PALM DESERT — Doris Payne — demure, elegant and 83 — is a thief, as prolific and subtly conniving as they come. She doesn’t use muscle and she doesn’t rely on guns.
Instead, between numerous stints behind bars, for 50 years she has leaned on charming misdirection to steal pricey jewelry from unsuspecting merchants all over the globe.
Her most recent alleged theft found her on El Paseo, the luxurious row of shops in Palm Desert.
Jeweler Raju Mehta thought she fit right in with his customers.
All Mehta saw was an articulate, charming older woman who complained about her aching hip and asked if he would show her more and more of his expensive wares. She was wearing fashionable clothes, gold earrings and carrying a nice purse.
He watched as she tried on a necklace. She left for a while, then came back to try on more jewelry, including and a ring for her pinkie finger. She left again, saying she would return the next day to finalize a purchase with proceeds from a $42,000 insurance check.
She never came back.
Instead, when Mehta arrived the next day at El Paseo Jewelers, his co-workers showed him a computer screen with a security alert: Payne had been seen at a local Saks Fifth Avenue store and may be on the prowl. The $22,500 diamond-encrusted ring he had shown the elderly woman the day before was missing.
“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.”
Payne was arrested Tuesday and faced a judge Thursday. Instead of her sophisticated wardrobe, she was wearing a blue jail jumpsuit.
Police say that Mehta was the latest in a long line of unsuspecting victims duped by Payne, who once described her profession in a court document as “jewel thief.”
“What she did in that store is exactly how she has operated for decades,” said retired FBI Agent Paul Graupmann, who first arrested Payne in the 1980s. “She comes in well-dressed and often says she is looking to buy something because she has come into some money.”
A byproduct of her unwavering devotion to thievery is a notoriety that now borders on fame. She has long been known to law enforcement, has been featured on TV, in newspapers and had her story told in a documentary. There has been talk of Halle Berry starring in a movie about her life.
Payne is from West Virginia, the youngest of six children born to a coal miner father and a mother who was a seamstress. Growing up African American in the South of that era appears to have left her with painful memories that may have motivated her illicit life. She wanted to be a ballerina, but was told black girls couldn’t become ballerinas.
She said she realized she could become a jewelry thief as a teenager in Cleveland when she was trying on a watch and a store owner became distracted.
“She dreamed of this large life for herself … She said she developed a revenge mentality and she sought this life she was told she couldn’t have,” said Matthew Pond, co-director and co-producer of a new documentary titled “The Life and Crimes of Doris Payne.” “It is sort of this twisted take on the American Dream. I think love her or hate her, you have to respect someone who goes after their dream with such chutzpah.”
By the early 1970s, she wasn’t just plying her trade in cities throughout the U.S., she was jet-setting across the globe, stealing expensive diamonds in Paris, Milan, London and Tokyo. She even escaped from custody in the 1980s.
John Kennedy, president of the New York-based Jewelers’ Security Alliance, said that over the decades, his organization has sent “innumerable bulletins” about Payne to its members and law enforcement agencies. What makes the now 83-year-old unique, he said, is the length of her criminal career.
“I’ve actually seen an old rap sheet of hers,” Kennedy said, starting to laugh. “It was so long. You can’t believe how long it was — it was like 50 pages.”
“She’s been arrested and convicted so many times, and then she gets short time or sometimes she’ll get a walk because of her health and she’s old,” he continued. “They think she’s not a real risk to the community.”
Before Payne emerged in Palm Desert, she was convicted in 2011 for stealing a ring in San Diego and another one in Santa Monica. She was released from prison this summer. Pond said she was living in a Riverside motel and was “very desperate financially.”
“When she got out, she was so excited to be out and have her freedom,” he said. “She swore black and blue that she wasn’t going to do that again.”
Back on El Paseo, news of the notorious jewel thief continued to spread and Mehta was the talk of the town.
“I was laughing because we have a lot of celebrities come by,” he said. “And now we say we’ve got a celebrated thief too.”
A UPS delivery man walked into the jewelry store Thursday afternoon and asked: “Is the ring back?”
Mehta shook his head, laughed and joked that maybe he could play a part in a movie about Payne’s life.
“The last chapter.”
Times staff writer Kurt Streeter contributed to this report.