Fork, West Virginia and later relocated to Ohio with her family when she was a teenager. Her father was a coal miner. After graduating from high school, she worked sporadically for four years in a nursing home. She would later state that the job at the nursing home was the only real job she ever had.
The seed of what she would become was planted rather early in her life when she was 13 years old. A friendly store owner in her neighborhood had permitted her to try on a few watches after she told him that her mother had promised to buy her a new watch if she got good grades, which she had. However, after a white man walked into the store, the store owner’s demeanor changed drastically. Not wanting to be seen being considerate to a young black girl, he prompted her out of the store but forgot to ask her to take off the watch which she had on at the time.
She realized the mistake when she got to the door and immediately came back to return the watch to the owner. This little incident made her realize how a simple distraction could help her escape with considerable bounty in her hand.
When she was a young girl, she began to imitate the mannerisms of ‘Gone with the Wind’ character Scarlett O'Hara (played by Vivien Leigh). Her mother was a subscriber to several fashion magazines and Payne read them voraciously. She loved trying on new clothes and shoes but never developed a taste for wearing bows or other ornaments.
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Life as a Jewel Thief
When Doris Payne reached her early 20s, she started to believe that she could earn a living by simply taking jewellery from stores and later spoke to her mother about it. Her mother’s response to it was quite predictable. She was scared for her daughter and told her that it was stealing. Payne, however, kept reiterating that it wasn’t stealing and added that “I'm only taking what the man wants me to have.” Thus she began her criminal career as a jewel thief.
She committed her most famous crime in the 1970s when she stole a 10-carat diamond ring, valued at $500,000, from Monte Carlo. The theft of the ring set off an international investigation. Payne fled to France but was captured in Nice and eventually extradited back to Monte Carlo where she was detained for the next nine months. However, as the authorities could not recover the stolen gem, she was ultimately released.
In the 1980s, she was detained in Ohio after she fled federal custody during a hospital visit. On January 22, 2010, she was caught in Costa Mesa, California after she ripped out the tags from a $1,300 Burberry trench coat from a Saks Fifth Avenue store and left the store with it.
Payne was convicted in January 2011 for stealing a one-carat diamond ring and was sentenced to 16 months in prison by a San Diego court. On October 29, 2013, Payne was detained for stealing a $22,500 diamond-encrusted ring in Palm Desert, California. After she pleaded guilty to the charges, she was given a sentence of two years in prison, which was to be followed by two more years on parole. She was also ordered to maintain her distance from any jewellery store.
She was released after serving only three months of her sentence due to prison overcrowding. By July 2015, she had allegedly started stealing again and reportedly had stolen a $33,000 ring.
Payne was arrested by Atlanta police after she was seen on security camera placing $690 Christian Dior earrings in her pocket at a Saks Fifth Avenue store. On July 17, 2017, while wearing an ankle monitor for a previous crime, she was caught by the authorities for stealing $86.22 worth of merchandise from a Wal-mart store in Atlanta. She was taken into police custody again in Atlanta on December 13, 2017, on larceny charges.
In Popular Culture
In 2013, ‘The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne’, a documentary chronicling her life and exploits was released. Actress Tessa Thompson is set to star as Payne in the upcoming feature film based on her life.
Not much is known about Doris Payne’s personal relationships and family life except for the fact that she is the mother of a son named Ronnie and a daughter named Donna.
Payne calls her exploits “campaigns”.