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A thief, yes, but far from common

Times Staff Writer

Doris Payne never carried a gun. She never smashed a window or broke into a safe to take what she wanted. She just crossed her pantyhosed legs and murmured about the filigree ring under the glass. She wondered aloud about matching earrings. She would promise to return in 45 minutes, and only after Payne wafted away in her flowered dress would the clerk count the rings and come up short.

But the decades passed, and the job grew more difficult. Her face became familiar. Information about her raced through the Internet and over fax machines. On the last day of Payne’s career, security guards quietly watched her every move on television screens as she walked through Neiman Marcus. When she made her move, they made theirs.

“Thirty or forty years ago, she could get away with it a little more,” said FBI supervisory special agent Paul Graupmann, who dealt with Payne in the 1980s.

At 77 and serving out a sentence in Denver after two years in a Nevada prison, Payne now must settle for sharing the story of how she managed her prolific career for five decades.

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“I had lots of fun,” Payne said. “I did.” She was a rarity in a business known for its thuggery, in which criminals smash store windows or slice the tires of traveling salespeople carrying gems so they can attack them on deserted roads. Payne used her wits and smooth tongue.

“We don’t see a lot of criminals like Doris Payne,” said John Kennedy, president of the Jewelers’ Security Alliance.

Payne grew up in the coal-mining town of Slab Fork, W.Va., her imagination fueled by “Gone With the Wind” and its depictions of women she would impersonate for the rest of her life. In her mother’s dresses and hats, she would roam the house, clicking her heels, talking to Rhett Butler.

“I think that movie contributed as much to what I became as anything else in my life,” Payne said.

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When she was 13, she was trying on watches at a local store when a white customer entered. The owner dismissed Payne, who is black, and she realized she could walk out with the merchandise. “I could cause this man, the white man, to forget.”

For the next several years, Payne said, she practiced lifting jewelry but never stole anything, though her son, Ronald, said in an interview that his mother did keep the goods during that time.

Payne said she stole her first diamond at age 27, hoping to raise money to help her mother leave an abusive husband. She remembers her mother’s reaction: “She said, ‘Doris, don’t you know that’s stealing?’ ”

“I’m not stealing, because I’m just going to keep what they let me have,” she replied.

Payne’s formula was simple: Pick a fine store and look like she belonged there.

“I knew how to dress,” said Payne, who still cuts an elegant figure even in prison greens and with her white hair brushed straight back. “I never did like ruffles and frills. I just like a simple-cut fine material that moves when I move.”

Whatever she wore, she added, always had pockets. Deep pockets.

The rest, she said, fell into place. A clerk would present her with at least five pieces of jewelry, usually emeralds and diamonds. When she decided which to take, she would place it on her finger, making sure the clerk saw it there.

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Then she would begin her distractions, discussing other rings on the counter, then asking the clerk to bring more jewelry. Meanwhile, she would slip the ring from one hand to the other. “I’m going to make sure he sees this hand I had it on is naked.”

Payne says she practiced her trade all over the world, London to Paris to Tokyo. Though Payne claims she was never caught in the act, she was frequently arrested days or weeks later -- and has been convicted of grand theft at least nine times in the U.S.

She says she has no idea how many jewels she stole in her lifetime.

“They were not that great in number. They were great in value.”

The jewels funded plush hotels and meals in fine restaurants, she said. “I love seafood and I love great pastry,” she said. “Not a gob of it. I like small servings.”

Payne’s tale may contain some exaggerations.

Graupmann, for example, recalls arresting her in the 1980s for stealing a diamond so inexpensive that federal prosecutors decided not to charge her. When he arrested her, “she was living in a very modest little apartment” in Ohio with a crack addict for a roommate.

“Not exactly the lifestyles of the rich and famous,” Graupmann said.

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She wasn’t as good as she thought she was, he said; the good ones don’t get caught. Still, he said, “you have to give her credit for being so bold.”

Her son does.

“It took me a while to become proud of her,” said Ronald, of Louisiana. Now 61, he was born when his mother was a teenager. He was raised partly by his grandparents. “I realized she was very good at what she does and had fun doing it.”

The beginning of the end came 10 years ago when she stole a five-carat diamond ring from a Neiman Marcus in Denver. Captured several months later when a security guard recognized her at a mall in Pennsylvania, she was convicted in 1999 and was sentenced to 12 years.

By 2005, she was on parole in Colorado. She began slipping away on jaunts to other states. In Nevada, she stole an $8,500 ring. In California, she walked out of a Neiman Marcus in Palo Alto with a $31,500 three-stone diamond ring with a platinum band, police records show.

Store officials suspected that the well-spoken stranger was Payne. Over the years, they had lost a lot of money to a woman who fit her description.

Two days later, she was spotted in the Las Vegas Neiman Marcus, filling a bag with $2,700 worth of clothing. When she walked outside, authorities stopped her, according to police reports.

When police interviewed her, Payne admitted stealing the ring in Palo Alto and described how she had done it. On her booking sheet, she gave her occupation as “jewel thief.”

Sentenced to two to five years for pawning the stolen Palo Alto ring in Las Vegas, as well as stealing a ring in Nevada that year, she spent the last two years in a Nevada prison.

This spring, Payne returned to Colorado to complete the prison term interrupted by her other adventures. By the time she gets out, she’ll be 81. But the law won’t be done with her then -- she must return to California to face charges for the Palo Alto theft.

At the Denver prison where she has traded leather heels for work boots with “inmate” stamped on the sole, one of the jewelry industry’s more persistent headaches says she’s done stealing. “I could kill myself in here,” she said. She just wants out so she can live the rest of her life free.

“She’s not going to steal anymore,” said her son, who hopes to offer her a home.

Even if she wanted to go back to her old ways, Ronald said, she could hardly get away with it.

“There’s not a jewelry store in this nation that doesn’t have a picture of Doris Payne in the back room with her gray-haired self,” he said. “She’s through.”

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deedee.correll@latimes.com


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