When Doris Payne, an 83-year-old international jewel thief with a decades-long rap sheet, was last released from prison, she vowed she wouldn't steal again, a documentary filmmaker said.
Matthew Pond, who co-produced and co-directed the 2013 film "The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne," said Payne was released this summer from a Northern California prison where she was serving time for convictions out of San Diego County.
Her latest incarceration was difficult, Pond said, as the octogenarian has lung problems, which the colder air up north didn't help. She "almost didn't survive the imprisonment," he said.
"When she got out she was so excited to be out and have her freedom," Pond told The Times. "I said, 'Is this it for you?' And she swore black and blue that she wasn't going to do that again."
But Pond said he wasn't entirely surprised by Payne's latest arrest, which came after she allegedly stole a $22,500 white-gold-and-diamond ring from a Palm Desert jewelry store last week. He said he has kept in touch with Payne since the documentary was completed, and had recently taken her out to celebrate her Oct. 10 birthday.
"She's living in a hotel in Riverside. She has no one to support her," he said. "So at this point in her life, she's almost stuck with it. So I wasn't surprised to the extent that she was very desperate financially."
Pond's latest caper unfolded about a week before her Monday arrest, when loss prevention personnel at a Palm Desert Saks Fifth Avenue recognized the notorious thief on Oct. 18, according to court documents. Three days later, she walked into El Paseo Jewelers, also in Palm Desert.
After initially telling store manager Raju Mehta she wanted to buy a necklace with a $42,000 insurance check, Payne began looking at other pieces including rings, Mehta said. He described the woman -- who said her name was "Audrey" -- as "elegant," with a nice purse, clothes and gold earrings. She was articulate, he said, and asked at one point if she might sit down because her hip hurt.
It wasn't until the next morning the store connected the woman to the missing ring, Mehta said.
“I’ve got to give credit to her craft. She knows what she’s doing,” he said. “I’ve been doing retail for a very long time and it’s never happened that someone stole right in front of me.”
Pond said he met Payne in 2010, when she was serving time in Orange County jail for another theft. The next three years were marked by weekly visits and interviews about her life, which were woven into the film he created with co-director and co-producer, Kirk Marcolina.
The documentary proved an opportunity for Payne to "go down memory lane," Pond said, recalling her stories of jumping off trains in Europe and smuggling diamonds out of Monaco.
"I truly think that Doris' motivation is not just about acquiring things to sell for profit," he said. "I think for her the idea of getting into character and becoming this other person and playing dress up is the big motivator for her."
Pond guessed that desire stemmed from Payne's childhood. She was born into a poor black family in a segregated South, he said. When she wanted to be a ballerina as a child, he said, she was told there were no black ballerinas.
"She dreamt of this large life for herself. ... She said she developed this revenge mentality and she sought this life she was told she couldn't have," Pond said. "And for better or worse, she did manage to do some of those things.
"To that extent, it is sort of this twisted take on the American Dream," he continued. "I think love her or hate her, you have to respect someone who goes after their dream with such chutzpah."
But there was a downside, Pond said. He said in recent years, Payne has bounced between jail, halfway houses and hotels -- "a very far cry from the '70s when she was at the top of her game and she was traveling around the world."
"The memories that she has of this great life are really all that she has to go on," he said.