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A thief, yes, but far from common

Elegant and well-spoken, Doris Payne knew people could be made to forget, even about diamond rings.

July 06, 2008|DeeDee Correll | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — 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.

"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.

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.

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.

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."

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