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Doris Payne, 83-year-old jewelry thief, pleads guilty in latest case

CrimeTheftJustice SystemPawnbrokersHalle Berry

Doris Payne, the 83-year-old jewelry thief whose rap sheet dates back decades, pleaded guilty Monday to stealing a diamond ring from a Riverside County jewelry store.

The octogenarian was sentenced to four years in custody -- two in county jail, two under mandatory supervision -- after pleading guilty to one felony count each of burglary and grand theft, said John Hall, a spokesman for the Riverside County district attorney's office.

Judge William Lebov also ordered Payne stay away from all jewelry stores during that time, Hall said. 

Hall said his office objected to the plea and sentence, instead arguing for a maximum of six years in custody. He cited "numerous aggravating factors."

"Those include a criminal history dating back to 1952, crimes having been committed across the United States as well as internationally, that she used her age to gain the trust of victims, a previous failure to successfully complete probation and parole, and that she was on parole when she committed the crime charged in this case," Hall wrote in an email.

But one of Payne's attorneys, Gretchen von Helms, called the judge's decision "a very thoughtful response." Payne, she said, was "very grateful."

"The judge tempered punishment with compassion about her age," von Helms said. "He took into account the taxpayers' pocketbook. And do we really need to incarcerate a nonviolent offender -- yes, a repeat offender, that's true -- who's ill, who has emphysema, who's elderly?"

Payne made headlines in October when she was arrested for swiping the $22,500 diamond-and-white-gold ring from El Paseo Jewelers, part of an upscale Palm Desert shopping center. At the time, she had been out of prison for only about three months.

Payne's notoriety now borders on fame as her globe-spanning exploits have been featured on TV, in newspapers and in a documentary, "The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne." There has also been talk of Halle Berry starring in a movie about her life.

Law enforcement officials across the U.S. said they had investigated her, recalling a demure, elegant woman who repeatedly conned unsuspecting jewelers and once listed her occupation in court papers as "jewel thief."

But the manager of El Paseo Jewelers said he didn't know the woman who walked into his store on Oct. 21. At a preliminary hearing in December, Raju Mehta testified Payne told him she wanted to spend a $42,000 insurance check and tried on various necklaces, earrings and rings during two visits to the store that day.

Payne eventually settled on three pieces -- including the ring -- and said she would return the next morning with the money, Mehta testified. That evening, store employees discovered the ring was gone. 

Payne pawned the ring for $800 at a secondhand dealer located not far from the jewelry store, according to one of the pawn shop's owners. She was ordered Monday to pay back the store, von Helms said. 

The attorney said the post-jail supervision would be good for her client, who expects to serve no more than six months in jail given her time served and good behavior. Von Helms said Payne had fully admitted to the crimes, helping police track down the ring and volunteering to pay the pawn shop back.

But was the Riverside heist Doris Payne's last?

"I think she has good intentions," von Helms said. "I know we have to take that with a grain of salt, given her history. She can't just say those words; she has to prove it with actions."

"That will be on her."

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kate.mather@latimes.com

Twitter: @katemather | Google+

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